On 28 August a protest on Wits campus saw among the worst instances of public anti-Semitism in the post-Apartheid era. The incident has attracted little substantive analysis in the South African media, despite what it reveals about the architecture of local anti-Semitism.
The protest was organized by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) South Africa and the Wits University Palestine Solidarity Committee and was held outside the performance of an Israeli jazz quartet. As explained in a statement issued by BDS, its purpose was to protest “against the racism of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation, and in solidarity with the Palestinian people”. The statement included the rejoinder that the protest was to be “non-violent and peaceful”. But passions ran high and at a certain point protestors broke into the anti-Apartheid struggle song, “Dubul’ ibhunu” (“Shoot the Boer”), which was banned by the Human Rights Commission on the basis of its incitement to violence. In this version, the word “ibhunu” – Boer – was substituted with “ijuda” – Jew.
I am fascinated by the moment in which this new version emerged. Did it arise spontaneously, with one protestor turning to another, perhaps one whose voice was especially loud, with the suggestion of these new lyrics? And did they take up the chorus together, repeating it for a few rounds before others caught on and joined? Or did it emerge years or decades back, as the expression of a deep-seated, collective belief that Jews – like Boers – embody what is wrong with South African society, and that this embodiment is so total that calls to shoot Jews are essentially demands for the elimination of racism and oppression? The logic inherent in calls to violence as a means of ending oppression and injustice is perverse, but it is nonetheless intact and thriving in South Africa.
In the days preceding the protest on 28 August, charges of racism against the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation stoked the fury of BDS supporters. Allegations of racial profiling among concertgoers by its Jewish organisers were translated into allegations of racism among Jewish communal leadership. What the concert organisers had actually done was to block book tickets to try to ensure against a disruption of the performance, but this was styled by protest organisers as a ban on the admission of “non-Jews” to the concert. In this heady and confused conflation of Jewishness, Zionism and racism, is it really surprising that anti-Semitism was the result? The events on Wits campus were represented by the protest organisers as microcosmic of the injustice and oppression that characterises South African society, just as the Israel/Palestine conflict has become the exemplar of the injustice and oppression wrought by global geopolitics.
When the symbolic stakes are high, and when Jews are implicated in oppression, anti-Semitism often proliferates. History has shown that anti-Semitism is such a protean ideology that the implication of just one Jew in an injustice (as in the case of Herschel Grynszpan’s 1938 assassination in Paris of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath) is sufficient to justify violence against all Jews (Kristallnacht). Moreover, the implication need not be based on any actual events, as in the thousands of allegations of blood libel and well-poisoning made against Jews since the first century and into the modern era, which has been used as a pretext for mob violence against Jews in every century since.
The resilience of certain anti-Semitic myths is so fierce that they re-emerge periodically in different parts of the globe, assuming whatever form has local resonance. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, for instance, is among the most influential and generative artefacts of bigotry ever known. First published in Russia, by the 1920s the Protocols were established to be a hoax, but by then had made their way into Western Europe and the United States (where Henry Ford financed the publication of half a million copies as part of his anti-Semitic series, “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem”). The Protocols were also the subject of a court case held in 1934 in Grahamstown, in which the Reverend Abraham Levy charged Greyshirt leaders with libel after they claimed to have found copies of the Protocols in a Port Elizabeth synagogue, and that these were evidence of a Jewish conspiracy to control South Africa. The Protocols have been given new life on the Internet, where they are woven into conspiracy theories about Jewish world domination, including the claim that the 9/11 attacks in the United States were orchestrated by war-mongering Zionists.
In discussions about the Israel/Palestine conflict, I am no longer surprised when condemnations of Israeli segue into allegations that Jews control the media, the banks, American foreign policy and the global military industrial complex. Beliefs about Jewish world-domination are so ingrained in popular consciousness that they are not perceived as doctrinaire. The mythical spectre of Jewish world domination haunts many local discussions about the Israel/Palestine conflict.
In 2008, South Africa’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Fatima Hajaig, made the following statement at a meeting to demonstrate against Israel’s invasion of Gaza: “Jews control [the United States], no matter which government comes into power, whether Republican or Democratic, whether Barrack Obama or George Bush … Their control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money and if Jewish money controls their country then you cannot expect anything.” Hajaig was taken to task for the comments, and eventually issued a qualified apology. She said she was sorry that her statement “may have caused hurt and pain”, but never apologised for the substance of her comments.
Back in 2009, much of the news coverage of Hajaig’s anti-Semitic outburst focused on her qualified apology. The same has been the case with news coverage about the BDS response to the singing of “Dibul’ ijuda” at Wits. In the opening sentence of an article about the protest published by the Mail and Guardian, Verashni Pillay wrote: “A new spin on the controversial struggle song, “Dubul’ ibhunu”, this time calling for Jews to be shot instead of “Boers”, has been criticised from all corners.” In fact, the first responses of the BDS co-ordinator reported in the media were not condemnation and apology. Speaking to a journalist from the Wits Vuvuzela, Muhammed Desai stated: “Just like you would say “kill the Boer” at a funeral during the eighties; it wasn’t about killing white people, it was used as a way of identifying with the Apartheid regime.” Desai added that: “The whole idea of anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion.”
Desai’s response was thus to emphasise the symbolic value of the song. Perhaps his intention was not to attenuate the anti-Semitic nature of its lyrics, but this was the effect of his explanation. Farid Esack, speaking on behalf of the board of BDS South Africa, acknowledged, “as a sound bite it muddied the waters”. Whether Desai’s remarks about anti-Semitism in the same interview were meant only in relation to the South African context, or with a broader view of history, I have been unable to ascertain. Esack explained, “We [the BDS board] believe that he was taken out of context”. After Desai’s apparent bungling of the BDS media response, the board stepped in to apologise, to condemn the song and to streamline the organisation’s response to public interest in the protest.
But as with Desai’s remarks about the exaggerated nature of anti-Semitism, the statement issued by BDS about the singing of “Dubul’ ijuda” including the following proviso: “It is unfortunate but not unexpected that supporters of Israel will focus on the singing of this song”. As with the media coverage of Hajaig’s anti-Semitic diatribe, the finger is pointed back at the “supporters of Israel” for making all of the fuss. And while this allegation is aimed at Zionists, the slippage between “supporters of Israel” and “Jews” is a likely and unfortunate consequence of the public life of these remarks. In this instance, the age-old notion that Jews overplay their victimhood would provide a ready peg for anti-Semitic interpretations.
Most of the articles about the Wits protest featured in the local media focused on the condemnation of the song. IOL’s article was entitled “Group condemns ‘Shoot the Jew’ song”, and the Mail and Guardian’s headline was “‘Shoot the Jew’ song slammed”. While perhaps well intentioned, the effect of framing the incident in this way is to negate its anti-Semitic affront. Between condemnation and apology, reference to Israel’s aggression and recourse to exaggerations of anti-Semitism, there is little room left for objection. The story is packaged as a dismissal of anti-Semitism, when it should have investigated the initial fact of its occurrence.
Some opponents of Israel, including BDS advocates in South Africa, have worked very hard to draw a distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. But in the aftermath of the Wits protest, most organizational affiliates of BDS have remained silent about the anti-Semitism displayed at the protest. As the singing of “Dibul’ ijuda” has shown, popular associations between Zionism and Judaism seem too strongly associated in our collective consciousness to bear sustained separation. DM
Rebecca Hodes is a historian based at the University of Cape Town.
"The world doesn't make sense so why should I paint pictures that do?" ~ Pablo Picasso