Guest Column

Contemporary antisemitism and how it manifests in our public discourse

2019-06-06 08:51
Ronnie Kasrils sê hy sal aanhou om van die dakke te skree dat pres. Jacob Zuma gestop moet word. Foto: Cornél van Heerden

Ronnie Kasrils sê hy sal aanhou om van die dakke te skree dat pres. Jacob Zuma gestop moet word. Foto: Cornél van Heerden

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If we are to reduce contemporary forms of antisemitism, we ought to exercise greater vigilance and call out those responsible, no matter who they are, whenever the situation demands it, writes Yanir Grindler.

For Good Friday this year, the EFF released a statement drawing a parallel between Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Jews today to the torture and crucifixion of Jesus attributed to the Jews of yesteryear.

Prior to that, Zane Dangor published an op-ed revealing his gross bias towards the only Jewish-majority state, claiming that Jews fraudulently levelled accusations of antisemitism to shield that state from justified criticism. This was followed by Ronnie Kasrils, invoking in the Daily Maverick another age-old anti-Jewish stereotype, in this case concerning Jews manipulating events through their financial power.

On the same day, Cosatu also joined the party, accusing South African Jews of dual loyalty. These are just some instances indicative of the deep-rooted antisemitism that still exists amongst our political elite. Giving those concerned the benefit of the doubt it seems that the shift from traditional explicit antisemitism to contemporary implicit, discursive forms of antisemitism is not easily understood. Let me try to explain how antisemitism can and should be recognised even when it is not directly observed.

New forms of antisemitism are particularly difficult to recognise because they are often packaged in seemingly democratic and anti-racist language and are woven into complexity of discourses, ideas and unexamined assumptions. Nevertheless, instances are far from unusual among contemporary bigotries.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, argues that contemporary forms of bigotry are commonly found among more "complex ideational systems". She says that bigoted or prejudicial ways of thinking are more readily accepted when they are held by people who believe that they oppose such ways of thinking. This does not refer to those who dishonestly hide their bigotry, rather it refers to those who are unconscious of their racist memes manifested in their own speech and thought. This seems to be the case amongst some of our own political commentators.

Let us dissect part of the EFF's Good Friday statement to illustrate just this:

"We also call on the international community to remember the people of Palestine, the birth and death place of Jesus Christ. They represent the suffering, the permanently crucified, disfigured and humiliated body of Christ hanging on the summit for all shame. The Palestinians suffer racial discrimination, colonization and apartheid in the hands of the apartheid state of Israel."

This paragraph appears to be starkly reminiscent of classic antisemitic conspiracy theory. Delving deeper into these words, one should be able to discern "the Jewish deicide" hidden beneath this anti-Zionist rhetoric, that is, the belief that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for the death of Christ.

Antisemitism cloaked by replacing 'Jew' with 'Israel'

For centuries, this trope has been used to incite violence against Jews. It has contributed to discrimination against individual Jews, organised pogroms, persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, Cossack massacres and the list goes on. I ask why Israel, coincidentally being the only Jewish-majority state, would be so heedlessly used within this context?

Well, ostensibly, the EFF is aware that following the Holocaust the space left in our public discourse for explicit antisemitism has diminished. So, like many other social and political commentators, it would seem that they have cloaked their antisemitism by simply replacing the word "Jew" with "Israel" and by doing so, have shown to uphold their morality in an environment where overt hatred of Jews is publicly abhorred.

In referring to the development of business ties with Israel in his piece in the Daily Maverick (20 May), Ronnie Kasrils referred to "crony capitalists within the ANC" who were more than ready to have "their palms greased like Judas with silver coins". It's one thing for Kasrils to suggest that our relationship with Israel comes down to business and economic incentives (this obviously has deep connotations that I sadly don't have to draw out). It's quite another to draw a parallel with the story of Judas and the 30 pieces of silver.

When applied to Jews, this is another classic antisemitic trope. The 30 pieces of silver have been used through the centuries in antisemitic incidents, including the linkage of Jews with money, while the betrayal of Jesus by Judas has been used to charge Jews with deicide and portray them in the worst possible light.

As explained in The Forward:

"Although, in our ecumenical age, Christian churches may have dropped the charge of deicide against the Jews, "Judas," even if uttered — as it generally is — without the slightest anti-Semitic intent, conjures up an old and still potent image of the Jew as a Jesus Christ killer..…Although Judas was thus only one of Jesus' Jewish disciples, his name has screamed "Jew" to Christians, both in New Testament times and later. Indeed, he became for Christianity the prototype of the Jew: the treacherous, devilish, money-grubbing figure that all Jews were said to resemble.

