Hajaig spat takes new turn as anti-semitism debates continue in the wake of new questions about Israel’s future

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Can it be argued that Minister Fatima Hajaig’s remarks on Jewish "money power" and the hostile reaction by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies [SAJBD] displayed a tendency to ignore the context in which these comments were made?

Now that the dust is settled following Hajaig’s apology –” which incidentally the SAJBD initially rejected but hesitantly accepted after President Motlanthe considered the matter closed as far as government was concerned –” it’s useful to probe this issue given that the bogey of "anti-semitism" remains a tool to suppress freedom of expression.

A few weeks ago Professor Virginia Tilley, author of "The One-State Solution" and highly acclaimed academic entered the fray through a letter published in the Cape Times. In it she makes a number of observations worthy of noting as essential to distinguish anti-Jewish tendencies as deplorable:

"Its understandable that some people translate the Zionist lobby’s skilled combination of glossy information, slick lobbying, electoral sway and [in the US] campaign funds as ‘Jewish money’, but it is wrong and dangerous to do this and the problem needs attention."

She noted that racism against Jews is as wrong and reprehensible as racism against Palestinians or black people or any people. And Tilley cautioned against such practise poisoning the spirit and wrecking the human rights movement.

Responding to her, the Associate Director of the SAJBD, David Saks immediately launched into a frenzied attack on the Media Review Network [MRN] and the Muslim Judicial Council [MJC] and their "unabashed support for Hamas". His shocking attack of them was to dispute Tilley’s assertion that both MRN and MJC have a noble track record in campaigning against Israeli human rights abuses and that they high-mindedly insist on distinguishing between anti-Zionism and anti-racism.

To support his knee-jerk response in the form of "evidence", Saks cited a document entitled "The Jewish-Broederbond Syndicate" as having featured on MRN’s website. Again –” as in the case of Fatima Hajaig –” Saks deliberately finds it expedient to not only isolate any context but to intentionally conflate issues in keeping with his objective to slanderously demonise MRN as anti-semitic.

Since I have no recollection of any such article published on MRN’s website, my quick google search elicited 10 results –” none of them listing Media Review Network as host. In any event, it may have featured alongside thousands of articles –” many of them construed by the SAJBD as anti-semitic given that authors and journalists like Mathatha Tsedu, Anthony Holiday, Tim Modise, Barney Pityana and Virginia Tilley amongst others have been cited in annual "anti-semitism reports" compiled by Saks for the Stephen Roth Institute in Israel.

Saks’ disingenuous attempts to caricature MRN as anti-semitic is instructive. In his 2000/1 report on "South African Anti-semitism", in addition to listing Tsedu, Pityana and others, he cited MRN as follows:

"A high proportion of anti-Israel letters in the press originated from an extremist Muslim group calling itself Media Review Network, which placed many of its letters in the largely black-patronised daily Sowetan. Dr Anver Suliman used the writings of Jewish anti-Zionists Israel Shahak and Noam Chomsky to portray the Middle-East conflict as a US plot to control the region through its surrogate Israel [Daily News, 3 Aug.], and Iqbal Jassat [Daily News, 5 July], blamed Jewish pressure groups such as the ADL for anti-terrorist legislation that he claims intended to target Muslims."

Yet, the article which he today accuses MRN of "hosting on its website" was blamed then on an unnamed "South African Islamic website" which he alleges was "launched in 1997". Turns out this unnamed website bears no resemblance to MRN and by mixing facts with fiction Saks has yet again scored an own-goal.

It’s not any different to the type of sloppy research Saks has become notorious for.

In his initial report on Fatima Hajaig published in the Mail & Guardian‘s thoughtleader blog, Saks’ failure to remain conscientious with regard to accuracy was thoroughly exposed in the comments that followed by readers. For instance he wrongly identified Nazeem Adams as the Provincial Secretary of the ANC. Adams is a well-known activist and spearheads the Palestine Solidarity Alliance in addition to being a prominent member of teachers union SADTU.

Of course it was expedient for Saks to ignore Makhuru’s powerful message of solidarity at the same rally in Lenasia at which Hajaig spoke. Makhuru publically committed the ANC to reassess the relevance of SA government’s foreign policy on the Middle East that is heavily biased in favour of Israel.

Amongst the responses to his highly emotive blog, two make very compelling observations of Saks’ "small-minded siege mentality".

Duncan lapel writes that the SAJBD has for complicated reasons been allowed a monopoly on the view of the Jewish community and that railing against "dissenting views" as he accuses Saks of, would imply that such Jewish dissenters are on the fringe of civil society or public debate. Lapel quite rightly finds the notion too insulting.

