When it comes to anti-Semitism South Africa is silent

EFF leader Julius Malema during the Energy FM interview on Monday. (Chester Makana, News24)
EFF leader Julius Malema during the Energy FM interview on Monday. (Chester Makana, News24)

I don't know if EFF leader Julius Malema is an anti-Semite. What I do know is that his comments about Jews are dangerous and irresponsible. I also know that it is not only Jews who should be bothered by them.

I also know that as someone who is sensitive to racism and prejudice, he most certainly should know better. 

Only a few days before Malema made his statement, South Africa was sent reeling when Adam Catzavelos proved once again that words can hurt deeply. Which makes it even more perplexing.  

"They will kill us for that. There's a group of white right-wingers who are being trained by Jews in Pretoria to be snipers." This was Malema's statement at the EFF press briefing last week where he addressed land reform. Whether it is true or not is irrelevant. What is significant is that he named religion when it matters nought. 

What is more of a concern is that Malema's statement was met with silence from most political parties. All but the DA and the ACDP, who condemned his divisive attack, said not a word. It seems that the ruling party, the ANC, who no doubt followed his briefing, is not bothered by anti-Semitism. Either that or it is simply not politically expedient to note it. 

No votes are gained by calling out racism when it comes to Jews. 

The popular press didn't pay much heed to it either. Aside from The Citizen newspaper, the rest remained unphased by this. Even vocal human rights activists seemed to forget to notice the bigotry. Rather, they focussed solely on the racist rant of a nobody that no one had heard of until his holiday to Greece. And as important as it was to condemn his vile diatribe (I did so in last week's column), I was hoping to see someone who is not Jewish stand up and say that Julius' statement is simply not acceptable. His words have tremendous power and he needs to use them carefully. 

But no one did. That Malema attacked Jews hardly mattered. 

The response from Twitter was deliberately obtuse. Most professed to not understand what the problem was – facts are facts, they told me. Why is this racism, they asked innocently? And, whereas it might indeed be a fact (I have no idea) that a person who might be Jewish is training farmers for whatever reason, I wonder how they would have reacted if another religion substituted the word "Jew".

It seems that we can be remarkably sensitive to racism when we choose to be, and we can be fantastically insensitive when it doesn't suit us.

Soon after Malema's statement I received the following tweet: "Everywhere there is national dissent you guys (Jews) names appear," (sic) proving how dangerous Malema's negative association is. 

Jews, as a matter of fact, were disproportionately active in the anti-apartheid movement. Just look at the list of Jews relative to their numbers who were convicted at the Rivonia treason trials. But it is also further noteworthy that very rarely is the "Jew" description utilised when the connotation is positive. So, whereas there are good Jews and less good Jews and everything in between, only noting the religion when it is something that is negative, is dishonest, unfair and racist. 

Julius Malema knows this. South Africa knows it too. 

The question is this: If Malema is aware of the dangers of racism, and he is aware how powerful and dangerous words can be, why would he choose to single out a minority of a minority in the country? Why would he attack a group of people whose anxiety is encoded into them with their DNA? A group who know well that what started with words in Germany, ended in the death of 6 million in Europe. Words have power – for good and for evil.  

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks expresses it as follows when addressing the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe: "The appearance of antisemitism in a culture is the first symptom of a disease, the early warning sign of collective breakdown. If Europe allows antisemitism to flourish, that will be the beginning of the end of Europe."

South Africa should take heed. As should Julius Malema.

Malema turned his press briefing about land reform into one about race. 

Far worse than that is that he got away with it. 

And that is a shame. 

-  Feldman is the author of Carry on Baggage and Tightrope and the daily breakfast show presenter on Chai FM.

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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