Antisemitism's resurgence: An interview with Milton Shain

Dominique Herman speaks to South Africa’s foremost expert on the topic

On fabricators and fantasists

Getting to grips with antisemitism with South Africa's foremost expert on the topic

I just don’t understand the historic antipathy towards Jewish people. What’s it all about? It isn’t as if they are weirdly different, or antagonistic, or toxic in some way. How even do I know a person is a Jew without being told? – Alex Hills, commenting on an article in The Times, UK

In another recent piece in the British Times, columnist Hugo Rifkind described an interview he had done with British Jewish writer Howard Jacobson. Jacobson was expressing his incredulous bewilderment at the current levels of antisemitism. “A whole world of people,” he quoted Jacobson as saying, “often in universities, for God’s sake! In universities!”

Rifkind had in the same paragraph described what he saw as the difference between “loathing the actions of a state and loathing the concept of it”. Antisemitism constituted merging those attitudes “with Israel, and only Israel”.

A large part of antisemitism – whether instances of what it describes are going up, down or just maintaining their usual background level, like radiation”, as Rifkinds fellow columnist, Giles Coren, puts it – is based on fantasy.

“Jews are not in the real sense present. They’re hugely present in fantasies, maybe, but they’re not in the real sense”, says South African historian, writer and University of Cape Town (UCT) emeritus professor, Milton Shain.

Shain recounts an experience he had in a supermarket during Passover a couple of years ago to demonstrate how the presence of Jews has all but disappeared in an area of Cape Town that used to be almost a shtetl.

“Have you got any matzah?”, Shain had asked a store employee at Woolworths. “He asked what it was – the manager. Then he asked me to write down what it is, so I wrote it down with my number and they phoned me two weeks later: Sorry, we don’t have nachos.”

“People don’t know Jews,” Shain says. “There is no sense of presence although if you ask people how many Jews there are, they give an inflated figure, which is worldwide.”

People with a natural antipathy towards Jews?

They always inflate Jewish numbers and it’s quite paradoxical because I remember we had a centennial of the history department and they got together a whole lot of scholars to speak. I spoke about the strange absence of Jews in South African historiography when, ironically, they had been blamed for the Anglo-Boer War and of threatening to take over South Africa in the 1930s; but they are totally written out of our history books

At best historians have noticed some antisemitism in the 1930s, which English historians would write; but one would not have known where the Jews came from and when they arrived. Suddenly theres antisemitism. You might get a paragraph that talks about some Jewish enterprise. There is no peopling of the country because we were focused on race and class. Jews are effectively written out of South African history as Jews.

Even though there was a significant number of Jews with a high profile in South Africa?

Of the 156 defendants in the treason trial, 23 were white and 15 were Jewish of those 23. All five whites arrested at Rivonia: Jewish.

And does that not feature at all?

It features with the far right talking about the Jewish subversives and communists – it features there.

Unbelievable considering that the ANC are generally so unsympathetic to the Jewish cause for statehood and often quite hostile to Jews today

Well, look, the Rivonia trialists are the “good Jews”. The ANC separates good Jews from bad Jews and they’ve said it, in writing.

Who are the bad Jews, Israelis?

The bad Jews are Zionists. They’ve said it.

Now, Milton, some of my questions are going to be exceedingly rudimentary, starting with this one: a Zionist, simply, is someone who believes that the state of Israel should exist as a Jewish state, right?

Yes, a Zionist is someone historically who in the 19th century saw emancipation as a failed project. The Jews weren’t emancipated till the French revolution and then it took 120 years across Europe. That’s not overnight. In Germany they debated for a hundred years whether to give them full rights. So it’s a long process, uneven. It had great promise at the start to be a Jew at home and a German or a Frenchman on the street.

By the late 19th century, you have the rise of modern antisemitism which is a racial type of antisemitism and it’s a powerful revival of old hatreds in new garb. And what happens is that a certain number of Jews read the tea leaves in a certain way, i.e., emancipation’s not going to work.

Remember it’s the age of nationalism in the 19th century: Italy is created, Germany is created. And the only way to avoid this hatred is for Jews to have a national home. So it’s an ethno-national movement born in the 19th century in an age of ethno-nationalisms, which at some level is caught off-sides in the 21st century. Although it’s no different to many other states, it’s not resolved because of the Arab question around it.

Zionists believed that this was the answer for Jewish regeneration in a positive way: develop and straighten their back, be creative and also as a safeguard. They looked around and saw the pogroms in Russia, they saw the Dreyfus affair in France, they saw blood libels in Hungary – just a litany. In 1945 they would have said, I told you so.

So it’s an ethno-nationalist movement and a Zionist is one who believes that there is place and legitimacy for a Jewish state, and the UN created it as a Jewish state. They didn’t say “Israel”. They said we’re dividing up Mandate Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state and you guys must decide what to call it.

