The news that Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Fatima Hajaig has expressed her regret about remarks made by her allows us to take a fresh view of this debacle.
Though she has apologised for what some within the Jewish community perceived as antisemitic, it is possible that those who raised this flag found her remarks ideally suited to divert attention away from South Africa’s revulsion of Israel’s criminal conduct in the Gaza Strip.
Indeed, prominent analyst and commentator Steven Friedman when asked to comment on the charge of antisemitism by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, said that it was a "red herring". He went on to claim that the Board’s concerns about human rights or racism were hollow as they have failed to display equal zeal and vigour to defend Palestinian rights. My paraphrasing of his criticism of the Board’s attempt to divert attention away from their immoral and provocative support – unconditional by the way – for Israel’s military actions, reflects the essence of his disgust with their approach.
Their effort to nail Fatima Hajaig as an antisemite was supported by the DA’s Tony Leon. He in fact, while remaining in a Rip van Winkle mode during the entire period of gruesome massacres committed against Palestinians [ semites too, of course], suddenly wakes up to score cheap political points against the ANC and the government.
As a collective of groups, the Jewish Board of Deputies, the SA Zionist Federation and the Chief Rabbi himself, in their questionable defense of Israel obviously overplayed their hand. This is evident in the unprecedented rebuttal of their stand by a selection of high profile Jews, ranging from former Chief Justice Chaskalson to author Nadime Gordimer.
What it suggests is that Hajaig’s remarks failed to propel the kind of vindictive measures from other Jewish constituencies that the Board and Leon embarked upon. Friedman, apart from his known public profile as a highly respected political analyst, is Jewish too. Former senior Cabinet Minister Ronnie Kasrils, also Jewish, and the "Not in my name" group of anti-Zionist Jews which he is part of, also viewed this as nothing more than a diversion from the real issues confronting Israel.
This entire debacle reminds me of the central thesis of Norman G Finkelstein’s book "Beyond Chutzpah", that whenever Israel faces a public relations debacle its apologists sound the alarm of "antisemitism".
This view is also supported by ‘Jews for Justice’. Their concerns are similar to those of Finkelstein and question the entire concept of antisemitism in the way it is used to manipulate legitimate criticism of Israeli policies as "anti-Jewish" and thus racist.
Hajaig’s remarks therefore must be viewed in the context of her entire speech. In pointing out her regret about the inference made by some in the Jewish community that she is "anti-Jewish", illustrates the vulnerability of all those who espouse anti-Israeli views. If David Saks of the Jewish Board has his way, freedom of expression will be held hostage by the Zionist lobby.
This in fact is the essence of Hajaig’s arguments at the rally: Advancing the Palestinian cause in America is severely undermined by elements who constitute the Zionist lobby.
South Africa must prevent rational debate and discourse being is hampered by invoking charges of "antisemitism". Else we will falter like America where neither Jewish intellectuals such as Finkelstein, nor former Presidents such as Jimmy Carter have been spared.