OPINION | Charisse Zeifert: Growing antisemitism is alarming

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A recent incident on a Johannesburg radio station has raised for Charisse Zeifert, who writes that antisemitism and conspiracy theories contained in the banned book 'the Protocols' need to be condemned.

This month marks 20 years since the first UN World Conference Against Racism was held in Durban (WCAR).

As a political researcher at a foreign Embassy in South Africa, I was tasked with monitoring the events around the conference. I watched, first in amazement and then with growing horror, as the conference turned from something that aimed at fighting racism into a racist event.

While attacks on Israel reached fever-pitch, it was the selling of the notoriously antisemitic book, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, on the streets of Durban that floored me.

The Tsarist secret police concocted this notorious screed in Russia in 1903. It is written in the form of a supposed Jewish leader, describing how Jews would rise to ascendancy, eventually taking over control of the world, irrespective of the evil methods required to do so.

Negative stereotypes

The Protocols uses every negative stereotype of Jews prevalent at the time: cunning, power-hungry and greedy. It was also a crude forgery, being based on an obscure French political satire, the Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, by Maurice Joly.

As obscure as its origins were, it has become one of the books most highly associated with Jew-Killing, but one that refuses to itself, die. Not for nothing did the author Norman Cohn choose to entitle his book on the subject Warrant for Genocide. Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, described The Protocols image of greedy, devious Jews as "the longest-running ant-Semitic trope we have".

With regard to Jew-killing, both historically and today, it has been used to stir up antisemitic hatred. This incitement, which spans the time from the early pogroms (violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire and other countries) in the Twentieth century Russia, was also used to justify the Holocaust. It continues today to be used to inspire deadly attacks on Jews the world over. For Jews, the book has real, rather than imagined, deathly consequences. 

READ | Opinion: Karen Milner: Court battles and restraining orders: My battle against a Nazi sympathiser

Because it is clearly aimed at inciting hatred against an identified segment of the population, The Protocols is banned in South Africa, hence the shock I felt when it was openly offered for purchase on the conference grounds at WCAR.

The sale was accompanied by protestors chanting "Hitler should have finished the Job" along with rabidly anti-Israel slogans. The blurring of anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment was solidified. 

The reaction of both local and international Jewry was one of disbelief. A Jewish community member living in Durban moved to another city as a result of the conference. It has left yet another communal scar on Jewish communities around the world. 

Reassuringly, though, there was also world-wide condemnation of what the WCAR was allowed to become. Countries like the US, Canada and the UK, among others, have made it clear that they will not participate in such travesties in future.  

The question is, is this still the case in South Africa two decades later?   

Blurred lines

During the May Gaza – Israel War, the lines between antisemitism and antizionism blurred again when The Protocols reared its head again. While hosting a discussion on the conflict, local radio station, Power FM broadcast a programme in which callers were allowed to propagate classic antisemitic stereotypes. The show featured an interview on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Dr Lunga Mantashe from the University of Fort Hare to put the matter in context. While the presenter Lukhona Mnguni declared his own bias on the conflict and Mantashe's own ideological leanings (he is Deputy President of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, which had just described Israel as a "terrorist, illegal, imperialist settler regime"), this was never going to be a measured, even-handed discussion on the subject, and indeed it was not.

However, the real problem was some of the comments made by callers-in to the show, which patently crossed the line between fashionable Israel bashing and denigrating and defaming the Jewish people as a whole.

READ | Howard Feldman: What it means to be a South African and a Zionist

Certain callers used their platform to rehash the classic antisemitic conspiracy theory that "Jews secretly control the world financial system and that through this they exploit others and incite wars, revolutions and other calamities around the globe".

As one caller put it, "We are run by the Jews. United Nations, IMF, World Bank, they are for the Jews, created by the Jews, to run the world." Pointed reference was made in this regard to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Another caller asserted that "Jews in South Africa had taken over all the country's financial systems and left black people nothing". 

A caller-in who challenged the presenter, was silenced. The station refused the South African Jewish Board of Deputies an opportunity to refute what was said. The matter was eventually heard at the BCCSA, when the station was reprimanded. 

Minor significance 

While this incident is of fairly minor significance, the question rises whether what happened on Power FM indicates a broader problem of antisemitism in this country? The fact that few raised an eyebrow over the Protocols being casually defended in mainstream media, indicates a concerning degree of obliviousness about the nature of this dangerous and defamatory tract. It also shows the irrational conspiracist mindset against people of the Jewish faith and ethnicity that it continues to do so much to propagate. 

Later this month, the United Nations will again host Durban IV, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration. The legacy of Durban was not one of tolerance and justice. Rather, it was one of betrayal.

The congress betrayed and demeaned the very concepts that the meeting was supposed to highlight and protect. The concepts of justice, societal intolerance to bigotry and an abhorrence of discrimination were trashed by those pushing a narrow hateful agenda. 

If WCAR was the launch-pad for a renewed antisemitism, one sincerely hopes that the organisers have taken on board what happened before and will take steps to ensure that bigots and fanatics will not again be allowed to hijack and subvert the very important conversations over racism that need to take place at Durban IV. And, if we are serious about bringing about real change and fighting racism, we also have to address antisemitism and shun the conspiracy theories that the Protocols embrace.

- Charisse Zeifert is head of communications, SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

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