Responding to BDS lies

David Saks says that engaging in defamatory invective is the modus operandi of the local BDS movement

One would surely expect that after 13 years of unsuccessful litigation culminating in a unanimous Constitution Court judgment finding of antisemitic hate speech against them, those on the receiving end would not have the effrontery to claim victory. Such are the realities of our all too aptly named “post truth” age, unfortunately, that the SA BDS Coalition attempts to do just that in its defence of Minister Naledi Pandor’s obsessive Israel bashing (‘Pandor recognising Israeli crimes as apartheid welcomed”, 29 July).

Brazenly misrepresenting the outcome of an important court ruling to push a political agenda is bad enough, but BDS descends even lower by jeering at the Jewish leadership for its supposed levelling of false charges of antisemitism in order to stifle criticism of Israel. Engaging in defamatory invective is the modus operandi of the local BDS movement, but this takes things altogether too far and for the record alone requires a response.  

The court case referred to above is that of the SA Human Rights Commission on behalf of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (Applicant) and Bongani Masuku and the Congress of SA Trade Unions (First and Second Respondent). To summarise, earlier this year, the Constitutional Court handed down judgment in the matter, whose genesis went back to a complaint of antisemitic hate speech which th

e SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) lodged with the SA Human Rights Commission in 2009. The basis of the SAJBD’s case was that Masuku’s incendiary rhetoric had gone beyond a legitimate expression of opinion on Israel to amount to hate speech and incitement to harm against SA Jewry in general. The SAHRC upheld the complaint, finding then Cosatu international relations secretary Bongani Masuku guilty of hate speech and directing him to apologise to the Jewish community.

Refusing to accept the ruling Masuku, with Cosatu’s backing, fought the case all the way up to the country’s apex court, but in the end to no avail. While differing in certain details with the rulings of preceding tribunals, the Concourt  confirmed the SAHRC’s original hate speech finding and ordered Masuku to apologise. Having reached the end of the line, the latter was left with no choice but to provide an appropriately worded written apology, and the receipt of same by the SAJBD shortly afterwards finally concluded the matter. 

Such are the bald facts of the Masuku affair. From the SAJBD’s point of view, it set the important precedent that the right to denounce Israel did not constitute a license to be hurtful and insulting towards Jews and vindicated its decision to take up and pursue the matter through to its conclusion.

At no stage did the SAJBD attempt to argue that criticism of Israel itself constituted antisemitism. Indeed, it was at pains to stress that the issues around that question were complex and heavily contested and that in a robust democracy, a diversity of viewpoints had to be accepted, no matter how strongly one might disagree with them.

This being the case, the sheer dishonesty of the SA BDS Coalition’s claiming that the Concourt ‘debunked’ what it called the ‘tired tactic’ of dismissing any criticism of Israel as antisemitic is frankly astounding. It is one thing to put one’s own ‘spin’ on a court ruling, but blatantly misrepresenting what the relevant case was all about is something else altogether.

There are surely limits to the degree of mendacity that even the local BDS movement should be allowed to get away with.

Throughout the thirteen years that the Masuku case lasted, the Masuku-Cosatu adhered rigidly to its line that the SAJBD’s complaint was a “frivolous, and false” attempt to silence and intimidate Israel’s critics.

The same pernicious argument is made by the SA BDS Coalition in its latest statement. Indeed, a regular tactic of hard-line anti-Israel activists has been to rubbish any claim of antisemitism arising in the context of attacking Israel as being made for in order to suppress ‘criticism’ of Israel, not because those who make it believe it to be true.

Apart from making it impossible to raise genuine concerns about when anti-Israel rhetoric does cross the line into antisemitism (which, inevitably, is frequently the case), such a response is itself redolent of antisemitic stereotypes. Whether intentionally or by implication it portrays Jews as being so dishonest, untrustworthy and cynically manipulative as to knowingly level false charges of antisemitism to cover up alleged Jewish crimes.

Another reason why the Masuku judgment is significant is that by finding that in his attacks on Israel Masuku did indeed cross the line into antisemitic hate speech, it struck a telling blow against this insidious narrative. That the SA BDS Coalition has sought to use that same ruling to ‘prove’ the contrary simply demonstrates once again that organisation’s readiness to misrepresent, distort and even falsify outright in order to push its agenda.

David Saks is the Associate Director, SAJBD