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SA bucks global trend of antisemitism



In spite of an alarming global increase in antisemitism, South Africa appears to have settled since the initial stages of the war in Gaza, which resulted in a dramatic and concerning rise in incidents.

Although the situation here is far from ideal, it contrasts with the disturbing cases of antisemitism, often violent, that continue to surface daily in many parts of the world.

“Since March, things have stabilised to the point where we can say we’re back to ‘normal’,” said David Saks, the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

“This after reaching unprecedentedly high levels of antisemitism in the two months immediately following the 7 October attacks and over the ensuing three months still continuing to manifest at a much higher level than in previous years,” Saks said.

It’s possibly in part because of the recent South African national elections and its aftermath, which may have distracted from the Middle East, he said.

The number of incidents of direct antisemitic behaviour that have reached the Board’s attention over this period has been more or less the same as previous years, he said.

“Reported incidents of late have also been less serious, generally being in the form of verbal insults or hate messages posted on community members’ social media sites,” Saks said.

Over the past three months, there have been no reported incidents of physical attacks such as assault and vandalism.

“Relative to our counterparts abroad, South African Jewry actually has things quite easy,” said Saks.

“For some time, tension in the Middle East has led to increases in antisemitic attacks, particularly in Europe and more recently in the United States,” said Marina Rosenberg, the senior vice-president of international affairs at of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a global leader in fighting antisemitism, “However, we’ve not experienced anything like the tsunami of anti-Jewish hate unleashed worldwide following the Hamas atrocities of 7 October.

“There has been a disturbing normalisation of antisemitism on a global scale, spanning across the extreme right and left. The sheer number of incidents indicates that this issue can no longer be dismissed as negligible or fringe,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

“South African Jews live in a paradoxical space,” said Karen Milner, the national chairperson of the SAJBD. “In recent months, the government has shown extreme hostility towards Israel, making South African Jews feel very uncomfortable and disappointed. However, we haven’t experienced high levels of antisemitism on the ground.”

She experienced the exact opposite on a recent trip to the United States to attend an American Jewish Committee conference, where she and her colleagues found themselves caught up in an anti-Israel, and anti-Joe Biden protest outside the White House in Washington. D.C.

“We experienced the most vicious anti-Israel, antisemitic, massive protest outside the White House. The level of hostility and aggression was disturbing,” she said.

“In the US, you have a sympathetic government which has tried to support its Jewish community in its support of Israel, combined with a level of viciousness on the ground unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in South Africa,” she said.

South African Jewry for the most part continue to live without fear, unlike many people around the world who exercise caution when wearing kippot and Stars of David in public, for example, Milner said.

“Hostility from the former ruling party, the African National Congress [ANC], isn’t reflected among ordinary people on the ground in South Africa,” she said.

Overall, a total of 78 incidents were recorded during the first six months of 2024. According to Saks, this is significantly higher than normal, when incidents for the entire year generally average between 60 and 70, and is due to fairly frequent attacks against the community in January and February.

“What sets South Africa apart is the normalisation of anti-Zionism and related antisemitic rhetoric at the highest levels of government and among the elite, which emboldens antisemitic actions,” Rosenberg said. “Few other countries, share this characteristic – Colombia, Ireland, and Chile are some examples.

“Unfortunately, South Africa has become a trendsetter in erasing distinctions between anti-Zionism and antisemitism,” she said.

“The South African government’s unprecedented decision to bring the false charge of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice is a prime example. We should be cautious of this growing hostility, and work to distinguish legitimate political critique from hate speech, ensuring the safety and inclusion of Jewish communities.”

There are additional tools to measure antisemitism, Rosenberg said. “Another indicator is how populations view Jews,” she said, citing the ADL’s recently released J7 Survey of antisemitic attitudes conducted across seven countries with large Jewish communities – the US, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, and Argentina.

“Nearly 40% of respondents in J7 countries believe in six or more antisemitic conspiracy theories,” she said.

“A majority of respondents [56%] believe the age-old antisemitic trope that Jews are more loyal to Israel than their country of residence. The percentage of respondents who think that ‘Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars’ is at an all-time high.”

Other important indicators are how Jews feel, and how governments respond to antisemitism.

“In South Africa, antisemitism skyrocketed 631% between October and December 2023 compared to the previous year. Since the Durban Conference in 2001, South Africa has experienced notable trends of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, reflecting in government rhetoric and strategies implemented post-7 October,” she said.

The fact that for the first time since 1994, representatives of the Jewish community were excluded from government and the ANC’s pre-election interfaith events – including the ANC’s refusal to take part in an election debate organised by the Board because it was being held in the Old Synagogue section of the South African Jewish Museum – was indicative of a souring attitude towards South African Jewry on the part of the previous administration, said Saks.

“We’ll wait to see whether this was an aberration or a sign of things to come. I would anticipate the former, now that we’ve entered a new political era,” he said.

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