At that stage, when a Jewish state was formed and developed, why did an Arab state not form and develop from then as well. What happened?

It was offered. If you look at the offer in 1947 from the UN, Jerusalem was international – it wasn’t Jewish – and where the Jews were dominant in the two parcels of territory, it was going to be the Jewish state. The rest was the Arab state. The UN voted in 1947 in November for that and not just the West. A lot of Global South-type countries – Guatemala and countries like that. The Jews accepted it; the Arabs didn’t. The Arabs began a low-grade war against them and then when Israel was declared in May 1948, five Arab armies invaded.

But why didn’t the UN get more actively involved then? If this pattern had stopped then, things might have been different, I would imagine. Why was this permitted when an Arab state was also offered?

It was a relatively swift war which ended with an armistice in 1949. For many anti-Zionists this is unacceptable. They want to return to 1947 or nothing. 

This is obviously far from original thought, but why do people have so much antagonism towards there being one tiny Israel when there are 22 Arab countries. What is the problem?

Youre asking the key question. First of all, Israel makes up one percent of the old Turkish empire – one percent. Yes, in 1914 Jews were 10 percent of the population of “Palestine”. It is also true that there was opposition to Zionist settlement early on, but there were also many indications that a modus vivendi could be reached between the Zionists and Arabs. Most importantly, the Zionists – that is, the Jews – had nowhere to return to. Bear in mind about 100 000 Jews were killed in the Russian Civil War. So we see the evolution of the conflict early on. But there were possibilities to resolve it. Also bear in mind, there was no fully fledged Palestinian nationalism at that time. It was emerging and it would evolve over the decades – in many ways the mirror image of Zionism.

But now the big question: why Israel? I’ve asked myself the question so often. It’s not East Timor. It’s not the Baháʼí in Iran or Nigeria, Boko Haram; Pakistan kicking out Afghans. When it’s only about the refugees in Palestine, you start asking questions. That’s the bottom line.

And it’s almost gleeful for those against Israel to stick the boot in; you can see there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from doing that. If these people in Western countries that do that, and align themselves so passionately with the actions of Hamas and its ilk, had to pick where they would want to live if they had to make a choice: would it be Israel or Syria, Iran, Iraq, etc.?

This afternoon, driving here, the DA picked the ANC out in Parliament. I think John Steenhuisen asked, surely you shouldn’t have Iran in Brics for its human rights records? Do you know what the answer was? Don’t be a hypocrite, you’re friendly with Israel.

That the ANC equates Iran with Israel is staggering

It’s frightening.

It’s a despairing situation because it appears one’s not ever going to convince people with that mindset otherwise. Do you think this is just going to be something that Jews till the end of time live with?

It seems like it. Look, let’s say there’s a Arab-Israel settlement of the conflict, maybe in South Africa the Muslim-Jewish relationship will improve. Or it won’t be a hot button issue and things will go on. And, you know, things don’t go on all the time in terms of intensity. After all, there is a war going on and horrific optics.

Why has this conflict captured the imagination of so many, whereas conflicts elsewhere do not? People couldn’t be less interested in those. But the response to this one is quite something. Is it because it’s the Holy Land and is a very important place universally?

It’s three Abrahamic faiths coming together; it’s an important part of the world; instability around oil is significant. And Jews are news. Youve got coverage where Jews are involved.

Your question remains uppermost for everyone. Ive tried to find reasons for what it could be other than just Jew-hate. I think it is in most cases a legitimate form of Jew-hatred. People don’t want to be called antisemitic. Howard Jacobson said its a fig leaf for antisemitism, anti-Zionism – its a hygienic form of antisemitism. The great scholar Bernard Lewis says you can’t call every anti-Zionist an antisemite, but when they start using fantasies.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism cannot axiomatically be equated – it really can’t – because you could be a principled anti-Zionist: Jews are a religion. I don’t believe they should ever even consider their own sovereign state – it’s unnecessary. You could have that position.

It may be ridiculously naive in the 1920s and 30s. It may be ridiculous in hindsight to think now you want to unscramble it. All states are born in strange ways, but you could hold that position. Just like if you’re at a dinner party and you debate affirmative action. You could have a very legitimate case that this is no good: it’s unnecessary, it’s doing more harm than good – and you might have a case. But some people just hate blacks and they don’t like affirmative action because they hate black people. Now how do you separate it? I think a black person at a dinner table would pick it up, and I think a Jew at a dinner table knows where it comes from as well. It’s an example of how people can discuss something where the real motivation is not cerebral rationality.

The Palestinians are underdogs; they deserve a state. It’s an occupation which is pretty harsh in the West Bank. But that’s a political issue; it’s an unresolved war. The Israelis didn’t cause the Six-Day War. They occupied the West Bank after they were attacked. Some people had messianic dreams – greater Israelists – that’s their business. When people talk as if you use military laws and separate roads on the West Bank – “apartheid Israel” – that’s for security. It shouldn’t be forever. It should be resolved and negotiated and made normal. That’s why it’s there; not for some apartheid reason.

