Anti-Semitism survey has glaring contradictions

  • 2a-David Saks stats
Anti-Semitism, apart from being a vile and dangerous phenomenon, is also highly complex. Accordingly, the fight against it requires a multifaceted strategy.

An essential component of that strategy is to monitor levels of anti-Semitism around the world at behavioural and ideological level to better understand what is driving it (locally and internationally) and where urgent intervention is required.

Part of that challenge entails being aware of the cultural and historical context of a particular locality, and taking account of this when assessing the nature of anti-Semitic thought and behaviour. Failing to do so can result in findings that turn out to be misleading. This appears to have happened in the latest Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey in regard to South Africa.

Since the 1960s, the ADL has conducted regular surveys on attitudes towards Jews around the world through the “ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism” initiative. As a benchmark, the survey uses an eleven-question index focusing on such common anti-Jewish tropes as Jews being more loyal to Israel than their own countries and having excessive influence on the economy, media, and global affairs. While assessing only one measure of anti-Semitism – attitudes as opposed to actual incidents – the data provides a way of gauging prejudice and anti-Semitic stereotypes in different societies.

Against this background, the results of the latest ADL global index relating to South Africa are, to say the least, perplexing. Of the 18 countries assessed, only Poland scored (marginally) higher in prevalence of anti-Jewish feeling. If these results are to be believed, then every second South African harbours negative attitudes towards Jews.

For the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the obvious question is why anti-Semitic sentiment should be so widespread in a country where levels of direct anti-Jewish behaviour are strikingly low, compared with most diaspora countries. In France, anti-Semitic attacks frequently take the form of shootings and stabbings, and Jews are often advised against wearing kippot in public for fear of being targeted with violent verbal or physical attacks. There, only 15% of respondents had an unfavourable view of Jews. Contrast this to South Africa, where Jews walk around proudly and visibly Jewish, but score far higher than France on anti-Jewish sentiment in the survey.

Admittedly, the correlation between anti-Semitic actions and attitudes is not perfect. Hence, countries with low levels of anti-Semitic attitudes may still experience anti-Semitic violence. The relationship between attitudes/sentiment and behaviour is complex, and may have played some role in this disparity.

However, when the results are as inconsistent with the behavioural reality as in the case of this survey, further interrogation of such findings is warranted. The SAJBD has looked carefully at the full survey data for South Africa, and reviewed it in relation to similar South African research results (most notably the 2016 survey by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town).

As a result, many glaring contradictions and anomalies have been identified. Only a few instances can be discussed here, but these alone call into question the reliability of much of the survey.

The figure of 47% of South Africans said to hold unfavourable opinions of Jews came from collating responses to the eleven-question index. A separate question specifically asking what people thought about Jews yielded a negative figure of only 26%.

Another glaring contradiction concerns attitudes towards Israel. On the one hand, 36% did not support Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for Jews, and 38% supported boycotts against it. On the other, when asked which side they sympathised with most in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 23% sympathised with the Palestinians, and 43% supported Israel. These are diametrically opposed findings.

Another puzzling finding concerns attitudes towards “white supremacists”. In the local context, it’s only within the white minority, comprising perhaps 8% of the population, that such individuals could be expected to have a degree of support. According to the survey, however, white supremacists are viewed favourably by more than 20% of South Africans, while a similar proportion has no opinion either way. This is obviously nonsense.

A further glaring anomaly is that 41% of respondents reportedly believe that Jews “want to weaken our national culture by supporting more immigrants coming to our country”. Xenophobia is a real problem, but no previous investigations (including studies by the Human Sciences Research Council) have ever indicated that Jews are being blamed for the influx of foreign migrants.

South Africa isn’t immune to anti-Semitism. Government rhetoric which regularly singles out Israel for particular censure is concerning for many Jews, plus our far right wing targets Jews as part of its racist ideology. We cannot afford to be complacent.

The results of this particular study are nevertheless problematic, and should be treated with care. They need to be reviewed in a more nuanced manner that takes due note of our unique social, cultural, and historical realities.

  • Professor Karen Milner is professor of psychology at the University of Witwatersrand and the national vice-chair of the SAJBD. David Saks is associate director of the SAJBD.


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