SA Jewish Board of Deputies weaponises antisemitism — not in my name

Charisse Zeifert and Adam Charnas’s response to my commentary in the Mail & Guardian is a perfect illustration of how antisemitism charges are weaponised to defend a political programme of Zionism. 

First, there is no logic to their arguments. The reason they believe that you can’t be Jewish without being a Zionist (“the essence of the Jewish people”) is simply because they say it is so. 

Here’s one example of why they are wrong. I was brought up in a modestly Orthodox Jewish family. We celebrated the Jewish high holidays, I went to a Jewish day school, I went on big walks to raise money for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and participated in the ritual of depositing coins into the blue JNF money box with a map of Israel on the outside. 

As a student, I went to work on a kibbutz in Israel. My father’s religiosity increased after his mother died and he became the chair of a small synagogue and stopped working and driving on Saturdays as part of religious observance but he did not expect the rest of the family to do the same. His religion was, to him, an intensely personal experience. 

As I got older, I discovered that the “Jewish” National Fund was not a fund for Jews or for Jewish development but a Zionist national fund that helped to support the occupation of Palestinian land, the theft of water for settlers under the pretext that it was “greening” an unoccupied desert and a way to consolidate Palestinian removal from their property. 

By misnaming it a “Jewish” National Fund, it was deliberately conflating Jewishness with the Zionist project of getting rid of Palestinians from territory that Zionists (note, I do not attribute this action to Jews but to Zionism) wanted for expansion.

Did I cease being a Jew when I realised that I could never support Zionism? I don’t think so. But, according to Zeifert and Charnas, it is only the South African Jewish Board of Deputies who can define who a Jew is and speak on their behalf. 

The problem with that logic of excommunication is that they have to explain why it is that many Jews around the world, including students, rabbis, health professionals, a US department of the interior official, Holocaust survivors, military personnel and academics, including Jewish Israeli academics, say “not in my name” when it comes to the Zionist actions of the Israeli state. Zionism is not the essence of the Jewish people. Their Jewishness is.

So, while Zeifert and Charnas have one view about Jewishness, a dogmatically Zionist one, many Jews do not share such views.

Second, in their desperation to discredit my arguments, Zeifert and Charnas claim I said many things I did not, simply to argue that I am labelling Jews with antisemitic tropes. 

For example, did I say Jews lie? Read the piece and you will not find that anywhere. The closest is an argument about claims made about antisemitic action which turned out to be false on media fact checking. I don’t know if the claimants were Jewish. Perhaps Zeifert and Charnas know more than I do about the claimants. There are a good number of Chirstian Zionists in the world, some of whom are supporters of Donald Trump, who might be willing to fabricate such claims. 

Similarly, it is Zeifert and Charnas who transform the indisputable fact that the leadership of Israeli universities attempted to intervene in US politics into a claim about a “Jewish international conspiracy” because they need a trope to discredit.

Attributing the actions of people and institutions to their Jewishness is what Zeifert and Charnas do, not what I do. That’s exactly what antisemitism is and it is Zeifert and Charnas who are doing the attributing, so that I can be smeared. They “get to define what antisemitism is” because they are Jews but other Jews, who disagree, are said to be gaslighting. 

Third, it is sobering to note their characterisation of Palestinian civilian deaths (currently more than 38 000) in Gaza as nothing more than a byproduct of a military campaign against Hamas, again justified by the propaganda claim that civilians are used “callously as human shields”. 

As meticulously documented by an Israeli Jewish professor and his non-Jewish colleague, the Israeli Defence Forces has over time increasingly manufactured claims to the use of civilian buildings for military purposes so as to make everyone in Gaza a “killable target”. The image of a Palestinian combatant presented to the International Court of Justice by the Israeli legal team, claimed to be a Hamas operative carrying a rocket launcher in the grounds of a hospital precinct and used as justification for attacks on hospitals, turned out to be falsification of the location. Yet, for Zeifert and Charnas, the propaganda of human shields continues to be a convenient rationalisation for the increasingly horrific number of Palestinian deaths in this murderous war on Hamas and the people of Gaza. 

Like many other Jews, I refuse to accept this moral inequivalence. The deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023 cannot be any more or less heinous than the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the ensuing war. 

What is patently patronising, insulting and false is Zeifert and Charnas’s claim to be able to decide, on behalf of all Jews, what Jewish morality should be. 

Professor Leslie London is chair of Public Health Medicine in the School of Public Health at the University of Cape Town and head of the Health and Human Rights Programme at the school. He serves on the steering committee of the People’s Health Movement, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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