exploring the concerns of the south african Jewish community
In this first article in our series of three articles on antisemitism, David Saks explores levels of antisemitism in a post-Apartheid South Africa, while looking at comparatives of antisemitism in other countries.
The 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) – or strictly speaking, the NGO/civil society component that preceded the official inter-government meeting – is generally considered to be a pivotal event in the evolution of modern-day antisemitism. In addition to arguably marking the launch of the so-called ‘Durban Strategy’, which aimed at isolating Israel in the international arena by depicting it as a racist, apartheid and colonial state, the event frequently spilled over into more explicit manifestations of anti-Jewish hatred.
"The fact that the WCAR took place in Durban ... has created the perception abroad that South African Jewry has been especially affected by the steep rise in global antisemitism... ".
This included, but was not limited to, the open purveying of such classic antisemitic tracts as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and disruptions of events discussing antisemitism. For Jewish rights activists on the ground – including a number of this writer’s colleagues from the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) – it was a genuinely traumatic experience.
The fact that the WCAR took place in Durban, combined with the special resonance the Israel = Apartheid analogy would be expected to have in the country that gave birth to apartheid, has created the perception abroad that South African Jewry has been especially affected by the steep rise in global antisemitism that followed the collapse of the Oslo peace process in September 2000. It therefore comes as a genuine surprise to our international counterparts when they are told that this is categorically not the case.
"Attacks involving physical violence have been strikingly rare, as have instances of damage to and desecration of Jewish property."
Certainly the SAJBD, in coordination with the Community Security Organisation (CSO), has noted an uptick in antisemitic incidents over the past two decades, with a high proportion of these indeed having been motivated by anti-Israel sentiment. However antisemitism levels in South Africa – as measured by actual acts intended to cause harm to Jews, including assault, verbal abuse, hate mail, the distribution of antisemitic literature and vandalism – have not only been consistently lower, but very considerably so, compared with other countries with a reasonably large Jewish presence. Moreover – and this is another crucial distinction - in addition to such incidents being far fewer in number, those that have occurred have for the most been characterised by non-violent forms, such as verbally abusive or offensive communications (mainly via social media). Attacks involving physical violence have been strikingly rare, as have instances of damage to and desecration of Jewish property. It is also important to bear in mind that determining what constitutes an antisemitic ‘incident’ (as opposed to the secondary category of antisemitic discourse, as will be explained below) differs from country to country. In France, for instance, it is likely that a fair number of what in South Africa have been recorded as antisemitic ‘incidents’ would not be considered serious enough to be included in the annual listing.
The following comparative tables, based on data gathered by the SAJBD and its international counterparts, are revealing. Because of the vastly greater size of its Jewish community and the resulting difficulties in arriving at a reasonably accurate estimation of antisemitic activity there, the United States has not been included.
Part of the significant discrepancy between these figures can be attributed to the fact that South Africa’s Jewish community is a lot smaller than the others listed, numbering approximately 60 000 compared with 120 000 in Australia through to over half a million in France. Fewer Jews logically translates into fewer targets (which is why in South Africa, for example, nearly all incidents recorded have taken place in the two main Jewish population centres of Johannesburg and Cape Town). That being said, even countries with smaller Jewish populations (such as Sweden, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands, where community numbers range between 20 000 and 40 000) consistently record much higher rates of antisemitism than South Africa. And there too, instances of serious violence and vandalism are substantially more common. The South African situation can probably be best compared to that of Latin American countries with a significant Jewish presence, notably Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. There, too, direct attacks on Jews and their institutions are comparatively rare.
"... after the democratic transition in April 1994 and even to an extent before that, South African society has to a great extent been underpinned by a genuine respect for diversity and principled rejection of all forms of racial, ethnic or religious-based prejudice."
How is so striking a discrepancy to be explained? One reason, I believe, is that after the democratic transition in April 1994 and even to an extent before that, South African society has to a great extent been underpinned by a genuine respect for diversity and principled rejection of all forms of racial, ethnic or religious-based prejudice. Bolstering this has been legislation and institutions specifically set up to protect groups and individuals from unfair discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or other such grounds. They include the Bill of Rights in the Constitution, the SA Human Rights Commission, Equality Courts and media regulatory bodies that balance the right to freedom of expression against the Constitutional prohibitions against “hate speech”. Added to this is the fact that by and large the majority black population have tended, both under apartheid and afterwards, to see Jews not as a separate entity but as part of the minority white population.
"the spate of mass shootings by white supremacists that have occurred in the US and New Zealand over the past year, two involving deadly attacks on synagogues, suggest it would be foolish indeed to discount the enduring threat from this source."
A second reason is the demise of the threat once posed by the extreme right-wing of the white population following the transition to democracy. Prior to 1994, it was from this quarter that most antisemitic activity emanated and about which the Jewish community was most concerned. Now a marginalised fringe group, white rightists largely confine their activities to bewailing their lost cause via the Internet, even if the downfall of white rule in South Africa is routinely attributed in these forums to the pernicious machinations of Jewish communists/capitalists/ liberals. That being said, the spate of mass shootings by white supremacists that have occurred in the US and New Zealand over the past year, two involving deadly attacks on synagogues, suggest it would be foolish indeed to discount the enduring threat from this source.
"... there is no evidence that the situation in South Africa is any better than in other parts of the world. Certainly, one cannot deny the extent to which the perception of Jews by the person in the street has been poisoned by the persistent demonizing of the State of Israel that permeates the electronic media today."
Before concluding this brief overview, one caveat is necessary, namely that while antisemitism rates in this country as measured by actual acts of hostility towards Jews are markedly low, the same is not necessarily true of the secondary category of anti-Jewish behaviour broadly identifiable as ‘antisemitic discourse’. The latter can be defined as defamatory and/or demeaning statements that are made about Jews rather than to them. Here, unfortunately, there is no evidence that the situation in South Africa is any better than in other parts of the world. Certainly, one cannot deny the extent to which the perception of Jews by the person in the street has been poisoned by the persistent demonizing of the State of Israel that permeates the electronic media today. Antisemitic discourse manifests for the greater part in social media, but occasionally it surfaces in the political realm as well. On a number of occasions, for example, ANC spokespeople in the Western Cape have levelled scurrilous allegations against the province’s ruling party, The Democratic Alliance (DA), whom they accuse of cheating the general public in order to further Jewish financial interests. That the national leadership of the ANC has routinely failed to condemn or even distance themselves from such statements is probably indicative of a general deterioration in public discourse over issues pertaining to race, in which incitement to hatred and sometimes even to violence are becoming commonplace.
Doomsday scenarios regarding the supposed plight of South African Jewry in a disintegrating society were a common item in the global Jewish media during the final years of apartheid. Much was made about the high emigration rates, economic decline, political violence and alarming rise of antisemitism on the white far-right in portraying a beleaguered community apparently on the verge of dissolution. For reasons that need no elaboration, such dismal forecasts are starting to do the rounds again. Whatever threats there might be to the long-term future of SA Jewry, however, these are issues that are of concern to all South Africans, not to Jews specifically. In a world where Jews are increasingly afraid to appear in public wearing kippot, this is surely no small thing.
 A partial exception would be the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre on 18 July 1994, when 85 people were killed. While regarded as the most serious antisemitic attack in the post-World War II era, those responsible were subsequently shown to be not local Argentinians but Hizbollah militia acting on the direction of Iran. Since then, there have been no further lethal attacks on Argentinian Jewry.
David Saks is Associate Director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and Editor of Jewish Affairs. He has published extensively on topics relating to South African Jewish, political and military history and Israel. He holds an M.A. in History from Rhodes University.