For 50 years, the Anti-Defamation League has conducted a standardized survey across language groups and cultures, reporting on anti-Semitic attitudes worldwide. In their most recent report, they reported a 47 percent incidence of anti-Semitic attitudes in South Africa. In 2014, that figure was 38 percent.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community's umbrella representative body, has publicly disparaged and vociferously rejected the ADL report, calling it "deeply misleading and unreliable."
They ask: "Why would anti-Semitic sentiment be so widespread in a country that consistently records dramatically lower levels of actual anti-Jewish behavior compared with most Diaspora countries?" Explanations abound.
First, there’s not necessarily a correlation between attitudes and violent action. Secondly, violent action could be coming from a focused group of the population (e.g., in France, which has an anti-Semitism rate of just 17 percent). Further, anti-Semitic attitudes are often more readily expressed covertly, e.g., in social media - or in surveys. The ADL survey examines attitudes, not hate crimes.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies asks how the rate could be 47 percent when, in response to the general question as to what people thought about Jews, only 26 percent of respondents had a negative view.
Again this is explainable: General questions can mask true beliefs. Only when specific statements are put - Jews are "more loyal to Israel" than to South Africa (60 percent), Jews have "too much power" in the business world (55 percent), Jews "don’t care" what happens to anyone but their own kind (54 percent) - are underlying beliefs unearthed. That’s what a tried and trusted survey is designed to reveal.
Of the ADL survey, its Associate Director, David Saks, further asserted: "Most of those interviewed have never met a Jew and know far too little about them to have been able to answer the fairly complex questions put to them in the ADL survey."
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- Local Jews Protest South Africa's Designation as One of the Most anti-Semitic Countries on Earth
This is naïve, at best. A defining element of anti-Semitism is that it is not based on knowledge. In whatever manner anti-Semitic attitudes propagate and travel, travel they do, and there’s no evidence people have to know something about Jews to be anti-Semitic. Further, to allege respondents didn’t understand the questions is condescending at best - and based on zero evidence presented.
The Board calls the ADL report "a crass ranking," bearing "no relation to other crucial South African data" and that it runs "counter to the expert opinions of the SAJBD." Their "crucial South African data" is a 2016 study of 40 households by the Kaplan Institute in Cape Town which polled Blacks only, no Whites, no Muslims, a much narrower focus than the ADL sample size of 515 which was also stratified across races. The SAJBD is choosing to disbelieve peoples’ answers to the ADL questions. But data has a habit of rejecting preconceived notions, including those of experts.
Recently, Professor Milton Shain, the distinguished historian of South African Jewry, drew attention to surveys conducted between 1970 to 1994, showing strong anti-Jewish attitudes, widely held among Blacks and those of mixed race. Further, a 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that South Africans hold some of the most negative views of Jews outside of the Muslim world. Elsewhere, Professor Shain has documented a long history of virulent anti-Semitism and selective demonization of Israel among Muslims in South Africa and at the highest levels of the ANC government.
The SAJBD dismisses the ADL questions themselves as relevant only to "the Americas and Europe," with their "different cultural and historical context." This is a slippery slope. Recently, in her denial of Myanmar’s Rohingya genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi berated outsiders for refusing to acknowledge Myanmar’s complex ethnic and social make-up. Like the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, she claimed "cultural exceptionalism." Translation: "Don’t tell us what’s going on in our own country!"
And what’s going on in South Africa is a lot of anti-Jewish activity, and press bias. In a powerful article for the Mail & Guardian, Benjamin Pogrund, the anti-apartheid hero, described the oppressive, censoring attitudes of the press in South Africa, from the Left, singularly biased against Israel. High-profile Jewish anti-Zionist cartoonist Zapiro’s work selectively portrays Israel as genocidal child-killers and an evil state, often with a Magen David displayed to ensure we don’t miss the Jewish connection.
In 2001, at the notorious Durban UN World Conference on Racism, thousands of keffiyah-wearing South Africans of all races demonstrated support for Islamist terrorist organizations dedicated to the elimination of the only Jewish state in the world. In 2014, a pig’s head was placed in the kosher meat section of Woolworth’s in Cape Town by militants of the Congress of South African Students, an affiliate of the ruling ANC party.
With regularity the ANC Government selectively threatens to expel Israeli diplomats and "downgrade" relations with Israel, while totalitarian governments are embraced. "One Zionist, one bullet" is frequently chanted at anti-Israel marches. On the Witwatersrand University campus in Johannesburg, "progressive activists" have threatened Jewish students with chants of "We’ll come for you Zionists next." Jewish students have been greeted by flags of Hamas and Hezbollah, Sieg Heils and goose-stepping; a BDS leader promoted the singing of "Shoot the Jew"; and graffiti reading "Kill a Jew" and "Fuck the Jews" appeared on campus.
The SAJBD quaintly refers to all this as "anti-Israel sentiment." To regard this as anything other than deeply threatening anti-Jewish activity is pretense and denial. In South Africa, anti-Semitism is evidently in the ether, pervasive. Regardless that the source is now more from the Left than the Right in SA, how can this not affect peoples’ attitudes, conscious or otherwise?
The SAJBD seems desperate to avoid being ranked by the ADL second only to Poland for the ubiquity of anti-Semitic sentiment. But South Africa isn’t second: Many Arab countries are above 80 percent. Turkey's rate of anti-Semitic attitudes stands at 71 percent.
Does it matter whether the figure is 47 percent or 38 percent or 30 percent? It’s high. All evidence current and past points to powerful and prevalent anti-Semitic forces at work in South Africa, including in the press, the ANC Government, and the Economic Freedom Party, not to mention the far Right. The press and the government don’t necessarily assault you in the street, but they can profoundly and broadly undermine attitudes and tolerance.
Bari Weiss' recent book, "How to Fight Anti-Semitism," shows how in times of conflict, economic hardship, or immigrant issues, anti-Semitism rises. She also shows how in recent years, the traditional perpetrators - the far Right - have been more than matched by the hard Left / Corbynite-types and Radical Islam.
Like the Cape ostrich, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies appears to have its head in the sand. Why is it fighting so hard against findings that have been consistent over decades? One can only speculate. Wouldn’t Jews everywhere be better served if they took all that energy and expertise to engage community bodies and the ANC Rainbow Nation government to discuss how to combat it?
Dr Eric Hassall, MBChB (UCT), FRCPC is Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics, University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC. He grew up in South Africa and Rhodesia, before it was Zimbabwe.As a medical student in Cape Town, he was active in the anti-apartheid movement. He lives in San Francisco, California