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Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)
Article 2/9
   
 

Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism in the 'New South Africa'
By Milton Shain


Abstract: The article explores antisemitism and anti-Zionism in the new South Africa, arguing that Jews have come to terms with a powerful anti-Zionism which includes some classic anti-Jewish motifs. In the 'new South Africa' traditional antisemitism is of little concern, notwithstanding indications that hostile stereotypes of Jews are held by significant sectors of the wider population. Particular attention is focused on the Muslim minority that has increasingly vilified Zionism and Israel. This roots of this hostility can be traced to wider political currents, both global and domestic. Given the ANC's opposition to racism, the climate for opposing antisemitism in South Africa is more favorable than it has been in the past. But the question of Zionism remains a concern, as do the connections between anti-Zionism and age-old antisemitism.


It is by now a truism that when the temperature rises in the Middle East--more particularly between Israel and her enemies--verbal and media attacks on Jews and Israel increase proportionately. This was once again evident during the recent war in Lebanon. A mass anti-Israel march of 10,000--largely Muslims--took place at the height of the conflict and regular protests were held outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. In the heat of battle, the largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, called for the severance of diplomatic ties with Jerusalem. One week after the cessation of hostilities, Parliament held a special debate on the Middle East which demonstrated little sympathy for the Jewish state.

These developments hardly surprised South Africa's 80,000 Jews who have become inured to a widespread anti-Zionism. Whereas in the 'old' South Africa--at least until the early 1980s--the Palestinian question was hardly raised and Israel was above reproach, media comment and analysis in South Africa today is invariably hostile. By coincidence, the mainstream press is owned by Independent Newspapers' Tony O'Reilly, an Irishman who has within his stable the well known anti-Zionist, Robert Fisk. It is very seldom that O'Reilly's group uses an equivalent polemicist writing from the other side.

Jews have also been bombarded from within by the 'Not in My Name' campaign, led by Ronnie Kasrils, a veteran of 'the struggle' and now Minister of Intelligence. Although on the extreme fringe of Jewish opinion, the Kasrils' group attracts substantial attention, especially in the Mail & Guardian, widely read by elites and opinion formers. 'Not in My Name' emerged in the wake of the Oslo failure and has recently been reincarnated under the banner of 'Concerned Jews': those disturbed by Israel's alleged disproportionate response to Hezbollah. The signatories are few and by and large not connected to formal Jewish life.

With the hostile anti-Israel bias in the media now de rigueur, Jews spend much time responding to columnists. They give as much as they take. The same is true on the ever popular talk shows that saturate South Africa's airwaves. Debate includes a widespread anti-American sentiment that was especially evident in the build up to the Iraq War, seen by many observers as being fought in the interests of Israel. Bush and Blair are today considered rogues. Few South Africans--at least publicly--have positive things to say about the two leaders. The majority black population--including Indians and those of mixed descent, or 'Coloureds' in South African parlance--are particularly hostile. These sentiments are informed by a broad 'third-worldism' in which imperial-like actions are condemned and in which support is given to the underdog. Certainly, most South Africans see the Palestinians as the equivalent of blacks in the old apartheid South Africa.

Nonetheless, the African National Congress (ANC)-led government does recognise Israel's right to exist. But South African Jews are increasingly concerned about its lack of even-handedness when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ANC's long established ties in exile with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have generated a great deal of sympathy for the Palestinians who are seen to have morality on their side. Columnists and intellectuals invariably frame the conflict through a South African prism: Israel is seen to be a colonial settler state offering 'Bantustans' for Palestinians on the West Bank. The 'apartheid wall' generates obvious comparisons. It is increasingly argued that if blacks and whites could reconcile their differences in South Africa, Israelis and Palestinians could do the same within a constitutional single state. There is little understanding of Zionism as a movement of national renaissance, nor for the context within which it arose.

And yet, for all these difficulties surrounding Zionism and Israel, most Jews do not consider hostility towards Israel as a form of antisemitism. To be sure, they do not consider antisemitism as a problem in South Africa. In a survey just completed by the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, Jews indicated that antisemitism was a greater problem beyond South Africa's shores than within.

There is some justification for this view: in democratic (or post-1994) South Africa, classical 'Jew-hatred' is demonstrably at a low level. Very few incidents are reported and great respect is accorded to cultural and religious diversity. Government ministers speak positively about the Jewish community when they do make public pronouncements. Most importantly, the legacy of apartheid has ensured a discourse that eschews any form of stereotypical and essentialist expression. This would run counter to the country's mantra: non-racism, non-sexism and democracy.

Nevertheless, the language and iconography of hostility towards Israel must raise questions as to whether anti-Zionism is--at least in some quarters--a respectable guise for age-old antisemitism. There are some indications that this may well be the case. Specifically "Jewish capitalists" have been identified by the African black population in some industrial protests in the past and antisemitic placards have on a few occasions been displayed at strikes around the country.

