Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Letters to the editor: April 12-18

Butler and BDS silence independent opinions

The argument that Israel represents the “Jews of South Africa”, often made by members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, is as fallacious as the equal assertion that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and its leadership represent the diversity of local Jewish history and culture, in particular the legacy of Jewish activists during the freedom struggle.

“Supporting BDS honours SA struggle” (April 5) by United States academic Judith Butler ironically refers readers to a committed Zionist and treason trialist, Arthur Goldreich, alongside a liberal supporter of Israel’s sovereignty, Helen Suzman. This is done to embroider an evolving work of fiction — the false analogy between the ongoing struggle of the Palestinians and our own country’s struggle against apartheid.

Butler maintains that “BDS draws on long-standing traditions, some of which were importantly developed in the context of the struggle against apartheid”. Although the two struggles may appear similar in mode, there are significant and important divergences, differences that we disregard at our peril.

For starters, the South African struggle was an epic battle against colonialism and white domination in support of democracy and secularism. Activists such as myself were pitted against a white regime that was theocratic, undemocratic and avowedly Christian in outlook.

Butler goes on to write: “Let us not forget the large numbers of Jews who have fought in social justice struggles, including the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa (Joe Slovo, Goldreich, Ruth First, Albie Sachs, Suzman), who contest the radical inequalities that form the basis of Israel’s claim of Jewish sovereignty and its claim to maintain Jewish demographic advantage at all costs.”

The claims made with regard to Goldreich and Suzman are instructive and bear greater consideration. A piece published by Benjamin Pogrund for the Helen Suzman Foundation states: “Use of the apartheid label and repeated references to ‘genocide’ against Palestinians and denunciations of Zionism as ‘racism’ are at best ignorant and naive, and at worst, cynical and manipulative.”

Unlike the South African struggle, where Jews enjoyed leadership roles, and were, in many respects, over-represented, both Fatah and Hamas have failed miserably to include Jews in top positions.

Palestinian claims about the alleged “Jewish race” share more in common with the racist objectives and malicious aims of the puritans of the National Party than the alleged nonracialism of the ANC. To reiterate, nations are not races.

Unlike the Palestinian struggle — which lacks any meaningful document such as the Freedom Charter, setting out winnable aims and objectives, civil rights for all — the South African situation is rather different.The recipe for achieving a negotiated outcome and peace settlement in our country was founded upon a winning constitutional formula.

BDS has failed time and again to canvass the opinion of persons either referred to as “Jews” or self-defined as Jewish, in a skewed solidarity politics that ignores the problem of Jewish identity. Butler is only able to espouse her own views because other views and Jewish voices have been silenced by the BDS politburo.

Although Butler’s misguided rhetoric on anti-Semitism is to be welcomed, let’s be forthright and stop beating around the bush — anti-Semitism is open hostility towards secular Jewish identity.

Attempting to provide a nonviolent and antiracist veneer to a religious struggle, in which both sides are informed by religious texts in a battle over the final status of Jerusalem,avoids the open inquiry and evidence-based empirical research that needs to occur if we are understand the many dimensions to the problem.

As a person whose Jewish identity became the subject of a racist legal inquisition in South Africa at the behest of the perpetrators of apartheid, I take exception to the banning of opinion and obliteration of independent voices outside of these two diametrically opposed camps.

The experience of BDS campaigns in South Africa has not been a pleasant one.

I can only commend the University of Cape Town(UCT) council for not caving in to the zealots.

It is not too late, nor out of the bounds of reason, to embrace a secularist and non-partisan “third way”that avoids scapegoating those who disagree with leaders and pundits on either side, and avoids sacrificing democratic freedoms, including the freedom of speech, while protecting constitutional rights in our own country.

For the record, as a graduate of UCT’s Centre for African Studies, I am opposed to the separation barrier, in favour of a limited arms embargo against the state of Israel, and do not support any cultural or academic boycott targeting persons of Jewish descent on the basis of our alleged history and identity. — David Robert Lewis, Cape Town

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

R15m to rid Gauteng of dirty air

The World Bank is funding a plan to deal with air pollution in Ekurhuleni, Tshwane and Johannesburg

Reservations about ‘new deal’ for rhinos, lions, elephant, leopards

Draft policy promotes species playing their role in wilderness systems but one conservationist says leopards are being sold out

More top stories

Malawi moves to Maggie Mkandawire’s beat

Empowering her people through music and education, Maggie Mkandawire fights the Covid-19 pandemic in her own unique way

Vaccines split global recovery – IMF

The global economy will expand by 6% this year but the economic gap between nations is widening.

R15m to rid Gauteng of dirty air

The World Bank is funding a plan to deal with air pollution in Ekurhuleni, Tshwane and Johannesburg

Transaction Capital finds trust among used-car salesmen

The firm believes the second-hand vehicle business will thrive in a post-Covid world

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…