Malema’s ‘backhanded compliment’ singles out Jews
When Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema recently praised the Jewish community for its vaccination rates, at first it seemed like a compliment. Yet many felt uncomfortable with it although they couldn’t always explain why, and one local media outlet described it as offensive. Was it harmless flattery, or something questionable?
Speaking to a crowd of students at the Cape Town University of Technology on 21 October, Malema said, “I vaccinated because I saw the Jews, the Jewish people vaccinated. The Jews don’t play with their lives. Those things of threatening life [sic], they take very serious.” His comments were greeted with laughter from the crowd.
Context is everything, and “immediately before Mr Malema speaks about Jews getting vaccinated, he speaks about ‘them’ controlling everything”, noted Dr Günther Jikeli, associate professor at the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.
“It’s unclear who Mr Malema means when he speaks about ‘them’, but it’s a conspiratorial way of thinking. The fact that this is immediately followed by him talking about Jews makes it likely that he had Jews in mind when he talked about ‘them’ controlling the world. In this context, his argument that people should get vaccinated because ‘the Jews’ get vaccinated clearly comes from an antisemitic mindset,” says Jikeli.
Malema said, “I don’t care about this conspiracy theory that we are going to die. They would have killed us a long time ago. They control everything. They control the bread you eat every morning, they control mielie meal, they control samp. They can poison all of you … they even control the air we breathe. They are the ones who are polluting it. They can just put something in this air and finish all of us.” He then goes on to say, “I vaccinated because I saw the Jews…”
Others agreed that the comment was dangerous. “In essence, Malema always tells his followers what they want to hear. In this instance, even when saying something positive, he took the opportunity to try and insult Jewish people,” says Michael Bagraim, a member of Parliament (MP) and the deputy shadow minister for employment and labour.
“One cannot fathom why Malema would single out one faith group as opposed to another,” said Bagraim. “It could possibly be more easily understood when you take into account his vitriolic attack on Israel and Jewish people generally. My feeling is that he’s trying to portray Jewish people as being selfish, self-centred, and only concerned about themselves. Comments like these appear to be almost innocuous, but clearly form a structure in the listener’s mind that ‘they, the Jewish people, are different’.
“It’s this type of statement that tries to sow a seed in the listener’s mind that the Jewish people are different to others, and even in this possibly positive sense, should be seen in a different light,” he says. “The statement is duplicitous and clearly identifies Jews as being ‘the other’. Although it’s not legally or politically actionable, it’s insidious by definition.”
Local political analyst Ralph Mathekga says the comment lines up with Malema’s political strategy, which has always been to polarise different groups. “This is stereotyping. People take individual and not group decisions regarding vaccination.”
MP and shadow minister of international relations, Darren Bergman, says, “I find the comment distasteful. We have a politician testing the waters a week before elections, trying to divide and conquer. I think he’s saying that ‘the Jews look after themselves first’ so it’s almost a connotation of being selfish. I don’t know if I’m being too sensitive, but maybe in this climate, it’s time that we do get a bit sensitive.”
Local antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, Milton Shain, says that while the comments at first seem respectful, “more problematic is the essentialising of Jews. He’s categorising them as inherently different. To appreciate this, swap the word ‘Jew’ with any other ethnic group. We start moving into the murky world of old ‘Nat’ thinking.”
But the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) didn’t see it as any reason for concern. “South African Jewry has, on the whole, been committed to being vaccinated, and our various organisations have been proactive and vocal in ensuring that our community gets the jab,” says SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn. “It would seem that Malema has observed our eagerness in this regard, and is trying to convince his own supporters to do the same.”
Meanwhile on Twitter, Malema’s comment about Jews getting vaccinated was posted on the EFF page, where it was retweeted 432 times and received 1 824 likes. Many Twitter users commented on it, with one saying, “Hitler was right about Jews – Malema needs cancelling” with lots of laughing emojis.
Another responded, “Fighters attack vaccination sites! Your commander in chief has spoken! Enough of your woke rubbish! Your commander has said if Jews vaccinate when they own the world, who are you to refuse vaccination when all you have is a SASSA card and an RDP house.”
A third person tweeted, “This thing of qualifying our decisions through other nations is concerning. So, South Africans aren’t trusted to make good decisions if not confirmed by Jewish people? We need to trust ourselves that we can make our own decisions without seeking validation from anyone.”
A fourth person tweeted, “This statement is self-defeating on the independence of Africans and their ability to make own choices. Why make Jews a beacon of decision-making [that] Africans have to follow. Some statements ought to not be said. Decision to vax or not cannot be informed by a particular nation.”