Why SA’s Zionist dilemma is a Jewish problem
In his 2023 Christmas message, renowned English writer and raconteur Stephen Fry recalled the words of the politician, scholar, and journalist, Conor Cruise O’Brien. “Antisemitism,” warned the Irishman, “is a light sleeper.”
Headlines across the world illustrate this. “French Jews in fear of coming pogrom”; “Jewish cemetery in Vienna targeted with swastika daubings”; “Jewish student harassed by Harvard Law Review editor”; “Hamas official promises to carry out October 7 massacre ‘again and again’ until Israel’s ‘annihilation’”. And so it goes. Day after day.
It’s now quite apparent that protests against Israel in the wake of 7 October have lifted the lid covering Jew-hatred. What was once considered unacceptable is now acceptable.
From London to Teheran, and indeed in most major capitals, anti-Jewish chants conjure memories of the 1930s when the rise of fascism and Nazism convulsed Europe. Of course, no two eras are alike and conditions for Jews today – certainly in open and plural Western societies – are different. Most importantly, the existence of Israel ensures a different fate. History doesn’t do reruns.
Nevertheless, the viciousness of Jew-hatred since 7 October is deeply concerning. A new chapter in the “longest hatred” is being drafted – its subject the delegitimisation of the Jewish state.
Keffiyeh-wearing African National Congress (ANC) comrades masquerading as chivalrous and heroic knights tell us much more than at first sight appears obvious. To be sure, limp calls for a two-state solution by a government that talks of a “colonial settler state” and “apartheid Israel” – a government that tells the International Court of Justice that the Palestinians have endured “seventy-five years of dispossession and occupation” – cannot be taken seriously.
International Relations and Cooperation Minister Dr Naledi Pandor clearly displays her colours. A photo-opportunity with Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president; a phone call with Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader; and an inability to condemn unequivocally the 7 October massacre in its immediate aftermath have enraged the Jewish community.
ANC hostility towards Israel shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Twenty-five years ago, its chief representative at the United Nations, Dr Neo Mnumzana, put it as follows:
“Jews in South Africa come in many different political colours. There are those who belong to the Zionist movement and represent the same reality which is concretised in the state of Israel, and we disapprove of those members of the Jewish community who have these Zionist affiliations. There are also Jews who belong to the broad struggle against apartheid. We see such members of the Jewish community in a positive light. There are also Jews who belong to the African National Congress, which is the national liberation movement of the South African people. We see them in an even more positive light.”
Little has changed. Under the ANC banner, anti-Jewish tropes abound – from South Africa’s deputy foreign minister, Fatima Hajaig, talking about “Jewish money power”, to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) claiming that the hands of the South African Zionist Federation are “dripping with blood”. Tony Ehrenreich, a trade unionist and a senior ANC politician, went so far as to call 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”, advised Ehrenreich who, in addition, threatened Jewish-owned businesses.
Cosatu has also raised the possibility of specifically targeting Jewish businesses in South Africa. Indeed, there has even been talk, albeit denied, of the ANC considering far-reaching changes to South African citizenship laws, the specific purpose of which was to place restrictions on ties between South Africans and Israel and impose punitive sanctions against South African companies that conducted business with Israel. More recently, when he addressed a Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network in Dakar, Senegal, ANC member of parliament, Mandla Mandela, referred to Zionist “chequebook diplomacy”.
Sadly, these well-worn anti-Jewish tropes have been ignored by Cyril Ramaphosa. His silence has emboldened Jew-haters. Calls have been made to close – by force if necessary – a Jewish school in Cape Town; Jews have been intimidated at places of work; Jewish-owned or associated businesses have been targeted; and some Jews have even been threatened in their homes. But not a word from our sanctimonious president.
What does this mean for Jews who support Israel? The answer has become clear in the David Teeger affair. The young captain of South Africa’s Under-19 cricket team found himself in trouble after he praised Israeli soldiers at a private Jewish communal event. Cricket South Africa immediately asked Advocate Wim Trengove to see if Teeger had contravened the speech-code limits. Before the ink of Trengove’s report clearing Teeger had dried – and probably at the behest of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) pro-Palestinian movement, which appears to have an open door to the government, Teeger was removed as captain, ostensibly for “security” reasons.
The reality, however, is that Teeger had dared to express his Zionist convictions, a cardinal sin for the ANC. Surprising? Not at all. Former Secretary General Gwede Mantashe once described the Jewish state as founded on the basis of apartheid “which according to international law and several United Nations conventions is a crime against humanity”.
It’s this mindset that informed the unctuous South African team at The Hague. Why has South Africa never bothered itself with Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of his Syrian countrymen; China’s persecution of the Uighur; the carnage in Yemen; or the genocide in Darfur? Is Israel alone worthy of scrutiny?
Many human-rights-oriented elites – both black and white, Christian and Muslim – consider Zionism – essentially a 19th century ethno-national movement – to be illegitimate. There’s little empathy for ethnic polities in South African thought today that, as historian Hermann Giliomee puts it, is informed by “a dogmatic or intransigent universalism”. “Its point of departure”, he writes, “is that race or ethnicity as a principle of social organisation is essentially irrational and ephemeral and that there’s no need to make any concessions to it. What this boils down to is the unshakeable conviction that there’s not much more to racial or ethnic identification than the legacy of apartheid classification.”
Such views are widely shared in progressive circles. Certainly, the ANC, dating back to its foundation document, the Freedom Charter of 1955, has had little time for ethnic politics or what it sees as “tribalism”. It has always viewed such politics as a means to divide and rule, manifest in the apartheid project with its proposed puppet ethnic “homelands”. Nobel Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu went so far as to declare “native” cultural identities as little more than an excrescence of colonial racism – something a democratic nation shouldn’t countenance.
For the critics of Zionism, historic ties between Jews and the “land of Israel” are of no consequence. An important dimension of Jewish identity is thereby fundamentally challenged. The reality of Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement is discarded. The term has been distorted and is now associated with exclusivism, oppression, and expansionism. “It’s a policy that to me looks like it has very many parallels with racism,” said Tutu.
Jewish suffering in the diaspora and the dramatic rebirth of a legitimate, United Nations-sanctioned Jewish state, aren’t acknowledged. Even South Africa’s celebration of cultural diversity – enshrined in its Constitution – seemingly cannot entertain space for its Jewish minority that overwhelmingly – albeit not uncritically – shares the Zionist dream.
Let’s be clear. As a Jew, David Teeger was good enough to be selected as captain of the South African Under-19 cricket team. As a Zionist, he wasn’t. It should now be abundantly clear that South Africa’s “Zionist problem” is in essence a “Jewish problem”.
- Milton Shain is emeritus professor in the department of historical studies at the University of Cape Town. His latest book, “Fascists, Fabricators and Fantasists. Antisemitism in South Africa from 1948 to the Present” is published by Jacana Media.