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BDS leader gets top award for human rights




BDS South Africa chairperson Farid Esack is also a prominent University of Johannesburg (UJ) professor and a well-known anti-apartheid and gender equality activist.

He is being awarded the Order of Luthuli (Silver), considered the highest award that South Africa bestows on its citizens who have made a “significant contribution to the struggle for democracy”.

Esack is head of Religious Studies at UJ. An outspoken anti-Israel and pro-Palestine campaigner, he is calling for a complete boycott of Israel. He suffers no fools in his intellectual endeavour to demonise the State of Israel and highlight the plight of Palestinians.

As a recipient of the award, he is being recognised for his contribution to academic research and to the fight against race‚ gender‚ class and religious oppression.

“It is regrettable that the President’s Award, which we view with such high esteem, has been sullied by being associated with a man who leads an organisation that has carried out campaigns which, over the last few years, have directly resulted in blatant displays of anti-Semitism,” says Wendy Kahn, national director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

“The integrity of these awards is undermined when a person with such unsavoury associations is selected as a recipient.”

Esack, a liberal theologian, is no stranger to controversy. He has been accused of anti-Semitism by association with the BDS, and is believed to have been banned from hosting lectures in France and Germany for the same reason.

Last year, he was accused of being sympathetic to Holocaust denial by the Israeli embassy in Germany. He vehemently contested this.

At a 2015 fundraiser, Esack praised Leila Khaled, who carried out two hijackings for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the 1960s and ’70s, calling her his “comrade”.

But while his academic achievements, along with his anti-apartheid and pro-gender credentials, speak for themselves, Esack’s anti-Israel mission has escalated to fever pitch in recent months.

Ben Swartz, national chairman of the SA Zionist Federation, said BDS SA was having “a massive effect on the psyche of the local Jewish community”.

“If you go back in history, anti-Semitism has never been a major issue in South Africa,” he explained. “Only since the rise of BDS here has it truly come into play. The BDS, with Esack as its strategic thinker, is at the forefront of polarising and isolating Jewry in South Africa.

“The ANC is honouring a person who has fomented and cemented division and hatred in the political discourse around South African Jewry.

“It is a fantasy to think you can separate Jews from their national, historical, biblical and cultural homeland, and his trying to convince people you can do that is fantasy.”

With the rise of BDS, Swartz said that Jewish youth were being made to feel unwelcome on university campuses, including at the universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and Cape Town (UCT).

“You see ‘F**k the Jews’ on Wits campus walls; that’s never happened before. And there are violent anti-Israel demonstrations at UCT.”

Swartz added: “The only tangible output of BDS, beyond the rhetoric, has been hardcore incidents of anti-Semitism.”

Esack has persistently tried to keep his nose clean in the area of anti-Semitism. He posted a statement on the German BDS-equivalent website in 2017 in response to allegations of anti-Semitism because he was “slated to speak in Berlin, Freiburg, Bonn and Hamburg”.

“Neither I nor anyone on the staff or board of BDS SA has ever made any statement that could be reasonably interpreted as anti-Semitism,” he wrote.

However, considering the behaviour of Muhammed Desai, co-founder, spokesperson and national co-ordinator of BDS SA, this is not accurate. Desai was part of a BDS protest held at Wits in 2013. At that rally, the protesters began to sing Dubula iJuda (Shoot the Jew). In 2011, the Equality Court of Johannesburg banned Dubula iBhunu (Shoot the Boer), a derogatory song degrading Afrikaners, on the basis that it demonstrates a clear intention to be hurtful, to incite harm or to promote hatred.

Desai initially defended the singing, saying: “The whole idea of anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion.” Esack later distanced BDS from this.

In his 2017 statement in Germany, Esack went on to say: “The horrors of the Holocaust, as with other human disasters, were uniquely horrendous,” he said. “But to elevate one form of racism – in this case, anti-Semitism – to a class of its own, with a special place in hell reserved for anti-Semites, is actually another manifestation of white privilege.

“Those who are genuinely concerned about anti-Semitism as an extension of their opposition to all forms of racism must guard against elevating this form of racism as a crime worse than others.”

And when it came to his sentiments about terrorism, he reacted on Facebook to the Paris terror attacks in 2015 where 132 people were killed. “I am not praying for Paris; I am not condemning anyone. Why the hell should I? I had nothing to do with it.

“I am sickened by the perpetual expectations to condemn. I walk away from your shitty racist and Islamophobic expectations that whenever your chickens come home to roost then I must feign horror.”

Esack has ingratiated himself among certain people within the South African Progressive Jewish community by attending shul services on Shabbos and also during the high holidays. He claims he does this because he is a student of religion.

In response to criticism within the community of his attendance at the Beit Emanuel shul, Esack said: “For many in the Jewish community, the State of Israel is synonymous with one’s identity as a Jew, and to oppose Israel and/or its policies is to be opposed to (possibly even be an enemy of) all Jewish people. I understand this position, although I do not agree with it. Understanding this position, though, means that I do not get angry or upset when others are unnerved at my presence at a shul.

“I acknowledge that it is difficult for some in the larger Jewish community to separate my identity as a believer and scholar of religion from that of my work as an activist in the movement for justice for the Palestinian people.

“I also believe that some in the leadership structures of the community deliberately refuse to acknowledge this because it means a diminishing of their political control over the community life of the Jewish people. It is no different in my own community of Muslims. Genuine concerns are utilised in the service of power, control and authority.”

Esack criticises those who blame the BDS for not concentrating on other international human rights causes.

In an opinion piece in the Mail & Guardian on February 28, he wrote: “‘Whataboutism’ is a virus that afflicts most apologists for apartheid Israel when they come into contact with someone who supports the BDS… The major symptom is a sudden onset of sympathy for other causes (typically, Syria, North Korea, Tibet, Zimbabwe – almost never Guantanamo Bay, or white racism).”

He went on to say the intention of “whataboutism” was to “damage support for the Palestinian struggle by deflecting attention from it while masquerading as a benign virus concerned with infecting other struggles in the world with compassion and peace”.

In response to the Luthuli award announcement, Esack said in a BDS SA statement: “Our generation who resisted and overcame apartheid with the support of activists throughout the world have no option but to live out our debt to the international working class and oppressed communities throughout the world, from Black Lives in the USA, to Kashmir, to the Dalits in India, to the people of Cuba, the Christians in Muslim majority countries, and the Palestinians living under the yoke of Israeli apartheid.”

The award ceremony will be held on Saturday at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. David B

    Apr 28, 2018 at 11:06 pm

    ‘OCV1Pwell done Mr president ?  ?  ? — and we had such high hopes for you before you started sinking down to their level — we understand that you have differing factions to keep onside, but your choices are becoming more questionable every day, apart from denigrating the Luthuli award .

      Such a pity that you feel the need to move against a community that has done is still does a great deal for the South Africa as taxpayers as well as believers in the future of this country which is so full of promise.

       Anti racism is what your party has stood for, since it’s inception and now a President with so much promise is taking us backwards.  ‘

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