Making Home, Not Taking It: Anti-Imperialism and Anti-Zionism from South Africa Today

By Koni Benson

This article was originally published on African Arguments (February 17, 2024), and is republished here with the author’s permission. 

It is common to hear people say that history repeats itself, but history does not repeat itself; people repeat themselves, which is why it is important to place the struggle for Palestinian liberation, a struggle against Zionism, in a history of struggle against imperialism. South African Jews For A Free Palestine (SAJFP) is a group of anti-Zionist Jews drawing on our understanding of the responsibilities of Jews to stand up for justice including for the total liberation of the Palestinian people. We stand in solidarity with Palestine against the brutalities of Israel backed by the USA and by Zionists worldwide.

We are living in the wake of unresolved and ongoing histories of imperialism. This year marks the 140th anniversary of the Berlin Conference where European powers sat down to carve up the continent of Africa. It was at that same time (between the 1880s and 1914) that the families of most South African Jews (mine included) arrived as refugees fleeing pogroms/genocide in Eastern Europe. What we know about, and how we frame these histories will determine what we think we need to do about it today.  And what we do about it today will determine who lives and who dies many miles from here in occupied Palestine.

Imperialism is defined as a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonisation, use of military force, or other means. Imperialism is about dominance, control, enclosure, policing, extraction, and the reproduction of wealth across imposed and controlled borders. It is a process of alliance building, proxy wars, geopolitics. Of power, but power-over, not power-with, which are two very different things. The vocab may change, imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, but the fundamentals remain – to set the rules of the game of securing power and extracting wealth to win, over and over again.

The histories of imperial victories, which are always insecure because they always serve a minority at the expense and exploitation of the majority, are written by the victors. They always portray this expansion as earned, deserved, inevitable, and inalienable. And they always paint themselves as best suited to care for and lead, giving very real benefits of survival and comfort for complicity, and harsh punishment for refusal. As we have seen over the course of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel) hearings, the narrative of colonial occupation, especially settler colonial occupation, require constant expansion and defence in the face of anti-colonial resistance.

Like many Jews before us, SAJFP rejects the Zionist idea that Jewish safety requires a Jewish homeland and that Judaism justifies the state of Israel and its abominable treatment of Palestinians. Zionism is a form of Jewish nationalism predicated on the establishment of a Jewish-only state on Palestinian land. As SAJFP we see Zionism as racism with the inevitable oppression of first-class citizens over second-class citizens. Zionism is what drives the Israeli government’s system of apartheid and dispossession of Palestinians now and for the past 75 years.

The establishment and ongoing defence of Israel and its arrogant entitled settler behaviours rests to a large part on the framing of the Holocaust. SAJFP rejects the ways that Jewish trauma has been weaponised to justify the occupation and oppression of Palestine. This framework where victimhood justifies all subsequent behaviour goes against the core ethics of Judaism.

As spelled out in her new book, Doppelganger, anti-Zionist Jewish political writer, Naomi Klein unpacks how the horrific genocide of the Holocaust has been given special status that justifies colonial occupation and all the brutality that it entails, as a twisted form of reparations. It is important to see the Nazis and their racist eugenics as a continuum of the European settler colonial project that shaped the world we continue to reckon with. Hitler himself said that the idea of the concentration camps came from the British and the South Africans. The Germans first practices of genocide were right here in Namibia, where, in response to resisting the dispossession of land, they exterminated tens of thousands of Nama and Herero people between 1905-8. These practices were then imported back to Europe.

Aimé Césaire, the Martinican anti-colonial poet and politician, argued that the Holocaust was colonialism turned inwards. Likewise at the time, political theorist, Hannah Arendt – herself a Jewish critic of Zionism – argued that colonial racism of imperial expansion set the stage for the Holocaust. Klein points out how framing the British and the Americans as the good guys who defeated Hitler and freed Jewish victims, has been used to dismiss their imperial legacies, which they continue to defend today.

