There should be no tolerance for anti-Semitism in Palestinian solidarity

Heidi-Jane Esakov
Palestinian children play in front of an Israeli soldier. Courtesy of Breaking the Silence.
Heidi-Jane Esakov

A demonstration framed ‘as a silent protest against racism’ held at Wits University on 28 August turned out to be anything but an embodiment of the principles of the anti-racism it espoused when a small group of the protesters sang ‘dubula e juda’ (shoot the Jew).

The protest was held, in support of the call by Palestinian civil society for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), to protest the hosting of an Israeli musician, Daniel Zamir.

For many of us, supporting the call for BDS is not an easy decision. It is one we feel compelled to take because we see Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and abuse of Palestinian rights as indefensible, and we see BDS as holding the possibility of effecting change on the ground in what is a very hard struggle for justice and equality for the Palestinian people. We support BDS precisely because it is a non-violent expression of resistance premised on principles of equality and anti-racism, and because we believe it also offers the possibility of a just peace for Jewish Israelis.

Of course we recognise that there are those who use the Palestinian struggle as a way to camouflage their anti-Semitism, and this needs to be dealt with unequivocally. Not because it is bad for the movement, but because, fundamentally, anti-Semitism should never be tolerated.

Those of us who support the struggle for Palestinian freedom and justice constantly find ourselves up against attempts to conflate challenges against Zionism and Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. These accusations are an attempt to silence criticism, and dangerously distract from real acts and expressions of anti-Semitism. We have a responsibility, however, to ensure that any challenges to these accusations are based on principles of anti-racism, and that when genuine acts and expressions of anti-Semitism do occur we challenge them as determinedly. The singing of ‘dubula e Juda’ at the Wits protest was one of those moments.

I would, however, caution against simply labelling those who sang it as anti-Semites. The words, obviously drawn from the struggle song ‘dubula iBhunu’, or shoot the Boer, have a long and complex history. The original song has its roots in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and was sung by oppressed South Africans with the word ‘Boer’ commonly understood as representing an oppressive system, not a particular ethnic group. It would, however, have been exceptionally problematic had members of the international anti-Apartheid movement sung the song. The meaning would have changed qualitatively and taken on connotations of hate speech. Similarly in the context of the Wits protest, in the context of South Africans standing in support of Palestinians and with the word ‘Jew’ referring to a specific ethnic group, the slogan became what Prof Steven Friedman describes as ‘an incitement to racist violence’.

In order to prevent any disturbance of the concert by protesters, concert organisers, primarily, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), had block-booked the venue to ensure control of who could – and, more accurately, who couldn’t – attend. Simply put, concert goers were racially profiled.

The Palestinian solidarity movement takes great pains to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism. This time, however, they got it very wrong, with various media statements asserting that they would be protesting a ‘Jewish only’ concert. This was an irresponsible oversimplification of the racial profiling that was indeed taking place. A more accurate description would have been a ‘Zionists only concert’. It is thus somewhat understandable that some of the protesters may have understood that they were protesting against Jews, and not the racism of ‘racial profiling’. South Africa may have one of the lowest levels of anti-Semitism, but it is the ethical responsibility of leaders in the Palestinian solidarity movement to ensure that anti-Semitism is given no space to flourish in the spaces the movement operates in.

The racial profiling of the Daniel Zamir concert by the SAZF and SAJBD was pre-mediated and has been eclipsed by the ‘shoot the Jews’ incident. This has also seen the spotlight shift off behaviour that also warrants strong condemnation. The SAZF and SAJBD justifiably condemned the ‘shoot the Jew’, but they ignored their own culpability in racism.

This is not about trade-offs, and the unacceptability and offensiveness of the racial profiling should not be used to deflect from the seriousness of the ‘shoot the Jew’ slogan.

Although a number of individuals and organisations linked to the Palestinian solidarity movement came out in strong condemnation of the use of the ‘shoot the Jew’ slogan, it was deeply concerning to see how many organisations aligned to the movement have remained silent. There seems to be a lack of awareness that you can only challenge racism from within a principled, anti-racist position. Challenging all expressions of racism also means challenging anti-Semitism. Not doing that severely undermines the movement and the principles it upholds.

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TOPICS:  Human Rights

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