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Is anti-Semitism a problem at South African universities?

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Do we or don’t we enrol our children in South African universities? This question is being discussed behind closed doors in homes where children have matriculated. Is anti-Semitism or racism in general going to make life too difficult for our children?
by JORDAN MOSHE | Aug 02, 2018

The simple answer from all those we have asked is that there is no real threat to South African Jewish students, despite some vitriolic statements posted on social media.

Anti-Semitism is not unheard of, but our children are not at any real risk on campus.

According to Jewish lecturers at Wits University, anti-Semitic incidents are uncommon in their personal experiences. “I can say that I have never been aware of any overt anti-Semitism,” says Judith Katzew of the law department. Her opinion was echoed by Sharon Milner, associate professor of psychology. “Anti-Semitism is not something I’ve ever experienced in my work at Wits,” she says.

In fact, the opposite is true, says Milner. “Wits administration makes a concerted effort to promote tolerance on campus amongst all people,” she explains. “Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib is incredibly responsive to the concerns of the Jewish community and is very active in ensuring that the campus is a place that accepts all people and that no one is discriminated against.”

While this may the case among staff, incidents experienced by students seem to paint a different picture. According to some Jewish students, experiences involving Holocaust denial and the praising of Hitler have occurred in recent years.

“On a social media group some time ago,” says one student, “there was a guy who denied the Holocaust, saying it was ‘the biggest lie of the century’. He spat out anti-Semitic rhetoric and glorified Hitler publicly on the group, with support from other students. They called Hitler a good leader. They denied the gas chambers, denied six million Jews having been murdered, and denied the waves of anti-Semitism that occurred afterwards throughout Europe.”

He relates another incident. “In my first year of university, students whom I considered my friends denied the Holocaust and called it a big lie. We got into an argument and when I said that the Jewish people would not allow themselves to be massacred again, they started denying it. One girl, who was dating one of the guys in the group and was a good friend of mine, just sat at the table and said nothing. I upped and left.”

This may seem unsurprising, considering the incident which saw student leader Mcebo Dlamini say, “I love Adolf Hitler”, on Twitter in 2015 and subsequent statements of a similar nature. However, it is worth noting that this latter incident occurred at the height of Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), when other students reported they’d experienced unpleasant incidents too.

Another student recounts: “In a tutorial during IAW, the tutor started discussing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) and Israel and apartheid, even though this had nothing to do with what we were meant to be talking about. He was asking everyone to share their opinions on it and everyone started bashing the Jews and Israel. Someone said that the way that Israel is treating the Palestinians is just to get back at people who hurt them in the Holocaust and they are treating them worse.

“I am the only Jew in that tutorial and as I am religious it was pretty obvious that I am Jewish, and I felt very attacked and hurt by what was being said.”

Even lecturers have conceded that this kind of aggressive expression does occur when the topic of Israel comes up. “There is an upsurge in incidents during IAW,” says Milner. “When the subject of Israel comes up, when graffiti appears across campus against Israel and its supporters, the issue becomes personal and students feel uncomfortable and perhaps fearful.”

Katzew says the same. “I am concerned that Jewish students may be intimidated and silenced when issues around Israel emerge.”

Professor Adam Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town (UCT), says the flare-up of such incidents within the context of IAW should not serve as an indication of overall anti-Semitic sentiment. “During the course of IAW,” he says, “students allied with Israel feel challenged and faced with open confrontation. As discomforting as anti-Israel expression may be, issues relating to anti-Semitic outburst haven’t been observed.”

He adds that while occasional complaints of incidents read as anti-Semitic have been recorded at UCT, nothing overtly anti-Semitic has happened in recent years. “Sadly, unfair and aggressive remarks are said of Israel. Still, there is a sense that groups such as the Palestine Solidarity Forum and BDS are deliberately careful where anti-Semitism is concerned. They know that there is price to pay for discrimination of this kind.

“While we may not know the feelings which lie in their heart of hearts, they are careful about making certain statements, and there is thus a striking absence of overt anti-Semitism even during this event.”

Speaking more broadly about anti-Semitism at UCT, Mendelsohn says that even with during UCT vice-chancellor Max Price’s decade-long tenure – he vacated the post at the end of June – the campus remained fairly untainted by anti-Semitic comments or incidents. “There isn’t any significant anti-Semitism issue at UCT,” he says, “although there would have been ample opportunity for it over the last decade. Max Price is certainly not shy of his Jewish identity, and it would be almost unsurprising if people used this aggressively.

“However, there has been a conspicuous absence of resorting to anti-Semitic rhetoric where he is concerned. Price is certainly a polarising figure, and people have criticised him on many bases. Yet no overt anti-Semitic means no comment, poster or graffiti has been used against him.”

Mendelsohn says that where remarks made on social media about Jews or Israel are concerned, we may witness sudden spikes, but they do dissipate and may not reflect common sentiment amongst non-Jewish people.

“In a study we ran last year, we found that attitudes towards Jews among black people feature very little deep-seated hostility. Of course, with the recent occurrences on social media platforms, we need to ask how to interpret this social media flurry. While there are some anti-Semites operating online, who excite others to use their rhetoric, the general nature of social media involves moments of outrage and overstatement, and then a dissipation. A week later, users have moved on, and are looking for their next target.

“This happens on social media, and there is therefore little reason to expect that this will happen on university campuses.”

Therefore, he suggests, there is no reason to expect radical changes on our campuses where anti-Semitic expression is concerned – perhaps even the opposite. “We are seeing an assertiveness of Jewish presence that a decade ago was unheard of. Groups such as Chabad on Campus are in the public view, while students are making public shows of their Judaism and are displaying confidence in their presence. Such examples counter views that things are getting worse.

“Identity politics at university ensure a certain freedom, and Jewish students are able to express themselves almost without thinking about it. While we may expect social media flare-ups against Jews or Israel occasionally, this is a new reality. It’s part of the greater picture of social media of people making intemperate remarks. However, this won’t translate into something on campuses.”

He concludes: “Ideally, university campuses are models of openness for identity expression. In reality, we know that worldwide trends suggest this is not always the case – the policing of speech and intolerance of identity politics creep into many spaces.

“But while I will stress that university freedom does not suggest a golden age for Jewish students, they can still feel confident in their identities and feel safe in the knowledge that there are elements of current university environments that support their expressions as Jews that were not allowed in past.”

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