At least some black Africans appear to have imbibed well-worn anti-Jewish stereotypes. This should not come as a surprise. Over three decades ago, in a study of matriculation students in Soweto, Melville Edelstein showed that blacks experienced a greater "social distance" in relation to Jews than toward English-speakers in general, although less than towards Afrikaners. They told him that an African who was loath to part with his money was described as being as "stingy as a Jew." Edelstein thought that such prejudice arose from New Testament teaching in school and church. There may well be an added cause: the historical resentment of blacks against Jewish traders in town and country.

In a survey conducted in 1990 among urban South African 'elites' it was shown that black 'elites' harbored substantial antipathy towards Jews. Almost one in five said that the Jewish community "irritated" them because, in descending order of frequency, they were parasites, snobs, racists, anti-Christ, and unpatriotic; almost the same proportion approved of right-wing antisemitic actions and nearly one in three considered the Jewish community to be "mostly a liability" to South Africa. It needs to be noted that this was a methodologically questionable survey and that there are no indications that these sentiments have been translated into action. But it may well be that some of these sentiments are driving the anti-Zionist mood.

Be that as it may, it would be wrong to assume that the Black population is obsessed with Jews or that a 'Jewish question' exists. This is not the 1930s when the white Radical Right placed the 'Jewish question' firmly on the political agenda. Even the government's policy in the Middle East cannot be defined as driven by anti-Jewish sentiment. The ANC is fully entitled to maintain close ties with the PLO. These ties date back to its years in exile when they had every reason to look askance at Pretoria's cozy relationship with Jerusalem.

Jews have indeed come to terms with the paradox that some of the people whose struggle for freedom they supported are hostile to the Zionist cause and genuinely sympathetic to the Palestinians. Certainly former President Mandela saw Yasser Arafat and Mouamar Gaddafi as comrades-in-arms and loyal friends who had helped the ANC with funds, training and international support. However, applauding notions such as 'Zionism is Racism'--as happened in South Africa's Parliament when Arafat visited in 1996--did raise serious questions for most Jews. In addition to this slogan contradicting United Nations General Assembly resolution 46/86 of 1991 which revoked the equation of 'Zionism and Racism,' it ran counter to the ANC's stated position on the Arab-Israeli conflict--that is, accepting a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state.

Of course the ANC alone does not define popular attitudes to Zionism. A number of black leaders have visited Israel in the past, spoken highly of its achievements and have availed themselves of Israeli expertise. Furthermore, the majority of blacks are Christians, with a deep attachment to the 'Holy Land.' Should Israelis and Palestinians resolve their differences, it is possible that tensions surrounding Zionism could disappear.

Of much greater concern for South Africa's Jews is the minority Muslim population which numbers around 750,000 or 1.5 percent of the total population. It is apparent that a significant element among this community share conspiratorial ideas long associated with the now moribund far 'white' Right. These ideas are manifested in the letter columns of the daily press and articulated in radio talk shows. Much anti-Zionist rhetoric from this sector reveals classic anti-Jewish motifs. A special hatred seems to go beyond the bounds of normal political conflict. Jews or Zionists have become, at least for some, diabolically evil. One sees this invariably in the rhetoric associated with Al-Quds Day, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and in protest marches. Often anti-Zionist rhetoric and propaganda degenerates into blatant antisemitism with an emphasis on Jewish power, cunning and duplicity.

Holocaust denial has also crept into Muslim anger. In 1996, Radio 786, a Muslim radio station, had to apologize for airing an interview with Dr Ahmed Huber who spoke of the 'Holocaust swindle'. Two years later the same radio station interviewed Dr Yaqub Zaki who, besides claiming that the "million plus" Jews who died in the Second World War had died of infectious diseases, spent much of his time engaged with elaborate Jewish conspiracies, including a bizarre connection between Jewish financiers, the Boer War, Alfred Milner and Zionism. In June this year (following an eight year legal wrangle brought by the Jewish Board of Deputies against the radio station and lengthened by technical disputes) the Independent Broadcasting Authority found Radio 786 guilty of contravening its broadcasting codes.

There can be little doubt that Muslim-Jewish relations have deteriorated over the past two to three decades. But one should not treat the Muslim community as a monolith. Various intellectual discourses operate and compete. Some are innovative and progressive, with an emphasis on Islamic humanism and universalism; others such as those espoused by Qibla and the Islamic Unity Convention are conservative or Islamist, at odds with religious pluralism and ecumenism. The latter's discourse is heavily influenced by Khomeinism and some of the more radical schools of Islamic thought. Common to both the 'progressive' and Islamist discourses, however, is a hostile critique of Zionism.

