Opinion |

'We’ll Come for You Zionists Next.' South Africa's Student Left Defends Hitler and Hezbollah, but Attacks Jews Like Me

At the University of Witwatersrand, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial are recurring features of the student body’s pro-BDS campaigns. After four years of trying, I now realise there’s no room for progressive Jews like me in South Africa’s ‘new' left

Adam Dison
Adam Dison
Student stage a protest against Zionism and Israel's policies during Israel Apartheid Week 2017 at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa on March 8, 2017.
Student stage a protest against Zionism and Israel's policies during Israel Apartheid Week 2017 at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa on March 8, 2017.Credit: Ihsaan Haffejee
Adam Dison
Adam Dison

"We’ll come for you Zionists next."

That's what an angry student said, pointing a finger in my face, in a planning meeting the day before a successful workers protests at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand a year ago. It shook me.

I’d redirected equipment and funds from Habonim Dror, the left-wing Zionist youth movement in which I was involved, to ensure protesters had food, cooking equipment and facilities to print posters. But that was the last time I was active in the logistics of student politics in South Africa. It was the last straw.

The addiction the South African 'new' left has towards the Palestinian struggle and its full-throated support of BDS, the boycott of Israel, is akin to insanity. The BDS issue was one of the defining questions of my involvement in student politics over the last three years. And it’s a big reason I won’t be working further with self-proclaimed 'progressive activists' in South Africa.

I've been living in two worlds: The first is the South African Zionist community, the second is the student activist community at Wits University. Over this time I’ve been involved in Habonim Dror, the South African Student’s Congress (SASCO), an ANC-aligned students union, and a student-academic staff-worker collective called October 6.

Sitting through uneducated arguments at my university's Israel Apartheid Week year after year, it's clear to me that the BDS campus campaigns achieve very little for Palestinians. I’ve worked with many Palestinians: the majority didn’t want to boycott me because of a word. That word being the ‘Z’ word: Zionist. Palestinian and Israeli leftists work together all the time.

BDS' hypocrisy is founded on its call to boycott immoral political behavior as only being directed at Israel. In the crossfire, innocents lose their jobs. With no other conflict in the world are 'socially conscious' activists as brutal and unashamed about destroying hope and livelihoods.

During Israel Apartheid Week at Witwatersrand University, students stage a ‘die-in’ theater performance simulating the Palestinians’ conflict with Israel. Johannesburg, South Africa. March 8, 2017.Credit: Ihsaan Haffejee / Anadolu Agency

Among the hundreds of people I’ve debated with over the last few years on Israel-Palestine I only ever met one activist who engaged in a real dialogue with me. An ex-Muslim who headed up the Wits Amnesty International branch, he's the kind of person who runs protests outside the Saudi Embassy with whoever will come (very few) and then joins the anti-Israel protests too. He didn't abide by the 'boycotts-are-only-for-Israel' hypocrisy. He was willing to discuss the possibility of a moral Zionism.

But the real failure of BDS is its inability to teach its supporters. Though their campaigns are run by serious activists, the people they trick into supporting them don’t access balanced media and information on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

That only works in the favor of the BDS cheerleaders. Anti-Semitic chants, Holocaust denial? They're easily shrugged off. Look at a partial list of incidents that occurred, mostly surrounding events at Wits University, over the last four years.

1. Wits students forced their way into a campus concert hall where an Israeli musician was performing, harassed audience members and forced the concert’s abrupt cancellation.

2. Both the Hezbollah and Hamas flags were waved at pro-Israel studentsduring Israel Apartheid Week.

3. A Wits student 'greeted' Jewish students with a Hitler salute and goose-stepping during Israel Apartheid Week.

4. The Student Representative Council president publicly declared his "love" for Adolf Hitler and, rather than apologizing, added: "I am puzzled and shocked by the response from the white community...If indeed the Israelites hate Hitler so much...why are they emulating [him]?...I'm deciding to look at the good Hitler stood for. He rebuilt the country, the economy, the infrastructure, he uplifted the spirit of Germany."

5. Congress of South African Students representatives placed a pig's head in a local shop's kosher/halal section, intended as a protest against the Woolworths chain for stocking Israeli products. Cosas "will not allow people who will not eat pork to pretend that they are eating clean meat, when it is sold by hands dripping with the blood of Palestinian children," the protest leader remarked.

6. Mohammed Desai, a BDS leader, defends the singing of the chant "Dubula e juda" ("Shoot the Jew," a new spin on a controversial apartheid-era struggle song, Dubul' ibhunu, but calling for Jews to be shot instead of "Boers") by pro-BDS protestors outside Wits' Great Hall.

7. During student protests, anti-Semitic graffiti reading "Kill a Jew" and "Fuck the Jews" appears on campus.

Perhaps I just take those activists too seriously. But their words and actions have had a horrific effect. The number of intelligent fellow students who've attempted to deny the Holocaust to me is utterly depressing. The level of education about Holocaust history, Zionist history and real thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict is sub-par.

I really did try. Last year I even attempted to speak on a panel for SASCO, the student union, on Zionism. I was going to propose to increase interaction and for me to run seminars on both the Palestinian and Israeli left’s perspectives. 20 minutes after a senior SASCO leader was made aware of the panel, it was cut. I was told it was because due process wasn’t followed. That’s when I left SASCO for the last time.

There is no space left for progressive Jews at Wits who don’t support this illogical way of thinking and action.

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) protest outside the Israeli embassy with a Hezbollah flag in Pretoria, SouthAfrica, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.Credit: Themba Hadebe/AP

And for those who charge: South African Jews, white Jews like you, benefited from apartheid, I reply: Yes, but my lineage is that of refugees. You progressives demand I distance myself from the one place on the planet people of my lineage, refugees all, are in the majority. The memory of the Holocaust weighs heavily on Jews around the world, and the expectation that supporting 'progressive' anti-Zionism means each Jew must martyr their own identity and beliefs, to disconnect ourselves from the majority of our community, is unethical and unreasonable.

I am bowing out of political activism in South Africa. But for those young Jews here, and on other campuses where progressive politics increasingly means anti-Zionism and pro-BDS, I have this advice: Choose your community and work within it. Try find partners, go out there. Sadly, at the beginning and the end, you’ll find anti-Semitism masked as progressive politics. But learn your history, learn what others say about it and learn to distinguish when you’re right and when they are.

Perhaps the tolerant left isn’t dead - but at the moment, for Jewish students here in South Africa and further afield, it’s certainly asleep.

Adam Dison is a student at the University of the Witwatersrand, finishing a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and the former secretary general of Habonim Dror Southern Africa. He writes a blog: adamdison.wordpress.com. Twitter: @adamdison

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