On Sunday afternoon in Soweto, an Orlando East hall hosted the final event on Leila Khaled’s South African speaker tour. The event was organised by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) the national branch of an international campaign that seeks to grow global, public opposition to the Israeli occupation. In the past, BDS has eschewed violence. In its local campaign materials, the organisation states: “The Palestinian-led international BDS campaign is a practical, non-violent, goal-oriented and strategic campaign to hold the State of Israel accountable to international law and human rights.”
The singing of Dubul’ Ijuda – ‘Shoot the Jew’ (an adaptation of ‘Dubul’ Ibhunu’ – shoot the Boer) – at a BDS protest on Wits campus last year shed doubt on whether the objectives of the local BDS branch were quite as benign as its leaders claimed. While BDS has also claimed that it seeks constructive dialogue with representatives of South Africa’s Jewish community – cast as principal supporters of Israeli Apartheid – in recent months the relationship between BDS and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies has slumped to a new low.
In September 2014, BDS supporters protested at the Gauteng Jewish Board of Deputies Conference, the theme of which was ‘celebrating 20 years of democracy’. Rather than pursuing the transnational objectives of its campaign, BDS has of late focused its energies on squabbling with local Jewish leaders. In a recent television debate with Wendy Kahn, the national director of the Jewish Board of Deputies, BDS leader Mohammed Desai spent more time condescending and castigating Kahn (including for an alleged lack of familiarity with the writings of Paulo Freire), than on describing the campaign goals of the BDS movement. In public statements, BDS supporters have increasingly cast the Jewish community as principal recipients of Apartheid largesse, the collective embodiment of white privilege.
The framing of Zionism as racism, and of Israel as an Apartheid state, are part of this rhetorical move – to situate not just Israelis, not just Zionists, but Jews as arch racists and chief recipients of Apartheid privilege (principally economic enrichment, in keeping with the well-trodden anti-Semitic charge that Jews are arch profiteers). This belies not just the very real contribution of South African Jews to the anti-Apartheid struggle, but also the historical record of anti-Semitism espoused by the Nationalist Party.
In response, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies has become increasingly hostile towards BDS. Threats of reprisals against the Jewish Board of Deputies for ‘Zionist aggression’, made for instance by the Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich, have exacerbated the fears and anxieties of the local Jewish community, stoking a siege mentality rather than robust engagement with the potential merits of censuring Israel.
An ancient history of persecution has saddled Jews with a sense of precisely what it means to be hated. Since the founding of the state of Israel, Jews have, for the first time in modern history, had to confront the meaning of military might, to shrug off the mantle of the persecuted and replace it with that of the persecutor. Other affiliates of BDS and opponents of the Israeli occupation have done a better job of animating confrontations with the nature and meaning of Israeli power, rather than Jewish victimhood. But the anti-Semitic effrontery of much local anti-Zionist rhetoric has encouraged Jews to cleave to notions of victimhood – not the least because they are actually threatened with violent reprisals. These range from explicit incitements (the ‘Dubul Ijuda’ ditty), to more modest, even jovial, requests for humiliation and expulsion (according to one tweet by Zunaid Seedat: “vat jou goed en voetsek”.)
A call last week by the SRC of the Durban University of Technology to expel all Jewish students who did not condemn Israel is just the latest in a long and growing list of fuzzy local conflations of Jewishness, Zionism and racism. Not coincidentally, this demand was issued on the same day that Khaled visited the campus.
Khaled’s speaker tour has added a new dimension of antagonism between the Jewish Board of Deputies and BDS. An executive member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and plane hijacker, Khaled catapulted to fame in the 1970s as a figure at the heart of the ‘freedom fighter/terrorist’ debate. Whether or not you like her politics, and whether she invokes in you that frisson of admiration, ignited by other struggle icons who stock the imaginary of revolutionary pop culture while the jagged, unpalatable edges of their ideologies are smoothed over and sugar-coated (Che, Mao, even Gandhi) – the fact is that Khaled regards violence against civilians as a just means of resistance. She held live grenades while hijacking a passenger jet, and has consistently spurned negotiation as a solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine is an organisation whose members have supported the killing of civilians, on the premise that all Israelis are colluding in Palestinian oppression. This logic erases the line between civilian and despot. It holds that none in the designated group are innocent, and all are legitimate targets of violence. When combined with the common difficulty of maintaining a distinction between Zionists and Jews, the next step is to hold Jews collectively and individually responsible for Israel’s occupation – whether they are in Jerusalem, Johannesburg or Paris.
