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Op-eds

Assault on freedom of expression doesn’t end with Israel

  • Howard Feldman 2018
Jewish South Africa are not the only ones feeling the pressure. South Africans across the rainbow are angry and intolerant, and no one is being spared the wrath of our frustration. Earlier this week, Ferial Haffajee, Editor-at-large of the South Africa Huffington Post, wrote a column about the pressure, intimidation, and death threats she has received as a result of expressing herself.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jun 21, 2018

Haffajee had committed the social-media sin of challenging Economic Freedom Fighters Leader Julius Malema’s racist contention that the majority of Indians were racist. The response she received was violent, aggressive, and included death threats.

Haffajee is not someone I see eye to eye with on matters concerning Israel, and we have had more than the odd Twitter spat on this very issue. In fact, I find her views on Israel to be limited and objectionable, and have engaged with her on this, never to a reasonable conclusion.

But it is her opinion. She is entitled to it, as I am entitled to disagree with it.

What makes the Haffajee story more interesting is when it is juxtaposed with the treatment of Shashi Naidoo on social media. Naidoo, a well-known South African celebrity took to social media to express a positive view on Israel. She questioned Hamas’ behaviour, and gave context to the conflict. Context that was not along the scripted lines of an anti-Israel media bias.

Social media exploded. She was personally attacked, and as much as I tried to get people like Yusuf Abramjee to debate the issue, not the person, there was little in the way of real dialogue. The result was that Naidoo received ten death threats and did significant damage to her brand.

Her teary eyed apology portrayed a broken person who had been figuratively beaten into submission. It was a confession of the tortured, and one could only feel tremendous sympathy for her. It was heartbreaking to witness.

The media briefing that followed exacerbated the situation. It sent a clear message that no view that is different to that of the BDS will be tolerated.

Naidoo paid a terrible price for using her voice. And, whereas it is always positive to read a balanced perspective on Israel in the media, I am sorry that she did so. I wish for her sake that she hadn’t.

Much like Democratic Alliance MMC Mpho Phalatse, who was suspended for saying that Johannesburg is a friend of Israel.

Much like Gareth Cliff, who has been lambasted for voicing his view.

Much like Black Coffee, who proudly performed in Israel.

Much like Mmusi Maimane after his visit to Israel.

Much like Lionel Messi, who received worse threats “than Isis”, according to the Argentinian Foreign Minister.

Or anyone else who dares to say something positive about a country that the bullies need you to see as only negative.

Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller emerged as an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler. He is remembered for the quotation; “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one to speak out for me.”

Ferial Haffajee is in a difficult position. Because, although she might detest the views of the above people, although she might hate every word that Naidoo wrote, it was her duty to stand by them and defend their right to speak. As it is each of ours to defend Haffajee’s right to say the very thing we hate most. If she did not do so, then she has little room to be outraged at the treatment that she received from those who stand with the EFF.

What is painfully clear is that unless South Africans make a significant effort to protect our constitutional right to freedom of expression, we risk losing this tenant of democracy. It might begin with anti-Israel bias, but it will end with the loss of the very thing that South Africans paid dearly to achieve.

It is meaningless to protect the notion in law alone. There is no value in having a constitutional right that exists in theory, but not in practice. It doesn’t help to have a Constitution that gives people freedom of expression if we bully them into silence. What this means is that it is important to be as vigilant in our protection of the rights of others when they express a view that is not our own, as it is when we agree with them. If we don’t do so, there will quite possibly be no one left to speak out for us.

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