When can criticism of the State of Israel be regarded as fair and legitimate and can it be so extreme and unbalanced as to constitute, in practice if not always in intent, a form of antisemitism? For some, there is no such boundary. In their view, attacks on Israel and the Zionist ideology in general can never be equated to attacks on Jews per se, whether defined as an ethnic or as a religious community.
Faried Esack clearly falls into this group. Indeed, as shown in his recent opinion piece (“Deceitful claims of anti-Semitism entrench false assumption”, 26 February), he charges those who take a contrary position with fraudulently using allegations of anti-Semitism to silence those who advocate on behalf of the Palestinians. Denying that campaigns against Israel can ever be antisemitic while accusing those who do so of being ‘deceitful’ is, in fact, a standard tactic of those who oppose the very existence of a Jewish state and seek to bring about its demise through promoting a world-wide boycott against it. That would include Esack, a board member of Boycott Divestment Sanctions South Africa (BDS SA) who is much involved in campaigns pushing for Israel’s isolation.
It needs to be made clear that no credible advocate for Israel would ever assert that any criticism of the Jewish state automatically constitutes antisemitism. All understand that like any other sovereign country, Israel’s policies are subject to critical scrutiny. However, such criticism, along with the way Israel is treated in international forums, must be consistent with the manner in which other nation states are dealt with. When Israel is held to different standards of behaviour and threatened with punitive measures that no other country is subjected to and when criticism of it takes so exaggerated and irrational a form as to amount to outright demonization, then a strong argument can be made that it does indeed constitute a form of antisemitism. Israel, after all, is the world’s sole Jewish majority state, one founded in a land that is inextricably bound up with the religious, cultural and national history of the Jewish people. Not all Jews around the world necessarily support and identify with it, but the great majority unquestionably do, and it is perfectly understandable that this should be the case. Moreover, just as Jews in the main identify with Israel, so are they broadly identified with it by the public at large.
Missing from Esack’s accusatory screed is any acknowledgment of how frequently BDS-related campaigns do, in practice, lead to acts of outright antisemitism. This has certainly been the case in South Africa, where some of the ugliest incidents of anti-Jewish abuse have come about as a direct result of BDS SA’s activities. One thinks, for example, of how an address by Palestinian activist Leila Khalid held under its auspices at the Durban University of Technology was immediately followed by that institution’s SRC demanding that all Jewish students be ‘deregistered’ (i.e. expelled). One recalls also how the Congress of SA Students, to show support for BDS SA’s boycott campaign against Woolworths, deposited a pig’s head in what it erroneously believed to be the kosher meat section of a Woolworths store in Sea Point. In neither instance did BDS SA condemn the overtly antisemitic nature of those actions.
As for Esack’s denial that BDS SA has called for the killing of Jews, it is true that the organisation itself has not been guilty of this. However, as he is well aware, its supporters have done so – I refer to the notorious chanting of “" (shoot the Jew) at an anti-Israel rally at Wits a few years ago – and on that occasion, BDS SA national coordinator Muhammed Desai’s response was to play down the incident by likening it to the singing of ‘Shoot the Boer’ during the anti-apartheid struggle.
The degree to which BDS SA has been guilty of importing a foreign conflict into South Africa and using it to incite hatred against their fellow citizens was further shown by its demonstrating against the 2014 SA Jewish Board of Deputies’ Gauteng conference (an event wholly unrelated to Israel but rather focused entirely on celebrating 20 years of democracy in South Africa). What came through loud and clear from the rhetoric of that time was that Jews who failed to fall in with the view that Israel was an illegitimate, racist state guilty of genocide and ethnic cleansing should be shunned, ostracised and excluded from participating in South Africa’s democratic culture. It all amounted to a clear-cut act of anti-Jewish incitement, and it would be sheer sophistry to claim otherwise.