When anti-Israel sentiment shades into anti-Semitism

RW Johnson says our universities should not allow this ideology to take root on their campuses

I note with wonder and some distaste the continuing "Israel Apartheid" agitation on many South African university campuses. Not that I don't think that Israel isn't eminently criticizable for the encroachment of its settlements into Palestinian land and, doubtless, for much else besides in the way that any state backed into the sort of corner that Israel is, is likely to be. One of the most impressive things about Israel is that there is no shortage of such criticism by Israeli intellectuals within Israel, which says something for freedom of expression there which cannot be said of just about any other Middle Eastern country.

However, I am not interested in either attacking or defending Israel. What I am deeply interested in is the way in which anti-Israeli sentiment on our campuses so easily shades into outright anti-semitism. There is no dodging this. During the recent disturbances at Wits over musical performances by Israeli performers there were anti-semitic songs sung, chants of "Kill the Jew !" and so forth. This is very, very ugly and disgraceful stuff.

It is also amazing to someone who knew South African universities under apartheid. When I was a student in Durban it was extremely noticeable that virtually without exception, the sprinkling of Jews on our campus were all anti-apartheid. Some were Progs, some Liberals, some Communists. (I note somewhat wryly that several of the student Communists I knew then live happily in Israel today.) This was true at faculty level too - professors like Hansi Pollak and Leo Kuper were outspokenly anti-apartheid.

But the Durban campus was notoriously conservative and lefties like myself on the SRC had a hard time faced with the solid bloc of Engineering reactionaries - in Maritzburg a role played by the Agrics. When we went to NUSAS congresses - and NUSAS was then the most anti-apartheid organization operating openly in the country - it was even more striking how prominent Jewish liberals and lefties were at UCT and Wits.

We could not but recognise that the Wits and UCT campuses were not only more academically distinguished than ours in Durban but also more lively and more liberal. We used to debate why this was and pretty quickly came up with the explanation that "Durban just doesn't have enough Jews". Whether one was looking at student leaders like Hugh Kowarsky, Adrian Leftwich or Roger Jowell, or at faculty level where Wits had Julius Lewin and UCT had Jack Simons, it was simply obvious that this was the missing ingredient.

Moreover, it went further than that. Both UCT and Wits were substantially better endowed than the University of Natal, which always got by on a shoestring. And here again, the big difference was that the Jewish communities of Johannesburg and Cape Town were much bigger than Durban's, and they were strongly philanthropic - they gave and gave to their local universities, endowing chairs, scholarships and bursaries.

No one was in any doubt that they had largely made those into South Africa's leading universities. Indeed, the Jewish contribution was not just large; it was fundamental. This meant that for all our generation the notion that university campuses might host events which gave offense to the Jewish community was completely unacceptable.

So, Gentile though I am, it is deeply shocking and saddening for me to see open anti-semitism on our campuses. I remember how, in the early 1960s, some extreme Afrikaner nationalists staged an anti-semitic demonstration in Jo'burg and the massed ranks of Jewish students from Wits simply broke it up. It was a matter of honour to them that anti-semitism simply should not pass and they were determined to show that they weren't going to shy away from fist-fights with burly Afrikaners if that's what it took.

The latest chapter in this sorry story is the speaking tour by Victoria Brittain on the "Israel Apartheid" bandwagon. It is strange to see Ms Brittain taken seriously any more. She lost whatever credibility she had in the UK after her admission that she had unwittingly allowed Libyan sources to deposit large sums of money into her bank account to finance a libel action of a friend of hers. But many such clapped-out old lefties re-cycle themselves here - just after 1994 we even used to have regular visits from Arthur Scargill. Here he was still taken seriously while in Britain he was no more than a figure of fun.

But the unfunny side of all this is when (perfectly acceptable) criticism of Israel is used to encourage entirely unacceptable anti-semitism. If we're frank about it, this is always likely to happen in South Africa simply because our lines of ethnic and community cleavage have been so envenomed over such a long period. Given the sheer historical fact of anti-black, anti-white or anti-Indian feeling - and the fact that so many still believe that the expression of such feelings is legitimate - it is only a small extra step to get to anti-semitism.

So, whatever the "Boycott Israel" or "Israel Apartheid" lobbies say - and they have a right to exist and to their opinions - if they are honest they must admit that wherever they operate they leave a trail of anti-semitism in their wake. They may say that this is not their intent, but they cannot be unwitting that this is what happens.

This means that an ineluctable burden lies on all our Vice Chancellors and other university administrators. They just have to think about the history of academic institutions and intellectual life generally in this country to know how precious and indispensable the Jewish contribution has been. So that even if the prevention of anti-semitism wasn't a sacred duty for intellectuals anywhere, we have our own particular South African reasons to say that this simply shall not pass.

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