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The Jewish Report Editorial

What’s in a Nazi salute?

Why should we be offended at North West University (NWU, formerly Potchefstroom University) students giving the Nazi salute to welcome the head of their residence unit?
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 04, 2014
Why should we be offended at North West University (NWU, formerly Potchefstroom University) students giving the Nazi salute to welcome the head of their residence unit? Surely it can’t have anything to do with the racial ideology of Nazism itself, seven decades after the Second World War, coming from young people born long after it, including several black students? Their mass gesture was carried in bold pictures on the front page of an Afrikaans daily.

NWU Vice-Chancellor Dr Theuns Eloff, denied that the students had been making a Nazi salute, the most infamous hand gesture in living memory, though it looked exactly like one. He reportedly said members of a women’s residence had merely composed and performed a greeting to their chairman of the house committee, as they traditionally do.
Whatever the background to their gesture, the salute is offensive, not just to Jews, but to numerous others. Images of it are deeply ingrained into the Jewish psyche, recalling Hitler’s SS troops driving helpless Jews, gypsies and other people into concentration camps, or the Fuhrer himself standing on a balcony gesturing towards masses of Germans in the square below.
 It is difficult not to feel distaste, in the same way the swastika cannot be seen as a neutral symbol. Some years ago, Prince Harry caused an uproar in his country by wearing a swastika armband to a students’ party.
Hand gestures carry different meanings in diverse cultures. An Englishman’s “thumbs up” sign may mean something very different to an Arab. A handshake between two Europeans differs from one between Africans. A hand-wave in the United States means a friendly “hello”, but in <<?>> it could mean rubbing dirt in your face.
Can the Nazi sign be regarded as innocent, simply part of university students’ tradition? The bottom line is that if these students are so ignorant of history that they have no conception of the sign’s repugnance, there is something wrong with their education. It is not sufficient to argue that they have no intention of offending.
In the meantime, what should the authorities’ attitude be towards the salute – ignore it or ban it? There is no simple answer. Arguments can be made for both sides. We cannot just overlook the practising of the salute - and other similarly offensive symbols. However, it is also unwise to make such a fuss of it that its banning elevates it in importance, giving it a potency it doesn’t otherwise deserve. It boils down to a question of balance.
A recent public furore in England about another related gesture, the quenelle, highlights the issue. A double hand movement popularised by French comedian Dieudonné, the quenelle has been denounced by those wanting to ban it as a disguised Nazi salute, and it has been defended by those who practise it as a harmless thumbing of one’s nose at authority.
It made headline news after French soccer star Nicolas Anelka performed it after scoring a goal in a game in England last December. In the process, the well-trodden debate over freedom of speech became a debate over freedom of gesture.
It comes down to education and knowledge of history, as well as the lessons of that history. It is crucial that people are not ignorant of the contexts in which these symbols took on their horrific connotations.
In the fluid and emotive political times in which we live today, we wouldn’t want an opportunistic politician to exploit the sign with his followers for his own political ends, potentially becoming the thin end of a wedge leading to the adoption of more and more sinister symbols and more dangerous ideologies. These things have a tendency to snowball and take on their own momentum.
The sad reality is that many students coming to university through the South African education system are woefully ignorant of history, including gestures like the Nazi salute. Dispelling that ignorance and turning the students into informed, well-rounded citizens remains one of the university’s - and the country’s - great challenges. Only education can dispel ignorance.

4 Comments

  1. 4 Israeli 05 Mar

    I believe that all these Nazi type gestures throughout the world are not made because of lack of education or ignorance of history. They are made to remind  Diaspora Jewry that "never again" is a distinct possibility.

    Throughout the period of the 2000 year exile Diaspora Jewry has been subjected to all forms of persecution from host countries. Has education of the nations ever helped Jews in exile? Definitely not! Why should it be any different in S.Africa.

    The only education young Jews in S.Afrca need is the knowledge that they are living in a hostile exile, and the urgent need to know that the only secure future for them and their children is in their own Land, a land which was not available to their forefathers.

  2. 3 Gary Selikow 05 Mar
    No worse than the students at Wits who chand' Kill the Jew' and stop Israelis from entering the campus.
    Israel Apartheid Week and BDS are incitement to a second holocaust
  3. 2 Gary 07 Mar
    The truth is Israeli that if you dont have money the Aliyah Department does not want to help you make aliayh and advises you not to
  4. 1 Israeli 09 Mar

    To Gary(3): I do agree with your 'financial' issue. But at the end of the day do you not agree that young Jews should be (strongly) advised that their future, and those of their children is no longer secure in this country, or anywhere else outside of Israel.

    The only people who could give this advice are our Religious leaders who , in my opinion, are loathe to take such a step.

    Gary, I don't know how old you are, or what your financial position is, but I can assure you that if your motivation is strong enough the Holy Land of Israel will always welcome you.

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