exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article, Prof. Karen Milner looks at what the research suggests about antisemitism in South Africa, arguing that the data shows antisemitism to be relatively low.
IN 2019 the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), published a report identifying South Africa as the second most antisemitic country in the world. South Africa was second only to Poland and scored well above France, a country in which Jews fear being publicly identified as Jews and in which two elderly Jewish women were murdered in antisemitic attacks in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The ADL report caused a minor furore in the South African Jewish community, and its findings have been roundly challenged by the organised Jewish community (see here and here) and community members.
"... the ultimate test of levels of antisemitism in a country is the extent to which Jews can live their lives openly and authentically as Jews without being harassed, attacked or discriminated against. Anecdotal evidence suggests that South African Jews can and do live openly Jewish lives".
What does other research tell us about antisemitism in South Africa?
There are a number of data points that can be used to gain a more holistic picture of the nature and extent of antisemitism in South Africa. As an entry point, I will be using the Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA), which was published earlier this year by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, UCT. The report addresses many aspects of Jewish life in South Africa, but for the purposes of this article, I will discuss what the JCSSA tells us about South African Jewry’s subjective experiences and perceptions of antisemitism. The methodological approach differs from the ADL survey, which assessed attitudes of non-Jews towards Jews. It also differs from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ (SAJBD) antisemitism reports, which count all reported incidences of antisemitism in the country.
The JCSSA survey looked to assess respondents’ understandings, perceptions and experiences of antisemitism in three broad ways:
Perceptions and understanding of the nature of antisemitism
Extent to which antisemitism is considered a problem by the Jewish community.
Personal experience of antisemitism
1. Perceptions and understanding of the nature of antisemitism
Antisemitism is a complex construct, subject to debate around its definition and terminology. The term itself is contested, (referred to variously as anti-Semitism, antisemitism or Judeophobia) and whether something is or is not antisemitic is often subject to vociferous debate. Core to many of these debates, is whether and when anti-Israel sentiment can be considered antisemitic. The JCSSA survey addressed this by asking 1) whether respondents considered calls for the boycott of Israeli products as antisemitic, and 2) whether a non-Jewish person labelling Israel an apartheid state is antisemitic. The results were resoundingly affirmative:
78% consider calling for a boycott of Israeli products to be probably/definitely antisemitic
75% feel that labelling Israel an apartheid state is antisemitic.
These views are possibly driven by the way in which spikes in antisemitic incidences typically occur in the midst or aftermath of anti-Israel activity. A case in point is that of Matome Letsoalo who tweeted,
@SAJBD The #Holocaust Will be like a Picnic When we are done with all you Zionist Bastards. F*ck All of You”.
His tweet was accompanied by a picture of victims of the Holocaust.
Letsoalo defended the tweet as an understandable reaction to Israeli government actions against Palestinians. When Letsoalo refused to recant, the SAJBD referred his posts to the courts. He was recently found guilty of crimen injuria and sentenced to a three-year suspended sentence. A second example is that of Tony Ehrenreich. In 2014, Ehrenreich, the former COSATU Western Cape provincial chairperson, called for violent retaliation against local Jewry in response to Israeli military action in Gaza. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) found him guilty of hate speech. It has taken six years, but this year the SAJBD finally obtained an apology from Ehrenreich.
Perceptions of anti-Israel sentiment as antisemitism and the prosecution of such antisemitism by the HRC and South African courts talks to an interesting dynamic in the South African context. The boundaries between anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism may be contested, but what is clear is that when anti-Israel sentiment spills over into hate speech, the Jewish community can rely on the protections provided by the South African constitution.
2. The extent to which antisemitism is considered a problem
A number of questions in the JCSSA report together paint an interesting picture about South African Jewry’s concerns about antisemitism. First are the questions about whether antisemitism has increased over the last five years. The majority of the respondents (75%) felt that it had. Such perceptions, however, are contradicted by the SAJBD’s antisemitism reports (2014 – 2019) which show that incidents of antisemitism have remained reasonably stable, and, in fact, in 2019 there was a notable decline. This inconsistency needs to be viewed in light of perceptions that anti-Israel sentiment has increased in South Africa over the last five years (92% feel that anti-Israel sentiment has increased). Anti-Israel sentiment is not assessed in the SAJBD reports, unless it crosses into hate speech aimed at South African Jewry and the Jewish community. Given that the majority of the JCSSA respondents agreed that calling for boycotts and labelling Israel as an apartheid state is antisemitic, it is unsurprising that an increase in anti-Israel sentiment would be interpreted as an increase in antisemitism -- even in the absence of an increase in antisemitic incidents. Anti-Israel activism, in the form of BDS activity, often fosters antisemitic incidents. Such cases would be counted in the SAJBD report. Calls for boycotts and labelling Israel an apartheid state are not, at this stage, included as antisemitic incidents in the SAJBD reports. This does not mean that the SAJBD does not regard discriminatory campaigns against the Jewish state to be antisemitic in nature. Rather, engaging in such conduct is not considered to constitute an overt act of unlawful harassment.
When asked about the spaces in which antisemitism occurs, the primary area of concern was online. Antisemitism in the physical domain (assessed in the JCCSA as concerns about hostility against Jews in public spaces) was ranked lowest (27% of respondents view it as a problem). Both local and international Jewish institutions agree that online antisemitism is an increasing concern. Facebook has come under intense pressure in recent years to address hate speech which has been allowed to proliferate on its platform. In October, Facebook finally agreed to ban Holocaust denial from its site.
