Anti-Semitism a sign of times



The world will look on, again, probably aghast, when voters in the US go to the mid-term polls on Tuesday.
The election will be a referendum, of sorts, for the policies of President Donald Trump, and of the rightist white nationalist nastiness that he and his fellow Republicans have spread overtly, and subtly, over the past two years.
The Trump presidency has emboldened racists, rightwingers and fascists around the world, and it is hard not to reach the conclusion that we are heading for a global confrontation.
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrote a foreboding article in the New York Times earlier this year, warning about the rise of emboldened right-wing populism.
“There is no ignoring the storm clouds that have gathered. In fact, fascism – and the tendencies that lead toward fascism – pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War 2,” Albright said.
To be clear, I use Albright here, not because I am a fan, but precisely because she is, herself, quite conservative and, well, conservatives tend to listen to their own voices a lot more easily than to their opposition.
It is hard to forget the cruel and callous way Albright justified, in 2000, the death of an estimated 500,000 children because of US-led sanctions against Iraq.
When asked if she thought that the death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying, Albright replied: “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.” Never mind.
As we follow the spectacle of US mid-term elections, we may want to steel ourselves for the coming tide of misrepresentations, half-truths, untruths and, well, lies that come with electoral politics.
Having said that, the telling of porkies is not always part of electoral politics.
The stand-out example of this, at least in my mind, is the tragedy that was the Dreyfus Affair.
For a little more than decade, between 1894 and 1906, France was shaken by a scandal, false charges against Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer, that revealed the deep-seated anti-Semitism in that country at the time.
In October 1894, Dreyfus was arrested for high treason and court-marshalled in front of an anti-Semitic jury who judged him guilty.
Dreyfus was sentenced to life on an island off the coast of French Guiana in the South Atlantic.
In 1899, five years after Dreyfus’s imprisonment, the trial was reopened thanks to the evidence that emerged and demonstrated that Dreyfus had been falsely accused.
Instead of releasing Dreyfus, the French court found him guilty, once more, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison after having withdrawn his life sentence.
Dreyfus was released from prison after then French president Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau granted him amnesty in 1900.
It took another six years for the French courts to recognise Dreyfus’s innocence and admit the false accusations that had been made against him.
For much of the next 100 years, French society remained divided over the Dreyfus affair.
The gaping divide has always been between the left, those who knew he had been set up and falsely accused, and the right wing, those who were driven by open anti-Semitism.
While the left-right divide in the Dreyfus Affair may not be as pronounced in Europe and the rest of the world as it was between 1900 and 1945, Trumpism has emboldened a new wave of rightist pride, white nationalism, revision and more aggressive – sometimes subtle and insidious – racism, anti-Semitism and fascism.
There has been a rise in anti-Semitism and racist violence over the past two years and in the lead-up to the midterm elections.
Before the election of Trump, anti-Semitic harassment and attacks were rare and unexpected in the US.
After his election, antiSemitism has become normalised, harassment is a daily occurrence and shows no sign of abating.
It was shocking, but not surprising, that when Robert Bowers was charged with murder, hate crime and firearms offences for the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last month he went on a rant saying (among others), “I just want to kill Jews”.
Back in SA, a lot of our politics – public and privately expressed – rests on untruths, misrepresentations, false claims and accusations, and, of course, notions of eternal innocence.
Sometimes, it is difficult to keep a straight face and contain oneself.
Racism and fascism need to be fought.
It is difficult to stand on a platform with the most hideous people, or sit in an audience listening to racial hatred couched in the most polite terms.
So while our attention is focused on the mid-term elections in the US, we should remain aware of the posturing and porkies of our own politics.

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