Fascists, Fabricators and Fantasists: Antisemitism in South Africa from 1948 to the Present
In this extract from ‘Fascists, Fabricators and Fantasists’, the final volume in his trilogy on the history of South African antisemitism, Milton Shain reflects on the alleged ‘hidden hand’ of the Jews in South African thought from the late 19th century to today.
Over time the identity of the purveyors of Jew-hatred in South Africa has changed. Anti-alienism (or hostility towards the eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) emanated essentially from the white English-speaking merchant class and rural Afrikaners, and was rooted in upheavals wrought by the “mineral revolution”, the demonstrable power of mining capital, and the economic recession in the wake of the Anglo-Boer War.
By the 1930s and early 1940s, the “Jewish question” was driven by the white (mainly Afrikaner) radical right and was embedded in the nativism of the 1920s and the socioeconomic instability and political tensions at a time of burgeoning völkisch Afrikaner nationalism.
Since the 1970s, a “Zionist question” has replaced the “Jewish question” as a younger Muslim generation, operating in the oppressive apartheid political milieu, sought meaning and explanations in radical Islamist literature and conspiratorial texts. More recently, the anti-Western and post-colonial intellectual turn has brought in other “progressives” beyond the Muslim community.
In each of these different phases it is apparent that attitudes have been informed — at least in part — by ideas and intellectual traditions emanating from beyond South Africa. This is hardly surprising. The period of anti-alienism in early twentieth-century South Africa was an age of increasing literacy, improved communications and large population migrations, notably from Britain to South Africa. The penetration of European ideas was inescapable, and a vaguely racial definition of “Jewishness” ensured that those traits traditionally associated with Jews abroad would be ascribed to their co-religionists in South Africa.
The impact of European ideas was also apparent in the 1930s when the radical right imported fascist ideas, as evident in the “shirtist” movements, the Ossewabrandwag and Pirow’s New Order. The penetration into South Africa of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a foundational text for modern Jew-hatred, forcefully illustrates this.
One of those charged in the 1934 Grahamstown Protocols or “Greyshirt” trial, Johannes von Strauss von Moltke, specifically claimed he was inspired by Hitler’s “revolution” and was deeply influenced by Henry Hamilton Beamish, a well-known Irish-born antisemite. A one-time resident of the Cape Colony, Beamish subsequently founded the antisemitic Judaic Publishing Company (renamed the Britons Publishing Company) in England in 1922. Von Moltke was acquainted with Beamish’s writings and the Irishman gave supporting testimony at the Protocols trial.
Post-war radical right conspiracists, including Holocaust deniers, were similarly informed by global networks and publications. By way of example, we know that Ray Rudman, SED Brown and Ivor Benson were very familiar with the works of international Jew-haters and had personal connections with neo-Nazis and fantasists abroad, while Johan Schoeman dipped widely into the world of conspiracy literature. Obsessive anti-Zionists on the left similarly connected to a print and, later, an electronic global network, fuelled by a post-colonial anti-Zionist discourse.
In more recent times this hostility has evolved into the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement in which South Africa has been described as the “linchpin”. Accusations of American imperialistic ‘machinations’ in the Middle East, with Israel identified as the handmaiden of the United States, resonate widely, as do other conspiracy theories.
Living as second-class citizens under a centrally controlled authoritarian apartheid regime has probably encouraged South African Muslim conspiratorial fantasies. Here Fred Halliday’s observations on the Arab world may well be pertinent: “The very condition of being oppressed, in a collectivity as much as in an individual, is likely to produce its own distorted forms of perception: mythical history, hatred and chauvinism towards others, conspiracy theories of all stripes, unreal phantasms of emancipation.”
For each cast of haters, the Jew has been identified as a source of evil in South Africa: at the turn of the century, it was for fomenting war, corroding business ethics, and corrupting society; in the 1930s and early 1940s, for pulling the political and economic strings of society; and in recent decades (in the form of anti-Zionism), for malevolently orchestrating global politics and financial affairs in a quest for world domination.
In this sense the radical right and the contemporary anti-Zionist left share much with the left-liberal JA Hobson, whose work on imperialism deeply influenced Lenin. Writing at the end of the nineteenth century and informed by the so-called logic of capitalism and its ties to imperialism, Hobson saw Jews as orchestrating the Anglo-Boer War for financial gain. Like the Hobsonians on the left and the radicals on the right, some anti-Zionists today have constructed a fantasy world with the malevolent and manipulative Jew at its centre.
It is tempting to note that Hobson’s explanation for the Anglo-Boer War, von Moltke’s advocacy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the global Jewish conspiracies purveyed by Islamists each have a bearing on what Daniel Pipes refers to as the great “radical utopian ideologies” of the twentieth century: Leninism, fascism and Islamism. Each is informed by a world conspiracy and each attempts to “disrupt the very premises of human life”, writes Pipes. Yet ironically, each of these ideologies sees “the Other” — and more specifically the Jew — as conspiring to dominate the world.
Thus Hobson’s understanding of financiers (chiefly Jewish) driving imperialism captivated Lenin, who refined the idea of “monopoly capitalism” and its threat as part of the communist worldview; the Protocols in turn informed Hitler and Nazism and served – in the classic phrase of Norman Cohn — as a “warrant for genocide”; while Islamists focus on an apocalyptic struggle in which Israel — the collective Jew — serves as the focal point of fantasy.
The historical hand may have moved on, but the “hidden hand” of the Jew remains. DM
Milton Shain is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town and a former director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT. “Fabricators and Fantasists: Antisemitism in South Africa from 1948 to the Present” is published by Jacana Media.