In South Africa we who are not Jewish almost never consider Jewish people a problem. Anti-Semitism has never had any traction among africans or coloureds, and little enough (at least until recently, and only among Muslims) among indians. Granted Anglophone whites brought some of the genteel anti-Semitism which characterised the English upper class with them to South Africa, but Afrikaner anti-Semitism was largely bound up with the National Party’s belief, and campaigns, concerning the exclusion of Afrikaners from major economic enterprise by the British Empire with Jews acting as its tools (which would have surprised Adolf Hitler up until September 1939 when he and Balthazar Johannes Vorster found themselves on the same page).
So if Jews were once not a problem, have they now become a problem, and if so, why?
This relates to a gradual shift in public consciousness, predominantly among white Westerners and those who serve them, in regard to Israel. The shift entailed a slow abandonment of the denial which the Western political class imposed around the crimes committed by Israelis against Arabs, and an acceptance, as a result, of the criminal nature of the Israeli state.
The shift began on the left, and in part it was opportunistic. After the collapse of Nasserite Arab nationalism, a modest leftist movement gained attention in many Arab states (though never gaining power). Aspects of the Palestinian movement joined this, or pretended to (though never gaining overall authority within the movement). The Western left noticed that while Israel (which had pretended to be a left-wing state for twenty-five years) was moving seriously right, the Arabs and Palestinians appeared to be moving left, and thus should be supported. This was all a pretense, but the Western left has never been good at identifying real trends.
Still, once the left made it OK to criticise Israel — partly through the activity of intelligent and well-informed critics of Israel like Noam Chomsky — Israel’s actual policies came into focus. It began to be noted that Israel’s domestic policies were brutal ethnic repression and cleansing, while its foreign policy supported virtually every tyranny you could think of. South Africans were particularly outraged by the Israeli support for the apartheid military, which received warships, warplanes, tanks, ballistic missiles and small arms from Israel.
This process was intensified by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The invasion was unprovoked (like all Israeli aggressions it was allegedly based on the need to deter pinprick attacks by feeble opponents). Worse, on the map it was impossible to make Lebanon look bigger than Israel in the way that “Arab” states had been portrayed in Israeli and Western propaganda. Then the kidnapping, torture and mass murder which accompanied the aggression became evident, and a few brave commentators began mentioning that this was not the first time this had happened. Disaffected Israeli historians recognising that kidnapping, torture and mass murder accompanied every major act of the Israeli state since 1947.
This did not pose obvious problems for most Westerners. Either you supported gross violation of human rights for political gain, in which case you sided with your government on Israel, or you supported the human rights which the Western governments pretended to endorse, in which case you opposed Israel and also opposed your government. Supposedly left-wing opposition parties sometimes took advantage of this to loudly condemn Israeli crimes to curry favour with the voters. Then, when they took office, they colluded with Israel, like their predecessors, which was embarrassing and indeed a disgraceful sign of the collapse of social democracy. However, this was a broad problem of Western domestic politics, not a moral problem or one having its roots in the Middle East.
The only grouping in the West which had any real problem was the Jewish community. Jews had long been in the forefront of left-wing politics. Many of these had become severe critics of the Israeli state. The Jewish community, apart from extremists like the Anti-Defamation League, had largely tolerated this. Proably they felt that so long as Israel was in no danger of being criticised by any significant force in the West, it made no difference if some Jews criticised Israel. Indeed, arguably uncritical support for Israel was something of an embarrassment for Jews — no believing Jew could claim that any earthly state, even a Jewish one, could be perfect — so the presence of Jewish critics of Israel became a kind of internal defense mechanism for wider support for Israel.
The trouble arise when it became obvious to everybody that the Jewish state of Israel was odious, and particularly when (for domestic political purposes) important political forces in Western countries began acting against South Africa, which in many ways was a milder and less intransigent version of Israel. Suddenly it became conceivable that Israel might someday face really effective condemnation, and perhaps even action, from the West. The U.S. government began endeavouring, with some success, to buy off the Palestinian movement in order to reduce conspicuous conflict between Palestinians and Jews in Israel. This entailed muted criticisms of the Israeli annexation of Arab territory and oppression of Palestinians — criticisms which were disingenuous and one-sidedly favoured the Israelis, but which seem to have terrified the Israeli government. It responded in its traditional fashion, through intransigence and intensified repression.
What were Jews to do, and in particular what were South African Jews to do? In public they pretended to support the pseudo-reform initiatives. In private, however, they appear to have recognised that even pseudo-reform was intolerable, because pseudo-reform required acknowledging the possibility of real reform, and the Palestinians might then demand that. How could Israel survive if the West suddenly decided that it would support the Palestinians in the interests of resolving a Middle East conflict which centred around the presence of a violently aggressive settler state sitting in the middle of a dispossessed and disgruntled Arab population?