Tell me a bit more about these separate roads. I haven’t heard about this before – not in this way

They’ve got separate number plates in the West Bank. There are all sorts of checkpoints, controls, a wall.

Is that what people are referring to when they talk about “apartheid” there?

No, they mean it generally. They also talk about Arabs in Israel. You’ve got apartheid America as well, it should be, because the blacks are the underclass there. You’ve got apartheid Turkey: Kurds are the underclass. I mean, you’ve got minority problems in the world.

My understanding is that the prevailing attitude with regards referring to Israel as an “apartheid state” is the criticism that Arab citizens in Israel are treated as second-class citizens. It’s not official policy like it was in South Africa

It’s a catchy word.

Exactly. It’s become one of these narratives that trips off the tongue. Nobody quite knows how to back it up; they just know to say it

You have to have a very open mind because if you sort of splat it out without a historical sensitivity, then you can fall for the Palestinian narrative because you’re looking at history as an illusion through the present. You’ve got an underdog and the top dog, and the top dog came in and “colonised” the place. But you need to see how the issue evolves. It wasn’t outlandish behaviour on the part of the Jews. They bought the land and they worked the land themselves because they wanted to straighten their own backs – literally. Not be middlemen anymore, which is part of Zionist ideology. All those things evolved.

And the Jews bought the land from whom?

From Arab landowners.

Which land exactly? What is current day Israel: they bought that?

Yes, most of it. That’s not colonialism. Colonialism is when you come and put your flag up and say, this is ours. The person in the street seems to think that Israel took a flag and said, this is ours. It was a desert. It wasn’t empty and there was opposition right from the start, but at the time this was quite normative. Jews come there, they’ve got historic ties to it. And a lot of Arabs moved in who weren’t there.

Why did they move in?

Because of economic opportunities.

When Israel started?

Yes, when Zionism settled.

Do Jews and Palestinians have equal historical ties to that part of the world? Were there always Jews and Palestinians there? Because Palestinians say we were there always and Jews say, we were also there

First of all there was no Islam until the 7th century and Islam conquered Palestine. There were people there. Jews in ancient times had sovereignty there.

Jews had a state and they were knocked out by the Romans and those who stayed behind were knocked out by the Muslims 500 years later. But in a court of law, statute of limitations, you can’t indefinitely say, well, we were here first. It doesn’t hold. But it’s not as if it was some strange place. There was never a time without Jewish presence there. But right from the start the Arabs didn’t want them. They were a majority; they didn’t like the presence of Jews. You can see a sustained idea, and that’s why I liken it rather to a conflict evolving.

But it’s not outlandish. The Jews didn’t put a flag down and say, this is ours. They were allowed under the Turks. They came in, bought land, they worked the land – it wasn’t developed. They built the place. People started moving in. There was normal conflict. Then there were leaders who were concerned about these people “taking over”. The usual resistance, anti-immigration, like people who don’t want Muslims in England. They didn’t want these other people there, and so it evolves.

But it wasn’t bizarre what the Jews did and, also, they tried to find ways of accommodation – maybe not enough but they certainly did and there was certainly enough hope given by certain major Arab leaders that we can accommodate everyone, and we can find a way. That’s how it evolved. And then next thing you look around and it’s a problem.

So Palestinians became Palestinians when exactly?

The evidence right from the 1890s, with the early Zionist settlers there, there was concern. They didn’t have a Palestinian identity; there’d never been a Palestine under the Ottoman Turks who had the whole area – never. The identity increased as a mirror of Zionism and really starts taking up after the First World War. And the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Arafat, only formed in 1964.

There are so many highly vocal people behind the Palestinian cause, but why is it that it’s so seemingly one-sided and distorted? Why are Israelis made to seem like such bad guys?
A friend said, entirely quizzically, am I missing something? Why are Jews so despised? They slot in, they contribute, they don’t blow stuff up. The average person can identify with them – the non-hyper religious ones, that is, which constitutes the vast majority of Jews. Why is there this rank animosity?

Well there’s the myth of the Jew and there’s the Jew next door. The one you talk to next door is alright but there’s the myth of the powerful, subversive Jew. And it’s so deep in the Western tradition, massively deep. There’s normally a group dynamic: the dislike of the unlike. I mean, that’s pretty common: Kurds and the Turks, Pakistanis and white Brits. It’s almost in our DNA: the dislike of the unlike.

But are Jews so much the unlike?

