Opinion |

South Africa Is Not the World's Second Most anti-Semitic State

The ADL ranks South Africa's population just below Poland's as holding the world’s most anti-Semitic attitudes. We think that’s wrong

A child awaits the arrival the Olympic Flame outside Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island near Cape Town, June 12, 2004.
A child awaits the arrival the Olympic Flame outside Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island near Cape Town, June 12, 2004.Credit: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

In assessing the prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes globally, the ‘ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism’ has long been regarded as an indispensable resource. Using an 11-question index as a benchmark, the ADL regularly conducts surveys on how Jews are seen in various countries.

The questions focus on such common anti-Jewish tropes as Jews being more loyal to Israel than their own countries, that Jews have too much influence in the economy, media and global affairs and that Jews should be held responsible for most of the world’s wars.

While assessing only one measure of anti-Semitism - namely, the attitudes of the general public as opposed to actual anti-Semitic incidents - the survey data is extremely useful when gauging perceived prejudices and obtaining a clearer understanding of the kind and scope of anti-Semitic stereotypes in different societies.

Given the high regard in which these surveys are held, the results of the latest ADL Global Index as pertain to South Africa are, to say the least, perplexing. Of the 18 countries assessed, South Africa almost tops the rankings, with close on one person in two (47 percent) reportedly viewing Jews unfavorably. Only Poland received a (marginally) higher score in this regard.

One question that immediately arises is: 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?

A Hanukkah event for the Jewish Democratic Initiative, December 2018.Credit: Nancy Krisch

For example, the UK recorded over 1600 anti-Semitic incidents last year compared with just 62 in South Africa, despite only one person in ten in the UK harboring anti-Semitic attitudes, according to the ADL survey. In France, where anti-Semitic attacks frequently take the form of shootings and stabbings (whereas serious cases of assault in South Africa are almost unknown), only 15 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of Jews.

Against this it can be argued that the correlations between anti-Semitic actions and anti-Semitic attitudes are not always linear. Hence, it sometimes happens that countries with lower levels of anti-Semitic attitudes than South Africa may still experience violence. Sweden, for example, has experienced repeated arson attacks against synagogues even though only four percent of the population was found to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.

The relationship between attitudes/sentiment and behavior is indeed indisputably complex and this may have played some role in this disparity. However, when results are as inconsistent with behavioral realities as they are in the South African case, this has to warrant further interrogation of those findings.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the representative spokesbody and civil rights lobby of the Jewish community, has accordingly looked carefully at the full survey data, and identified a number of striking contradictions and anomalies. Only a few such instances can be discussed here, but these alone are enough to seriously call into question the findings of this part of the survey.

The ADL arrived at a figure of 47 percent of South Africans holding unfavorable opinions of Jews by collating responses to the 11-question index mentioned above. However, a separate question specifically asking what people thought about Jews yielded a negative figure of only 26 percent. (Negative perceptions of Muslims, incidentally, were somewhat higher, at 34 percent).

A visitor to an international exhibition celebrating the 95 years of the life of former South African President Nelson Mandela. Pretoria, South Africa, July 17, 2013.Credit: AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Another glaring contradiction concerns attitudes towards Israel. On the one hand, 36 percent of respondents did not support Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for Jews, and 38 percent supported boycotts against Israel. On the other, when asked which side they sympathized with most in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only 23 percent said they sympathized with the Palestinians whereas 43 percent said they supported Israel.

There appears to be no way of reconciling such diametrically opposed findings.

One clearly incorrect finding concerns attitudes towards "white supremacists." In the local South African context, it is only within the country’s white minority, comprising perhaps eight percent of the population, that white supremacists could have even a limited degree of support. According to the survey, however, over 20 percent of South Africans view them favorably - while a similar proportion are unsure.

This is obviously not the case.

A second glaring anomaly is that 41 percent of respondents reportedly believe that Jews "want to weaken our national culture by supporting more immigrants coming to our country." Xenophobia is indeed a serious problem in South Africa, but no serious investigations (including numerous studies by the country’s Human Sciences Research Council) have ever suggested that Jews are being blamed for an influx of migrants, even to a minor extent, and certainly not to the tune of over four in ten.

High school students working on a project at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.Credit: Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre

Despite its shortcomings, this survey could potentially still be a useful piece of information when reviewed in a more nuanced manner. This would necessarily entail taking careful note of the cultural and historical context of South Africa, so that we can really assess how problematic each high-scoring anti-Semitic attitude is for the Jewish community. Unfortunately, this is not the way the results have been depicted in the press.

What we’ve seen is a crass ranking, one which bears no relation to other crucial South African data and which runs counter to the expert opinions of the SAJBD on anti-Semitism in this country. The ADL should have pointed out that using the results in an uncritical comparative sense is not helpful, particularly for countries outside of the Americas and Europe, which have such a different cultural and historical context.

Until then, we in the Jewish community are unable to accept the characterization of South Africa as the world’s second most anti-Semitic state.

David Sacks is the Associate Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies

Karen Milner is National Vice Chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand

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