Let me also remind you of the terribly disturbing video that made its rounds on social media last month. In a supposedly Good Friday ritual, children from the town of Pruchnik, south-eastern Poland were seen beating a Judas effigy that was painted to portray a caricature of an Orthodox Jew. Whatever Kasrils intention was in making this reference, this abhorrent antisemitic trope should never have appeared in a mainstream media article."

On the same day that Kasrils published that piece in the Maverick, Cosatu issued a statement and in it making reference to another trope that has been unleashed by antisemites throughout history. In their statement, Cosatu claimed that "They (referring to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the elected spokesbody of the SA Jewish community) have proven time and again that they are not loyal to this country and they will do anything to sabotage and divide this country on behalf of the genocidal regime of Israel".

Once again, Cosatu chose to cast Jewish South Africans as the other, suggesting a dual loyalty that calls our devotion to South Africa into question. Accusing Jews of disloyalty and pushing for allegiance to a foreign government has long been a foul anti-Semitic slur that has been used to harass, marginalise, and persecute the Jewish people for centuries. This slur alleges that Jews are disloyal citizens because their true allegiance is pledged only to other Jews in the diaspora or to a secret and immoral Jewish agenda. In more recent times, this accusation has mutated into a modern belief that Jews should be suspected of only serving the interests of the state of Israel rather than those of their countries of origin. In embracing this racist trope, Cosatu is associating also itself with the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust.

In an opinion piece published in the IOL on 17 May, Zane Dangor claims that Jewish advocates for Israel are deceitfully "crying antisemitism" in order to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel. This he terms "a well-honed tool to silence criticism of Israel's human rights abuses against Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories". He makes these claims in relation to the downgrade of the SA Embassy in Tel Aviv.

There are two problems with this statement. The first is his evocation of "Jewish Power" which he draws towards twice in his piece. Notions of Jewish control of the world for their own purposes is another classic antisemitic canard, that weaves its way since the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It unmistakeably resonates with stereotypical antisemitic beliefs of Jews being dishonest, untrustworthy and manipulative, and as such could be considered a form of anti-Jewish prejudice in its own right.

The second is his contention that the Jewish community claim that criticism of Israel is antisemitic.  We don't. Anyone who knows me, for instance, knows that I am not shy to criticise Israel's policies. The difference is that I never delegitimise Israel's existence nor ever place it on a pedestal – a mistake Dangor and many other political and social commentators seems to constantly repeat. It is intellectually dishonest to only condemn the one Jewish-majority state for allegedly committing human rights abuses, when Muslims are being sent to modern-day concentration camps in China, Zimbabweans are being mercilessly killed on the streets of Harare, countless Venezuelan civilians are being captured on a daily basis, Yemenites are on the brink of famine, and I can go on. Mr Dangor, it is antisemitic when the only Jewish-majority state is singled out despite the countless human atrocities that are being committed while I write this article.  

Systematic forms of language show true face of antisemitism

These are just a few instances to show how systematic forms of language often show its true face as raw antisemitism in contemporary discourses about Zionism and Israel even amongst those who consider themselves as anti-racists. A common theme that became apparent when analysing some of these excerpts was that when people engage on topics of Israel and Zionism, they often make use of certain language closely resembling the traits reminiscent of classic antisemitic stereotypes. At the end of the day, it is impossible to look into their hearts to discover whether they are antisemitic.

Anti-racists – many of them our social and political commentators – accused of antisemitism often choose to forget the importance of understanding racism as an objective social phenomenon that exists outside the social actors' self-consciousness. I have thus tried to show how new antisemitism functions independently of the social agent's will, in a manner that often goes unobserved. 

I acknowledge that many might view my charge of antisemitism as a tactic to delegitimise criticism of Israel. Indeed, this is an often espoused theory although this is not the case here. My intention here is to raise awareness of contemporary antisemitism with the hope that people will be more aggressive in confronting it when it arises. If we are to reduce contemporary forms of antisemitism, we ought to exercise greater vigilance and call out those responsible, no matter who they are, whenever the situation demands it. 

- Yanir Grindler is political liaison for the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

** Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to voices@news24.com with your name, profile picture, contact details and location. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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