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Fathom 17 | A Deeply Rooted Anti-Zionism: Reflections from South Africa

While the degree of support for radical anti-Zionism in South Africa is often wildly exaggerated – the government remains committed to the two state solution and a 2007 poll indicated that 28 per cent of South Africans side with Israel in the conflict as opposed to 19 per cent with the Palestinians – it does have many supporters among South Africa’s Muslim minority, the militants of the African National Congress (ANC), hostile to every form of ethnic politics, and in parts of the white progressive intelligentsia who claim to see in Israel an ‘apartheid state’. In this essay, Milton Shain maps the history and the contemporary dynamics of anti-Zionism in South Africa.

It should not have come as a surprise to South Africans when a few months after the UN General Assembly endorsed the Goldstone Report in 2009, African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Kadar Asmal called on the world to deny legitimacy to Israel. To be sure, for the chattering and intellectual classes in South Africa, both black and white, the word ‘Zionism’ has become synonymous with evil. While a small Muslim minority, less than 2 per cent of the total population, drives the anti-Zionist agenda, hostility is widespread and deeply rooted in the largely black ANC and among the white progressive intelligentsia.


Muslim hostility goes back decades. As early as 1925, a local newspaper, Muslim Outlook, criticised ‘Jewish capitalists’ in Palestine for allegedly forcing Arab peasants off the land, and the Israeli War of Independence (1947-48) was described in the Muslim press as a catastrophe (Nakba). Further Israeli victories against Arab forces that culminated in the Six-Day War, exacerbated anger as South African Muslims shared in the humiliation of their Muslim ‘brothers and sisters’. Yet for the most part hostility was low key, below the radar and largely removed from ‘white’ awareness in what was a hermetically sealed apartheid society. From the 1970s, however, hostility moved more into the open as a new generation of Muslims challenged the relative conservatism of their elders. The Muslim Youth Movement established in 1970 and the Muslim Students Association established four years later presented a more radical message and rejected the more accommodating behaviour of the Muslim establishment.

Increasingly, Muslims became acquainted with the Islamist writings of Abdul A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966); while readers of Muslim News were warned about ‘Zionist designs’. Study programmes were initiated and manuals printed. Much of the material was provided by Islamic groups abroad, targeting Zionism, secularism, capitalism, and communism as the major threats to Islam. In calling for an ‘Islamic way of life,’ groups such as the Muslim Youth Movement ‘reflected an emergent black consciousness movement’s appeal to an authentic black identity in South Africa’. Inspired by radical teachings – including the writings of Ali Shari’ati (1933-1977) and the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – and encouraged by the student uprising in Soweto in 1976, the success of the Iranian Revolution, Khomeinism and the international Muslim struggle against imperialism, young Muslims tapped into a deep-rooted anger that identified Zionism as the ‘citadel of imperialism’. The Muslim press regularly wrote about international financial machinations centred on Zionism, and well-organised Al-Quds Day events defined the Jewish state as a focus of evil and a conspiratorial centre. READ MORE