Community slams Lamola’s denial of antisemitism in SA
The South African Jewish community is calling on South African Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and the African National Congress government to stop dismissing antisemitism and to cease creating an environment that emboldens antisemites.
On BBC HardTalk this week, Lamola denied that there was any antisemitism in South Africa in spite of claims to the contrary by the Jewish community, saying it didn’t exist and implying it was all in our head.
Lamola was responding to a quote from Howard Sackstein’s opinion piece in the SA Jewish Report two weeks ago, in which he spoke about not feeling safe as a Jew in South Africa any more.
Karen Milner, the chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), contradicted Lamola, saying that in 2023, antisemitic incidents in South Africa had reached the highest level since the Board began compiling detailed lists from 1993.
From October to December 2023, there were 139 recorded incidents compared to 19 over the same period in 2022, an increase of 631%, she said.
“There was also a sharp increase in physical attacks against Jewish people or property, something which had occurred only rarely in previous years,” she said.
“There were six cases of physical assault, whereas the annual average had been only one in the preceding decade. These included two cases of assault outside a Johannesburg synagogue; an attack on a Johannesburg rabbi; and a person being hit over the head with a pole at a pro-Palestine rally in Cape Town.”
There was also vandalism, including damage and desecration to Jewish cemeteries in Pretoria and Durban.
The SAJBD monitors and records antisemitic activity in South Africa mainly through incidents being reported to it by community members and other Jewish institutions.
It compares methodology with equivalent Jewish representative bodies, including in France, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
“South African Jewry has prided itself on the relatively low levels of antisemitism compared to other Jewish diaspora communities,” Milner said. “However our government has created an environment where antisemitism can flourish, with Minister Lamola’s comments being an example.”
On the steps of the Peace Palace in The Hague, Lamola said, “In South Africa, we live side by side with Jews. They run companies and thriving business. It’s not about antisemitism.”
University of Cape Town Professor Adam Mendelsohn said of these comments, “Lamola managed to imply that Jews are outsiders in South African society – the language of “us” and “them” – and drew on an old and unfortunate trope by associating Jews with business.”
Lamola then went on to say on HardTalk that any claims of antisemitism in South Africa weren’t “based on any facts”. He claimed Sackstein’s concern about antisemitism was a “figment of his imagination” and not based on fact.
Sackstein responded by saying, “When Judge David Unterhalter was excluded for consideration for a position in the Constitutional Court because he was a member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, neither Lamola nor any member of his party stood up in defense of what was clear racist Jew hatred.
“When David Teeger was demoted as captain of the Under-19 cricket team after having been cleared of any wrongdoing, and for no other reason than that he was Jewish, Lamola and his party never raised a voice against blatant antisemitism.
“As the proliferation of swastikas and references to Hitler has enveloped social media, not a single member of government has stood up in defense of the Jewish community.”
Sackstein went on to say that “Lamola has lost his grip on reality and, by his failure to act, he has become complicit in the worst antisemitism in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The victims have become the perpetrators, and Lamola and his government have to take responsibility for their failure to act,” said Sackstein.
Milner agreed that Lamola’s statements “disregard the voices of those affected, namely South African Jews”.
She said that in the antisemitic incidents recorded from October to December 2023, eight cases had already been lodged with the South African Police Service. They include assault, damage to property, and incitement of violence. The SAJBD is also finalising cases of antisemitism which have been brought to the equality court.