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Pro-Palestinian protesters are show in Cape Town. File photo: ESA ALEXANDER
Pro-Palestinian protesters are show in Cape Town. File photo: ESA ALEXANDER

It is encouraging that Business Day devoted an editorial to the Jew hatred currently raging in SA (“Anti-Semitism has no place in SA”, November 15). Indeed, not since the 1930s and 1940s (and perhaps the early 1960s when Hendrik Verwoerd lashed out at Jews because of Israel’s support for the African bloc against apartheid at the UN) have Jews felt as besieged and vulnerable as they do today.

The ANC government’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, particularly that of international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor, has enraged the Jewish community. The government’s failure to condemn unequivocally the October 7 outrage in its immediate aftermath was especially galling.

SA has historically not been immune to Jew hatred. This remains the case. Hatred in the 1930s and 1940s emanated from the radical white right when fascist movements such as the Greyshirts peddled the Protocols of the Elders of Zion — a fabricated and infamous document that supposedly provides incontrovertible evidence of the existence of a Jewish plot or conspiracy to dominate the world. It remains a foundation document in the history of modern anti-Semitism.

Persistent anti-Jewish bile occupied a prominent place in public discourse in the mid-1930s, gaining impetus with SA’s narrow decision to support the Commonwealth war effort to resist Germany in 1939. A powerful antiwar movement was orchestrated by the Ossewabrandwag and the Nuwe Orde in which the appeal of fascism, and with it the rhetoric of anti-Semitism, was strong.

Although hostility waned rapidly from the late 1940s, “the Jew” still loomed large in reactionary and conservative circles, which were often connected to global networks. The focus then was on Holocaust denial, Jewish subversion theories and Zionist conspiracies.

From the 1970s, classical Jew hatred gained more momentum as white reactionaries sought to reclaim their diminishing status and blamed the erosion of pristine apartheid on the Jew. On the other hand, the “progressive” left increasingly characterised Israel — the collective Jew — as a locus of global evil. Politicised young Muslims, especially, were informed by an Islamist literature that targeted Zionism, secularism, capitalism and communism. Here they shared much with the radical white right and its characterisation of malevolent “political Zionism”.

In the “new” SA — the so-called Rainbow Nation — well-known talk show host Jon Qwelane insisted that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were genuine, and a number of prominent Muslim leaders have treated this fabrication as true. One sheikh, Mogamat Colby, even stated on radio station Voice of the Cape that Jews “have full control over the whole world”.

Bizarrely, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were on sale during the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia & Related Intolerances in Durban in 2001 — a conference that by all accounts turned into an anti-Jewish hate fest.

In recent years much has been written about alleged Jewish skulduggery and machinations. Holocaust denial or revisionism is a particular favourite of Jew haters. Herstigte Nasionale Party mouthpiece Die Afrikaner was a constant source of such articles, not to mention its fantasies about Jewish financial power.

Zunata Kay was an especially prominent contributor. For her, the Holocaust was a myth created by Jews to impose their so-called New World Order. Muslim radio stations have also aired interviews with Holocaust deniers, which in some cases have ended up in court. Elsewhere, hate speech is common.

Disturbingly, anti-Jewish rhetoric has surfaced at the highest levels. Then deputy foreign affairs minister Fatima Hajaig told an audience in Lenasia at the time of Operation Cast Lead (the Israeli response to barrages of rockets fired from Gaza) in 2008-09 that the US and most Western countries were “in the hands of Jewish money, and when Jewish money controls ... you can expect anything”.

Some years later then deputy international relations minister Marius Fransman told the Cape Town Press Club that 98% of land and property owners in Cape Town were white and most of these were Jews. Fransman’s colleague Sharon Davids went further, telling the Western Cape provincial parliament that the DA had fabricated the drought-induced 2018 water crisis in Cape Town to obtain desalination contract kickbacks from the “Jewish mafia”.

More recently ANC MP Mandla Mandela referred to Zionist “chequebook diplomacy” when he addressed a Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network in Dakar, Senegal. Following in his footsteps, EFF leader Julius Malema (in calling for the removal of the Israeli embassy in SA) proclaimed that President “Cyril Ramaphosa was made president by the money donated to him by the Jewish people behind this embassy”.

Today SA Jews feel under siege. Calls have been made to close (by force if necessary) a Jewish day school in Cape Town, Jews have been intimidated at places of work, Jewish-owned or associated businesses have been targeted, and some Jews have even been threatened in their homes. “The only good Jew is a dead Jew,” articulated one person on social media.

This is horrific. But it appears to be of no concern to Ramaphosa. His silence emboldens Jew hatred. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s ANC seems to relish the opportunity to score political points by characterising the DA as a Zionist party — this notwithstanding the fact that both the ANC and DA have endorsed a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem and seek an end to current hostilities.

After 2008, a Pew Attitudes survey, two Anti-Defamation League (ADL) surveys, and a University of Cape Town (UCT) survey have identified pervasive Jew hatred. Ugly stereotypes are prevalent: nearly one in two South Africans viewed Jews in an unfavourable light, according to the 2019 ADL study.

These findings are troubling. At the centre of today’s attack is a stereotype of the all-powerful Jew. Zionism is deemed illegitimate. It has become a sinister term. Its “powerful tentacles” and influence reach “into the commanding heights of our economy and the ANC government through business arrangements and patronage, including President Zuma and family members”, wrote Martin Jansen, a prominent member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee in 2014.

This kind of statement connects seamlessly to a long history of Jew hatred, facilitated in today’s world by ubiquitous social and electronic media (particularly the internet’s hate-filled sites) that include SA locations.

Speed and connectivity are everything, explains the historian Robert Wistrich: “The ‘new’ Judeophobes can take the age-old anti-Semitic narrative, link it to highly inflammatory images of real conflict (Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon) and spread a toxic message of fanaticism and Jew hatred that can reach millions of people at the click of a mouse.”

• Shain is emeritus professor in the department of historical studies at UCT. His latest book isFascists, Fabricators and Fantasists. Anti-Semitism in SA from 1948 to the Present’.

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