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Anti-Semitic incidents in SA at 15-year low




An anti-Semitism report released this week showed that a total of 36 anti-Semitic incidents of abuse and harassment were logged by the SAJBD and Community Security Organisation (CSO) last year.

This was more than a 40% drop from the 62 incidents logged in 2018, and close to a 50% drop from the annual average of 66 incidents recorded since 2006, the report said.

David Saks, the associate director of the SAJBD, told the SA Jewish Report that the decline could in part be attributed to “relative quiet” on the Israeli-Palestinian front, notwithstanding the flare-up that occurred late in the year between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

He said these figures are consistent with the relatively low rates of anti-Semitism in South Africa that have been recorded since comprehensive records began to be maintained in the mid-1990s. Only in 2009 and 2014, the years when major conflicts took place between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, did the annual total incidents exceed the 100 mark.

“When these two unusually high years are removed from the equation, the average annual total over the remaining period drops to the mid-50s, but even then the 2019 figure is by comparison notably lower than normal.”

The incident report rubs up against the recent Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey last year which found that 47% of South Africans harboured anti-Semitic attitudes.

Professor Karen Milner, the national vice-chairperson of the board and an anti-Semitism expert, said the board’s incident report and the ADL survey were not directly comparable.

“The ADL research was about sentiment, while the board report is about behaviour – actual incidents of anti-Semitism. In so far as sentiment is expected to be reasonably related to behaviour, this report does reinforce the concern expressed previously about the ADL’s findings in terms of international comparisons.”

She said, however, it was important not to become complacent.

“Drivers of anti-Semitism are multifactorial, and shifts in any one of these factors could change the scenario quickly. We should be pleased about the drop in incidents while remaining vigilant.”

Being vigilant involves educating where necessary, maintaining zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, and using the country’s civil protections to ensure that anti-Semites are held to account, Milner said.

Commenting on the discrepancy between the latest incident report and the ADL survey, Saks said one needs to distinguish between anti-Semitic acts (doing bad things to Jews) and anti-Semitic discourse (saying bad things about Jews).

“South Africa has very low rates in the first category, but not necessarily in the second, which is probably impossible to measure accurately in any case. The ADL survey really deals with a third category, namely thinking bad things about Jews without necessarily ever expressing or acting on such beliefs. It may well be that there is more anti-Semitic sentiment out there than we realise, but obviously not at a rate of nearly one in two South Africans,” he said.

Saks said the sharp decline in incidents from the previous year was a “welcome surprise”, but not completely out of the ordinary for South Africa.

“Whereas other major diaspora countries consistently count annual anti-Semitic incidents in the hundreds or even thousands, ours have equally consistently been in the dozens. Last year happened to be somewhat lower than usual.”

Agreeing with this, anti-Semitism expert Professor Milton Shain said South Africa had always reported very few anti-Semitic incidents relative to many other countries, and it was heartening that the number of anti-Semitic incidents had declined even further in 2019.

“It seems to me that the absence of hostile action against Jews – as opposed to hostile ideas about Jews – might have something to do with a government and media that is hostile to Zionism and Israel. This has possibly resulted in a lessening of frustration on the part of Jew-haters. But this is simple conjecture. I certainly don’t want to suggest that an antidote to anti-Jewish actions is hostility toward Israel on the part of the state; but it might go some way in explaining the apparent contradiction between attitudes and actions. The truth of the matter is that we don’t really know.”

Saks attributed the relatively low number of incidents to a number of factors.

The board’s zero-tolerance approach is one factor.

“Whenever there is an identifiable perpetrator, every reasonable effort will be made to make that person accountable, publicly if necessary [which is why we make sure to publicise our more high profile cases in the media]. Our experience is that those we publicly take on for anti-Semitism seldom if ever repeat such behaviour.”

The message being that if you cross the line, you will be made to answer for it, no matter how long it takes.

Visible security outside Jewish installations is another deterrent. “All in all, knowing that Jews aren’t an easy target, and that there could well be unpleasant consequences for attempting to harm them will likely have persuaded many potential anti-Semites that it’s just not worth it,” said Saks.

Many countries have not yet released their 2019 figures.

France this week recorded a total of 687 anti-Semitic incidents in 2019, of which 151 were violent. South African recorded one violent anti-Semitic incident.

It occurred in January 2019 in Scottburgh in KwaZulu-Natal. According to the board, a Jewish man was verbally abused and then physically attacked by three local men after they learned he was Jewish. His (non-Jewish) friend came to his assistance, and in the ensuing fight, one of the attackers was hospitalised. The community member suffered a badly cut lip.

An international comparison of violent anti-Semitic incidents recorded in 2018 reveals that there were 123 incidents in the United Kingdom, 81 in France, 62 in Germany, and 11 in Canada. One case of violence was recorded in South African in 2018.

Canada experienced 2 041 non-violent anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 compared with the UK’s 1 652, France’s 541, Australia’s 366, and South Africa’s 62 incidents.

Saks said South Africa had a culture of respect for religious diversity which might account for the comparatively low rate of anti-Semitic incidents.

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