WHEN Jean Paul Sartre wrote his seminal work, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew – an exploration of the etiology of hatred’, it was shortly after the liberation of Paris, Sartre had noticed that in discussions about postwar France, “the imminent return of French Jews deported by the Nazis was never mentioned …. Some of the speakers, he guessed, were not pleased by the prospect; others, friends of the Jews, thought it best to he silent. (Neither they nor Sartre knew how many of the deported Jews would never return.) Thinking about these discussions, Sartre decided to write a critique of anti-Semitism. ”1
In critiquing Rebecca Hodes opinion piece on the recent events surrounding the singing of “Dubul’ iJuda/Shoot the Jew”, Wits SRC deputy president Tokelo Nhlapo ignores the problems of stigma raised by Hodes while pursuing an offensive anti-Semitic inquiry on the issue of race identity: Does the Jew exist, and who exactly is a Jew?
“I don’t understand how black people in this country have experienced Jews differently from other whites,” writes Nhlapo in the Daily Maverick “Put simply, we experience Jews first as whites, then as Jews. “ he says, defending the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign and its troubling resort to Dubul’ iJuda/Shoot the Jew – merely an “unfortunate” incident which “diverts attention from the real issue at hand: the contention that Israel is a racist, colonial Apartheid state in the name of the Jew.”
Nhlapo could do well to read Sartre, since his work serves as a prelude to the equally troubling question of existence, in this case, the imminent return of the Jews of District Six. A recent exhibition by the South African Jewish Museum paid homage to the contribution of South Africa’s black Jews — the Jews of District Six — expelled from a community which once represented a mosaic of culture and cross-pollination. Rendered all but invisible by the apartheid government, and persecuted today by ideologues like Nhlopo who would have every Jew conform to a normative model of Judaism in which the only Jews with acceptable identities are European, and the only Jews considered in possession of religion are the Orthodox.
The problem of South Africa’s Jewish assimilados, many of whom were assimilated into the coloured community, and who still identify as Jews while practicing a variety of faiths, are not wished away by a simplistic narrative which views the Jew as the oppressor and the Palestinians as the oppressed. It is thus dangerous to make such assumptions and associations, in articulating our history of struggle as a nation by linking with a solidarity campaign that opposes the history of Jews living in Israel, many of whom are as black as Nhlapo, and who are as much a part of African history as black people living in Europe are a part of European history.
Let us not make the further error of forgetting all the Arab Jews, some 50% of Israeli’s, and those Arabian refugees, deported to Israel after 1948 or exiled from North Africa and the Arab States, and Southern Africa’s own Lemba people, a tribal group living in Zimbabwe and Limpopo who identify as Jews.
The ongoing middle east conflict, and its patina of similarity with the South African experience, does not allow for essentialist notions of struggle, and while one may sympathise with the Palestinian cause and the manner in which the quest for identity / self-identity is being raised by those seeking out the holy land as a focus point, can one do so without also posing the equally obnoxious question – do Palestinians exist and who exactly is a Palestinian?
Such inquiries if they do not result in violence because of the ongoing blood libel against Jews by the Christian Church and Islam’s ever-present vendetta against Israel, invariably produce an uncomfortable impasse — the answer usually presented in the form of a composite and patchwork view of idealised historical communities with tribal and religious affiliations to the holy land, all of whom need to be accommodated under a future political dispensation.
My own Jewish bobba, Fanny Katsef, the product of refugees from Eastern Europe spent most of her life escaping the Nazis and “blending in”, classified as white, but passing as coloured. Along with so many working class from Woodstock, Maitland and Salt River, she had both a white card and the card enumerated by people like A Abdurahmen and C Vogel who elaborated coloured identity according to the discourse of fraternization and assimilation deployed by the apartheid government in its pseudo-scientific attempt to remove undesirables from the white race.
Would Nhlapo wish that people chant “Kill the Gogo?” In his reductionist efforts to save the Palestinian struggle and its demand for self-determination and autonomy, the university graduate fails miserably. In not relating the problems presented by competing nationalisms and ethnic identities, the so-called colonial project, Nhlapo merely conveys his own ignorance of the subject matter. When people resort to the self-same logic of every brute who ever wished to persecute a minority group, first, by removing us from history, then by denying our common humanity, can one really blame those “unjust” Jews who support Israel, separating those who seek justice from those who at the face of it, do not, even though their religion may demand it?
Israel was created so that the Jews would no longer be treated as the objects of political intrigue but rather the subject of human rights. If entertaining a world in which “Zionism” exists alongside “Hamasism” makes one a collaborator in Nhlapo’s view, then so be it.
1 Michael Walzer, in preface to Anti-Semite and Jew, An exploration of the Etoilogy of Hate, Schocken Books Inc. 1948