Anti-Zionist left has more in common with far right than it thinks

  • milton shain
Hardly a day goes by without a report on the rise of global antisemitism. Opinion surveys, popular discourse, violence against Jews and Jewish institutions, as well as campus turmoil in the United States, Canada, and England demonstrate the resilience and tenacity of what historian Robert Wistrich called “the longest hatred”.

South Africa hasn’t been – and isn’t – immune. Although violence has for the most part been absent, anti-Jewish incidents continue to be reported, but for those who monitor this, overall, the situation is relatively calm. Indeed, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies took great exception last year to findings by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that South Africa ranked just below Poland in antisemitic stakes. In a statement issued immediately after the ADL release, the Board refuted the claims, and maintained that hostility was a fringe phenomenon on the white right.

It’s certainly true that over the past few decades, South Africa has experienced relatively few anti-Jewish incidents. In 2019, only 36 were logged by the Board, a more than 40% drop from 2018 and almost 50% lower than the annual average of 66 incidents recorded since 2006. David Saks, the associate director of the Board, attributed this to the absence of serious conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Annual incidents, noted Saks, went beyond the hundred mark only in 2009 and 2014, when Israel was at war with Hamas. But Saks – a seasoned observer of South African antisemitism – didn’t dismiss out of hand the ADL findings, and stressed that these might indicate “thinking bad things about Jews without necessarily ever expressing or acting on such beliefs”. There may well be, he added, “more antisemitic sentiment out there than we realise”, but it was “obviously not at a rate of nearly one in two South Africans” as reported.

This might well be so, but we do know that under particular circumstances, ideas have consequences. Specific contingencies in the 1930s and early 1940s, for example, transformed widespread anti-Jewish prejudice and stereotyping into political programmes driven by radical right “shirtist” movements and the National Party. Economic, social, and political instability, coupled with an ascendant völkisch Afrikaner nationalism and an upwardly mobile Jewish community, ensured the utilisation of anti-Jewish canards for political agendas. Like Quebec at that time, ethno-nationalism fuelled hatred of the “other”. Exclusivist nationalism is always a danger for minorities! And today, of course, the world is experiencing the real and present danger inherent in numerous internet sites, including Facebook and Twitter, that have the facility to spew the most unbridled and outrageous claims against Jews and Israel.

Although antisemitism in South Africa declined from the late 1940s, in reactionary circles, often connected to global neo-Nazi networks, “the Jew” still loomed large. The focus was on Jewish conspiracies and subversion, so-called “political Zionism”, Israel’s support for the African bloc at the United Nations, and the Holocaust – or rather, its “invention”. These fantasies, however, had little leverage.

Jew-hatred gained some momentum from the 1970s as reactionaries sought to reclaim their diminishing status, but in spite of political turmoil, antisemitic passions failed to gain ground. Even the dramatic ending of apartheid resulted in little more than a few swastikas being brandished on Pretoria’s Church Square.

In the “new” South Africa, expressions of classical antisemitism, together with all forms of racism, are unacceptable if not unconstitutional. This doesn’t mean antisemitism is absent. Of course it exists. But it’s unlikely that Jews as an ethnic group will be targeted – at least in the foreseeable future. A culture of human rights and a more inclusive nationalism that celebrates diversity ensures the blunting of ethnic conflict.

Yet there are today other disturbing trends for Jews. Anti-Zionism is now commonplace. Rhetoric associated with this hostility appropriates age-old hatreds and employs classic anti-Jewish motifs. Arguably, the “Zionist question” has today replaced the “Jewish question” of the 1930s and 1940s.

Of course, anti-Zionism cannot axiomatically be equated with antisemitism; but its discourse often goes beyond the bounds of normal political rhetoric and frequently betrays vulgar Jew-hatred. Besides obsessive attention to the Jewish state – Israel – that can be interpreted as the Jew writ large – is characterised as a locus of global evil.

Then Deputy Foreign Minister Fatima Hajaig told an audience at the time of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 that most Western countries were “in the hands of Jewish money”, while a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) described the South African Zionist Federation as having hands “dripping with blood”. Israel, claimed COSATU, was a “legalisation of Jewish supremacy to further dehumanise everyone outside the scope of Zionist purity”. The labour federation even raised the possibility of targeting specifically Jewish businesses in South Africa in response to an Israeli missile destroying a building in Gaza.

In a particularly illiberal and ugly communication during Operation Protective Edge in August 2014, Tony Ehrenreich, a senior African National Congress politician, called on Jewish leaders supporting Zionism to leave the country. “If the Jewish Board of Deputies wants to advance a Zionist agenda, they should leave South Africa and go and advance their agenda elsewhere,” he asserted. Ehrenreich, too, threatened Jewish-owned businesses.

In recent years the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement (rebranded in 2020 as Africa4Palestine) has driven the anti-Zionist agenda. Disturbingly, it has on occasion conflated Zionist and Jew. At the University of the Witwatersrand, for example, demonstrators chanted “Dubula e Juda” (“Shoot the Jews” in Zulu) outside a concert featuring an Israeli pianist that was intended to compensate for an earlier BDS disruption during Israel Apartheid Week.

BDS will deny hatred of Jews. In its stead, it will advance a human-rights discourse which resonates with many – Christian, Muslim, black, and white – who struggled for liberation in South Africa and broadly share an anti-Western worldview that sympathises with the Palestinians. Yet, it’s interesting and ironic to note that these “progressive” anti-Zionists share much with the old white right (the likes of Ray Rudman, Johan Schoeman, SED Brown, and Ivor Benson) in their portrayal of an image of an omnipotent Jew. For the white right, Israel orchestrated the demise of apartheid; for the “progressive” left, Israel supported and helped to cement apartheid. Convergence is also apparent in the use of antisemitic tropes and rhetoric: Israel malevolently manipulates international politics and finance. Even the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is added to the armoury. Anti-Zionist rhetoric thus connects seamlessly to a long history of Jew-hatred, facilitated in today’s world by ubiquitous social and electronic media, as well by the internet’s hate-filled sites that include South African locations.

  • Milton Shain is emeritus professor of historical studies at the University of Cape Town. He is completing the third and final volume in his history of antisemitism in South Africa.


  1. RadEditor - HTML WYSIWYG Editor. MS Word-like content editing experience thanks to a rich set of formatting tools, dropdowns, dialogs, system modules and built-in spell-check.
    RadEditor's components - toolbar, content area, modes and modules
    Toolbar's wrapper 
    Content area wrapper
    RadEditor's bottom area: Design, Html and Preview modes, Statistics module and resize handle.
    It contains RadEditor's Modes/views (HTML, Design and Preview), Statistics and Resizer
    Editor Mode buttonsStatistics moduleEditor resizer
    RadEditor's Modules - special tools used to provide extra information such as Tag Inspector, Real Time HTML Viewer, Tag Properties and other.



Yad Aharon GENERIC2020

Follow us on