SA Jews face vitriolic antisemitism online
Like Jews around the world, Cape Town business owner Aimee-Leigh Koff was horrified at the wave of misinformation online as Israel was subjected to a rain of rockets from Hamas. So, she wrote a Facebook post about how Israel has the right to defend herself. In response, she was subjected to a torrent of antisemitism and abuse.
“The most racist and ruthless nation is Israel those dogs. May G-d send a decease (sic) to those thiefs (sic) and may they die in the gutters. And you my dear may the skin from your face peel off. Remember Hitler left a few Jews in the world to show how evil Jews are. You Jewish animals forget that Jews were not wanted all over … Jews are known to be stingy and greedy people,” were just some of the comments that a Mahida Khan Moolla wrote to Koff.
Abdul Gafaa Sadick chose to subject her to the age-old antisemitic trope of the blood libel: “We don’t support you or your products made with the blood of innocent children and babies,” he wrote.
These were just some of the hundreds of messages sent to Koff by South Africans across various platforms. They hounded her with antisemitic messages, verbal abuse, and calls to boycott her business, which sells beauty products. They also pressurised a large online retailer to stop selling her products. A few days later, they went after her sister, sharing her profile on public platforms. The abuse was so bad, Koff got a message from a concerned citizen saying, “You must be careful … you could be in danger.”
“It was extremely traumatic,” Koff told the SA Jewish Report. “I was scared for my safety and felt helpless. I was scared to go out, and still am.”
She has since consulted lawyers, a counsellor, and private investigators. “It was extremely stressful for my family and my boyfriend, even though he isn’t Jewish.
“I have broad shoulders. I’m stronger than them,” she says. She doesn’t regret posting about Israel, but does regret that her privacy settings weren’t on. “Why do I need to feel scared about being proud to be Jewish?” she asks. She says she is still being cyber-bullied and getting hate mail on a daily basis.
Medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Dylan Rendel, was taken aback when a fellow medical student posted on the class Telegram group encouraging classmates to go to an anti-Israel protest at the Israeli embassy. Rendel asked that the group “refrain from posting any political related things on this group which may be sensitive to others on here. This is a class group for medicine.”
From that point on, he was subjected to a campaign of abuse and defamation by fellow medical student. In response, someone called Imraan Mansoor said he wanted to punch Rendel. An anonymous Instagram account sent Rendel a private message saying, “I know that you’re currently studying at Wits, and I just want you to know on behalf of MANY that are in solidarity with Palestine, be careful when you get into your car, we know your number plate.”
With the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), Rendel opened a case with the South African Police Service to investigate who sent the threat. He says that Wits has been extremely supportive, shutting down the Telegram chat and fully investigating the matter.
Cape Town estate agent Lisa Osrin added a “frame” to her Facebook profile expressing support for Israel but online trolls decided to attack her. The frame said, “I stand with Israel”.
“I got a lot of hate messages, but it’s not only me,” says Osrin. “I got a million messages from people saying the same thing happened to them. Teachers in Johannesburg – who teach Muslim kids – have put up frames supporting Israel and got really nasty messages.”
One Zakariya Baker sent an email with the subject line “conduct of employee”, supposedly “reporting” Osrin’s support of Israel. The same person shared a photo of Osrin with the caption, “Here is a South African who openly is expressing support for an apartheid state. Do you miss the good old days? For anyone interested, this person is an agent for [property company]. Do with this information what you will.”
Osrin says that while the experience was “unnerving”, she isn’t worried about her safety. “I haven’t seen any Jews behave in the same manner.” She says her workplace has been “100% supportive”, and that her non-Jewish boss also added a frame supporting Israel.
Photographer Chad Nathan shared a balanced post about Israel on Instagram, written by a friend, and immediately faced a backlash online. “Let’s make sure he gets the attention he seeks. We might not be able to get rid of them just yet over there. But here we could!” wrote Abdullah Sonday, sharing an image of Nathan’s profile.
Says SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn, “We know that whenever there is a crisis or war in Israel, diaspora Jewry is affected. There was a significant increase in antisemitism in South Africa during the Gaza conflicts in 2008/2009, 2014, and 2018. I have no doubt we will see this trend in our 2021 statistics.
“They are using intimidation as their tool of choice,” says Kahn. “We have been assisting students at schools, university students, professionals, and business people who have been subjected to toxic posts on their WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Each scenario has to be handled differently according to the circumstances. We aren’t attempting to shut down conversations, but rather ensure that the discussions take place in more appropriate forums.”
Says Cape SAJBD Executive Director Daniel Bloch, “The social media assault is abusive and intense, designed to attack the individual on both a personal and professional basis. We cannot advise the community whether or not to express themselves and what platforms to use – that’s a personal choice. However it needs to be aware that social media is a platform for hate speech, and people need to be prepared for a variety of responses.”
The Community Security Organisation’s Jevon Greenblatt says, “There has been a global increase in online antisemitic content. In South Africa, we are witnessing an increase in cyber-bullying. There are numerous reports of South Africans sharing online antisemitic content, and we are reviewing the evidence.
“Words turn to actions, so when antisemitism is allowed to exist and flourish without consequence, acts of intimidation and possibly violence against Jews are likely to follow. We are already seeing this in the United States and across Europe. In at least three instances in South Africa, we have seen cyber-bullying resulting in physical threats. These are all being investigated.”
His advice to anyone being harassed is “to report any antisemitic incidents immediately, with as much information as possible. If it’s a threat or physical assault, a case must be opened with the police. Ensure that your social media profile has the necessary security activated. Be very careful of letting others know your family’s location, including your children’s school. This should be discussed with your children too.
“Although the conflict may have come to an end for now, the global tremors of antisemitism are likely to continue,” says Greenblatt. “We must ensure that we continue to build and strengthen the overall security of our community. This takes time, good people, and resources. It’s human nature to think about security only when there is a known threat, however this is usually too late. It’s incumbent on each of us to empower ourselves with the skills, knowledge, and actions to remain safe.”
Nicole Rosenbaum, who made aliyah from South Africa in 2020, got caught up in an online debate about Israel on 24 May 2021. She’s unafraid to ask hard questions, and says anti-Israel supporters are usually unable to answer them. Instead, many turn to empty slogans or antisemitism.
Responding to some of Rosenbaum’s points, a Nazeem Hartey Jumbo (who appears to be from Cape Town) said, “I’m starting to wonder if the Holocaust was a blessing!” Responding to Jumbo, a Sarah Achmad (whose Facebook profile says she lives in Cape Town) said, “Me too. They never learnt their lesson.”
- To report antisemitism, cyber-bullying, intimidation or threats, email firstname.lastname@example.org (Johannesburg) or call, text or WhatsApp the Cape SAJBD’s #ReportHate Hotline on 079 994 5573, or complete its #ReportHate tool here: https://bit.ly/3hH1ZbU