Khaled’s invitation to South Africa at BDS’s behest was always going to elevate the pulse rates of local Jewish leaders. In light of the targeting of civilians by the Islamic State and Boko Haram, let alone the recent Paris attacks, Khaled’s personal history of enacting and supporting violence against civilians has been interpreted not merely as contentious, but as gravely insulting and inflammatory. In a single Yiddish word: davka (Urban Dictionary definition: ‘specifically and emphatically contrarian’).
BDS has argued that Khaled personifies liberation not just for Palestinians, but for South Africans. It was with this in mind that I attended her last South African speaker appearance in Soweto, billed as an event co-hosted by BDS and Umkhonto we Sizwe’s Veterans’ Association. Here it became apparent that the justification of violence as a form of political expression and mobilisation had found fertile new ground. In a show of militancy, jackbooted MK members marched and saluted. Comrade Gorbachev from the MK Veteran’s Association warmed up the crowd with choruses of “Amandla!”, “Viva the undying spirit of Oliver Tambo” and struggle anthems. So far, so much like the ANC’s recent 103rd birthday celebrations.
And then, things took a turn for the different. After a chorus of “Down with the EFF, Down!”, which really riled up the audience, Gorbachev stated: “We are saying today that we are declaring a war. And if we see a red beret, we are going to beat it!” [Thunderous applause.]
Shortly thereafter, Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Kebby Maphatsoe, took the stage. He began with a reference to an article in that day’s Sunday Times, in which Julius Malema had “insulted the national chairperson of the ANC and also insulted MK”. And then he explained: “Comrade Jacob Zuma gave us the battle orders… There is only one Commander-in-Chief. We are left with no choice but to defend ourselves. We have been issued with orders. How do you do it [defend the ANC]? It will be comrades on the ground.”
There is a rich record of ANC criticism of the EFF, and of Malema in particular. That Maphatsoe was opining in this way was not surprising. Known as an especially loyal cadre, he accused Ronnie Kasrils of inventing Zuma’s rape charge to oust him from power. Sunday’s address, however, marked a new strain in public polemics by ANC leaders – discerned in Baleka’s Mbete’s speech at the North West provincial congress on Saturday – towards naked aggression and the incitement of violence against political opponents.
Maphatsoe is also known for his conspiratorial moves, alleging, for instance, that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is a CIA operative. As with Mbete’s statements that the EFF is part of an imperialist plot to control the South African economy, Maphatsoe’s detected the shadow of international conspiracy in the alliance between US imperialists and Israel. And then Khaled took the podium.
“I see Nelson Mandela here, he is smiling. He is seeing his people enjoying freedom and democracy.” Could Khaled genuinely have believed that Mandela would be rejoicing in the state of South African democracy, in light of the events at the State of the Nation, in which a litany of constitutional freedoms had been violated? Was this merely a poor interpretation, or was it cynical politicking – the invocation of Mandela’s memory to indulge the audience, and to shore up support for what she said next? Which was this:
“ISIS, I tell you, is a Zionist, American organisation. Boko Haram is another Netanyahu. [Its leaders] are more Zionist than the Zionists… Beware the imperialists. They are vicious and they are collaborating with the Zionists to control the whole world…”
Shortly thereafter, Khaled drew to a close. The MC asked the crowd for “one more revolutionary song”, and she was presented with a gift as dozens of audience members vied for a decent angle for a cell phone snap.
Conspiracy theories are not an inevitable part of opposition to Israel, or the EFF, but they are certainly escalating in popularity in South Africa. They reveal how clashing knowledge claims seek to win public, intellectual and political authority. They unfold and gather momentum in particular moments, and they are used to justify responses towards others. In the cases of BDS and Leila Khaled – these groups are political opponents: Israelis, imperialists and EFF members, all of whom are positioned as enemies of ‘the people’, to be dealt with through violence. And it is when the rhetoric of violence is espoused not just with impunity, but with popular support, that a particular view of ‘liberation’ is realised. And another is desecrated. DM