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Is BDS still a four-letter word for SA Jews?




A few notorious incidents come to mind. In 2014, a furore erupted in the community when a Jewish student wore a keffiyah (headscarf) in public. In 2018, two Jewish pupils at Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town took a knee during the singing of Hatikvah, causing outrage. In 2018, Limmud dropped three speakers from its programme because they supported BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), which is intensely hostile to Israel, though they were not scheduled to speak about BDS.

Support for BDS is more serious than mere criticism of Israel, but it isn’t a mass phenomenon in South Africa. However, since Israel regards it as an important enemy in international forums, and actually passed legislation in 2017 barring anyone supporting BDS from entering the country, diaspora Jews are uncertain about what stance to take. BDS characterises itself as a non-violent human rights group. But is its priority human rights, or annihilating Israel? Most portray it as the latter.

What about South Africa? As part of a general survey of attitudes among the Cape Town Jewish community, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town asked interviewees for their attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether the community should engage with Jews who support BDS. The findings were presented at Limmud two weeks ago. The survey didn’t ask about direct engagement with BDS, only the extent of interaction with community members who support BDS. More generally, should diaspora Jews feel free to criticise Israeli policy?

Jews younger than 30 were in general more open to public criticism of Israel and engaging with community members who support BDS than older Jews. It’s possible this results from diaspora Jews’ diminishing attachment or even alienation towards Israel, and a lesser sense of what nationhood means to them generally.

Among the middle-aged group (30-50), attitudes are more mixed. As would be consistent with this age range, one might assume that professionals and academics are more likely to be open to criticism of Israeli policy and BDS, while others still believe BDS’ only aim is Israel’s annihilation. Also, during their entire lives, Israel has been criticised for occupying the West Bank, and they want to know more. Older Jews (50+) are still likely to maintain past attitudes, and oppose public criticism of Israel. It’s likely that this age cohort still considers Israel a precious haven for persecuted Jews after the Holocaust. if Israel acts harshly, it has no choice but to defend itself; and criticism is mostly anti-Semitic.

Aside from the survey, what about South African politics? BDS-SA has loudly pressurised the African National Congress government to sever ties with Israel, often bringing trade unions and similar groups into the picture to paint Israel as an unqualified evil. In a dramatic development in April, the minister of international relations announced the downgrading of South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office, to the justified outrage of South African Jews who felt that cutting ties is completely the wrong way to go.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far from resolution, and South African politics in turmoil, attitudes towards Israel will stay fluid and often expedient. Many South African Jews report that in work and social environments, they hesitate to say they support Israel because of the hostile reaction. Unfortunately, the chance for open discussion remains slim, and might have to wait until there is real movement on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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