On the issue of distortions Ebrahim Khalil Hassan posted a response that conflicts with Saks’ narrow prejudiced views:

"But I understand your need to reduce a broad coalition –” which is non racial, multi ideological, across class and gender identities –” as simply Jewish bashing".

I suppose one is allowed to make "rudimentary mistakes" –” but surely it’s an ethical expectation to make amends and corrections once such blatant errors are pointed out! Not so for Saks.

Indeed, the latest controversy sparked by Saks is in full view in the latest Jewish Report. His attack on the Zionist youth movement known as Habonim elicited a spate of angry letters demanding an apology.

It’s a revealing debate that emanates from the SAJBD’s inability to reconcile with the fact that members of Habonim could be fiercely critical of Israeli policies yet remain faithful to Zionism. In addition, the open display of anger against Saks by fellow-Jews spread across the pages of the paper, suggests that his blinkered approach to Israel and Zionism has justly earned him the wrath and fury of his own brethren.

These open divisions cannot be dismissed as "dissenting views of a small, albeit vocal, fringe element". Although these contemptuous and insulting remarks were reserved at the time for the hundreds of Jews who took umbrage at a statement of support for Israel’s military assault on Gaza by the SAJBD, the SA Zionist Federation [SAZF] and the Chief Rabbi, Saks will be hard-pressed to launch a similar smear on more anti-SAJBD sentiments expressed by Justice Chaskalson and others.

Their dispute is based on the fact that they differ very fundamentally on the radical, hawkish and unconditional support of these groups for Israel and who claim to do so on behalf of all Jews in South Africa.

An excerpt of the press release issued by Chaskalson and co-signed by persons such as Nadine Gordimer, Anthony Sher, Geoff Budlender and others reads as follows:

"We are aware of the public debate that has taken place among members of the SA Jewish community on the use of military force by Israel in Gaza, and the articles and correspondence in the South African media about this issue.

"As SA Jews, we wish to identify with the sentiments expressed in the statement by more than 300 South African Jews, entitled Response By Members of the South African Jewish Community to a Statement by the Jewish Board of Deputies, Zionist Federation and Chief Rabbi Concerning Israel’s Attack on Gaza, condemning the excessive force that has been used by Israel."

Their consideration of Israel’s response to be inhumane and disproportionate is starkly at odds with the extremely hostile position of these formations.

Saks’ over-indulgence in constantly creating diversions is clearly not working for him or the SAJBD. Indeed, shortly after laying a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission against Hajaig for "anti-semitic hate speech", Saks was literally torn apart by political analyst Steven Friedman.

While accepting that the statement by Hajaig was "ill-advised", Friedman dismissed Saks’ complaint as a "red herring". He went on to charge that the SAJBD was diverting attention from the real issue.

"What we should really be talking about is the aggressive campaign to camouflage the attempt by the Israelis to cower the Palestinians into submission."

He further argued that unless the SAJBD was as concerned about the deaths of more than 1000 innocent Palestinians as they are over the foolish remark of a junior minister, he would not take their claims about concerns for human rights "seriously".

The paucity of any substance in Saks’ tirade against all the diverse groupings allied together in their solidarity for Palestine is shocking. In particular, his anti-MRN stance is no less than an effort to tarnish us in order to impact on our ability to function as a credible, alternate voice on issues of Islamophobia as well as advocacy for a myriad of human rights causes –” not excluding Palestine.

Virginia Tilley’s public endorsement of MRN and the MJC speaks for itself. Not only does she affirm our credibility, she also castigates Saks and the SAJBD for regularly defending Israel’s worst atrocities toward the Palestinians with shocking lack of principles.

After all such glaring lack of principles came to the fore when Saks used the medium of a radio broadcast to slander Tilley in her absence. He captures the idiocy of it all in the following damning remarks against Tilley:

  • "Radical"
  • "Anti-Israel"
  • "Untrustworthy"
  • "Infiltrator"
  • "Anti-Western"
  • "Imbalanced"

The context of the broadcast was the SAJBD complaint against the Freedom of Expression’s [FXI] statement of support for Ronnie Kasrils’ right to reply to a scurrilous attack upon him by the Jewish Report they refused to publish. Gagging Kasrils in the way the Jewish paper did would naturally elicit a response from the FXI. It’s their forte to protect the right to free speech after all.

Yet, in discarding any semblance of objectivity and in keeping with his intemperate views Saks went on the offensive against the FXI, not sparing either Virginia Tilley or the MRN.

