Poison in parliament as anti-Israel rhetoric ramps up
Labour law expert and member of parliament (MP), Michael Bagraim, says he has noticed a dramatic increase in anti-Israel rhetoric across political parties in parliament. This has occurred in both casual and formal settings amongst politicians and parliamentarians. He says this rhetoric is so vitriolic and venomous, it has made him feel that he has to minimise his Zionist identity.
At the same time, Bagraim says politicians are careful to direct this at Israel – making it “the world’s whipping boy” – hiding what he feels is actually antisemitism. “The atmosphere against Israel [in parliament] is absolutely poisonous, and I strongly believe that it’s antisemitic,” he says.
Bagraim is a member of the portfolio committee on employment and labour (national assembly committees), an MP, and member of the Democratic Alliance (DA).
He has been in parliament for seven years, but has noticed this increase in anti-Israeli hate only in the past three years or so. “Everyone has always known I’m Jewish. Most people I interacted with on a daily basis treated me with respect. I had a good rapport with people across the board. I always made it my business to interact with everyone, joining various tables, and taking part in discussions.
“But at the end of my first five-year term, this started falling apart. Comments started being made about Israel in relation to everything. Everything was Israel’s fault. In the past, people would ask me what the Jewish community thought, but now they weren’t that keen to discuss that. I had a very strong feeling that the debate had changed, towards an undercover antisemitism. It was never blatant, but it has been bubbling since about three years ago.”
He says once the pandemic hit, “the anti-Israel sentiment became all-pervasive. It didn’t matter what the debate was.
“I feel it strongly, and it’s worse over the Zoom platform. It’s more vitriolic. It reached a crescendo with Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Whatever one says, they respond along the lines of, ‘Well what Israel does is worse. Why aren’t you attacking Israel?’”
Bagraim says that lately, many politicians have anti-Israel WhatsApp pictures or Zoom backgrounds. Just last week, Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Alvin Botes had a background of people holding Palestinian flags and a sign saying, ‘Free Palestine’. He also sees many parliamentarians wearing Palestinian scarves.
“The WhatsApp pictures have appeared on more than a dozen occasions, across different parties. And it’s not just the ANC [African National Congress]. The ANC is the worst because it brings Israel into every debate. For example, I sit in on a lot of portfolio meetings on agriculture because of labour in agriculture. ANC MP Mandla Mandela chairs those meetings. He’s known to be vehemently anti-Israel.
“Israel is mentioned more than any other country. If any country does something bad, the response is that Israel does worse. I haven’t ever seen it this bad, with comments made in such a vitriolic manner. Many comments are about ‘Israel and its people’. What they mean to say is ‘Jew’.”
If Bagraim suggests any Israeli innovation that could help South Africa, he says he’s immediately shut down by the backlash. “For example, an Israeli has developed a circumcision tool that can stop people dying, as they do here in their numbers every year. They say, ‘We will never use anything designed by Israelis.’ They would rather let people die.”
He believes one of the biggest issues is that the ANC stays silent. “Though this hasn’t translated into antisemitic actions, it starts setting a tone – that it’s fine to attack Israel. And how easily can the jump be made from Israel to Jew?” he asks rhetorically. He also notes that the recent meeting between the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the president won’t be reported besides for in the SA Jewish Report, while Ramaphosa’s interactions with other communities are reported in the parliamentary newspaper and other media outlets.
“I wouldn’t get too complacent,” he says. “Parliament is a litmus test, in which Ramaphosa’s trusted MPs and cabinet members constantly attack Israel under his watchful eye.”
Says DA MP and shadow minister of international relations, Darren Bergman, “There’s a definite rise in antisemitism. The last time I raised it on this platform in a letter, some of our leaders tried to brush it under the carpet or act like it wasn’t true.
“However, you would need to be pretty tone deaf to the groundswell not to understand that peppered in the anti-Zionist protests is indifference between Israel and Jew. If you’re Jewish you’re Zionist, if you’re Zionist, you’re Jewish, and the slogans are becoming more and more inclusive of words such as ‘Hitler’ and ‘Holocaust’,” Bergman says.
“The government is tasked with protecting the rights of minorities and freedom of association. It has the power to stamp out hate speech or misinformation – like it was prepared to do in the case of COVID-19, yet it’s willing to perpetuate a lot of this behaviour. It’s so lost on what diplomacy is; it’s so firm on loyalty that it’s blind to justice and truth. It’s so divided internally, it cannot see fairness.
“No wonder people look at it and shake their heads, trying to ascertain why the government wouldn’t want Russia to withdraw immediately from Ukraine; or why it wouldn’t seek intervention in China and the persecution of the Rohingyas when it calls itself a champion of human rights. This is why our diplomats are putting South Africa on the international stage, but for the wrong reasons, and this is why South Africa will suffer in the future economically, socially, and politically.”
“The government’s persistent hostility towards Israel and how this can lead to increased anti-Jewish prejudice in general is indeed a serious issue,” says SAJBD chairperson Professor Karen Milner. “The Board has been forthright and vociferous in voicing its objections. This has been true in all our engagements with government, including in our meeting with President Ramaphosa. Recent instances include the failed attempt to prevent Miss SA from competing at Miss Universe in Eilat; its unsuccessful efforts to have Israel’s African Union accreditation withdrawn; and our unequivocal condemnation of Minister Pandor’s outrageous remarks equating Israel’s actions to those of Russia in Ukraine.
“We have also been able to find common ground and thereby foster positive working relationships, in spite of sharply differing over the Israel-Palestine question,” she says.