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Jewish newspaper expelled from South African press council for calling BDS cartoon antisemitic

The South African Jewish Report attempted to withdraw from the association but was told ‘you cannot do that’

In an unprecedented move, the South African Press Council has expelled the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper for describing a cartoon promoted by the movement to boycott Israel as antisemitic, setting off a heated debate over what constitutes antisemitism.

The South African Jewish Report was kicked out after attempting to withdraw from the council, an independent regulator the media industry created to ward off government scrutiny. The council had ordered the newspaper to apologize over the description, but it refused.

“It is a great pity that we have had to expel them, but we cannot tolerate a member of the Press Council wilfully refusing to obey rulings of the Press Ombud and the Chair of Appeals,” Phillip Levinsohn, the council’s chair, said in a statement on May 31. It is the first expulsion in the council’s 15-year history.

The dispute started two years ago when the South African BDS Coalition shared a caricature of a large man in a pinstriped suit and slicked back hair shoveling money into his mouth with a fork. “Don’t buy Clover products,” read text on the image, referring to a South African dairy company that had recently been purchased by an Israeli conglomerate. “Don’t feed Clover’s greedy bosses.”

The SAJR referred to it as an “antisemitic Clover cartoon” in the headline of a 2020 news article. The article itself stated that it “clearly looks like an antisemitic cartoon” and quoted a University of Cape Town professor who said that it tied “into classic tropes of Jews being obsessed with money, being greedy, exploiting the worker, and having sinister control over the world.”

The coalition that posted the cartoon pushed back. “The image used isn’t antisemitic, and in fact, we are very concerned at the SA Jewish Report’s assumption that the portrayal of a greedy capitalist is a portrayal of a Jew,” a representative said in the article.

‘The end of the publication’

Things might have ended there if a member of the organization hadn’t filed a complaint with the Press Council claiming that the article “wrongly labeled them as antisemites.”

Bernard Ngoepe, a judge for the council, found that the SAJR had erred by failing to label the article as opinion, rather than news. “It must be patently obvious that the cartoon alone does not necessarily denote Jewish people or Israel,” he wrote in a ruling last year.

Ngoepe upheld an earlier decision ordering the newspaper to publish an apology to the BDS movement.

The cartoon that the South African Jewish Report was ordered to apologize for describing as “antisemitic.” Photo by SA BDS Coalition

Jeremy Gordin, a South African journalist and commentator, argued that in doing so, the Press Council had effectively pushed the publication out of the association.

“Just a little bit of thought would have — or ought to have — suggested to Ngoepe that there was simply no way the SAJR could (or would) ever comply with such a ruling and sanction — because it would effectively mean the end of the publication; the end of its very raison d’etre and its credibility,” Gordin said.

Though the SAJR sought to leave the Press Council rather than apologize, it learned that there is a three-year period to terminate membership. The delay appears to be intended to prevent situations like the one involving the SAJR, in which a publication ends disciplinary proceedings against it by leaving the organization.

“The SA Jewish Report then attempted to withdraw from the Press Council rather than publish the rulings,” said Levinsohn, a judge with close ties to the Jewish community. “You cannot do that.”

After the council announced that it was expelling the newspaper, Peta Krost, the SA Jewish Report’s editor, responded defiantly. Krost said she had requested to join the council to raise her publication’s journalistic standards, but could not abide by the ruling to issue an apology to the SA BDS Coalition.

“Though it may be difficult for those outside the community to understand, there’s no way we can in good faith apologise to this organisation, known throughout the Jewish world for being antisemitic,” Krost wrote.

Krost sent a letter to the Press Council last fall, after she attempted to withdraw, offering to meet with its leaders to share how the organization “became party to perpetuating anti-Jewish hatred.”

‘We poor Jewish people’

Debate over the spat has erupted in the weeks since the announcement, with many of the newspaper’s opponents celebrating and pundits duking it out. Paul Trewhela, a columnist for the Daily Maverick, argued that the cartoon was objectively antisemitic in an article that compared it to Nazi propaganda. Meanwhile Glenda Daniels, a professor of media studies at Wits University, defended the Press Council’s decision.

“If it’s opinion, it must be marked Opinion and not passed off as fact,” wrote Daniels, who sits on the Press Council’s executive board.

The disagreement over the cartoon takes place both against the backdrop of a debate over how to define antisemitism — the Press Council went with “hostility to, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews” — and widespread feelings of hostility toward Israel in South Africa. The Israeli government worked closely with the white minority government during apartheid, including selling the isolated regime weapons and helping to develop its nuclear weapons program.

Relations between the two countries have been frosty in the roughly three decades since apartheid ended, but tensions have escalated in recent years. South Africa indefinitely withdrew its ambassador to Israel after violence along the Gaza border in 2018 and its foreign minister told parliament this year that it maintained limited diplomatic contact with the Jewish state primarily to “end the occupation of Palestine.”

Protests targeting Israel have sometimes spilled into the kind of bald antisemitism rare at such events in the United States, including a 2014 incident where students targeting Israel placed a severed pig’s head in the kosher food section of a grocery store.

The Jewish population of South Africa, which once numbered more than 120,000, has fallen to roughly 50,000 since the 1990s as economic opportunities for the minority white population, of which most Jews in the country are members, have dwindled and animus toward Israel has increased.

Gordin argued that the dispute had placed the Jewish community in a bind, with the Press Council making an unreasonable demand of its paper of record, which in turn pressured Levinsohn, the apparently Jewish president of the council, to remedy this by ignoring the technical violations that the SAJR had allegedly committed.

That would have placed Levinsohn, a prominent jurist, in the position of having appeared to forsake his professional duties to side with his community: “Ach, man, we poor Jewish people; we get shtupped if we do and shtupped if we don’t,” Gordin wrote.

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