If the Holocaust is rooted in unethical European colonial politics, then that is what we need to address now. As poet Mohammed el-Kurd’s refrain in a poem “Who lives in Sheikh Jarrah?” goes: “colonialism in Jerusalem killed the peace.” But instead, the argument many Zionists were making at the end of WWII was that Jews earned the right to an exception to the decolonial consensus, an exception born of their recent near extermination, victimization and vulnerability (Klein). And so the argument went that if Europe could establish nations based on ethnic cleansing and massive colonial violence and land theft, then it is discrimination to say Israel cannot… and so it was framed as anti-Semitism to restrict Israel. The quest for equality was therefore reframed not as the right to be free, but the right to take land and colonise. Which of course suits Western powers. As SAJFP we reject this narrative and the colonial dynamics it justifies.

The USA and Israel continues to frame themselves as saviours of the Jews as we saw in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearings on 11-12 January 2024, where Israel is currently spinning itself as the victims and leaning hard on a twisted, capitalist, colonising vision of safety. This we reject.

To transcend the trauma of the holocaust and the many horrific and life-defining experiences of antisemitism before and since that time, we need to challenge the way that our fear is weaponised to justify atrocities and keep us complicit in a global power dynamic. Attempts to defend Israel are attempts to defend an entire world order based on the idea that there can be bubbles of security, without peace. As Klein points out, it’s not just Israel that wants peace without justice and bubbles of security by fortressing borders.  I think we must name this world order as one of racial capitalism and unapologetically call for decolonisation: from Sea Point to the Red Sea, all must be free.

If not, what do we get? History shows us that colonial promises of security, are in Israel and everywhere, promises of violence. As Devin Atallah wrote in a beautiful piece called ‘Beyond Grief: To Love and Stay with Those Who Die in Our Arms’: “As our Palestinian people face the genocidal unmasking of the colonial world, we know that when colonisers talk about ‘security,’ they are in fact talking about ‘violence’…In the colonial exchange…security becomes violence, and violence becomes security. They merge and become the same word.” He cites Tareq Baconi who explains: “for decades Israel has operated on the pretence that it can provide security for its citizens while subjecting the Palestinian people to an apartheid regime. Now that pretence has been shattered.”  As Atallah asks and answers: “Did Israel lie to or mislead its citizens for over seven decades? No. Instead, the issue is one of semantics. Israel’s promise that it would provide security for its citizens has always been, in fact, a promise that it would provide them with violence” (Institute for Palestine Studies blog, 24 Oct 2023).

As SAJFP we know that anti-Semitism is real, but the move to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is to cover up the racist roots of Zionism and its foundational idea that we need a Jewish homeland to be safe. This form of safety through oppression, in our opinion, is a breeding ground for antisemitism.

We are not the first to say this. It was pointed out by our anti-Zionist ancestors throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Most Jews in Germany in the 1930s for example, opposed Zionism. There was no consensus, capitulation was contested and constructed then, as it is now. Let us remember how after the end of WWII, it was Zionist Jews in the West, in Europe and the USA, who lobbied for quotas, for a limited number of Jewish immigrations out of German concentration camps to come to the West. The rest, would rather be sponsored to go to Palestine, a place that most Jews in the USA for example did not want to go to, but wanted as a backup plan in the face of antisemitism, an insurance policy that they would contribute towards sponsoring. What is important here is to show that many Jews living in Israel today, had few choices and most there today do not have the financial means of leaving. They are pawns of the powerful, who we know always look out for themselves and spin it as benevolent, paternalistic saviours.

As South Africans, we know that to impose a homeland – an ethnonationalist space for only one kind of people, as if people are ever only one pure thing and belong in one place – is disastrous. We know about the myths of colonial projection and care, about truth without justice, about empty rainbows, about reconciliation without reparation or return.

In its January 13th ICJ submissions, we heard Israel try to claim that the evacuation of Palestinians from their homes in Gaza was to keep them safe. We know this is part of their settler colonial plan of expansion, which requires further and further dispossession. Already since 7 Oct over 85% of people in Gaza have been evacuated, as mass forced displacement from their homes, 355 000 homes (Adila Hassim, South Africa vs. Israel ICJ hearings submission). This is not an innocent side-product of a so-called conflict with Hamas. This is disaster capitalism. In fact, we have already seen pre-sales of beach side property homes for sale to Israeli’s imagined in adverts along the Gaza Strip. History does not repeat itself, people do.

