|Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)
Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism in the 'New South Africa'
By Milton Shain
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Professor Milton Shain is Director of the Kaplan Centre
for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town.
- Global Jewish Magazine 2007