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‘Faith defeats fear’ – UCT students remain proudly Jewish



A Jewish student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) who wears a kippah says he has been subject to subtle and overt antisemitism on campus and in forums like WhatsApp groups.

“Their goal is to make me scared, and to make me not want to be proud of being a Jew and a Zionist, and that’s why I wear my Jewish symbols even more proudly,” he says. “The intimidation actually makes me want to push back more.”

Meanwhile, the terrorist-supporting University of Cape Town Palestinian Solidarity Forum (UCT PSF) continues to call for “victory or martyrdom” after a year of displaying the flags of terrorist groups and inviting members of terrorist organisations to address students.

On 8 March, the chairperson of the UCT PSF, Muhammad Anwar Adams, said that if a motion at the Senate calling for a UCT academic boycott of Israel wasn’t passed, “we know who influences UCT”. The outcome of the motion is yet to be determined.

The Jewish student, Daniel Cohen*, says, “I wear a kippah, and I get a lot of dirty looks and ‘Free Palestine’ comments as I’m walking by. People say it quietly, they don’t like to be known. Earlier this year, I walked into a lecture and someone behind me was listening to something with his earphones on. Then, he took out his earphones and the voice note or video or whatever it was said, ‘You f*cking Zionist.’ That was without me even speaking to this person. It was simply because I was wearing a kippah.

“On WhatsApp groups, I’ve asked questions like where a tutorial venue is, and people have commented with a Palestinian flag. People see that I’m proudly Jewish and proudly wearing a kippah, and they are automatically against me. It’s antisemitism because they’re relating their hate for Zionism to a person wearing a kippah.”

He says that when he first arrived at UCT, he “loved the inclusivity of the place”.

“I met different kinds of people from different backgrounds with different viewpoints. That was powerful for me, coming from a Jewish school and such a Jewish background.”

But, Cohen says, “The past months have really shown me, unfortunately, that while it’s such an inclusive place, it seems like the only exception is for Zionists. Faculty is also very much anti-Zionist.”

He has lost friends. “Some of my first friends at university were Muslim students who now refuse to speak to me. I just want us to accept our differences, and have a discussion. I’ve reached out to discuss things, but they haven’t responded, and people have blocked me.”

He feels that the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) and Chabad on Campus “are two incredible organisations. Since 7 October, those are the only spaces I’ve really been comfortable in”.

Quoting late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Cohen says, “Faith defeats fear.”

“All this hate around us – that’s not in our control,” he says. “But how we react to it is in our control. At UCT, you get a lot of hate just for being Jewish, but you may be the only Jewish representative that people will ever meet. So, acknowledge that responsibility, know that you’re in this position for a reason, and that you can change people’s perception of Judaism.”

Another Jewish student at UCT, Sarah Levy,* says, “I feel like UCT can be both a welcoming and unwelcoming space for Jewish students at times. For example, Jean’s Kitchen – a canteen at the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research – is a ‘fan favourite’ on campus, and people of all different backgrounds come there. Most of them know that it’s a Jewish restaurant, they support the business, and they love sitting in the Kaplan Centre and doing their work.

“I don’t feel comfortable wearing any Jewish symbols on campus,” she says. “I don’t wear a Magen David or a chai necklace, just because I feel safer not putting my Judaism on public display. I’m not necessarily afraid to tell people that I’m Jewish, but to try and limit any kind of negative interactions, I won’t wear any Jewish jewellery.

“I haven’t experienced any direct forms of antisemitism on campus, but I think that’s largely due to the fact that I don’t showcase my Judaism,” she says. “Although the friends I’ve made know I’m Jewish, I always have to be careful when making new friends about whether or not to reveal my Jewish identity.

“Both SAUJS and Chabad on Campus have been absolutely phenomenal in supporting Jewish students,” she says. “It’s important to have these kinds of organisations on campus as not only do they allow for Jewish students to meet, they give us a safe space to be able to express our Jewish identity fully without fear or judgement.

“It’s incredibly helpful to have these organisations on campus because UCT can make you feel like you’re losing your Jewish identity at times,” says Levy. “It’s through these organisations that I feel empowered to showcase my Judaism.”

To the community, she says, “We’re invincible. It doesn’t matter how many threats we face or how much antisemitism has risen, our Jewish community seems to grow closer and stronger every day, and I’m extremely proud to be part of it.”

Another Jewish student, Samuel Levin*, decided to start wearing a kippah this year but has so far not received any backlash. “Wearing it has somewhat improved my experience, because I feel proud to identify as Jewish and walk around with a prominent Jewish symbol,” he says. However, there are stickers of Hezbollah flags around campus that he finds unsettling.

Chabad on Campus’s Rabbi Nissen Goldman says, “I’ve seen many Jewish students wearing Jewish symbols – even some who don’t regularly do this. Chabad on Campus has had three times the participation numbers compared to last year. We’ve expanded to the medical campus this year because they also wanted to come together.

“We really need to support Jewish students better,” Goldman says. “We’re seeing how important our role is right now, and Jewish students are looking for opportunities to be together and to connect to their Judaism in a meaningful way. We aren’t focusing on antisemitism, we’re focusing on ourselves. We want to be so busy living our mission that they [antisemites] are an afterthought and it’s just noise.”

*not their real names

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Zee

    Apr 4, 2024 at 11:44 am

    The issue isn’t the religion. It’s the Zionism, and aligning with Israel atp is aligning with Zionism and apartheid. As long as irresponsible Jewish people wanna conflate the two, that will endanger all Jewish people, and Africans have never been whom Jewish people were unsafe from – the call is coming from inside since we are well aware that there are more non-Jewish white Zionists than there are Jewish Zionists, so if Jewish people want ‘Jew’ to be synonymous with Zionist by conflating anti-genocide sentiment with antisemitism, then that’s definitely… umm… a choice

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