No, but they were historically, you see. Historically they were unlike insofar as they didn’t worship the gods of the Romans, of the classical world. They had their own invisible god. So they had that, but then it’s like a recipe: if you had to put ingredients into a recipe for a holocaust, it’s all there. Because you start off with this dislike of the unlike but it turns out that this person, Jesus, a Jew, who’s got a different version born out of him, is taking over the truth and although the Romans put him to death as a subversive insurrectionist, the followers of Jesus who are now Jewish Christians at first have to distance themselves. For them, Jesus is the Messiah, foretold in the scriptures.

So you’ve got this terrible contestation for a couple of hundred years between the old ones who don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah, people who do, and in that antagonism they start labelling each other and Christianity grows and then it happens to become the official religion of the Roman empire in the 4th century.

Now you’ve got this empire and you’ve got this deviant crowd called Jews. In this contestation for truth, they start accusing Jews of deicide, killing the son of God. Eventually it elaborates in the medieval period: poisoning wells, killing children for ritual purposes, putting needles in the wafer, a Jewish smell, Jewish men menstruating – absolute fantasy. This was deep in the Western psyche; it’s in the literature.

So by the end of the Middle Ages when Jews were kicked out of every place, you’ve got an absolute devil-like image of the Jew. And then, when that world gets overtaken by secular modernism and the Enlightenment erodes religion in the 18th century and says, this is all madness, let’s be rational, one would assume that antisemitism would disappear because it’s all medieval stuff, and to a certain extent it does. But to another extent, it just transforms itself.

And this goes back to the question: why Israel? It mutates into a racial hatred. So whereas the Jews are deviant in the Middle Ages, deviant for being of a different religious persuasion and all sorts of notions of wandering Jews, deep in its psyche, now it gets modernised: the Jews are a race apart. And in that the Jew became racialised. The immutable base to the Jew couldn’t change: you were inherently different. Now those ideas took off: Hitler, you see the outcome.

Inherently different how, physiologically?

Well they can see the outer person is different like a black person is black, but it’s what you ascribe to that blackness. So if you don’t like blacks, you ascribe dishonesty, crookedness, violence – all of that: racism. Now with the Jews it’s racism at that point; it’s not a religious basis. They are a race apart and they are distinctive. And so you have the evolution of modern antisemitism: racism.

Now what happens to that, and this goes to that question of Israel, the argument made by many scholars is that after 1945, to be a Jew-hater was not alright in polite society and also people had learned: this is the outcome of the madness, you know, ovens. But because we know antisemitism mutates all the time – it takes on the ideology of the time – it’s been argued by great scholars with great force that anti-Zionism is a new form of antisemitism.

Now of course people would be horrified by that. They’d say, don’t talk absolute rubbish. But they must answer your question: why is there so much hatred? And if they say, well, they’re a colonial settler movement, they dispossessed some very nice people, you’d be able to say, but that’s happened all over the world without any trace of concern.

It’s the fact that so many people bother about this particular conflict – and that’s what you’re getting at – that must make one wonder. At least some of it for some of the people, it’s just a great form of Jew-hatred because it gets Jews in the guts.

Don’t they say Islamophobia is very different from antisemitism because the former is against religious fundamentalism but the latter is against a whole ethnic group?

In the Middle Ages it would have been against religion. Because in the Middle Ages you could convert: a Jew could stop being a Jew, become a Christian and be absolutely fine. You couldn’t do that in the 19th century – well, you could, on paper. In Hitler’s world you couldn’t because your insides were Jewish so you couldn’t convert.

Your “insides”?

Yes, you were inherently, unchangeably different.

It seems to me that one can’t have it both ways and yet one does: one can’t have rampant antisemitism pre-Israel, and then you have the creation of Israel as a direct result of the rampant antisemitism, and then you continue to have rampant antisemitism afterwards and now it’s because of Israel

In many ways there was a lull after the war and Israel was the darling in a way of the Western world, and they weren’t that concerned in the East. The Arab world was hostile. The Arabs got a lot of the antisemitic tropes from the West because colonialism brought it to them. Eventually they took over The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, aided and abetted by the formal Nazi influences in the Arab world.

Jews were second-class citizens, but until the 19th century it was much better in the Muslim than the Christian world for Jews. And that’s where masses of numbers were, in the East: 800 000 Jews were effectively kicked out or made uncomfortable in the Arab world after Israel was created.

Jews who would have happily carried on staying in the Arab world, who considered themselves of those nationalities

Absolutely. They were Arab Jews; that’s the word they used in those days. An Arab can be a Christian or a Muslim; it’s an ethnic group. A Jew can be an Arab.

As far as you’re concerned, are Jews a religious group or are they a race? I’ve never gotten that. People interchange the idea of antisemitism with racism but there are white Jews, there are black Jews, there are Chinese Jews . . .

Jews are not a race; Jews are an ethnic group. People will use the word: the Jewish race. Even though races are concocted, it’s wrong to talk of Jews in that way. They’re an ethnic group.

