Loading ...

Justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola is right to remind us that words matter, especially when they come from those in positions of authority. All but the most partisan of Israel’s supporters are dismayed by the catalogue of inflammatory statements presented in support of SA’s case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Israel’s lawyers at The Hague differentiated between violent statements and government policy. This distinction is not unfamiliar. In our equally raucous political system we’re accustomed to senior officials mouthing off. Fortunately, we too live in a society where the rhetorical excesses of ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula (on many subjects), police minister Bheki Cele (on the need for police to “shoot and kill”), and Limpopo’s MEC for health (on foreigners “killing” the healthcare system) do not dictate state policy. But even if rhetoric does not carry the weight of law, words matter.

For one so concerned with the power of words, Lamola’s own language has been less than careful. In disputing that SA’s case reflects any anti-Semitic impulses, he fell upon some unfortunate phrasing. “As you know, in SA we live side by side with Jews. They run companies [and] thriving businesses. It is not about [anti-Semitism].” In two tidy sentences, Lamola managed to imply that Jews are outsiders in SA society — the language of “us” and “them” — and drew on an old and unfortunate trope by associating Jews with business.

More troublesome than Lamola’s artless words was the nature of his argument. He offered a variation on the “some of my best friends are Jewish” defence: how can SA’s actions be in any way anti-Semitic when Jews can safely live side by side with other South Africans? (Many SA Jews may feel otherwise over the past months in the face of threats from public platforms and public silence from the government. Words matter, and so do silences.)

In invoking the status of Jews in SA, Lamola sidesteps the real reason Israel (and many Jews) have invoked anti-Semitism. This is the first occasion since 1994 that SA has been an applicant to the ICJ. These have not been peaceful decades, yet no other cause or conflict has persuaded SA to petition the court. And in doing so now it is not accusing Israel of war crimes or of the brutality typical of urban warfare, but of something far graver.

Justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola speaks near the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Netherlands. Picture: THILO SCHMUELGEN/REUTERS
Loading ...

As we’ve heard again and again over the past weeks, genocide requires proof of intent. SA has brought this case because it is convinced that Israel has intentionally sought to destroy the Palestinian people, in whole or in part. Lamola would have us believe the carnage we’ve seen is deliberate. That it is the sought-after outcome of state policy. That the death of innocents is not accidental, callous and unwanted, but a desired and designed goal of this war.

SA uses the phrase “war on children” in this way, implying that children are the deliberate targets of bombing, artillery bombardment, starvation and disease. They are not “collateral damage” (to use that horrible phrase) of a military campaign against Hamas or even the victims of brutal indifference; they are its deliberate targets.

To believe that a state is deliberately killing children is no small thing. A society that deliberately murders children is outside the bounds of morality, deserving of no sympathy and support. This is what SA is accusing Israel of, and in responding Israel has used a particular phrase that is little understood in SA. What does Israel mean when it describes SA’s case as an example of a “blood libel”, and why does it use these particular words?

Beginning in the 12th century, Jewish communities in Europe — and less frequently in the Muslim world — were accused of murdering gentile children for ritual purposes. Jews were already pariahs for their religious beliefs and were legally and socially marginalised. These accusations provided licence for terrible violence, for if you can believe that a people seeks to murder children, you can believe anything of them. Such people are an active threat and must be dealt with as such.

The blood libel is not some distant fantasy. It long outlived the medieval world, with episodes as late as 1910 (in Iran) and 1911 (in the Russian empire). The notorious “Doctor’s Plot” in the Soviet Union after World War 2 offered a variation on this theme.

Israel — and many Jews — view SA’s case at the ICJ as part of this tradition. SA is not accusing Israel of indifference or callousness or brutality, charges that are bad enough, but of intentionally murdering children, of seeking their deaths as a deliberate outcome of its war in Gaza.

This is a heavy charge to lay against any nation state, but particularly against one with a historical memory of prior accusations that associated Jews with bloodlust. And it is even more disturbing to Israel and to many Jews because of a more recent national trauma. About 1.5-million of the 6-million victims of the Holocaust were children. Of almost 1-million Jewish children in Poland in 1939, only about 5,000 survived. To Israelis and Jews the world over, the word genocide matters a great deal.

Jarring too has been the tenor of our government’s words. Lamola and others have celebrated the ICJ application. The tone has been self-congratulatory, and the occasion milked for full political advantage. The department of international relations & co-operation has even sponsored at least one journalist to attend The Hague, and the news site that she represents has breathlessly covered the case as if it were a sporting event. Given the moral, legal and historical seriousness of the charge, this is a moment for gravity, not glee.

The ICJ may ultimately side with SA in interpreting Israel’s actions as genocide. But if it does not, Lamola’s and SA’s name will be added to a long and sad list of those willing to think the worst of Jews. Words matter, particularly when they come from people in positions of authority. If this charge is ultimately refuted, Lamola’s reputation won’t be saved — even if some of his best friends are Jewish.

• Prof Mendelsohn is director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town.

Loading ...
Loading ...