The problem for Jews is that Israel is their spiritual homeland, and the whole Zionist movement which the vast majority of Jews support entailed the return of Jews to their spiritual homeland, displacing the people for whom that had been a physical homeland for thousands of years. The Zionist movement accomplished this through fraud and violence and through shabby political deals with the British and American governments under which the Zionists would serve those governments’ purposes in exchange for support. (The Zionist Jews violated those deals whenever it suited them — they did not recognise the authority of non-Jews, whether those were Turks, Arabs or Westerners.)
Naturally, this fraud and violence had consequences, but Jews could not acknowledge those consequences because they saw the return to the spiritual homeland as an end of such virtue that no negative consequence could be recognised. All the mythologising which had gone on through the Zionist movement (and after that carried on by the Israeli state) served to intensify that. With a few honourable exceptions, Jews identified with the Israeli state and accepted its crimes as at worst mildly regrettable, but often seen as a positive factor (this helps to explain the strange stance of the historian Benny Morris) because it was about time that Jews were doing the killing and torturing, rather than someone else doing it to Jews. The Palestinians were effectively suffering payback for anti-Semitic atrocities committed not in Arab lands but in Western Europe.
So the Jewish community faces a real moral contradiction. There is only one Jewish state in the world, whereas Jews mostly live in communities of Caucasians or Arabs who have numerous states (if you go by race rather than by cultural identity). Therefore nationalist Jews feel that they have everything to lose; if they lose their nation-state again (as they did repeatedly in the distant past) they might never recover it. (This accounts for some of the more cruel and brutal remarks made against Palestinians by Israelis and Israeli supporters, to the effect that Arabs have lots of states and they surely won’t miss just one.) Nationalist Jews can easily be convinced to be callous and brutal in the name of a cause which they believe is absolutely just regardless of what is done in its name.
But who is “they” in the case of Jews, as far as non-Jews are concerned? To avoid the obvious stigma of anti-Semitism, the left, and later most activists on the issue who deserve to be taken seriously, have adopted the jargon of “anti-Zionism”. We are not against the behaviour of the Jews, it is said, we are against the behaviour of Zionists, in their murderous and terroristic assaults on Palestinians and other Arabs and their repugnant endorsement of every odious and repressive regime in the world (look at the list of nations which attended the lavish party held to celebrate the opening of the U.S. Embassy in occupied East Jerusalem, and then decide whether to laugh or weep).
This sounds sensible, except that Jews are Zionists. Yes, there are Jews who oppose Israeli crimes; there are also Israelis who oppose Israeli crimes. The numbers in each group are insignificant. Compared with the number of white South Africans who opposed the crimes of apartheid and even the crimes of colonialism before it, the number of anti-Zionist Jews is trivial. We may thus say that the overwhelming majority of Jews bear a heavy blood guilt for the ghastly nature of the regime which they desired, helped to create, currently sponsor and expect to survive until the end of the world, a guilt which must be attributed to every Jewish individual unless s/he can prove innocence — just like what white South Africans experienced under colonialism and apartheid.
The guilt creates a distorted consciousness. Jews are normal people; they are not naturally psychologically disturbed. Yet, because they are isolated from the general communities in which they live outside Israel, it is easy for ideological fanatics to hijack the discourse within their particular communities. Then, while Jews outwardly pretend to be perfectly normal and civilised people, behind the scenes they endorse the most barbaric behaviour — and while this is arguably true of most societies, it is particularly conspicuous in the case of the Jews because the barbarism which they endorse serves the interests of a distant state. Then Jews pretend to be more moral than non-Jews. It is as if Jews had carefully read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and come away determined to follow the principles of that old forgery committed by the Czarist secret police to legitimate mass anti-Semitic progroms.
Granted, Jews say that they support torture, ethnic cleansing, mass murder and (possibly ultimately) genocide only against Arabs, and for the most part Palestinian Arabs. But can we believe them? Since this vile set of policies is justified wholly because the victims of the crimes are non-Jews, one must ask whether, if the issue were (say) the slaughter of black South Africans, the Jews would have qualms about endorsing that. Most probably the answer is that they would feel nothing; one set of non-Jews is much like another, and all are ultimately to be exterminated, as specified in the Old Testament which largely guides contemporary Jewish politics. Significantly, the repression and racism directed against Palestinians has become repression and racism against black and brown guest-workers imported into Israel.