Do you think the word “race” in that context is used in a colloquial way, as another word for group?

Uninformed, yes. But they say “they’re different” if you ask, why do you say Jewish race? Try and unpack it. It’s interesting.

So Jews are an ethnic group and Arabs are an ethnic group?

Arabs are an ethnic group and then they’ve got within it tons of nationalities and cultures. And as for Jews, half of Israel wouldn’t have been allowed onto a bus in apartheid Cape Town. And as for Jews being rich, in the 19th century, I’m thumb-sucking a figure, but possibly 70 percent of Jews lived four in a room. So people say there’s jealousy and that’s why there’s antisemitism, but that’s recent that Jews are visibly successful.

A disproportionate number of Jews in comparison to the total number have done very well. That must give the perception to non-Jews that every Jew is wildly successful and rich, even though that’s very much not the case

Do you know that 2000 Jews in Jo’burg get food parcels?

Out of how many?

When that figure came, it was probably 35 000. And many Jews are stupid (he chuckles).

May I quote you on that? That’s going to be the headline

A friend of mine, Sander Gilman, said I should write a book on stupid Jews. He wrote a book called Smart Jews.

And your point is to demonstrate that there’s every type of person in the Jewish community like there is in every group?

Yes. Now this is the interesting thing: there’s a kernel of truth to antisemitism insofar as you’re talking about bankers at a certain time, or if you’re talking about Hollywood. That’s a good example: Hollywood is disproportionately Jewish and you say to a person, well, what’s the problem with that? The market gardeners are Portuguese here or the corner cafes that I grew up with were Greek. Why aren’t you worried about that?

Or the make-up of the line-up of the 100 metres at the Olympics

Hmm. What it is is what comes first: they are constructing a sinister image of the Jew and then they discover their involvement. It becomes much more interesting if you ask sociologically, why are the Jews so involved in Hollywood? It’s a sociological question just like why are Greeks running corner cafes in South Africa. Again, interesting, but it’s not sinister.

It’s bizarre what’s just allowed and, again, it’s not an original thought, but antisemitism is the only kind of discrimination that’s not only often sanctioned but encouraged. Is it because there are so few Jews? People know that they’re not a threat? They’re not scared of them?

Look at South Africa. Malema says we’re not antisemitic. But then he says there are good Jews and there are bad Jews. The Business Day had an editorial which actually said, it’s very concerned about antisemitism. It’s a terrible thing and it’s happening in South Africa and, you know, you shouldn’t treat all people the same. Between the lines it was saying there are good Jews and there are bad Jews. The bad Jews might be deserving, but be careful. You shouldn’t do that because you might get the good guys. It was terrible. No one picked it up either.

Does that line of thinking apply to other religions? Are there “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims”? Or does it only apply to Jews?

It’s because of the separation of Zionism. Zionism has been mangled. You got the meaning correct when you said it at the start. The notion of Zionism is another ism now like fascism, Nazism. What was once just a simple national liberation idea which you didn’t agree to or you did, has become a sinister, expansive, illegitimate movement. And you can say, my best friends are Jews but I hate Zionists. And, you know, no one had that sense before.

Vis-à-vis what you were saying about countries having formed mainly around nationalist terms: what is the difference with having one that’s formed around religious terms? What is actually wrong with that?

Well, they would say it wasn’t formed on a rock in the South Sea Island. It was formed on land which was other-peopled.

But, in general terms, do you think there’s anything wrong with deciding there’s one particular ethnic group and they’re all the same religion. They’ve been kicked around and persecuted and tortured all over the world. Just give them a small piece of land so they can be safe. Do you think that is unreasonable, to form a country on that basis?

Well, they would say, we recognise that Europe treated the Jews terribly, we’re paying the price as Arabs.

But you said earlier that the Arabs treated them poorly all through history too, as second-class citizens

Yes. For its time it was quite normative that you had that.

But, still, that doesn’t make it okay

No, no. Look, this was a fairly judicious way of solving two groups wanting to settle in the same place.

I understand the biblical ties and the emotional ties to that part of the world for Jews, but is it true that they were offered a piece of Canada to form Israel?

Uganda was the famous one, but one movement was to Galveston – not to get land, just to go there. And the people who were most persecuted in Russia at the time, when they were thinking of this option – the time of the Kishinev pogrom in 1903 – said, no, got to go to the land Israel.

Canada was never an option?


Do you think it would have been better if Jews had set up a state somewhere else?

They would have had the same problem.

Even if they were not surrounded by hostile neighbours?

Well, no, it would have been slightly different.

Where could Israel have been positioned where it could have just thrived in peace? Nowhere?

Nowhere. Maybe if it was some rock in the middle of the sea, but then it wouldn’t have survived.

Jews are truly stuffed then because they clearly do need a country and if it can’t be anywhere in the world, what then? They just have to endure ongoing opprobrium?

