South Africa’s chief rabbi is accused of having dual loyalties, members of ruling party ANC post blatantly anti-Semitic material online with little rebuke, a Pretoria politician calls on government to “buy a ticket for the ambassador of Israel, take him to the airport and send him back home,” and Twitter is on fire with language that would have made Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proud.
But South African Jews say while there’s an increase in anti-Semitic discourse, life is basically continuing without disruption in their communities, free of violence or physical threat.
“It’s business as usual in terms of what normally happens in South Africa when Israel is at war,” said Avrom Krengel, head of the South African Zionist Federation. “It’s nothing like Europe. South Africa is a country where as Jews we are able to conduct every aspect of our life, including support for Israel, in a free and respectful manner. It doesn’t affect our way of life at all, at all.”
What is striking, though, about the virulent rhetoric traversing South Africa during Operation Protective Edge is its pervasiveness at all levels, from top political forces posting policy on party websites on down to individual incendiary tweets.
The deputy secretary general of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s former party which is currently governing South Africa, issued a statement on July 10 reaffirming the party’s stance vis a vis the conflict in Gaza. (In 2012, the ANC voted to support all Palestinian initiatives aimed at pressuring Israel.)
In her recent statement, Jessie Duarte wrote, “The state of Israel has turned the occupied territories of Palestine into permanent death camps… for the State of Israel, the notion of an eye for an eye has become perpetual massacre with merciless revenge which has lasted for more than 60 years.”
Elsewhere in the party, Rene Smit, the social media manager of an ANC branch, took things much further with a Twitter post of a blatantly anti-Semitic meme in which Hitler is pictured with the text, “Yes man, you were right. I could have killed all the Jews, but I left some of them to let you know why I was killing them.”
According to South Africa’s Sunday Times, Smit said she posted as part of the “outpour of protest against the Israeli killing of innocent babies and women in the Gaza Strip” and she “remorsefully removed it” once she realized it was “inappropriate and offensive.”
Spokesman Cobus Grobler, from the Western Cape ANC branch associated with Smit, said she is a volunteer. “The ANC condemned the conflict on both sides. But the oppression of the people of Palestine is unacceptable,” said Grobler.
Individual anti-Israel activists are even fiercer in their social media posts attacking, among others, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein and Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk.
“Variations on the ‘Hitler was right’ theme are commonplace, with Jews variously being described as ‘dogs,’ ‘pigs’ and ‘cockroaches.’ This is in addition to accusations of Jews supporting mass-murdering baby-killers and of being a disloyal fifth column working against the country’s interests,” said David Saks, head of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies’ Anti-Semitism desk.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies lodged a formal complaint with the SA Human Rights Commission against Smit for her tweet and against a South African Muslim for threatening Facebook messages. Against the latter the Board of Deputies also filed a criminal complaint regarding comments in a threatening Facebook message sent to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, “All jews are pigs. i think we should kill you S.A. Jews and kill your kids and let you feel what the Palestinians are feeling (sic).”
The climate in South Africa has become worse for Jews in the past two weeks of Operation Protective Edge, said Saks.
‘People are saying things about Jews that were considered beyond the pale a year or so ago’
“Social media has been awash with an unprecedented flood of rabidly anti-Semitic sentiment,” which he attributes to Muslims and young blacks on the more radical wing of leftist politics (trade unions, Young Communist League, ANC Youth League etc).
“I would be untruthful if I said I was not concerned about it. People are saying things about Jews that were considered beyond the pale a year or so ago, and there is a sense that being protected from anti-Semitism is being seen by some as somehow being conditional on the Jews joining in condemning Israel,” said Saks.
However, like Krengel, Saks made a clear distinction between this virtual verbal abuse and face-to-face acts of hostility to Jews, saying there have been “fewer than half a dozen mainly minor incidents.”
Why not get out of Dodge?
“I’ve been 12 years in this position. I started in the height of the Second Intifada, have served through the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead… I don’t feel that it is any different [for Jews in South Africa today], any worse or any better,” said Zionist Federation head Krengel.
“Now there’s an outpouring of hate — it’s not pleasant, but we’re dealing with it using the laws and constitution,” he said. “It is our privilege to defend Israel in times like this.”
Jewish community leader Howard Sackstein agreed. “It’s bad and it’s rhetoric and it’s posturing, but it’s ineffective. South Africa is an irrelevant country, not a world player and has little sway,” he said.
“The only thing that’s relevant is we come out of a history of apartheid and so when South Africa says Israel is an apartheid state, it has credence,” Sackstein said.
