‘Pure Jew hatred’ behind protest at Tuks
South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Director Wendy Kahn has described as “chilling” a demonstration titled “in protest of Zionism’s presence at universities” at the University of Pretoria (Tuks or UP) on Wednesday, 15 March.
The “sit-in” was billed as part of this year’s iteration of the hate-fest known as Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). However, Kahn says it was clearly calling for the exclusion of Jewish students from working with the Student Representative Council (SRC) at UP.
This comes after the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) at Tuks formed a working relationship with the SRC to help needy students. “While the protesters tried to hide their real reasons behind political slogans, we saw their hatred for Jewish students exposed. This was pure, unadulterated Jew hatred,” says Kahn.
SAUJS Tuks Chairperson Sasha Said agrees that “they were calling for blatant exclusion and isolation of Jewish students. They were saying that Zionism doesn’t belong on campus, which is blatant antisemitism. They were saying we don’t belong here, when in fact every society and student has a right to be here.”
Kahn says the sit-in was illegal as the students didn’t get permission for it to take place, and university security was called to ensure that it didn’t deteriorate. “It was sad and disturbing to see two rows of about 30 students demanding the exclusion of Jewish students. It goes against the basic ethos of this country and the principles of a university environment,” she says.
Said was also told that the protest was illegal and that the university was “aware of who was part of it”. At the same time, she says, “the university is a safe place for Jewish students, and we’ll do everything in our power to make sure it stays safe. I will take the hate a hundred times if it means other students can feel safe.”
Kahn says the university supports the inclusion and safety of Jewish students on campus and has told her that it’s taking the illegal protest seriously, with disciplinary action against anyone who violated the rules. “There was definitely a clear message that this won’t be tolerated by UP,” she said.
“For me, it was appalling once again to see BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] supporters staging an event that required the campus to go on hold and a security presence,” says Kahn. She says she didn’t feel personally threatened or unsafe, and she believes the university remains safe for Jewish students.
Amid all this, Jewish student leaders came to the fore and set an example. “Sasha Said is an extraordinary leader,” says Kahn. “This has been a stressful time, and at all stages, she handled it with great leadership, engaging with all parties.”
Kahn is equally impressed by Tuks Jewish students, who remained calm and spent the protest engaging in discussion with Arab-Israeli activist Yoseph Haddad. At one point, anti-Israel protesters came to find Haddad to confront him, but the conversation remained civil with Haddad in control.
“We had open conversation, and Jewish students felt heard. We’re now back at our lectures and studying,” Said mentioned after the event.
She says the atmosphere at Tuks has been tense since she led SAUJS to initiate a working relationship with the SRC, with Jewish students facing “an extreme backlash and calls for exclusion. However, SAUJS has persevered, and received incredible support from fellow organisations on campus as well as the community at large.”
The atmosphere ramped up during IAW, but “while there is an ongoing anti-Israel campaign, SAUJS has worked proactively to educate fellow students about Israel and dispel the myths being propagated on campus. We’re tremendously fortunate to be joined by Yoseph Haddad as well as several StandWithUs delegates.
“We’ll be on campus throughout the week, handing out information booklets, hanging up posters, initiating open discussion, and having a presence. Students are equipped and confident to be on the ground.”
Otherwise, IAW has been a “damp squib” in 2023. The South African Zionist Federation’s Benji Shulman notes that there have been very few IAW events advertised this year, with no high profile speakers and most events being held online.
It shows, Shulman says, that “though the issue of Israel remains important to the ANC [African National Congress] and its alliance partners, the majority of South Africans don’t resonate with the half-truths being disseminated by the BDS movement. The general South African population has many other things to worry about.”
In addition, he points out that on campuses, IAW has in general been uncoordinated and chaotic, with different universities hosting events at different times, “which also isn’t the norm”. He believes this points to miscommunication and disunity between anti-Israel groups on campuses this year.
Meanwhile, IAW was cancelled at the University of the Witwatersrand because of ongoing protests on campus. SAUJS National Political Officer Gabriella Farber says, “We need to look at these things critically: who is it coming from, to whom is it aimed, and in what context is it happening? Then we can properly assess the risk and severity of the anti-Israel sentiment. And we can clearly see that it’s coming from a very small minority.
“SAUJS has done a fortune of work to show fellow students what a true Jew and Zionist is – that we don’t want hatred, that we want peace,” says Farber. “And this has changed sentiment among students because they are interacting with real Jewish Zionists, not a perception.”
There were no IAW events at the University of Cape Town [UCT] this week. Next week, the UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum plans to highlight “the crimes of ‘Israel’” (the organisation’s inverted commas), calling for “the liberation of Palestine from the river to the sea”. A documentary screening, a rally, and a “vigil for martyrs” is planned. Haddad, a StandWithUs delegation, SAUJS, and community organisations will be on campus to counter the hatred.
Meanwhile, Tuks’ SAUJS and the SRC are dedicated to maintaining their working relationship.