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StandWithUs gives students a platform for activism

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South African tertiary students took home more than just tools to combat antisemitism on campus and in their community at the international StandWithUs conference in Los Angeles from 1 to 3 March, but a caring platform from which to do so.

“When our enemies fight, they fight because they hate what’s before them. But when we fight, we fight because we love what’s behind us,” said Sara Barnes, a South African Jewish student at the conference. This was one of the most important lessons she learnt along with fellow South African students Kayla Diamond, Shayna Diamond, Raquel Nathan, and Sasha Said.

“The fundamental goal of the StandWithUs conference wasn’t just to provide us with information and tools to combat antisemitism, but to give us the platform to do so,” said Shayna, 20, who is studying for a Bachelor of Commerce in Digital Marketing.

“It gave me a thorough understanding of what’s happening in Israel. I was in Jerusalem on 7 October, and it was the most chaotic morning, running in and out of bomb shelters. At the conference, I gained an intense understanding of what happened that day. This experience was enhanced by hearing from survivors of the Nova music festival, people who were in the army, and people who had lost best friends and brothers.”

Kayla, who is a final year psychology student, was on a panel of university and high school students who discussed the complexities of Jewish life in their various countries. “South Africa is a different country post 7 October,” Kayla told her panel. “Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m one of the proudest South African Jews. I love my country and my people. However, being openly rejected and hated by the place I’m so proud to call home has been a tough pill to swallow.”

Universities in South Africa have experienced antisemitism from both their administrations and students, she said. “Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic State flags were proudly displayed at the University of Cape Town. Students have been receiving death threats, and some have even had to hire private security. Although in Johannesburg, where I live, the incidents haven’t been as severe as other places in the country, any act of antisemitism is an act too many.”

Nathan, who is the South African StandWithUs representative, gave a speech in which she related her personal history of Israel advocacy, love of Jewish life, and her experience of being an Emmerson Fellow.

“I always knew I loved Israel, but I didn’t always understand why. Why was it so ingrained in us to show pride in our homeland and to commemorate our nation’s victories? Today, more than ever, it all makes sense. StandWithUs has given me a platform from which I feel exponentially more capable of conversing and debating with people on all sides. It has taught me the art of not being overly emotional about falsities and ridiculous narratives, but rather to engage in conversation,” Nathan said.

Said, who is a third-year university social work and criminology student, said, “I took away this feeling of wholeness. It’s hard being in a country where it feels like your government is rejecting you. There’s a way you’re being portrayed, but at the conference, it was like we were all there for the same reason. We might not all share the same experiences, but we understood each other. And we were able to listen and empathise.”

“I described to a lot of the people a feeling of alienation in a country I’ve grown up in,” said Barnes. “I was worried about coming from South Africa, and that I would feel threatened and questioned by people asking why I was still there. This was something we all related to on a deep level – the fact that you’ve grown up in these countries like South Africa, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, where we were looked after and felt comfortable. Then, all of a sudden, we feel completely isolated, unsafe, and like we don’t have a place in the community anymore.”

Said Shayna, “I was able to experience the incredible unity of the Jewish world. On Friday evening, we were all davening, and no matter whether you were from America, South Africa, Argentina, or Canada, we all had the same tunes for Kabbalat Shabbat. I get goosebumps thinking about it. We’re the same everywhere because we have the same fundamental values, morals, and love for Judaism and Zionism.”

Though South African Jews live in a unique context, Nathan said StandWithUs had enhanced their reality and created leaders with an influx of knowledge, resources, and support that they will continue to use.

“It has given me a voice that I won’t cease to use, and a community to lead,” said Nathan.

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