‘We come out of a history of apartheid and so when South Africa says Israel is an apartheid state, it has credence’
The arguably cynical use ofapartheid is ubiquitous among South African pro-Palestinian activists, said Josh Benjamin, 24, the former chairman of South Africa’s Jewish student association. He battled numerous apartheid weeks and said he sees escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric on campus.
“People in South Africa are very easily susceptible to anti-Israel propaganda because apartheid is fresh in our minds,” Benjamin said from Israel, where he is currently studying.
Benjamin said if an Israel supporter were to question the use of an apartheid analogy, pro-Palestinian activists would quickly say, “‘This is exactly what they said during apartheid.’ They [the activists] don’t need to try to be intellectually honest and can just use emotional slogans of apartheid and oppression” in their defense.
Benjamin is worried about what he sees as an escalation in the use of anti-Semitic language on campuses, and in pro-Palestinian rallies elsewhere. “If you were to replace every time the word ‘Zionist’ occurs with ‘Jewish,’ it would be like a Nazi speech,” he said.
Benjamin knows several dozen young South Africans who have emigrated, many to Israel, in particular to Israel Defense Force units for foreigners. (Annually, approximately 300 citizens immigrate to Israel, the destination of choice for Jews who leave South Africa.)
But Benjamin said the economic ease in South Africa cannot be matched in most Western countries abroad, making it difficult for established families to leave.
“It’s easy to live a comfortable life with domestic workers, big houses with swimming pools and two or three cars for the regular middle class. There are good Jewish schools, 20-30 kosher restaurants in Johannesburg… It’s relatively easy to live a Jewish life,” he said.
‘In Israel, to have a domestic worker you have to be a billionaire… In South Africa, the average Jewish family has all that’
“In Israel, to have a domestic worker you have to be a billionaire. You have to be at the top of the top. In South Africa, the average Jewish family has all that,” he said.
“Life has been really fine up till now… I wouldn’t say if you were walking the streets with a kippa on you’d be unsafe, just maybe denied service. What I do think is it’s building towards that point — those feelings are there, they just need an excuse to come out. The more excuses there are, the more we’ll see it,” said Benjamin.
Obviously not only lifestyle considerations anchor South Africa’s Jews.
“It’s my home, I was born here,” Sackstein said bluntly.
During the battle against apartheid Sackstein was a leader in organizing Jewish efforts in the country. His sense of justice intact, he said, “I have no intention of allowing bigoted racists to drive me away from here.”
Signs of optimism in parliament?
While strongly condemning Israel in Parliament this week, ANC spokesperson Moloto Mothapo added a previously unheard nuance.
“As the ANC in Parliament, we stand unapologetically with the people of Palestine and pro-Palestinian campaigners,” Mothapo said in a July 19 Mail and Guardian article.
He continued with an unprecedented statement: “Our strong condemnation of Israel’s violent aggression, however, does not in any way mean approval of the continuing firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel, which has put the lives of innocent civilians at risk.”
‘Our government’s current approach through the ANC’s political antics lends itself to be perceived to be taking sides in this conflict’
Also, on Tuesday, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane announced that a new envoy to the Middle East will be deployed to work toward a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“President Zuma will be dispatching a team, led by our former deputy minister Aziz Pahad, to Israel and Palestine to convey our growing concern with the escalation of violence there, including the endless wanton killing of Palestinian civilians and the destruction of homes in Gaza.”
Elsewhere in South Africa, politicians were more balanced in their statements. In a report in Business Day, Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mangaqa Mncwango said the only way to end the conflict is through negotiations and diplomacy.
“It is also critically important that South Africa not only be seen to be pragmatic and neutral in its approach to this situation, but must also take active steps to promote peace. Our government’s current approach through the ANC’s political antics lends itself to be perceived to be taking sides in this conflict,” said Mncwango.
Solidarity in community
The Jewish community is planning a solidarity rally in Johannesburg for Sunday, July 27.
“The South African Jewish community is seething with rage,” said Sackstein. “South African Jewry is mostly enormously connected to Israel. The death of every Israeli soldier is taken personally and the community is feeling like it is part of this war. Our failure to explain it to government in a way it understands is enormously frustrating.”
Organizers expect to be joined by, among others, NGOs and black evangelical Christians. “Sunday will see the coming together of South African community leaders from across the spectrum, representing millions of South Africans, as we stand unified for peace, Israel’s right to exist, and for the end to terror attacks on Israel’s citizens,” reads the press release.
Is that enough in the face of such blaring hatred?
“I grew up in South Africa when it was a racist apartheid state. We used to say that the conflict in Israel will be solved before apartheid in South Africa,” said anti-apartheid activist Sackstein.
“I grew up in a place of miracles — you [in Israel] need a Mandela moment,” he said.