Former leader of the Opposition in South Africa Tony Leon has become embroiled in an ugly mud slinging match over the suitability of controversial Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe for a future seat on the constitutional court. Leon, no stranger to being called a racist for his outspoken criticism of ANC policy will probably not be surprised by the latest attack from the Justice for Hlophe Alliance (see Leon should apologise for Hlophe remarks - JHA). But South African Jewry should be outraged.
Leon, on account of being Jewish, is accused of trying to import the racist discourse of the Arab-Israeli conflict into South African society. Absurdly, almost a third of the response issued by the Justice for Hlophe Alliance deals with the views of an extremist fringe in Israel towards its Arab citizens. Not only did Leon not refer to the Middle East or Jewish related issues in his original article, but the issue has nothing even to do with minority rights. Somehow Leon’s use of the term “fifth column” to describe Hlophe and his supporters in relation to the constitution has been deemed to be racist Jewish language common to right wing nationalist parties in Israel. The irony of course, is that Leon began his piece elegantly explaining that the origin of the term is actually the Spanish civil war.
Now love Leon or hate (I personally am in the former camp), agree with his criticism of Hlophe or condemn it, his ethnic-religious affiliation should have no bearing on the debate. The fact that he is Jewish or that the term “fifth column” has been used by people on the political extreme in the Jewish state is just not relevant. So why was it used? For the same reason the Nationalist Party ad nauseum assailed Helen Suzman for her Jewish roots. It is a classic political trick to prey on popularist anti-Jewish sentiments in an attempt to discredit and silence the critic.
The South African Jewish Community, in particular the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, cannot let this incident go unchallenged. We cannot let the Jewish origin of public figures be used as a tool to bash them. Remaining silent would only serve to legitimise this tactic. I understand that the leadership of the community may be nervous to wade into this fiery debate, particularly given the strong support Hlophe seems to have within the ANC. But there is a need to show some backbone here and stand up and defend Jewish rights. Otherwise we will always be de facto second-class citizens in this country.