We in Britain first knew of Bongani Masuku in 2009 when the University and College Union (UCU) invited Cosatu, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions, to send a delegate to a behind-closed-doors conference on boycotting Israel.
We learned that Mr Masuku, Cosatu’s delegate, had been conducting a campaign of antisemitic intimidation in South Africa.
That year, at Wits University in Johannesburg, he had threatened to mobilize Cosatu members on campus to make life ‘hell’ for people there who he designated as ‘Zionists’. He threatened violence, ‘with immediate effect,’ against families in South Africa whose children had moved to Israel and served in its army. He threatened harm against people who lived in Orange Grove, known as a Jewish neighbourhood, who disagreed with him about Israeli politics.
On a blog, Mr Masuku wrote that Zionists were supporters of racism and fascism; and to drive his point home he wrote that Hitler was their friend. He said that Zionists should be forced to leave South Africa. He threatened to make Zionists drink ‘bitter medicine’.
We reported these concerns to UCU officials in Britain but we were told that they did not respond to gossip on websites.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies took Mr Masuku to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), arguing that he was guilty of antisemitic hate speech. The SAHRC is a constitutional body of the new antiracist South African state. It looked at the evidence and found Mr Masuku guilty; it ordered him to apologize to the Jewish community.
Mr Masuku ignored the finding and refused to apologize. The Palestine Solidarity Movement, the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign and Cosatu stood by him. They said that these allegations of antisemitism were a dishonest and disgraceful ruse by the South African Jews to silence criticism of Israel.
Even after the Human Rights Commission had found Mr Masuku guilty of antisemitism, the UCU in Britain still hosted him and paid for his trip.
A year later, UCU had time to think carefully about what Mr Masuku had said, and to understand the significance of the HRC’s finding of antisemitism. Michael Yudkin, a world renowned scientist, took a motion to UCU Congress from the Oxford branch. The motion said: ‘Congress dissociates itself from Masuku’s repugnant views.’ UCU Congress explicitly refused to dissociate itself in that way from Mr Masuku’s antisemitism.
With Bongani Masuku still scornful of the HRC’s finding, the HRC, together with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, took the Masuku case to the Equality Court in Johannesburg, asking for the finding to be legally enforced. The case was heard in February this year. I was asked to appear as an Expert Witness for the HRC and to explain to the court why what Masuku had said and written was antisemitic.
Cosatu put up a formidable defence. Bongani Masuku had been making criticisms of Israel, it said, and he had been campaigning in solidarity with the Palestinians. Cosatu produced a Jewish antizionist as an expert witness, who claimed that nothing Masuku had said could be interpreted as being antisemitic, since it only targeted Zionists, not Jews. I explained to the court something of the complexities of Jewish identity and history. I told the court that it is wrong to ask what Zionism really is; the relevant question is what Bongani Masuku means by ‘Zionism’ as he strives to force the identity upon his enemies, and by which he designates them as racists, fascists and friends of Hitler.
It seems inexplicable that the Palestine Solidarity movement, the boycotters and the University and College Union stood by Bongani Masuku to the bitter end, in the face of such evidence. But to admit that hostility to Israel is sometimes antisemitic would fatally disrupt their strategy of complete denial and counter-accusation of Zionist conspiracy to smear and to silence.
The constitution of the rainbow nation aims to maintain respectful co-existence between different communities in South Africa. In this spirit, Mr Masuku is ordered to apologize to the Jewish community. I think it would have been more powerful if the court had ordered him to apologize not to the Jews, but to the constitution and to the state itself. Antisemitism is not only a harm to Jews, it is a harm to the whole community.
This piece, by David Hirsh, appeared in the Jewish Chronicle, 7 July 2017.