Thursday, February 26, 2009

Conveying the Jews a Message in South Africa

A few weeks after South African minister Fatima Hajaig set off a firestorm by saying much of the world is under the heel of "Jewish money", it is becoming more and more apparent that this is not a one-off. COSATU, a major South African union deeply tied to the ruling ANC, recently lead a march to protest Israeli government policies. Not necessarily bad in of itself. Where did they march? On the Israeli embassy? Nope. They decided the best place for their march was a Jewish community center. Bongani Masuku, International Relations Secretary for COSATU, phrased the goal this way:
We want to convey a message to the Jews in SA that our 1.9-million workers who are affiliated to COSATU are fully behind the people of Palestine… Any business owned by Israel supporters will be a target of workers in South Africa.

Well, if you want to "convey a message to the Jews" then targeting a Jewish community center is the way to do it. Of course, it does make it more difficult to take seriously the statement of the Palestine Solidarity Committee's Salim Vallie (which helped coordinate the march), "We are not going to support the canard that says if you are opposed to the policies of Israel you are anti-Semitic, this does not intimidate us." As Howard Jacobson put it in another context "No, you don't have to be an anti-Semite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are."

Mr. Masuku then got into an email correspondence with the head of South Africa's It's Almost Supernatural blog, which is dedicated to identifying and exposing anti-Semitism in South Africa, after leaving this comment:
Hi guys,

Bongani says hi to you all as we struggle to liberate Palestine from the racists, fascists and zionists who belong to the era of their Friend Hitler!

We must not apologise, every Zionist must be made to drink the bitter medicine they are feeding our broathers (sic) and sisters in Palestine. We must target them, expose them and doo allthat (sic) is needed to subject them to pereptual suffering until they withdraw from the land of others and stop their savage attacks on human dignity. Every Palestinian who suffers is a direct attck (sic) on all of us!

In the email exchange, he expressed his view "that Jews are arrogant, not from being told by any Palestinian, but from what I saw myself," and proclaimed that "If the offices of the Zionist Federation and that loud-mouthed Rabbi and his SABJD [South African Board of Jewish Deputies] were in town we would have marched there." More distressingly, he made and reiterated a call for all Jews who did not actively disavow Israel to leave the country -- to wit, "all the people who deny that occupation is wrong must be encouraged to leave South Africa before they infect our society with much more racism" and "none of those who tolerate Israeli apartheid and racism should ever imagine it [South Africa] to be their home." Mr. Masuku made it very clear that full-throated condemnation was what was required -- not "silently consenting or grumbling under tables." Ultimately, the only permissible Jews are those who "have proven to be reasonable and humane."

I think there are a lot of interesting (obviously quite scary) things latent here. The Jewish community in South Africa currently is comprised of roughly 70,000 individuals. COSATU, by contrast, represents nearly two million workers and is an integral part of the "tripartite alliance" that governs the state. The power differential here is off the charts, which of course amplifies the hatred and anti-Semitism latent in Mr. Masuku's remarks. The organization which he is a top-level member of has the influence to make good on his threats, and I hate to think of how Mr. Masuku wishes to "encourage" Zionist Jews to leave. Indeed, it seems that he does not even recognize them as true South Africans to begin with -- posting on a South African blog and corresponding with a South African writer, he attacks "people [who] come all the way from wherever they come from to tell us where and how to march, they can do that in their own country, not here." (Emphasis added).

Meanwhile, if you read the totality of Mr. Masuku's remarks, it is difficult to imagine a starker example of "moral hatred", portraying Jews as "infected", "evil", "enemies of justice, agents of apartheid". It finally reached its apex with him lambasting those who "expect us to regard them [Israel-supporting Jews] as human beings." The moral hatred vacillates between targeting Jews as a whole, and Zionist Jews particularly -- at several points Mr. Masuku indicates that his baseline perspective of Jews has been modified, if ever so slightly, by anti-Zionist Jews: "All Jews who have risen above the fascist parochial paranoia of Israel have changed our views on Jews, as we thought all of them are inhumane...."

I've noted that moral hatred directed at a state can often leads to hatred of all those identified with the state, accurately or no. While conceptually, this can be resisted (by noting that, for example, not all Jews support Israel), what is a lot harder to check from a standpoint of moral hatred is hatred of those who support, at any level, the state rendered worthy of this sort of treatment. Once again, Mr. Masuku demonstrates this: though he crosses into attacks against Jews as a totality on several occasions, at other points he professes respect for those Jews who reject Israel. He does not, however, countenance that Zionist Jews can be South African, or even human, and ultimately advocates their expulsion (by force?).

It is clear that Mr. Masuku considers himself a noble hero fighting for justice against the forces of evil. It is equally clear that Mr. Masuku has come to that conclusion due to the persistent chants of putative "progressives" counseling just that belief. Ben Cohen wrote in response to all this that "Masuku has allowed us to hear how the mob interprets what Paul Berman correctly identifies as the lofty, universalist pretensions of antisemitism." At some point, people need to take responsibility. People need to pause and ask themselves: "Why am I being interpreted this way? What are the effects of what I am saying?"

Finally, this also, I think, reveals the real mechanics of Mr. Vallie's premature rebuttal that his march with COSATU was not anti-Semitic. Rather than creating space for legitimate moral criticism of Israel against a powerful "Israel lobby" that stifles all discourse, here the effect of Mr. Vallie's words was to disarm the victims of hate and bigotry by preemptively dismissing the idea that they could have any grounds for protest. I don't expect Mr. Vallie to be "intimidated" by the claim of anti-Semitism: when your side is part of the ruling government, and your targets are an embattled minority, intimidation is the last thing you have to worry about (except, of course, when one is talking about Jews, who can snap a finger to bring down the full weight of the International Zionist Cabal down upon the heads of the righteous). What I would hope -- out of any decent, progressive-minded individual -- that one would be disheartened or at least surprised by the claim of marginalization. The latter would show it wasn't intentional, at least, and the former would indicate that one is willing to enter dialogue: that, whatever your politics or disagreements are, you consider it a bad thing when a minority group considers you to be fundamentally hostile to their security as human beings.

Mr. Vallie, though, is neither surprised nor disheartened. He just doesn't care. The genuine fear and anger he is cultivating amongst the Jews is a feature, not a bug. Not only were the Jews told they were not welcome in their own country, but they were also informed that the exclusionary rhetoric was immune from interrogation. Once again, anti-Zionists and particularly non-Jewish anti-Zionists are far too quick to dismiss the possibility of anti-Semitism in their ranks and behavior. The effect is to force Jews into a subordinate position wherein the only proper response they can make when they feel marginalized or scared is to be silent or flee, and it is nearly impossible to imagine Mr. Vallie intended any other outcome (Mr. Masuku, of course, expressly identifies this as his intention).

To be frank, I'm not sure I would feel comfortable even traveling to South Africa under these circumstances. I don't wear my support for a free and democratic Israel (and Palestine, for that matter) on my sleeve, but the topic does come up, and it is more likely to come up when the prevailing norm is that any Jew must prove themselves to be "reasonable and humane" before they can expect to be "regarded as human beings". COSATU, through word and deed, is creating an environment where to be a Jew in South Africa makes one worthy of hatred. In this respect, Mr. Masuku was quite successful in conveying a message to me. I cannot, for my own safety, travel somewhere where my basic humanity is in doubt.

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