The host of the show, Tim Modise introduced Saks who he said complained about the FXI being "radically anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-Islamist". Asked to explain his criticism, Saks went into an anti-FXI tirade claiming that the NGO had become a platform for people who hold overtly anti-Israeli views. He claimed that the result has been that Jewish organizations, including the SAJBD have been singled out for vitriolic attacks.

It was a disgraceful conduct that left none in doubt about Saks’ miserable and infantile efforts to rubbish people who cherished the idea of Palestinian freedom.

But what lies behind these anxious attempts to stifle free speech?

Perhaps the clue is in what Professor Richard Falk alludes to in his reference to the "second war".

Falk, professor emeritus of international law and practise at Princeton University, is the United Nations Human Rights Rapporteur in the Occupied Territories. He succeeded John Dugard and being Jewish ought to enjoy the ability to make critical assessments of Israeli policies and practices against the occupied people of Palestine, without being demonised as a "self-hating Jew".

The clue he provides in an article published in The Nation titled "Winning and Losing in Gaza" emanates from his assertion that despite a horrific price in lives and suffering, the Palestinians may be slowly winning the "second war", the legitimacy war, whose battlefield has become global. Also, Hamas may have won a major battle for Palestinian hearts and minds.

In addition to addressing, albeit indirectly, the vexing question about the ferocity of Israel’s military attack on Gaza, Falk also offers a unique insight to the limits of Israeli military power, which I suppose could be offered as advice to Saks and the SAJBD:

"Neither the United States nor Israel has discovered the limits of military power in the contemporary world. The leaders of both countries seem unable to learn the lesson of recent history: that occupation in the post-colonial world rarely produces the desired results at an acceptable cost".

The stupor in which the SAJBD, SAZF and the Chief Rabbi find themselves in having to defend the indefensible may be short-lived once they recognize that legitimacy wars have no clear boundaries and involve subtle shifts of public opinion. Falk believes that the Gaza conflict, especially against the background of Israel’s prior siege and its 2006 Lebanon misadventure, is approaching that tipping point.

For South Africa, it is clear that the outrage from politicians like Hajaig and arching all the way to churches, labour movements, academics, commentators and civil societies has inflicted on Israel and its band of apologists a major defeat in the battle for public legitimacy.

In an equally devastating account of the outcome of the Gaza slaughter, Professor Ali A Mazrui’s presentation to a panel on the campus of Binghamton University in New York set out four sets of losers on the theme of "The New Anti-semitism and the Moral Casualties of the Gaza War".

  • 1st: "The most tragic casualties were of course the people of Gaza who were killed in their hundreds –” men, women and children."

 

  • 2nd: "The next losers were the majority of Israelis who supported one of the most inhumane conflicts even by the standards of the Middle East. The Israeli army took full advantage of its superiority in range of weapons and its capacity to destroy –” and managed to give real meaning to the concept of ‘state terrorism’."

 

  • 3rd: "The third category of losers of the Gaza war were the Jews of the world." "Whenever Israel commits war crimes and crimes against humanity as it has done in Gaza, Israel narrows the moral distance between itself and the Nazis."

 

  • 4th: "The fourth casualties of the Gaza war are Arab moderates in the Middle East –” both in government and among intellectuals. It has become less respectable to regard Israelis as viable partners for peace."

In a profound observation of the characteristics of what he describes as "new anti-Semitism", Mazrui said it is generated by Israeli militarism born out of Israel’s destructive power.

Whereas Jews were once envied because they were creators of culture and exemplary in invention and innovation, Mazrui claims that Israelis are hated now because they excel in targeted assassinations and large-scale destruction of the homes of their neighbours.

Saks and his cohorts in the SAJBD and the SAZF must ready themselves for more shocking news. Franklin Lamb has just revealed that according to a CIA study currently being shown to selected staff members on the US Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Israel’s survival in its present form beyond the next 20 years is doubtful.

The Report predicts "an inexorable movement away from a Two State to a One State solution, as the most viable model based on democratic principles of full equality that sheds the looming specter of colonial Apartheid while allowing for the return of the 1947/1948 and 1967 refugees. The latter being the precondition for sustainable peace in the region."

Lamb’s study of the Executive Summary reveals that "during the next fifteen years more than two million Israelis, including some 500,000 Israeli citizens who currently hold US green cards or passports will move to the United States."

To Saks’ chagrin, in addition to finding greener pastures in the US, the Report claims that 1.6 million Israelis are "likely to return to their forefather’s lands in Russia and Eastern and Western Europe with scores of thousands electing to stay, depending on the nature of the transition."

Contrary to claims by Zionist apologists that Israel is a "legitimate state", I concur with Lamb that there is no internationally recognized right for Israel to exist on stolen land without the consent of the dispossessed.

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