Targeted: South African Zionist Federation members rally in support of Israel in 2014 in Johannesburg. Cosatu international relations spokesman Bongani Masuku wrote about Jews who identify with Israel as if they support racism and fascism, the writer says. Picture: ALON SKUY
Targeted: South African Zionist Federation members rally in support of Israel in 2014 in Johannesburg. Cosatu international relations spokesman Bongani Masuku wrote about Jews who identify with Israel as if they support racism and fascism, the writer says. Picture: ALON SKUY

Judgment was handed down in the Equality Court last week, unequivocally upholding a South African Human Rights Commission ruling that Cosatu international relations spokesman Bongani Masuku had been guilty of anti-Semitic hate speech, for which he must apologise to the Jewish community.

This will have come as a shock to Masuku and Cosatu. All along, they have insisted that the allegation of anti-Semitism was not merely mistaken, but that it was dishonest.

They treated the representative institutions of the Jewish community as being so lacking in moral fibre, they were prepared to accuse people of anti-Semitism as a ruse, as a way of trying to silence criticism of Israel.

When the commission ruled Masuku was indeed guilty of anti-Semitic hate speech, the commission was treated as though it had become part of this conspiracy.

And when the Equality Court upheld the commission’s finding, Masuku and Cosatu treated that institution as though it had been fooled by cunning Zionists into prohibiting legitimate criticism as though it was anti-Semitism.

The conspiracy theory needs to become ever more paranoid to make it explain reality. Instead of beginning with the assumption that the Jews are up to something, let’s examine what Masuku actually said. In 2009, he threatened at Wits University to mobilise Cosatu members on campus to make life there "hell" for people he called "Zionists". He threatened violence, "with immediate effect" against families in SA whose children had moved to Israel and served in its army.

He threatened concrete harm against people who lived in Orange Grove, known as a Jewish neighbourhood, who did not agree with him about Israeli politics. On a website, Masuku wrote about the overwhelming majority of living Jews, those who in one way or another identify with Israel, as though they were supporters of racism and fascism.

To drive his point home about those Jews, including those who live in SA, he wrote Hitler was their friend.

Masuku said those Jews he defines as "Zionists" should be forced out of SA.


He threatened to make the people in SA, whom he defined in this way, drink "bitter medicine".

In 2009, Jewish communal and student organisations said they felt threatened by this rhetoric. They said criticism of Israel, though they might disagree with some of it, was not the same as this kind of menacing hate speech.

But Masuku seemed unable to hear them.

His brand of anti-Zionism portrays "Zionists", that is most Jews, as the dishonest enemies of all good people.

Masuku did listen to a small but noisy minority of anti-Zionist Jews who told him he had done nothing wrong. It is understandable why most mainstream Jews would be cross about that.

Instead of listening, Masuku hardened his position.

Why were his friends and comrades unable to look after him? Why did no one demonstrate to him how he had strayed into anti-Semitism? Even when he said explicitly Jews were "arrogant", no one around him was able to get through to him.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign; the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement; the anti-Zionist Jews and Cosatu circled the wagons and proclaimed again they were resisting a dishonest attempt to prohibit criticism of Israel.

The commission ruled this hate speech against Jews was not simply criticism of Israel. Now, surely, Masuku, must have stopped to think. But no, he preferred to believe this institution of the antiracist state had been corrupted by the "Zionists"; his supporters continued to rally round.

In a country in which too many people don’t have enough to eat or a roof over their heads, Cosatu chose to spend millions of rand, the hard-earned union dues of workers, to prove it was just fine to tell people Jews in SA were Nazis and to threaten to make their lives hell. Eventually, the matter was brought to court. Last week, the judge determined it was indeed hate speech and quite distinct from criticism of Israel.

He ordered the federation spokesman to pay the costs of the pointless case and apologise to the Jewish community.

Cosatu still has not heard. It responded by promising to continue the campaign of solidarity with the Palestinians.

By responding in this way, it clings stubbornly to the fiction that the judge, commission and the Jews have been trying to prohibit Palestine solidarity.

I understand that the Constitution is grounded in ubuntu; it resolves to ensure an African relationship of peace and co-existence between communities in SA. I respect that. But, I do not think Masuku’s tort is only against the Jews. Racism and anti-Semitism are also a tort against the Constitution itself and against the democratic state as a whole. Masuku and Cosatu should apologise to them. But they won’t. They will take it to appeal and they will persist with the conspiracy theory that the Jewish community and the institutions of the state are colluding to prevent them from criticising Israel.

Hirsh is a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism, to be published by Routledge in August.

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