Meanwhile, the degenerate behaviour of the Israeli regime in committing crimes for no good reason, as if (like old-fashioned James Bond movie villains) they gain pleasure from being despicable, spills over into wider Jewish society in a distasteful way. Take the recent behaviour of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Zionist Federation (the two entities are largely interchangeable) over South Africa’s measured and surprisingly principled stand against the recent Israeli massacres in Gaza.
The complaint of these august bodies is that South Africa’s withdrawal of its ambassador is a) “outrageous” and b) “shows double standards”. The Democratic Alliance, which was founded by wealthy Jewish businessmen and remains heavily staffed at senior administrative level by wealthy Jewish people and their sons, added (copying the Zionist Federation) that this diplomatic message amounted to “walking away” from the crisis. Let’s try to assess these remarks.
Why should anyone feel “outrage” when a government makes a diplomatic protest in response to another government ordering its army to maim or murder a group of thousands of unarmed civilians enclosed behind a stout fence? You might believe that the maiming and murder was justified, in which case you would feel regret at the misunderstandings of the protesting government and attempt to explain the justifications. Outrage, however, means that you are appalled at the mere fact of protesting against the unprovoked killing and serious wounding of civilians by armed forces.
The elected voice of South African Jewry feels no outrage about the the armed forces of Israel firing live ammunition into defenseless crowds of people. This absence of outrage exists even though, twice in every year, South Africans commemorate the similar crimes of the South African government in the Sharpeville and Soweto massacres, to say nothing of the extensive condemnation of the more recent Marikana massacre — a condemnation endorsed by many South African Jews.) It is as if South African Jewry endorses and promotes psychopathic behaviour.
The question of “double standards”, is manifestly “whataboutery”. The elected voice of South African Jewry requires that the South African government should not protest against the crimes committed by Israel until it has protested against the crimes committed by other governments. These organisations have never lobbied the South African government to make such protests. The obvious goal of this is to postpone, preferably indefinitely, any protest against crimes committed by Israel — which corresponds with the notion that these organisations are psychopathic.
To clarify their claim, however, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies gives some examples. They note that South Africa has not taken diplomatic action against Syria, for crimes committed in that country. But Syria has been engaged in civil war since 2011, and in a civil war one must expect war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly in one as bitter and brutal as the Syrian has been since its first days. Nor is it conceivable that diplomatic gestures would make any difference to the behaviour of either side. So this is a silly and irrelevant demand.
But also, a major participant in the Syrian war is the Israeli government, which has sponsored and provided bases for the Wahhabi gunmen in the south-east of the country (operating out of Syrian territory illegally occupied by Israel). Israel has also committed repeated acts of unprovoked aggression against Syria during the war, murdering numerous people in the process. Therefore one of the parties to be condemned in the war is Israel itself, which the Jewish Board of Deputies refuses to do.
Two other examples which the South African Jewish Board of Deputies present are those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and of Zimbabwe; in both cases, they claim, the South African government has “done nothing”. In reality, South Africa has been more active in engaging both countries than any other country in the world. In both cases the problem amounts to promoting a culture of democratic accountability in the government while protecting it against various kinds of external aggression and pressure — and solving such problems requires as much diplomatic engagement as possible; gesture politics like the withdrawal of an ambassador can have no useful role to play.
In neither case is the government systematically murdering members of an oppressed ethnic group, as occurs in Israel. (One of the few cases where that may actually be happening in the world, outside Israel, is Myanmar — which was welcomed as an honoured guest at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in occupied East Jerusalem, the act which provoked the protests which were met by the Israeli massacre!). In both cases, the skin colour of the people being falsely condemned by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies is black, just as in Syria it is brownish. It seems possible that the elected voice of South African Jewry is exploiting, and promoting, white supremacist paranoia and racism.
So if South African Jewry does not repudiate such despicable behaviour, one must assume that they endorse it. Therefore South African Jews may be suspected of encouraging ghastly crimes on a basis of racial prejudice directed against both Arabs and africans, and potentially, all who criticise those ghastly crimes and that racial prejudice. Since this means that the values which South African Jews support oppose everything which South Africa stands for, and the values which they support, if seriously applies, would tear South Africa to fragments, one must say that South African Jews (for all their outward bourgeois moderation) constitute a threat to the South African community in a way that no other grouping does.
Perhaps the threat is not real, or at least not particularly serious. Nevertheless, for our own protection, it is thus important that the horrible values which South African Jews espouse are continually challenged and criticised, and that South African Jews are no longer given a free pass to support horrific crimes and contemptible beliefs.