David Saks

Jewish Board won, Cosatu’s Masuku lost, finish and klaar

Cape Argus - Opinion Piece

Jewish Board won, Cosatu’s Masuku lost, finish and klaar

It is astounding that even after successive rulings culminating in a unanimous Constitutional Court judgment finding Cosatu spokesperson Bongani Masuku guilty of antisemitism, Steven Friedman (“The real trick to Bongani Masuku’s case”, 25 February) persists in deriding the case brought by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and even to portray the outcome as a defeat for the pro-Israel lobby. The bald facts tell a different story. Regardless of what spin is put on aspects of the Concourt judgment, the bottom line is that the SAJBD won its case and Masuku and his Cosatu backers lost it. An apology to the Jewish community has been received from Masuku, which is all that the SAJBD together with the SA Human Rights Commission sought to get out of the case.

Aside from vindicating the SAJBD’s decision to call Masuku to account, the outcome has reinforced the principle that while people can say whatever they like about the State of Israel, this is never a license for racist hate speech against Jews.

There is a second compelling reason why the Concourt’s ruling is significant. We are seeing a growing tendency to automatically rubbish any claim of antisemitism that arises in the context of attacking Israel by accusing those who make it of doing so not because they believe it to be true but in order to suppress ‘criticism’ of Israel. As UK Sociologist David Hirsh puts it, this is predicated on the assumption that “those who raise the issue of antisemitism are doing so as part of a common secret plan to silence” criticism of Israel, in other words, not simply of being wrong but of being wrong on purpose. This indeed was Masuku’s response to the SAJBD’s complaint, which he scornfully dismissed as a “frivolous, and false” attempt to silence and intimidate Israel’s critics.

Apart from making it impossible to address genuine concerns about anti-Israel rhetoric crossing the line into antisemitism, such a response is itself redolent of antisemitic canards. Whether intentionally or by implication it portrays Jews as being so dishonest and cynically manipulative as to knowingly level false charges of antisemitism to cover up alleged Jewish crimes. The Concourt’s finding that Masuku did cross the line is a powerful refutation of this pernicious narrative, and for Friedman to presume to use that same judgment to continue smearing the Jewish leadership is outrageous.

There is yet a third sleight of hand on Friedman’s part that should be addressed, and that concerns his representing the Masuku case as being one trying to silence critics of Israel. To answer that, one need only consider what Bongani Masuku actually said about those who support Israel, such as: “Any business owned by Israel supporters will be a target of workers in South Africa”… [supporters of Israel] “…must face the consequences even if it means that we will do …what is regarded as harm” … “in a democratic South Africa where racism or promotion of it is a crime, [anyone who] does so, must not just be encouraged but forced to leave”….“Israel is spreading and defending Apartheid and families who contribute must be targeted.”

I normally eschew using the F-word, but this is unadulterated fascism. It demonstrates that far from being about trying to muzzle Israel’s critics, the Masuku case concerned an overt attempt in the name of South Africa’s largest trade union federation to cow into silence anyone who identifies with the Jewish state.

Mindful of its duty to balance the laws prohibiting hate speech against the right to freedom of expression, the Court concluded that several of the impugned Masuku statements had been aimed not at Jews but at adherents of a particular political ideology, and therefore did not fall into the hate speech category as defined by the Equality Act. Thus, with regard to Masuku’s statement, “any South African family who sends its son or daughter to be part of the Israeli Defence Force must not blame us when something happens to them with immediate effect”, it held that while only Jewish families would send their children to join the IDF, only those who were Zionist supporters were likely to do so, hence the statement did not target people on the basis of their religion and/or ethnicity.

Whether or not one agrees with this interpretation, few would disagree with the court’s comment that “a threat of this sort is offensive and menacing”. Threatening vigilante-like reprisals not just against those considered guilty of wrongdoing but against blameless family members as well is simply repugnant, the sort of thing one expects from the worst kind of dictatorships but not a democracy like our own. One can only wonder why for thirteen years Cosatu opted to defend its spokesperson for making such statements and also why an eminent academic and pundit like Steven Friedman has chosen to do likewise.

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