But this hostility needs to be put in perspective. In the first instance, the Muslim population is small and there is little chance of South Africa taking on an Islamist character. Moreover, the vast majority of Muslims appear happy to share a multi-faith and multi-cultural South Africa. Only a small minority, albeit growing, seem intent on dragging the Middle East conflict with all its problems into local politics. Nonetheless, these elements are increasingly vocal. More disturbing, they are finding partners beyond the Muslim community.

Muslim hostility emerged most vividly at the time of the Lebanon War of 1982. The Sabra and Shatilla massacres generated great anger among students (including non-Muslims) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and at the University of Cape Town. These sentiments grew out of a new youth politics, combined with a greater acquaintance with anti-Zionist polemics. Scholars like Sayyid Qutb, Ali Sha'riati and Ayatollah Khomeini were increasingly read by the younger generation of Muslims. Their new found militancy was already evident in the wake of the United Nations resolution of 1975 that equated Zionism with racism, and which was hailed as a victory for the Palestine Liberation Organization and a defeat for the United States and Israel. Further impetus was given by the Iranian Revolution.

From the late 1980s, Muslims in the 'Colored' areas began to take part in mass demonstrations which revealed a greater identification with the Muslim community worldwide (the ummah). These demonstrations were also indicative of a powerful anti-Zionism that constantly drew parallels between the former apartheid state and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. At an international Muslim conference titled 'Creating a New Civilisation of Islam', held in Pretoria in 1996, speakers referred to Jews as a powerful economic force and to Zionists as responsible for all of society's evils.

In January 1997, following a bombing in a mosque in Rustenburg, members of the Muslim community accused the Mossad of responsibility. A month later, Qibla led a vociferous march on the Israeli embassy, culminating in the usual Israeli flag-burning. A similar march took place in Johannesburg, organized by the Islamic Unity Convention. On the eve of Yom Kippur that year, Muslims held pro-Hamas demonstrations outside a Pretoria mosque and placed a full-page advertisement in the Pretoria News criticizing the newspaper's "biased and one-sided version of events in the Middle East." An incident in Hebron (in which a Jewish extremist distributed posters depicting Mohammed as a pig) led to heated protests in Pretoria and Cape Town. Shortly thereafter, a home that housed a Jewish book center in Cape Town was firebombed, and phone threats were made against a Jewish home for the elderly and a synagogue. Although Imam Rashied Omar, the vice president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, issued a condemnation, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC)--the representative body of South African Muslims--kept silent.

Tensions between Muslims and Jews have been exacerbated by the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When the mayor of the Cape Metropolitan Council, the Reverend William Bantom, was invited to attend an international mayoral conference in Israel in May 1998, Muslim organizations (supported by the ANC provincial caucus) pressured him not to attend. Israeli jubilee celebrations in Cape Town that month were marred by Muslim protestors, led by Qibla, who chanted "One Zionist, one bullet" and "Viva Hizbollah and Hamas." In an exchange of letters to the Cape Times, Sheikh Achmat Sedick, the secretary general of the MJC, condemned South African participation in the jubilee. South Africa's refusal to issue a visa to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, then spiritual leader of Hamas, sparked another round of protests. In a telephone interview from Kuwait that was broadcast on a Cape Town Muslim radio station, Yassin denounced all Zionists as terrorists. Qibla protested against the government decision outside the gates of Parliament, and Sheikh Ebrahim Gabriels of the MJC declared that Muslims "did not recognise the Israeli State which was founded illegally on Palestinian land."

There can be little doubt that in a global world, informed by the electronic media and the internet, Muslims are deeply connected to international trends and events and especially to the Middle East. All of this was palpable at the now infamous United Nations conference against racism and xenophobia in Durban in 2001. This hate fest demonstrated the depth of anger against Israel and the co-ordination of her enemies. Relations between Muslims and Jews in South Africa have never recovered. So long as the Israeli-Palestinian question is unresolved there is little cause for optimism. Only a few months ago posters denying the Holocaust were displayed at a mass protest in Cape Town against the 'Mohamed' cartoons.

These developments have not unhinged the Jewish community. On the contrary, Jews are paradoxically more confident of their future in South Africa than they were in the late 1990s. The same Kaplan Centre survey referred to above indicated that Jews are less likely to emigrate than seven years earlier. The younger generation in particular appears more comfortable. It would seem that the leader of the opposition Tony Leon (a Jew) was correct when he pointed out a few years ago that Jews are better off under the new government than under the old. There is, he maintained, no specifically "Jewish problem"! Certainly compared to the 1930s, Jews have little reason to be fearful.

Of course, Jews do share the same concerns as all other middle class whites, arising from crime, economics, education and health care. But antisemitism as such is of marginal significance in public life. And given the ANC's opposition to racism, the climate for opposing antisemitism in South Africa is more favourable than it has been in the past. But the question of Zionism remains a concern, as do the connections between anti-Zionism and age-old antisemitism.

About the Author
Professor Milton Shain is Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town.

© Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2007


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