People might say, you don’t need a country, it’s given you more troubles. If there wasn’t an Israel, Jews on American campuses wouldn’t have trouble. Until a couple of years ago, you could say multiculturalism, America, you’re not threatened, so it’s madness.

But people would have found another reason. That’s the thing you see, it twists and turns. In ’67, Jews were “great”. They went to Helen Suzman in Parliament, who they taunted as a Jew, and said to her after the Six-Day War, mooi skoot, Helen.

Nations in the 19th century were built around a notion of an ethnic people. It’s invented but it’s real: the Brits, the Spaniards. Like all nationalisms, theyre constructed. They have national languages, schooling becomes widespread so people become inculcated with the idea of being a Frenchman, a German. Germany was exactly the same. Germany was just little pieces of territory. Then it gets unified, massification of education is big and so you develop a German identity. And the same applies for all nation states.

And the Jews at that time had to assimilate into it. There was an expectation, and Jews were wonderful at doing that. They were remarkable migrants. If you take migrancy today where people come to Britain and say they want Sharia law. I mean, can you imagine Jews in the 19th century saying, we want the Sanhedrin to decide on our laws. They’d kick you out. Jews came in, contributed. Jews were Jewish at home, British on the street.

What are your thoughts on these immigrant rows raging now across Europe because of this very thing – their not integrating, running parallel societies

Anti-alienism is a good word because if you look at the discourse around anti-alienism when it came to East European Jews in Britain leading to the Aliens Act in 1905 to stop them, it’s exactly like the anti-West Indian or the anti-Pakistani stuff in Britain in the 60s. People don’t want different people. In Cape Town they saw the Jews: they’re different. They’re loud; they’ve taken over the Promenade. It doesn’t mean to say they’re going to cause a pogrom, but it’s much easier to have your “own people”. And, by the way, non-divided societies are easier to manage.

But in the South African example, why would Muslims be so embraced? They’re different too

You’re absolutely right. But there is anti-Muslim feeling. Nobody has done studies on it.

You think there’s anti-Muslim feeling from blacks?

A lot of blacks have converted to Islam, but there’s a lot of stuff out there still.

Well, it’s certainly not the government line

No, not the government line and it’s not public; it’s not an issue. But there is anti-alienism, we know that. We’ve got a big problem with immigrants in the minds of people. The hallmark of antisemitism is fantasy. That’s very important: the level of fantasy about Jews, like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What are the modern fantasies?

In the Arab world, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Massive: books being sold all over the Arab world. You still get it in parts of this country; there are people around who believe it. There are people who don’t think we went to the moon. But fantasies are the hallmark: the real beliefs such as supernatural powers of Jews or conspiracy thinking. Holocaust denial, that’s another question: do they believe it or is it just a way of putting a knife into the Jews?

But a lot of the same people deny that these Hamas attacks took place on October 7, and that just happened and was documented in technicolour by the attackers. I don’t know where you begin with people like that

Well, exactly, you’re not going to stop it. The conspiracy theories are all over the world.

How does one dispel these fantasies people have – this supernatural stuff about Jews and that they’re masterminding things. There are so few Jews. How are they possibly that powerful? It’s not possible

Conspiracy theorists will say, you don’t know where they are. It’s like the Illuminati. They were formed in 1784, a group of intellectuals. They disappeared after three years but people still talk about the New World Order and the Illuminati.

But when people are aware of something beneficial that was initiated by a Jewish person that’s for the good of all: they’ve invented something or they’ve done groundbreaking research or something wonderful for charity. Something that truly has benefited society. Why does that do nothing to dispel the fantasy?

You’ve got levels of conspiracy. You mustn’t walk away thinking everyone’s thinking Jews have got horns or a tail, although people did in the Middle Ages. So it’s not everyone, but the conspiracies attached to Jews are massive and in the Arab world, big. Big. There’s a propensity, it seems, in literature I’ve read, to really believe in these things.

Conspiracy theories and ignorance aside, the sort of garden variety antisemitism, what Peter Hitchens calls golf club antisemitism, why is that so pervasive? As a Jewish person one will be having a lovely chat with someone who doesnt know one’s Jewish. One is experiencing a connection and all of a sudden this person will launch into an antisemitic rant for no reason. And one thinks, what’s wrong with you? Where does this come from and what is it about?

People want to be with their own kind. Jews often like to be with other Jews. It’s a comfort with your own ethnic group. Culture matters. I don’t mean it in a superior or inferior way. Go to a Herzlia speech night or go to Bishops. It’s pretty different. What is it?

The only answer one can give is that Western civilisation arises out of Christian civilisation. Christianity has a relationship to Judaism and all that followed and it’s deep within the mind. It’s in literature, art, iconography – it’s all over the place.

