Labelling Jews with a “mark of shame”?

Dr Ivor Blumenthal - one Jew one jobWhile on campus for what I hope will prove to be the last meeting of 2012, a clear-out of the mailbox revealed a holiday-themed, ambiguously Christmassy card from the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies. The card reminded me of earlier this year, when I appeared on a panel with Khaya Dlanga and Brenda Stern at the Board of Deputies CENSOR/TIVITY conference. During the session I participated in, I was rather pleased to observe what appeared to be a fairly consistent and principled commitment to both free speech as well as the benefits of being sensitive to the emotional harms speech acts can cause.

Even though various contentious matters were under discussion (there’s a podcast at the link above, if you want to listen) – Zapiro’s cartoons, the Labia not screening Roadmap to Apartheid – most of the audience, as well as the executive members I chatted with, seemed to realise that demonising your opposition and their point of view would usually have to entail being fairly liberal with the truth. But also, and unsurprisingly, many people spoke of their deep and continuing hurt at being stereotyped or the subject of religious or other slurs. Zapiro’s cartoons were held out as an example of caricatures against Jewish folk, especially in Israel, that served no purpose but to harm.

Sadly, this sensitivity to offence turns out to be mono-directional. When a member of the Jewish community calls for Jews who are anti-Israel to wear a “mark of shame” – and expresses regret that stoning them is not possibile – the Board of Deputies declined comment. Here’s an extract from the blog post in question, written by Ivor Blumenthal:

We have to “out” them, their families, their children, their businesses and their friends. We have to make it as politically incorrect to be associated with them as they, with their BDS mates are making it for the majority of the Jewish Community in South Africa. We need to name them. We need to shame them. We need to make sure that their ability to make a living dries up. We need to label them and their families with the “mark of shame”. They are traitors and must be painted on as such. There is no space or place for half measures here. This is not something that can be negotiated. It is absolute casting into the wilderness which is required so that the next “humanitarian” will think four times before taking the same steps to attack the Jewish people, our values and our beliefs.

The question however is whether we have the courage as a community to do this?

You might think these words were written a number of decades ago, if it were not for the reference to the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But no – these are the words Ivor Blumenthal, a Jewish man himself, published on his blog yesterday, in reference to Jewish folk who are anti-Israel. For more on Blumenthal and his history of controversy, read this post by Nathan Geffen and Mary-Anne Gontsana. In a response typified by complete tone-deafness to history, the Cape Town Jewish Board of Deputies said:

Dr Ivan Blumenthal expresses a personal opinion in his blog titled “You cannot fight it darling – a Jew is a Zionist. By birth, not by choice.” The Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies feels no need to comment on the opinions of an individual within the Jewish Community who is not speaking on behalf of any Jewish communal organisation.

But offering any response at all (ie. acknowledging the existence of the case) without expressing judgement is already a comment of sorts, because the response entails the Board of Deputies declining a clear opportunity to say something even as benign as “obviously, we don’t share his views, but he has the right to hold and express them”. The Board of Deputies might well think Blumenthal’s position correct, even if they would not go as far in expressing it (through a “mark of shame”, for example) – but through not condemning his excesses, they align themselves with the sort (regardless of degree) of intolerance and prejudice I was led to believe they were vehemently opposed to.

Blumenthal also says:

Centuries ago we would have stoned people like this to death. Death is today not an option because, it just so happens that in South Africa we have some of the most stringent Human Rights legislation, ironically developed and forced through Parliament by – Jews, most of them who are the turncoat, ant-semetic (sic), self-hating, treacherous Jews.

While this (for me) stops short of a call to violence, it’s still reprehensible – and whether or not it counts as hate speech under South African law, it’s nevertheless worth denouncing, loudly and wherever possible. Including by the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies, who you’d think would be more sensitive to the potential that words hold to cause harm.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.