Local Jews Protest South Africa's Designation as One of the Most anti-Semitic Countries on Earth

Top Jewish organization says ADL study picked methods developed for Europe, U.S. and applied them 'uncritically to another cultural context'

Demonstration against proposal to label Israeli goods as 'Made in Occupied Palestinian Territory', Cape Town, South Africa, June 29, 2012
Schalk van Zuydam / AP

Is South Africa truly one of the most anti-Semitic countries on earth?

An international survey of 18 countries published last week by the Anti-Defamation League would seem to suggest so. The survey found that 47 percent of South Africans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, making it the most anti-Semitic country surveyed after Poland. (The poll did not include Middle Eastern or North African countries.)

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But in a rare challenge to the world’s leading anti-Semitism watchdog, the top Jewish organization in South Africa is disputing these findings. In a statement issued on Wednesday, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies described them as “at best highly questionable and sometimes clearly wrong.”

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“The findings are replete with contradictions, anomalies and inconsistencies, all of which ultimately greatly misrepresent the nature of South African society in general and the position regarding its Jewish citizens in particular,” the statement said.

ADL did not respond by press time to a request for comment, but Haaretz has learned that the organization was in close contact with leaders of the Jewish community in South Africa before going public with its findings.

The ranking was based on responses to a series of questions concerning beliefs in stereotypes. Respondents were asked whether a series of statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” Those who responded “probably true” to a majority of the 11 questions posed were considered to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.

More than half of those surveyed in South Africa said the following statements were “probably true”: Jews are more loyal to Israel than to South Africa (57 percent); Jews have too much power in the business world (53 percent); and, Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind (55 percent).

The survey found that, except for South Africa, support for the BDS movement was insignificant in most countries. In South Africa, though, 38 percent of respondents said they supported BDS activity against Israel. In most of the other countries, fewer than 12 percent expressed support for the movement. South Africa, considered to be a major hotbed of the BDS movement, recently downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel.

South Africa was the only country with a significant number of respondents (41 percent) who agreed that “Jews want to weaken our national culture by supporting immigrants coming to our country.” It was also the country with the highest rate of respondents (39 percent) who believed Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.

Temple Israel, Hillbrow, Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, South Africa, June 19, 2019
Ilan Ossenfryer

The SAJBD statement noted that compared with other countries, the number of actual attacks against Jews in South Africa has consistently be low. Moreover, it said that locally conducted surveys have found that the great majority of South Africans either have no knowledge about Jews or hold no opinion about them.

From a strictly academic, methodological perspective, the statement said, “the manner in which the survey was framed and conducted appears to have been gravely flawed.”

The most probable explanation for the discrepancies found, it said, was that “the questions and general methodology followed by those conducting the survey were essentially developed for a specific cultural context, namely Europe and North America, and then applied uncritically in another cultural context, namely South Africa.”

It is not the intent of the SAJBD to dismiss the entire survey out of hand, the statement said. “However, it is necessary for the public to be aware of what we consider to be serious flaws in terms of how it was applied to South Africa and that accordingly its findings must necessarily be treated with a great deal of caution, “  it said.

The inaugural ADL anti-Semitism survey, which included 100 countries, was conducted in 2014. That year, 38 percent of the respondents in South Africa were found to hold anti-Semitic beliefs – considerably lower than in the latest survey.