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Jew-hatred in SA has sustained history



“The tenacity of antisemitism and its ability to mutate and survive cannot be underestimated,” writes prize-winning author and academic Professor Milton Shain in the final book of his trilogy on the history of antisemitism in South Africa, titled Fascists, Fabricators and Fantasists: Antisemitism in South Africa from 1948 to the Present (Jacana).

“We know that antisemitism takes on the coloration of the period in which it operates,” says Shain. “More recently, anti-Zionist discourse has added a new layer to what Robert Wistrich referred to as ‘the longest hatred’. In other words, anti-Zionism – at least for some – is a hygienic form of Jew-hatred. This is not to suggest all anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel is synonymous with antisemitism. For many, however, it is a fig-leaf for simple Jew-hatred.”

Shain is professor emeritus of historical studies at the University of Cape Town and the former director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research. He has written and edited several books on South African Jewish history and the history of antisemitism.

“With the normalisation of South African society [in the post-apartheid era], we have a window into attitudes towards the Jew beyond the white community,” Shain says. “In the past, we had only glimpses, but it has now become evident that the anti-Jewish stereotype has penetrated across all sectors of the country.

“We see this in surveys and in particular, in the tropes of anti-Zionism. Again, I must stress that hostility towards Israel doesn’t have to be driven by Jew-hatred. But we often see an old hatred in a new guise in the language and tropes of condemnation. A good example of this was at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 where The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a foundation document of antisemitic hate – was on sale.”

He notes that “antisemitism certainly exists in South Africa, but in many ways, our celebration of cultural diversity and the notion of a ‘rainbow nation’ militates against ethnic hatred. It blunts divisions. We also have a range of Chapter Nine institutions that make antisemitism and other forms of prejudice a potential source of punishment. For all that, antisemitism persists, and the tropes employed, particularly in anti-Zionist discourse, are disturbing.”

For example, “When Israel alone among all nations is signalled out, we have a warning sign. When one hears of a ‘Jewish cabal’ centred in Jerusalem directing global affairs and manipulating the South African government, we can be sure Jew-hatred is operating.”

Shain’s interest in antisemitism began in the mid-1970s, “when I examined Jews and politics in the old Cape Colony. I was struck by the amount of hitherto unknown anti-alienism that targeted eastern European Jews. This led me to challenge the conventional idea that the ‘Jewish question’ of the 1930s in South Africa was an import from fascist Europe. Rather, I saw it as the maturation of a long gestating anti-Jewish stereotype that burst into public politics under the right conditions.”

This long history is now complete in his three volumes. “Exhuming the underbelly of an aspect of South African culture and history has been a challenge. But there’s nothing rewarding in hatred.”

Shain explains how antisemitism has mutated over the ages. “In pagan days, the Jews were the classic ‘other’, identified by their monotheism and distinctive practices. In the Christian Medieval world, the Jew was characterised in religious terms, that is to say they were charged with deicide, killing Christian children for ritual purposes and so forth. With the rise of race-thinking during the Enlightenment, they were defined as racially distinctive with an immutable essence.”

Meanwhile in South Africa, antisemitism ebbed and flowed. “If one takes the rise of apartheid as concurrent with völkisch Afrikaner nationalism, it’s apparent that the contours are visible from the 1930s. Indeed, the 1930s and early 1940s displayed the high point of antisemitism in South Africa in the emergence of a ‘Jewish question’,” says Shain.

“However, once the National Party came to power in 1948, antisemitism subsided significantly. Prime Minister DF Malan reached a modus vivendi with the Jewish establishment and the old canards of hate were rapidly discarded. Nevertheless, fringe extremists, often with neo-Nazi ties, persisted in circulating hostile ideas about Jews. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example, was disseminated, and the Holocaust denied. Importantly, right-wing extremists had little traction. A rising Afrikaner bourgeoisie, enjoying the benefits of race-exploitation, no longer saw the Jew as a competitive threat.”

But Jew-hatred gained some momentum in the 1970s in South Africa. “As the National Party under BJ Vorster began to consider smoothing the rougher edges of so-called ‘petty apartheid’, purist Nationalist ideologues like SED Brown and Ivor Benson saw the hand of international finance, in sinister collusion with Communists, undermining the country’s racial order and stability,” says Shain. “Fortunately, these ideas hardly resonated, but they did ensure the persistence of ugly anti-Jewish stereotypes. The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging under Eugène Terre’Blanche employed these in the 1980s. He was not alone.”

His book is the only sustained examination of the subject available. “It seeks to investigate, trace, and unpack hostile attitudes towards Jews and irrational fantasies about them in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. It’s not a blow-by-blow account of every instance of antisemitism. Rather, the focus is on the evolution, survival, and resurfacing of anti-Jewish ideas and the ways in which these intersect with one another in diverse ways.”

Ultimately, the book warns that “one should never downplay the ability of antisemitism to survive”, says Shain. “We should never be complacent. A range of surveys over the past five decades have shown a sustained level of anti-Jewish stereotyping. We also know that history has demonstrated unequivocally that ideas precede action. For now, however, the possibility of hostile ideas mutating into public policy [in South Africa] is highly unlikely. But things can change. Black swans do appear. For one thing, if viewed historically, the current politics of pessimism could conceivably provide fertile ground for the targeting of Jews.

“It would be prudent to heed the wise words of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper whom I quote in the book: ‘History teaches us that even the most tenuous phantoms can come to life if objective circumstances change. The fantasies of one generation can provide the mental furniture, even the life-blood, of another.’”

  • Fascists, Fabricators and Fantasists: Antisemitism in South Africa from 1948 to the Present is available in all bookstores as well as an electronic edition via Amazon. A print version will be available later this year in Britain and the United States.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Chaim

    May 20, 2023 at 8:55 am

    Until every single Jew in South Africa stops mistreating, abusing, discriminating against, targeting and bullying the vulnerable in the community, their own, until every single Jew in South Africa stops living in luxury while underpaying their workers, until every Jew in South Africa stops treating people like objects, and exploiting them, they have no right to cry like little babies about how they are being discriminated against. Look in the mirror. Fix what is wrong in yourselves before you complain about the way others are treating you. When your house is clean, then you can start to look around. Until then, shut it.

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