exploring the concerns of the South African Jewish community
Looking at the Jewish Community Survey of South Africa, Deena Katzen reflects on the shifts in thinking amongst young Jewish South Africans and suggests that the Jewish community might be out of touch with how the youth think about and engage with the world around them.
IN the five years since I’ve been involved in Jewish student organizations, I have been asked countless times, “What does it mean to be a young Jewish person in South Africa today?” I have always found this difficult to answer because of the diverse nature of the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of Jewish youth today. However, despite this complexity, this question is a fundamental and foundational one, and one which is all too often glossed over by communal organizations.
The way in which young South African Jews think about and experience the world around them has shifted significantly over recent years. The Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCCSA), released in 2020, offers some interesting insights into these developments and shifts amongst young Jews.
"It is clear that as young people we need to continue to build a better future for ourselves, and inspire the push towards a more open, safe and accepting society and community. The question is whether we will continue to do this from within South Africa?"
While antisemitism is not an issue unique to the youth of our community, it would seem that university life has amplified the experience of Jew hatred. Many Jewish youth frequently find themselves having to defend their Judaism against antisemites, often on a university campus. According to the survey, one in every ten Jews has “witnessed” someone being verbally assaulted and harassed for being Jewish. It was therefore unsurprising that the survey found that “Younger people are more likely than older people to have [personally witnessed antisemitism] (e.g. 18% of those aged 18–39, compared to 2% of those aged 80+)”.
WITS SAUJS members hold pictures of Israeli victims of terror at a counter-demonstration during IAW.
I would suggest that much of this is connected to the annual Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) on campuses. During this week, which is run by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, constant attempts are made to demonize Israel. All too often this quickly segues into blatant antisemitism. In the past, Jewish students have witnessed Hitler Salutes, seen swastikas graffitied onto campus walls and had antisemitic slurs spat in their faces. What is incontestable is that being a Jewish student on campus during Israel Apartheid Week can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable. However, other than during Israel Apartheid Week, campus is a relatively safe place to be Jewish – with credit given to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS). Other than the nature of anti-Israel sentiment on campus, the youths’ experience of antisemitism is unremarkably different from the older demographics.
The March 27, 2017 cover of Time Magazine declares: “Beyond He or She, How a New Generation is Defining the meaning of gender”. This headline captures one of the primary areas where I believe many in the community feel out of touch with the thinking of the youth today. As the cover asserts, young people are increasingly challenging conventional gender identities and norms, arguing that gender can be fluid and is not limited to male and female. Many young people who identify as heterosexual and cis-gender are also increasingly standing in solidarity with the LGBTQIA community. Interestingly, the Kaplan survey noted that only 2.6% of the Jewish community identify as gay or lesbian, and only 1.1% identify as bisexual. Although the survey finding does not disaggregate the results by age, I am certain that the youth make up the vast majority of this figure. Ricky Girnun, a former University of Cape Town student who openly identifies as gay, noted with skepticism the low figures reflected by the survey. The fact that the JCSSA does not address the many other existing sexualities or gender identities, in itself indicates a problem in how the community engages with this issue.
Over the past few years, however, we have seen a vast expansion in the acceptance of LGBTQIA individuals in the Jewish community, and with it an influx of community members ‘coming out’. This change, in my opinion, is in large a consequence of the youth inspiring and encouraging older generations in our community to become more open-minded and accepting. While years ago, madrichim were banned from youth movements for being gay, today we are seeing more established (and typically older-in-age) Jewish organizations running workshops on the different gender pronouns that exist within the LGBTQIA community. This is very encouraging to see, but while I think it is much easier to be a gay Jewish youth today than it was five or ten years ago, there is still progress to be made in this regard, especially as sectors of the community still reflect a culture of homophobia and transphobia.
Unsurprisingly, what is clear from the survey is that the youth are far less hopeful about the state and future of our nation than older demographic groups. 60% of survey respondents under the age of 30 stated that they are likely to move in the near future, compared to only 30% of respondents over 65.
For many of us, this is not an easy decision: stay and try help build a better future for South Africa or leave and build a better future for yourself? I think much of the variance in the statistics between older and younger demographics simply stems from a practical consideration -- it is far easier to move when you are younger, and, often, unattached. That said, as the survey shows, the age group which most expressed thoughts about leaving South Africa are between 40-45 (62% stating that they had considered moving).
In a DafkaDotComarticle (28/2/2020), Dan Brotman suggests that “highly educated young [Jewish] professionals with limited career mobility in South Africa are increasingly migrating to growing economies in developed nations." Brotman goes on to explain some of the reasons for this trend: “the ramifications of State Capture … as the nation continues to experience load-shedding, the hollowing of the public service, economic decline and resulting job losses”. Concurring with this, and while I take it to be unfortunate, young Jewish South African’s are becoming increasingly despondent about any hopes for the rehabilitation for our country. I hope we are wrong, and I hope that while we live in this beautiful, diverse country we are able to continue to contribute meaningfully to it.
Brotman concludes that as a “consequence of this growing resentment by the professional class likely means that our community should expect and prepare to continue to lose a substantial number of young professionals who would otherwise be taxpayers, job creators, heads of households, affiliated community members and prospective communal donors.“ I fear, as Brotman suggests, that young Jewish South Africans are reaching a point of no return and this may have serious ramifications for the future of the South African Jewish community in particular. That said, despite the personal, communal and national considerations of leaving, I believe that many young Jewish South Africans will opt for the opportunity that offers them the best quality of life. For most this is no longer South Africa.
The Jewish Community Survey of South Africa
The answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article, “What does it mean to be a young Jewish person in South Africa today?” is deeper than one may expect. Our identity as young Jewish South Africans is shifting, complex and intersectional, with many of us belonging to multiple ‘communities’ at once. As younger members of our community we can take pride in the fact that antisemitism on campuses seems to be at a low, boasting that with the exception of IAW, our students feel comfortable and safe walking around campus openly wearing, for example, kippot. However, while our youth may feel safe on campus, they may not feel as safe expressing their sexual and gender identities, and being their authentic selves within the context of the current Jewish community. Debate and discussion around hard topics such as the LGBTQIA community and emigration have become far more prevalent, but the statistics as reflected in the JCSSA remain concerning. While percentages of those ‘coming out’ are concerningly small, the number of young people looking to leave South Africa is worryingly large. It is clear that as young people we need to continue to build a better future for ourselves, and inspire the push towards a more open, safe and accepting society and community. The question is whether we will continue to do this from within South Africa?
Deena Katzen is currently a third year Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of Cape Town. In 2019, she served as the National Chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) and is currently the chairperson of the Western Cape branch of SAUJS.