Chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO
Chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: VATHISWA RUSELO

Legal experts will have to debate the possible contraventions of the judicial code made by chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in his webinar comments on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

However, what seems to be drowned out by the surrounding noise is the vehemence with which his words were greeted at the outset, as opposed to the relative silence around his comments on the Covid-19 vaccine — not to mention the unusual alacrity with which the judicial conduct committee has acted on the matter.

A mere few hours after the chief justice’s criticism of our government’s lopsided attitude towards the Israel-Palestine problem the ANC called on the speaker of parliament to censure him. Foreign minister Naledi Pandor viewed his comments “with great dismay”, while Mandla Mandela apoplectically called on Mogoeng to retract his support for “apartheid Israel”. Should we be surprised? The chief justice had deviated from the national script.

For decades the Jewish state has been maligned and the ideology of Zionism mangled. Ironically, vilification in the 1950s emanated mainly from the radical white right. Neo-Nazis such as Ray Rudman, for example, located malevolent Jewish power in the Zionist enterprise, while SED Brown, editor of the notorious SA Observer, spent decades identifying Israel with global subversion and bizarre conspiracies. Inveterate publicist Johan Schoeman shared these fantasies, as did journalist Ivor Benson, a cold war warrior and Jew-hater.

Today the anti-Zionist left mirrors the old radical white right. It too characterises Israel in sinister terms: the Jewish state is at the centre of a vast conspiracy, nefariously manipulating global and domestic politics and finance. In the words of Martin Jansen, a member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, “the powerful tentacles of Zionist power and influences reach into the commanding heights of our economy and the ANC government through business arrangements and patronage, including President Zuma and family members.”

Many SA human rights-orientated elites — black and white, Christian and Muslim — consider Zionism (essentially a 19th century ethno-national movement) to be illegitimate. In fact, there is little empathy for ethnic polities in SA thought today — informed, in the words of historian Hermann Giliomee, by a “dogmatic or intransigent universalism”.

“Its point of departure,” he writes, “is that race or ethnicity as a principle of social organisation is essentially irrational and ephemeral and that there is no need to make any concessions to it. What this boils down to is the unshakeable conviction that there is not much more to racial or ethnic identification than the legacy of apartheid classification”.

Such views are widely shared in progressive circles. Certainly the ANC, dating back to its foundation document, the Freedom Charter of 1955, has little time for ethnic politics or what it sees as “tribalism”. It has always viewed such politics — not without reason — as a means of divide and rule, manifest in the apartheid project with its proposed puppet ethnic homelands. Archbishop Desmond Tutu went so far as to declare ethnicity “execrable”, something a democratic nation should not countenance.

For the critics of Zionism, historic ties between Jews and the Israel are of no consequence. An important dimension of Jewish identity is thereby fundamentally challenged. Zionism as a Jewish liberation movement is ignored; the term has become associated with exclusivism, oppression and expansionism. “It’s a policy that to me looks like it has very many parallels with racism,” says Tutu. Jewish suffering in the diaspora is ignored and the dramatic rebirth of the Jewish state not acknowledged.

In power since 1994, the ANC has in effect separated “good” Jews from “bad” (Zionist) Jews. ANC UN representative Neo Mnumzana put it as follows in 1988: “Jews in SA come in many different political colours. There are those who belong to the Zionist movement and represent the same reality which is concretised in the state of Israel, and we disapprove of those members of the Jewish community who have these Zionist affiliations. There are also Jews who belong to the broad struggle against apartheid. We see such members of the Jewish community in a positive light. There are also Jews who belong to the ANC, which is the national liberation movement of the SA people. We see them in an even more positive light”.

Essentially the ANC and progressive left see Zionism through an SA prism. With a mind-boggling sweep of one-sided history, rooted firmly in a colonial settler paradigm and devoid of even a shred of historical sensitivity and sense of dialectic, it simplistically frames a 100-year-old conflict within an apartheid framework, an approach largely jettisoned by serious scholars of the subject. No place is left for complexity or competing narratives.

The 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state is seemingly forgotten. Forgotten too is that five Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state soon after the UN decision. One would not know from the ANC script that the Jewish state comprises less than 1% of the Arab lands originally under Turkish rule — the other 99% was carved up by the imperial powers into Israel’s neighbours and the countries comprising the Arab League.

While antagonism towards Israel cannot axiomatically be equated with anti-Semitism, it is apparent that the discourse of anti-Zionism often goes beyond the bounds of normal political rhetoric and frequently betrays vulgar Jew-hatred. Israel alone is signalled out for obloquy, while the human rights abuses of many other states are ignored. Mogoeng made this clear. In so doing he crossed a red line.

• Shain is emeritus professor in the department of historical studies at the University of Cape Town.

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