Over the past six months the SAJBD has been embroiled in two serious cases of online antisemitism. The first case is against Simone Kriel, an Instagram ‘influencer’. The second is against Jan Lamprecht, who posts antisemitic, pro-Nazi and white supremacist material online. Lamprecht not only valorises those who have perpetrated antisemitic or racist murders, but peddles antisemitic tropes about Jewish wealth and power.
Lamprecht’s Facebook accounts were terminated under Facebook’s new Holocaust denial policy but he continues to post on white right-wing sites. Speaking from personal experience, the community’s concerns around online antisemitism are well justified. A protection order against Lamprecht was recently granted following a charge of crimen injuria that I brought against him for posting my personal details and abusive comments on one of his sites.
Looking at the community’s overall sense of concern over antisemitism, the data shows that antisemitism sits well below other socio-political concerns. Respondents were virtually unanimous in seeing corruption, crime and unemployment as a very big/fairly big problem in South Africa.
3. Personal experience of antisemitism
Antisemitic sentiment is problematic in that it creates a culture of uncertainty and fear. Arguably though, the ultimate test of levels of antisemitism in a country is the extent to which Jews can live their lives openly and authentically as Jews without being harassed, attacked or discriminated against.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that South African Jews can and do live openly Jewish lives. Jewish institutions have never issued warnings about being publicly identifiable as Jews (e.g. wearing kippot). In 2015, Jewish youth wearing kippot were accosted in Rosebank. One teen was punched and the attackers shouted: “You fucking Jew” and “Your fucking people are killing our innocent children.” In response, the SAJBD urged people to attend cinemas wearing kippot or other head coverings to signify solidarity. In 2017 four incidents of verbal abuse directed at kippah wearing community members were reported; in 2018 there was one reported incident and in 2019 no incidents were reported relating to people being publicly identifiable as Jewish. This should be contrasted with places like New York, where Orthodox Jews are subject to harassment in the streets, and France and Germany, where Jews have been advised against publicly wearing kippot.
The total number of antisemitic incidents recorded by the SAJBD (including the above) can be seen in the table below:
In 2019, 36 incidents were reported, and, to date, 57 antisemitic incidents have been reported in 2020. A review of the SAJBD reports reveals no discernible reason for the 2018 uptick nor the sudden decline in 2019. One possibility is that a single, fairly publicised antisemitic incident inevitably seeds more. The fact that 25% of the reported antisemitic incidents in 2018 occurred in a single month suggests some form of contagion. For example, anger over the Gaza border protests.
Leaving aside the spikes and dips in antisemitism over the past five years, it is clear that even at its highest, the level of antisemitic incidents in South Africa, especially as contrasted with other countries, as can be seen in the table, is extremely low.
In contrast, the JCCSA report found that 10.5% of respondents had personally witnessed an antisemitic incident and 8.8% had personally experienced an antisemitic attack in the preceding year. These figures are still low – 90% of Jews have neither witnessed nor experienced an antisemitic attack – but are notably higher than the SAJBD figures.
Extrapolating from these percentages to the South African Jewish population - approximately 5000 people witnessed an antisemitic attack in the last year and 4500 people experienced an antisemitic attack. This represents a massive discrepancy between the two data sources. Similar discrepancies have been observed in other countries.
There are a few possible reasons for such inconsistencies. First, the JCCSA sample may be biased. This is a common problem in survey research which relies on non-randomised voluntary participation. People who have experienced antisemitism are more invested in the topic and therefore more likely to complete a survey that looks at antisemitism. This would bias the results slightly towards an over-representation of respondents who have experienced antisemitism. Second, there may be under-reporting in the SAJBD report. People who experience an antisemitic incident may choose to deal with it themselves or ignore it. However, the idea of hundreds or thousands of incidents going unreported does not meet the test of rationality. An outpouring of antisemitism on this scale is unlikely to go unnoticed by the community.
Third, one incident of verbal harassment or abuse may be directed towards, and witnessed by, many people. Verbal abuse directed at a group of Jews at a university protest, outside a Jewish school or shul may be considered personal abuse by all present. Thus, a multiplier effect occurs on the single incident counted in the SAJBD data, when assessed in terms of personal experience. Finally, the JCSSA report does not differentiate between physical attacks and verbal harassment/abuse and there is no definition of verbal harassment/abuse. Subtle antisemitic discourse, including jokes or comments about Jews and money; or references to clever Jews may be commonplace in South Africa. Such comments would be unlikely to be reported to, or counted in the SAJBD report but may have been included in the JCSSA survey.
Despite some discrepancies between the JCSSA report and the SAJBD’s antisemitism reports, the overall picture is the same – levels of antisemitism are relatively low in South Africa. From the JCSSA report, it is clear: antisemitism is integrally tied, in community members’ minds, to anti-Zionism; antisemitism is a concern for the community, but it is not the overriding problem facing community members; and, a minority of the community have personally experienced antisemitism. It is worth noting that the 2020 SAJBD statistics show an uptick in antisemitic incidents. It is too early to know the reasons for this but lockdown and the viral spread of conspiracy theories are likely to have played a role.
 The Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA) was an online survey carried out between May and July 2019. The sample contains data on 4,193 Jewish respondents aged 18 up living in 2,402 separate households (Graham, 2020, p. 5).
Karen Milner is Associate Professor of Organisational Psychology at Wits University and is the Deputy Chairperson of the SAJBD.