The South African national high school debating team, currently in Bangkok for the World Debating Championships, has come under attack for expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza during the tournament’s opening ceremony. The events of the past three days highlight a disturbing trend in the local Jewish community, one which every South African should be concerned about. By SAUL MUSKER.
On Wednesday evening, the team uploaded to Facebook a photograph of themselves wearing Keffiyehs (symbolic Palestinian scarves) and badges in the colours of Palestine. Their accompanying post read:
Team South Africa wearing Palestinian badges and Keffiyehs to show our opposition to the human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine.
The fury that has since been unleashed holds many lessons about the state of the mainstream South African Jewish community. Within hours, the status had reached more than 20,000 people, been shared around 200 times and liked by hundreds of followers. Almost 500 comments soon piled up below. White-hot anger surged across the internet, and I watched as it unfolded on my news feed.
Some of the comments expressed admiration and support:
My deepest respect to all of you brave and humane souls, for your demonstration of the courage of conscience. May we all learn from your example.
The majority of responses, however, were characterised by the type of vitriol and bigotry that is anathema to our society’s values. Some of these expressed frightening threats:
To this [sic] fucking retards that support the Palestinians…Me Brian Thomas Poczynski born in Argentina and Soldier at The IDF i hope that these people does’t [sic] ever come to my country (Israel) because i will shoot them with my M16 and empty all my bullet [sic] on them!
Others expressed outrage that three of us on the team, all young Jews, should have betrayed the Zionist cause by speaking out in public:
You are idiots, an embarrassment to your faith. Get a life morons, stand up for your people or go join Hamas and see what they do to you. Idiots!!!
Similar comments mushroomed and proliferated as the controversy grew, with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of South African Jews posting statuses condemning the team in absolute terms. Those who came to our defence were treated to a similar fate. Jewish rage went rapidly viral.
Central to the debacle was the fact that one of the debaters is the deputy head boy of a Jewish high school in Johannesburg. The outcry was amplified by calls for his leadership positions to be stripped and even for his immediate expulsion, with claims that he had contradicted the school’s stated Zionist ethos. By the time of writing, a petition on change.org demanding that the school take action had gathered more than 1,000 signatures.
Faced with hundreds of furious posts to their page, the team expressed the following in a further status:
Debating is about engaging with the world around us, teaching critical thinking and the value of meaningful discourse and expression. Debaters are called upon to speak out when others won’t, and to uphold the principles that they support. For this reason, we value real argument and debate. In addition we recognise that different views exist and have legitimate reasoning behind them. We welcome and encourage all to express those opinions. However, bullying, anger, intimidation, threats and hostility stifle and shut down meaningful discourse. We urge everyone to recognise that different opinions will always exist, and to behave in a way that makes space for those opinions without making anyone feel scared, victimised or undermined.
This couldn’t stop the tidal wave. One of the first comments on this plea for moderation seemed oblivious to its own terrible irony (I cite it verbatim, grammar and all):
you guys think that you are super bright wise kids and talking shit will win any argumant in the world . I CHALANGE YOU WISE ASS BRATS TO COME LIVE ON KIBBUTZ on the gaza border, its a free holiday, it wont cost you anything and when you have 15 seconds to get shelter i want you to stand up and convinse the enemy that you believe in humanatarian rights and in your opinion it goes against what you believe in. and before you shit yourselves and cry for mommy see how far that argumant is going to get you. A DISGRASE TO OUR BOYS puting their lives on the line to protect us!
All of these comments were aimed at a group of school children between the ages of 16 and 19. Like a pack of hyenas to raw meat, right-wing Jews tore into the team, spamming their page and refusing to let up; as one violent comment was removed, another five or six rose to fill its place.
The last few days have exposed deep fault-lines in the local Jewish community, and sparked a communal debate that is ongoing. While mainstream community leaders and institutions have always been perceived as somewhat regressive in their views on Israel, this latest uproar is evidence of a new and more terrifying trend: the unprecedented rise of right-wing fascism in the institutions of South African Jewry.
Before I am hunted down and burned at the stake, let me be clear: when I use the word ‘fascism’, I do so only in the broader political sense. Umberto Eco, in his famous 1995 treatise, identified a number of fascism’s typical characteristics. He included these:
The term ‘fascism’ strikes deep at the heart of most Jews, given a history of violent persecution at the hands of fascists like Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. I am obviously not comparing South African Jews to any of these vile dictators – fascism manifests in extremely different forms, and in those cases it was mixed with toxic anti-Semitism and military totalitarianism. I choose to use the term here, though, for two reasons: firstly, it is the best way to understand what is going on inside the South African Jewish community. Secondly, it is a trend that South African Jews should be especially concerned about and ashamed of, given our unique and terrible past.
Within this community, the hallmarks of fascism as described by Eco are abundant and obvious. The hundreds of comments and statuses on Facebook were symptomatic of a deep and scarring paranoia, a rejection of ‘the other’, a fundamental fear of dissent and of departure from the mainstream line. As one sympathetic commenter put it, “a sickening authoritarianism has crept into discourse about Israel among Jews”. Any criticism of the Israeli government is labelled as anti-Zionism or even anti-Semitism, even when that criticism comes from proud Jews and Zionists who merely dare to disagree with a single action of that government. All Muslims are cast as terrorists, out to perpetrate genocide against the Jews. Critical Jews are, accordingly, told to convert to Islam. In a world perceived as hostile and threatening, internal dissent must be silenced and crushed, at all costs and no matter what; ‘you are either with us, or against us’. It is difficult to understand where all of this hatred comes from – but growing up in an environment where one is told every day that one is under attack, that the enemy is a monster in the dark, that ‘if we don’t stick together we are doomed’, hatred is a hard thing to escape.
Like any community, of course, South African Jewry exists as a spectrum. There are left-wingers and right-wingers, and a whole lot of people somewhere in-between, many of whom see the wrong in the recent tirade. I have received messages of support from dozens of Jews who wish that they could speak up without fear of being ostracised or dismissed, who abhor the fundamentalism that characterises the organised community’s discourse. The problem is that the fascists on the right wing are also the loudest, and too many people are willing to go along with them, are willing to stand by and say nothing, are too scared to stand out, are pressurised and indoctrinated.
At the heart of this story is a group of brave children who decided to take a stand against what they saw as a grave injustice. South Africans can learn a valuable lesson from their courage, and I was proud to support them. In the ocean of bile that followed, I watched them stay strong in the face of a brutal collective attack. I watched good people rally behind them in droves. And I watched full-grown adults ripping into these children on public platforms. Their indignity is perhaps the saddest of all.
With a little hope, the events of the last few days will be a wake-up call to those South African Jews who have, until now, remained in the shadows. It will take a determined and courageous effort to combat the rise of fascism in the local community – not just from South African Jews, but from all South Africans who value our constitution, who value free discourse and who are willing to stand up for the victims of a modern McCarthyism.
All people, from the most ardent of Zionists to the anti-Zionists of conviction, are entitled to their opinions. This conflict is too complex for there to be a clear right or wrong. What we can all do, together, is to uphold tolerance and respect – regardless of who we are or what we believe. And we can protect children from the vitriol of sad and bellicose adults.
That much, surely, is universal. DM
Photo: A Facebook photo of Team South Africa wearing Palestinian badges and Keffiyehs to show our opposition to the human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine.
"Sometimes the best way to help someone is just to be near them." ~ Veronica Roth
"Men are good in one way, but bad in many" ~ Aristotle