It’s bizarre that it’s just kind of in the water

It can be philosemitism sometimes. You could say, I love the Jews – they’re great. They work hard, they’re sharp.

Very few of those people, though, by comparison

Paul Johnson wrote A History of Christianity and he was a great philosemite. He wrote A History of the Jews and he was a very committed Christian. It was reviewed by a top Jewish historian and he said, you know, there’s a problem here. He’s so philosemitic that he’s making the Jews not normal. And that’s the other side of the coin of antisemitism. The reality is that we’ve got good, bad, people who help, people who don’t help. Like any other people. And if we’re different in a curve – that we’ve got more college education – well, that’s sociology. It’s not sinister. Who cares if Jews are running banks in greater numbers? Who the hell cares? But antisemites see it as sinister.

Well, they’d prefer it if there were greater numbers of Jewish beggars than bankers: people one feels pity for rather than potentially envying

I’m not giving sagely answers. I’m just raising the issues. Because no one’s got the full answer. We see the symptoms.

Do you think the widespread antisemitism flaring up is different now or do you think it’s yet another instance of a repeating pattern?

Normally the wars with Hamas have been much shorter. Even though one was 42 days, we’re living in a cyber age and that’s another thing. It’s all immediate now: it’s social media, it’s television crews in there and it’s in your lounge. So what’s happened in this war – it’s the fifth war against Hamas in 20 years – there’s rockets and then it gets bigger and you destroy some of the tunnels but not completely. You’ve got the situation where the Israelis in their plans said, look, next time it happens, we’re actually going to degrade Hamas. And this was a perfect opportunity and what’s shocking is how quickly sentiment turned. For example, because of the brutal massacre by Hamas, for two days the world had sympathy for Israel.

I don’t think it was even two days. The same day of the massacre there were already pro-Palestinians protesting in the United Kingdom. The same day

Well, there was still a window of 48 hours, sort of, because it was so outrageous: you know, coming over and filming it. Hamas must have guessed, we’ll be in our tunnels/our bunkers, they’ll bomb us, itll be hard but we’ve got civilian shields. They’ll die, it will be filmed, there’ll be pressure and we will have brought the issue on to the table. We will have got publicity for us as a movement and Israel will be forced to stop like they have the last few wars. And Israel must have read it quite the opposite: look, this is going to happen every six years, we can’t keep on living like this, let’s get rid of them.

You used the word “degrade” earlier. Can Israel really eliminate Hamas, as they purport to want to do? They can’t honestly think they can eliminate them as an ideology. And the Hamas leaders aren’t even in Gaza, some of them, so how are they going to eliminate them?

The idea can’t be eliminated. We don’t know; its not an open society. We get different opinions on how strong Hamas is. You get stories that say they’re just autocrats who have ruled with an iron fist and people hate them. You get people who say they’ve got more support now in the West Bank. These are all questions which unfold. Remember you mustn’t see things in terms of a choice between being good or bad. It’s always been bad and worse with Israel. It’s a 12-mile gap from the West Bank to Israel. Imagine there are rockets from there or you’re sitting on top of them in the occupation. It’s a choice between bad and worse.

Hezbollah was pretty hammered last time. They don’t want to get involved this time; they’re just playing a game in the north. They’ve got 150 000 rockets and theyre serious rockets but the difference is, this time Israel’s got an Iron Dome for the north which they didn’t have before. There could still be huge damage though; a lot get through.

It seems to me that Hamas is driven by its hatred of Jews – of wanting to kill Jews – not so much its love and devotion to the Palestinians and what’s best for them. Essentially killing Jews is their number one sport and pastime. So when you said October 7 gave Hamas an opportunity to put “the Palestinian question” back on the table, does the conflict really have anything to do with the Palestinians or does Hamas want to sabotage everything for Israel in terms of normalising relations with Saudi Arabia? And killing Jews is just a massive benefit as far as Hamas is concerned. Are the Palestinians front of mind for Hamas in any regard? Because they’re using them as human shields, it’s not apparent that they care whether they live or die

Hamas as a movement in its charter is absolutely transparent. They believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, despite removing it from the charter in 2017.

Does Hamas consider themselves Palestinians?

Yes, but they’re an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian movement, which is founded in the 1920s.

So do you think Hamas feels caught up with the Palestinians as a people, as a culture, as a nation, or do you think they are purporting to be fighting for the plight of the Palestinians just to further their own aims which are basically to kill and cause mayhem?

I think they see themselves as the liberation movement of the Palestinians “from the river to the sea”. They want to set up a state with Sharia law. They’re Islamists, there’s no pretence. This is where people say the ANC were terrorists, and they weren’t in that sense. The ANC doesn’t know how to run a country, but it certainly didn’t have some fundamental divide.

