Last winter, Bongani Masuku, International Relations Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), part of the “tripartite alliance” that currently governs South Africa and a leading proponent of a boycott campaign against Israel, decided he had something to say to his country’s Jews:
We want to convey a message to the Jews in SA that our 1.9-million workers who are affiliated to COSATU are fully behind the people of Palestine… Any business owned by Israel supporters will be a target of workers in South Africa.
This was the beginning of a torrent of anti-Semitic abuse leveled by Mr. Masuku, including promises to make the lives of Jewish supporters of Israel “hell”, threatening harm to the families of Jews with family members in the IDF, proclaiming his view “that Jews are arrogant”, advocating the expulsion of Jewish supporters of Israel from South Africa (and implying that they weren’t true South Africans to begin with), demanding that, in order to “regard them as human beings”, Jews should be forced to loudly and unambiguously condemn Israel on all fronts (not “silently consenting or grumbling under tables.”).
The South African Board of Jewish Deputies leveled a complaint of hate speech before South Africa’s Human Rights Commission (South Africa’s constitution explicitly exempts hate speech from constitutional protection). Mr. Masuku, as expected, responded that his words were merely criticism of Israel, and that the accusations of anti-Semitism by the SABJD had grown “tiresome”. However, the SAHRC recently released its ruling, finding that Mr. Masuku engaged in clear hate speech, and ordered him to apologize or face litigation in South African courts. “The comments and statements made” by Mr. Masuku, the commission concluded, “are of an extreme nature that advocate and imply that the Jewish and Israeli community are to be despised, scorned, ridiculed and thus subjecting them to ill-treatment on the basis of their religious affiliation.”
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. For starters, it looks like Mr. Masuku is planning to take this to the courts (though COSATU still has not released an official statement on the matter (TULIP is awaiting word from them, but a press release by the Palestine Solidarity Committee, purporting to speak on behalf of COSATU and Mr. Masuku, promises a fight). But perhaps the more disheartening element has to do with what Mr. Masuku is doing right now: traveling through England as an invited guest of the University and College Union, as part of their recent flirtation with aligning with the academic boycott of Israel. UCU representatives were dismissive when informed that Mr. Masuku had recently been found to have engaged in racist activity, saying “We don’t comment on stuff doing the rounds on the Internet and in the blogosphere and never will” (they did not provide comment when given copies of the SAHRC ruling itself). At a fringe meeting by BRICUP (British Campaign for the Universities of Palestine — the British vanguard for the academic boycott of Israel) hosting Mr. Masuku, the moderator shut down a question as to why the organization was hosting a speech by someone recently convicted of hate speech. This is part of a long trend where the UCU has allowed its virulent anti-Zionism to excuse, apologize for, and ultimately align with anti-Semitic agitators.
Pessimist that I am, I am quite worried about the vitality of this decision if it is challenged in South Africa’s courts. Groups like the Palestinian Solidarity Committee rightly view this case as landmark, for, if Mr. Masuku prevailed, it would establish a carte blanche exception for anti-Semitic speech when it is dressed up as “anti-Zionism”, effectively eviscerating South Africa’s constitutional protections. Their argument should fail, for under normal circumstances this is simply not a tough case.
I’ve been keeping an eye on this case for a long time, and will continue to update its development, including any new reactions by the UCU, COSATU, or other groups fighting for and against the recognition of Jews as human beings.