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The holocaust, academic freedom and free speech

The holocaust, academic freedom and free speech
April 30, 2021
April 30, 2021 April 30, 2021

DR PAUL HENDLER responds to the furore that arose following the comments made by University of Cape Town (UCT) lecturer, Dr Lwazi Lushaba, about Hitler committing no crime.

DURING a political science lecture in early April, UCT’s Dr Lwazi Lushaba said that “Hitler committed no crime. All Hitler did was to do to white people what white people had normally reserved for black people”. This upset some students at the lecture. It caused a furore from the DA and the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, leading to calls for Lushaba’s suspension pending an investigation into the matter.

On April 15, in the Daily Maverick Steven Robins’s contribution (Lwazi Lushaba and his Hitler Analogy ….) dispelled any doubt about the myth that Lushaba was engaging in holocaust denial. I watched the full video. I listened carefully to the 53 minute lecture. The statement about Hitler committing no crime took up a minute proportion of the time (about 13 seconds) in what was an interesting exegesis of the ideology of political science and its transformations between three frameworks of analysis.

As welcome as Robins’s contribution is, it nevertheless suffers from three limitations. I originally addressed these limitations in a letter to the Daily Maverick. I wrote this piece in the interests of defending academic freedom and freedom of speech. Despite requests to confirm the publication of my letter, I received no reply after 48 hours. I also could find no trace of my letter on the Maverick site after looking for three consecutive days after my submission. The following is the content of the article I submitted.

First, Robins’s article does not identify the calls by the DA and SAJBoD, and UCT’s investigation as a threat to academic freedom and freedom of speech. Even if someone was denying the holocaust (and let’s be clear, Lushaba wasn’t) is this reason to hang over them the threat of taking away their employment, i.e. suspending them pending investigation and discipline?

It would be appropriate from both a scientific and democratic standpoint to engage people who question the holocaust with evidence – and there is considerable evidence – that refutes that. The DA, the second largest political party in the country by electoral support, is calling for Lushaba’s suspension and will lodge a complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBoD) has reportedly handed the case over to its Antisemitism and Legal subcommittee but already “reached out to” University of Cape Town (UCT) vice chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng. Lushaba is now facing an internal enquiry by UCT. Scepticism is a hallmark of scientific method. Something is not accepted as scientific knowledge until it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Threatening scholars who do not toe the line is a violation of academic freedom. It is a person’s democratic right to free speech to argue to refute the holocaust if that is what they think. Threatening an employee with suspension because of his political or scientific views is arguably a violation of his constitutional rights to trade freely.

Second, Robins implies that Lushaba’s point about ‘no crime having been committed’ essentialises Jews and black Africans by comparing the extent/ degree of crimes against each in a  competitive way. He refers to Michael Rothberg, who critiques competitive memory. Instead, Robins argues for a concept of Multidirectional Memory as articulated by Rothberg in his book that includes that phrase in its title.

However, Robins provides no evidence that suggests this is what Lushaba intends to communicate. Lushaba refers to violence against the colonised as well as violence against European white people, using the same term, namely, ‘massacres’. This suggests that he does not intend to essentialise either group and set up their traumas in competition to one another. Quite the contrary, Lushaba could well be critiquing a competitive memory model by claiming ironically that if European genocides against black Africans were not seen as criminal then the holocaust should likewise not be regarded as a crime.

Third, Robins nowhere mentions Zionist ideology, yet it is precisely this that frames the essentialism of Jewishness and the exceptional victimhood and suffering of Jews. Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev’s “The Seventh Million” (pages 329 to 330) refers to Israeli prime minister David ben-Gurion’s presenting the holocaust as the only crime that has no parallel in human history. At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, in 1989, Archbishop Tutu referred to South African apartheid as the worst form of racism since Nazism.

In the same year, I attended a holocaust commemoration at the Jewish cemetery in Pinelands, Cape Town. During the ceremony, a speaker from the Western Province chapter of the SA Zionist Federation rejected Tutu’s comparing the suffering of black people under apartheid to that of Jews under Nazism, as diluting the value of and cheapening Jewish suffering.

Israeli psychoanalyst Iris Hefets, self-exiled and living in Berlin, refers to the mystique that Zionist ideology has built around the genocide of the Jews and the quasi-religious notion of ‘Shoah’ ascribed to it. The religiosity around the holocaust effectively occludes research and investigation about it and interpolates it as an event involving both perpetual victims (the Jews) and perpetual perpetrators (the Germans). SAJBoD and the DA calling for Lushaba’s head for daring to articulate a critique of exceptional Jewish suffering is consistent with Zionist weaponising the holocaust to deflect criticism of Israel’s genocidal policies against Palestinians in Gaza.

Between 2006 and 2014, Israel attacked Gaza eight times, destroying thousands of lives, tens of thousands of property units as well as substantial sewerage and electrical infrastructure. In 2018 and 2019, Israeli snipers shot and killed about 200 Palestinian protestors in Gaza who had gathered nearby or walked up to the fence of their open air maximum security prison as part of the Great Walk of Return. They also shot and injured over 22 000 civilians.

These false charges of hurtful speech, implying an underlying antisemitic intent and effect, are little more than a distraction from the real hurt against the second class citizens of the Jewish ethno apartheid state of Israel, and the brutal occupation of those in Gaza and on the West Bank who are not part of the Jewish ethnos. Given that Lushaba was instrumental in the establishment of the Palestine Solidarity Forum at UCT several years ago, it is reasonable to hypothesise that this is the Zionist payback.

South African jurisprudence is that ‘hurtful speech’ is constitutionally protected speech and that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. In 2009, SAJBoD submitted a complaint to the SAHRC against a COSATU official for allegedly making hurtful comments against the Jewish community during a protest against the fourth Israeli attack on Gaza, code-named ‘Cast Lead’. The SAHRC concluded that the official’s statements constituted hate speech against the Jewish community and ordered him to apologise, which he refused.

The SAHRC then approached the Equality Court to get its decision enforced. In 2017, the court confirmed that the official had indeed been guilty of hate speech towards the Jewish community. COSATU appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA). In 2018, the SCA ruled that the official’s statements were never anything more than political support for Palestine. The court concluded that the word ‘Zionism’ was not synonomous with the word ‘Jew’ and even if the comments were hurtful to a group of Jewish Zionists, this did not preclude it from protection under the constitution.

And so it should be, otherwise our hard-won right of free speech will be undermined by Zionism’s outrageous censorship.

Paul Hendler, Stellenbosch. (I am a Jewish South African against the demonisation of the Palestinian people and for an objective account of the facts of their circumstances. Jewish people have a right not to be invested in Israel).

Featured image: A view of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Auschwitz, which was the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. (Photo SHUTTERSTOCK)

  • This article was updated on May 1, 2021 at 11:20am to correct a hyperlink.

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