So Hamas wants to liberate Palestine. They don’t separate Jews from Zionists; they buy into the Islamist literature of the Jew. It’s in the covenant: ugly stuff, ugly. And they’re premodern in the sense they don’t have that hidden dinner table conversation. Like, you say, suddenly someone comes out with something. They don’t have to, suddenly. It’s just there; it’s deep. And I think you can find lots of sources which portray the Jews terribly in the Koran, if you want to. You can find areas of meeting.

I’m a big fan of Douglas Murray, and he and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whom I’m also a big fan of, participated in that public debate about whether Islam is a violent religion or not. It was years ago and I found that quite fascinating. I’m rather surprised, considering all the things that came up in that debate, that there aren’t more fundamentalist Muslims. There are a lot of them, to be sure, but it’s a small portion in comparison to the total number. Albeit moderate Muslims don’t seem to speak up when their co-religionists are saying and doing these awful things

I think there are modernising, secular Muslims.

Many Muslims appear to be very observant though. How are they observant of Islam but at the same time not fanatical – particularly if there are all these negative references to Jews in the Koran? How do you explain a lack of animosity from those Muslims towards Jews?

There hasn’t always been animosity all the time with every person. There have been lots of bridges, lots of interconnections, relationships. These things exist.

Why do some people become Islamist fundamentalists?

Why do some people become Nazis, True believers? There are people who’ve tried to answer it. We’re different and we pick up our cues, whatever the reason: parents, this, that.

But as a group, radical Islamists cause a lot of havoc in the world, all over the show

Absolutely. The effect has been shocking. What angers me is Christian people not standing up for their co-religionists in the Middle East. They have denuded the Middle East of Christians. They’ve made them uncomfortable – communities that have been there for 2000 years. And here as well. I always hear of Christians for Israel. Well, get on to a march and show the government.

They tried. No good came of that for them

If they could only show the government that it’s not a winning ticket to be anti-Israel, that there are a lot of people who are pro-Israel. Do you know the only survey they have ever done is in 2007, the Pew survey. Pew asked about the Israel relationship across the country: 27 percent of South Africans were pro-Israel; 19 percent were pro-Palestinian; 40 percent didn’t know and the rest didn’t care, or something like that.

But I wonder how similar the numbers would be now?

Well, it’s probably heated up and there’s huge propaganda. And Muslims are in the foreign office so they’re influencing things in our international relations. There is not a defendant of Israel in a public role except Frans Cronje lately. It’s quite amazing. We’ve got no national figures; they call on Zionist Fed or Board of Deputies.

One feels just a deep sense of despair often. How does one counter that? How do you counter it? Surely you feel disillusioned when you see all of this antisemitism and rubbish being spoken?

Look, I’ve lived with it in the literature. But, now, when you see it . . .

And still today, it’s mind-boggling

It is mind-boggling. You just think, isn’t it remarkable?

Do you think this is just par for the course, i.e., why should one expect anything else?

Yes. If you’ve read enough of the stuff. I think one of the safety valves in this country in terms of real violence is that the government is on the side of the protestors, whereas imagine if you hate Israel and you go on a protest in London and you come home and put on the news and see Rishi Sunak saying we’re fully behind Israel. Imagine being Muslim in London and you’re angry.

But many of those protestors are certainly not “British on the street” in terms of public conduct on those marches that subscribes to British values

That’s right. And there are woke whites, woke university people.

You know they say you start off liberal and then as you get older you become conservative. Do you think these people will become less woke as time goes on or is being woke going to change the way people are?

In defence of woke, you know you would have been woke had you been for gender rights in 1910. It’s just the speed is so great; it’s out of touch with the ordinary person in the street. And critical race theory is awful.

You were talking before about how nationalities evolve: how Germany became Germany, Spain became Spain. With all these arguments now about mass immigration and multiculturalism failing because people dont integrate and respect their host countriesvalues, do you think thats just the idea of national identities changing once again – being constructedonce again – or is it a problem?

Look, you can’t put it back together but it has changed in many ways positively. In many ways a multicultural city like London hangs together.

One wonders now whether indeed it does. If Jews are too afraid to venture into central London every Saturday for weeks on end for fear of being attacked by pro-Palestinian protestors, that’s quite an indictment of multiculturalism

Yes, but that’s an ideological battle on Israel/Zionism. It’s quite good multiculturalism in terms of people in Parliament sitting together, having halaal food for a function, Hindus and Muslims getting on, Christians and Jews. There’s a lot to say for it. Homogeneous societies are easier to control; everything becomes easier. But it’s not the way of the world and we must strive towards learning to live together. But that doesn’t make it untrue to say that when you’ve got a more or less homogeneous group of people, you’ve got less conflict.

This conversation took place in late November last year, shortly after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war and before South African justice minister Ronald Lamola’s dismissal on BBC HARDtalk of antisemitism in the country

The interview with Milton Shain originally appeared on Dominique Herman's Substack