In response to the ICJ hearings, on 12 January 2024, South Africa’s chief Rabbi, Warren Goldstein, suggested that Israel is above the UN which he said is a threat to freedom and democracy in the world. This is the ongoing history of colonial denialism, and justifications for an exclusive, securitized form of safety for a few at the expense of the rest. Goldstein says he speaks on behalf of the South African Jewish community. We say, not in our name.

We know there are options of other Jewish voices, opinions, and actions, throughout history that we can draw upon for inspiration and for clear direction today. For example, before the Holocaust, our Jewish ancestors organised with the Jewish Socialist Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia (where the majority of South African Jews came from) believed in the principle of ‘doykheit’ or ‘hereness’. They argued that we should build communities of solidarity in the places we worked and lived right now, not in some faraway future place.

This idea of home beyond the nation state where we find common ground and bonds of mutual care with other communities where we live was their anti-capitalist alternative. To fight for justice wherever we are, with and for people who are, and are not, related to us. Because, as Fenya Fischler, a member of Een Andere Joodse Stem/Another Jewish Voice, Belgium argues: “Our safety is a mere illusion if it relies on walls and weapons to keep those we dehumanise out.” In the famous words of Bundist, Marek Edelman, the Jewish Polish political activist and cardiologist who was the last surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, “to be a Jew means always being with the oppressed and never the oppressors.” This is what will keep us safe.

While not a Bundist, the famous Jewish anti-imperialist theorist and internationalist activist, Rosa Luxemburg, who both faced and fought anti-Semitism, rejected the idea of Jewish separatism. Writing from prison to German-Jewish socialist and feminist Mathilde Wurm in 1917, Luxemburg asks: “What do you want with this theme of the special suffering of the Jews? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch…I cannot find a special corner in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.” In fact, in this letter she speaks of the impact of being haunted by the ongoing “sublime silence” of “the death-rattles and cries of those dying of thirst” from German General von Trotha and his extermination campaigns against the Nama and Herero, in shaping both her internationalist orientation to the question of anti-Semitism and her life’s work against imperialism.

When we say at our Passover sedars, “no one is free until everyone is free”, we need to match these sentiments to action. Long term slow action, immediate daily action that reconfigure the colonial dynamics we inherit and challenge the ongoing brutality/growth of imperial powers. Imperialism is driven by capitalist expansion. Capitalism, as many have shown, is racial, and racist. So if we want to talk about anti-imperialism, we need to talk about anti-capitalism, anti-Zionism, and anti-racism, where we are, in and across national borders.

This for SAJFP is part of the core mandated work outlined in Judaism as Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. This is why Jews for example do not believe that the messiah has come yet, because our teachings say that first humans must do the social justice work, and then the messiah will come and we will enter a post-emancipated state of emanation, of Atsilut. As anti-Zionist Jews we believe in building a Judaism beyond Zionism, and a world free of colonialism and white supremacy. Because there is no peace without liberation. This is hard work, it is complicated, relentless work as racist patriarchal capitalism remains the order of the day, with the USA assuming the world as its playground, wanting control, ideally by proxy or indirect rule or even better, by just extracting our resources and having us buy them back as consumer capitalists.

There is much we can do to refuse, to redistribute, to repair, to reckon, to rebuild. This is the only way to be safe. History does not repeat itself, people do.

Migration has been here forever, but borders are new. An anti-imperialist position demands that we answer this burning question: can we arrive somewhere and make, not take, home? To make, not take, home- this is our challenge to Jews in Palestine, and to Jews in South Africa.  Internationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist solidarity is at the heart of building the answers to this question, and to see from Sea Point to the Red Sea, a Palestine that will be free.

*This text is adapted from a speech given at the Global Day of Action for Palestine Rally at the Sea Point Promenade, Cape Town South Africa, 13 Jan 2024.

Article by: