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Political anti-Semitism threatens SA Jewry

(source : SA Jewish Report -   ]

An oft-quoted lesson of history is that Jews are the canary in the coal mine. This metaphor articulates two truths: Jews are the first to sense the tremors of impending disaster and a threat to Jews is a threat to all.

Right now tremors are being felt in South Africa.

At the UCT Summer School the acclaimed historian Benny Morris remarked that the jury was still out on South Africa’s transition to democracy. One can understand his reserve. The red flags of crime, corruption, unemployment and the euphemistically-labelled service delivery protests, give thoughtful South Africans reason to be concerned.

Now a new and ominous flag has been raised: Jews are under attack.

All is not well in the beloved country. A 2012 poll by Pondering Panda revealed that almost half of young South Africans wish to emigrate (56% of Indians, 53% of whites, 43% f coloureds and 33% of blacks). Think what this means: half of those destined to inherit the country when we are gone, want no part in it.

When freedom broke in 1994, the ANC with Nelson Mandela as its leader, represented a noble ideal, a source of pride and hope for all South Africans. Today, hope is in short supply and the party has little to dispense but favours.

In the Western Cape a political battle rages between the ruling Democratic Alliance and the ANC. The ANC, desperate to win the next election, is exploiting a wave of tensions generated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a region where Muslims outnumber Jews by 15:1.

A year ago the ANC leader in the Western Cape Marius Fransman made a series of outrageous statements, all untrue, about "nose-picking" (his term) Jews. Then followed the cry of "Shoot the Jew" at Wits, Cosatu’s Tony Ehrenreich’s invitation to Jews to leave the country if they wished to support Israel, ANCYL’s picket of a Jewish Board of Deputies conference and ANC headman Gwede Mantashe’s declaration that Israel’s founding was a "crime against humanity". These statements together cover all anti-Semitic bases - demonisation, delegitimisation and the singling out of Jews and Jewish interests.

It is of no consequence that they come from different political bodies; the ANC has long used ambiguity and deception to execute policy and frequently blurs the boundaries between party, the Alliance and the government.

What is significant is that the government has not issued a categorical condemnation of these events in stark contrast to governments elsewhere. Germany’s Angela Merkel called criticism of Israel poorly-disguised anti-Semitism and in Australia 18 members of Parliament responded to an anti-Semitic attack within hours.

The South African community had to take the initiative and request a meeting with government to get a behind-closed-doors assurance “that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated”.

But events give a different message: anti-Semitism is being tolerated and this is to legitimate it.

Jews are a seismic people. They have developed a finely-tuned apparatus for sensing menace and threats. To say they feel threatened in the present circumstances is an understatement. Not since the Grey Shirts marched in support of the Nazis in the 1930s have they felt more threatened, a disturbing change in a country which until recently had one of the lowest rates of anti-Semitism in the world.

This anti-Semitism is ‘politics against the Jews’

But is it really anti-Semitism? Yes, but anti-Semitism of a specific type. It is not the racist anti-Semitism with which we are most familiar, but what can be called political anti-Semitism or "politics against the Jews". Broadly speaking, racist anti-Semitism refers to prejudice, a psychological attitude which manifests as disdain or contempt for Jews and a wish to exclude them. We attribute this to individuals and it is similar in many respects to anti-Black racism.

On the other hand, political anti-Semitism is an attribution of groups like governments, and its purpose is to achieve political goals unrelated to Jews. This may be to gain power, to retain power, or to divert attention from political failure. It occurs when governments find themselves in difficulties and is in essence the scapegoating of a vulnerable group.

The best-known use of political anti-Semitism was in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 and it was arguably the most successful political ideology of the 20th century. While its rival ideologies Communism and Nazism both failed, anti-Semitism came within a hair’s breadth of achieving its stated goal - the annihilation of Jews.

This did not go unnoticed. For decades the dysfunctional Arab world has used anti-Semitism to divert attention from its failures, and in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez implemented it to divert attention from his disastrous policies. The once prosperous Venezuelan Jewish community has all but disintegrated, not from direct physical attacks (there were a few), but from the constant denigration of Jews and Israel. A prominent Jewish community leader I spoke to sees strong parallels between the Venezuelan experience and what is now happening in South Africa.

We are a proud and confident community and despite our small numbers we have made a vast contribution to the general good. Now we find ourselves bullied and threatened with marginalisation.

מה לעשות?  What to do?

The answer lies in Jewish history. As a tiny people the cultivation of allies has always been a key Jewish survival strategy. At one time we allied with the Persians, later with mediaeval princes and today with America. We cannot win this battle alone and we don’t have to. In South Africa we have natural allies in the millions of committed Christians who share our values and who love and respect Israel.

Three years ago, Ben Swartz, the head of FairPlay, with remarkable prescience, set about developing ties with Christian churches, particularly those that preach an Old Testament theology. This initiative immediately bore fruit. Two years ago 2 500 Christians, among them the Rev Kenneth Meshoe of the ACDP, President Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party and Inkosi Phakama Shembe, spiritual leader of the Shembe Church, took to the streets in support of Israel on the product labelling issue.

We should make the strengthening of this alliance a communal priority. By standing together with those who share our values, we can protect Jews and Jewish interests and at the same time build a better South Africa for all its people.

  • Chuck Volpe is a respected Zionist scholar and speaker, a leading PE businessman who now co-habits in Australia and has for many years been the Eastern Cape representative of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies

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