exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article, Wayne Sussman analyses the Kaplan Centre Survey of the Cape Town Jewish Community and looks to understand young Jewish attitudes towards Israel.
IN the past few weeks Joe Biden has stabilised his lead in the polls as the most likely candidate to win the Democratic nomination and challenge Donald Trump in 2020 for the presidency of the United States of America. If one were to spend a few hours on Twitter, it would seem most unlikely that a 77-year-old centrist would be favoured to win the nomination, especially considering there are progressive champions like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the ballot. The reality is Biden has the backing of many older Democratic voters, voters who tend to vote in elections, and not spend hours on Twitter.
"Whereas 60-65% of those who are older than fifty indicated that they are ‘very attached to Israel’, only 36% of respondents in the 16-30 cohort defined themselves as ‘very attached to Israel'."
Now what does this have to do with the Kaplan Centre Survey of the Cape Town Jewish Community and its findings on the community’s shifting attitudes towards Israel and Zionism? I would argue that just as those in social media ivory towers tend to pay too much attention to the young, woke and sanctimonious on Twitter, the community has probably paid too much attention to the opinions and concerns of older community members when it comes to Israel. Rather, the community should start examining what is causing a generational deviation of the standard mainstream communal attitude towards Israel and Zionism.
I think back to my time at Herzlia in the late 90’s. The toxic Israeli-Palestinian debate was yet to explode on the Internet. My main exposure to Israel was through videos on Israeli wars loaned from the school’s library, Pillar of Fire , some well-designed Martin Gilbert maps and my youth movement’s (Habonim) educational activities.
If I think of a Herzlian today, they have the privilege of being able to spend hours on Twitter reading a myriad of opinions on Israel. Reading the 972 website or watching debates on Al Jazeera is but a click away. If they choose, they can also access opinions on the right which would make Likud South Africa cringe. They might soon go to the University of Cape Town and before graduation will probably become more circumspect in expressing opinions and be less polemical around the Shabbat table.
"I suspect that many younger respondents believe in consistency of approaches and that freedom of expression should not be suspended simply because one is talking about Israel."
As the Kaplan Centre Survey of the Cape Town Jewish Community has shown, when it comes to ‘attachment to Israel’ there is a marked difference between Cape Town community members who are older than fifty and younger community members between the ages of 16-30. Whereas 60-65% of those who are older than fifty indicated that they are ‘very attached to Israel’, only 36% of respondents in the 16-30 cohort defined themselves as ‘very attached to Israel’. As, therefore, can be expected, the inverse also held true with 7-8% of respondents who were fifty or older defining themselves as ‘not attached to Israel’, while 15% of respondents between the ages of 16-30 defined themselves as ‘not attached’. Younger respondents might feel that Israel is just one of many in the community of nations, and as South Africans this is the country to which they feel attached.
The findings above support the question as to whether South African Jews should be free to criticize Israel in public. As might be expected, older community members who are fifty and over did not feel that Jews should criticize the country in public (31%-35% suggested you could). Amongst younger community members between the ages of 16-30, more than two-thirds of respondents felt that it was right for Jews in South Africa to be able to criticize Israel in public. To understand this we need to consider that younger respondents are living in a time when they have seen many mainstream community members march in public spaces shouting for the democratically elected president of South Africa to go, and have seen it as a most patriotic of acts. As such they would probably draw the conclusion that if one can be loyal to your country of birth and criticize its leaders and the actions of its government in public, then you can also publicly criticize the State of Israel and its leaders. I suspect that many younger respondents believe in consistency of approaches and that freedom of expression should not be suspended simply because one is talking about Israel.
"It seems evident that younger respondents feel less threatened by the participation of those community members who stand on the opposite side of the picket line when it comes to the Israeli and Palestinian issue."
The younger respondents were well out of sync with general respondents when it came to the (maybe not so) thorny issue of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Whereas 47% of general respondents felt that South African Jews who support the BDS movement should not be allowed to speak at communal events, less than a quarter of younger respondents between the ages of 16-30 reached the same conclusion. Younger respondents might see it as better for the community to hear these speakers within the safer confines of communal events, rather than only at marches, on the stage of protest events or on university campuses.
Just under 60% of those surveyed feel that BDS supporters from the community should not serve on communal organizational structures, compared to only 41% of younger respondents between the ages of 16-30 expressing that Jewish supporters of BDS should not be allowed to serve. It seems evident that younger respondents feel less threatened by the participation of those community members who stand on the opposite side of the picket line when it comes to the Israeli and Palestinian issue. This finding might also be attributed to a greater tolerance for diversity of opinions in the 16-30 cohort.
Almost four-fifths of all respondents feel that there should be censure for community members who support BDS. There was a significant difference when it came to respondents between the ages of 16-30, with 46% of respondents believing that there should be no censure. One can interpret this as younger respondents not seeing the support of BDS as being as much of a red-line as do older members in the Cape Town community.
Joe Biden might have the luxury of knowing elections are not won or lost on Twitter. We, by contrast, might have a better chance of understanding why younger members of the community feel so differently with regards to Israel than middle-aged and older respondents if we were to spend more time on Twitter. Only by doing so can we understand the diverse opinion makers and influencers who are offering younger community members food for thought.
Wayne Sussman has been involved in the South African Jewish community for the last 23 years. He is a former national chair of Habonim Dror and Limmud SA.