Andile Mngxitama, Zackie Achmat and anti-Semitism

Sara Gon writes on the exchange on radio between the veteran activist and Mary Kluk of the SAJBD

A recent radio debate on anti-Semitism arose from the infamous tweet by Andile Mngxitama, leader of Black First, Land First where he had commented: “For those claiming the legacy of the holocaust is ONLY negative think about the lampshades and Jewish soap.”

Mngxitama is a master at following racism with even more racism, which he proved with his follow-up: “I concur with @helenzille that the aroma of the burning flesh from the     furnaces of the holocaust may wet [sic] the appetite of the S.A. cannibals.”

The BLF leader was begging for an outraged response. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is taking him to the Equality Court, which probably won’t have the desired result. He craves public exposure.

One of the two participants in that radio debate was Zackie Achmat.

As his Wikipedia page makes clear Achmat is a veteran activist: he co-founded the Treatment Action Campaign and the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. As the director of the latter, he ensured protection for gays and lesbians in the Constitution. Achmat facilitated the prosecution of cases that led to the decriminalisation of sodomy and the granting of equal status to same-sex partners in the immigration process. He also co-founded the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) to promote the constitutional rights of the poor and unemployed living in rural areas, and was a co-founder of the Centre for Law and Social Justice, renamed Ndifuna Ukwazi – Dare to Know.

Achmat is also a member of Open Shuhada Street, South Africa (OSS), whose vision is “for an end to the Occupation and for the establishment of a just solution, based in international law, for both Palestinians and Israelis”. OSS states that it has the support of the international Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. Thus OSS supports boycotts against Israel. Achmat publicly supported the campaign by academics at the University of Johannesburg to boycott Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.

If OSS supports all BDS’ positions, then it also supports a one-state solution, which can only mean that Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish state. BDS bases its position on the boycotts and sanctions of the apartheid era.

BDS says it aims to achieve a non-violent solution. Together with a rejection of negotiations, BDS hopes to weaken Israel to the extent that it will eventually concede everything to the Palestinians. The Palestinians can’t win a conventional war against Israel. A media war is different. Much of the international media casts Israel as the “aggressor” even when it is not. Thus, and this is BDS’s objective, Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of the world will diminish, perhaps to the point of being de-recognised by the United Nations.

This sets the background against which the radio debate on anti-Semitism took place.

Achmat’s unalloyed disgust at Mngxitama’s tweet clearly suggests he opposes crass anti-Semitism. Certain comments, however, suggest something insidious about his outrage at Mngxitama.

Achmat explained that there were two types of anti-Semitism – ideological, and “a certain point of mis-recognition”. “Misrecognition” is not a recognised form of anti-Semitism. Achmat appears to propose understandable, if not actually justifiable, feelings of anti-Semitism that may be harboured by an ordinary person. Achmat seems to suggest that such feelings are misguided but understandable if someone is poor, living in humbler circumstances than her employer and required to work outside normal hours.

The example Achmat offered was this:

“If you were to take a domestic worker in Sea Point who on shabbes on Friday night has to work and then goes and lives in a small room and misunderstands the source of that oppression, it is … it is very different. The one you deal by … the one you deal with by tackling them politically and by shunning them and excluding. This is ideological anti-Semitism. The other one you have, it’s a question of education and understanding. So for me you have to distinguish between those types of anti-Semitism … it’s tragic that there’s a rise of ideological anti-Semitism and all of us need to combat it.”

Achmat disarmingly uses “shabbes”, the Yiddish term for the Jewish sabbath. Shabbes is considered as holy as the seven major Jewish holidays.

Does Achmat suggest that a Muslim family’s domestic worker, who lives in a small room, could justify being Islamophobic if the family insisted she work very early and very late during the 40 days of Ramadan? Would a domestic worker understandably become anti-Christian if she was required to work on Sundays?

The concept of “misinterpretation” is a mischievous and false basis for constructing a form of anti-Semitism. It is implied that only Jews are responsible for others’ hatred of them.

The president of the SAJBD, Mary Kluk, called in to the debate. Kluk presumably could offer some interesting insights and experiences. But, instead, Achmat was given free rein and her call became an opportunity for him to defend himself from an as yet unexpressed accusation of being anti-Semitic himself.

Achmat repeatedly chastised Kluk, saying that he would have expected the SAJBD to support the Cape Town social campaign, Reclaim the City, in its opposition to the Western Cape government’s sale of the defunct Tafelberg Remedial High School site in Sea Point.

Ndifuna created Reclaim the City as a social project in support of “low cost housing” in Cape Town. Aside from Achmat, trustees include Shuaib Manjra (OSS treasurer), Doron Issacs (OSS member) and Michelle Adler (member of Jewish Voices for a Just Peace, which supports BDS’s principles). These office-bearers are fiercely anti-Zionist. Whether they are anti-Semitic is a matter of bitter debate.

Achmat denied the claim that Ndifuna’s opposition to the sale of the Tafelberg site was motivated by anti-Semitism. He said that the claim had been propagated by Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille. Zille had said that part of the explanation for the objection by Reclaim the City to the sale might lie in the fact that the successful bidder for the site was the Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School Trust.

If the SAJBD believed that Reclaim the City’s campaign was anti-Semitic, then Kluk could not possibly have supported it. The sequence of events of the sale are set out below.

In March 2014 the sale was advertised and a public participation process was initiated. (Our underlining)

The site was first awarded to a Muslim consortium for retail development, but it could not put up the required funding. The site was then awarded to the second highest bidder, namely, a consortium for the Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School Trust.

On 26 January 2016 the Province advised that the site had been sold to a Jewish Consortium.

On 12 February 2016 Reclaim the City was formed. During the interview Achmat said: “We didnt know who it was going to be sold to because we started our campaign long before on the sale of public land”.

Reclaim the City, Ndifuna and others launched an interdict to stop the sale. They settled the matter when Zille agreed to halt the transfer and re-open the public participation process. The agreement was made an order of court.

On 22 March 2017 the Province confirmed the sale of Tafelberg. It had held the view, throughout the process, that the site was inappropriate for low-cost housing. At least five other sites have been identified by the Province for low-cost housing.

Achmat implied that the SAJBD’s credibility depended on his determination of what constituted a socially just cause. Achmat accused the SAJBD of not condemning human rights deprivations experienced by others. Kluk refuted this allegation, with examples.

Achmat also criticised the SAJBD for its “selective empathy” in saying nothing when “Helen Zille was pissing on the experience and memories of black people?” This referred to Zille’s tweet on colonialism. Achmat seemed to require reciprocity from the SAJBD: if I condemn the discrimination you experience, you must condemn something that I condemn even if you disagree with me.

Achmat can’t demand that the “just cause” industry has to hold the same views on all issues. Nor may he decree which causes deserve support and by whom, and which don’t.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa explicitly guarantees rights to freedom of belief and opinion (Section 15), freedom of expression (Section 16) and freedom of association (Section 18). These freedoms extend to the “just cause” industry, whatever the views of its individual components.

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica