South Africa: Why Do Some Jews Feel Forgotten?

26 February 2024

South Africa has accused Israel of intent to "destroy Palestinians in Gaza." Israel dismissed the allegation, accusing South Africa of collaborating with Hamas. Where do Jews in South Africa stand?

It's a sunny Sunday morning in Glenhazel, a suburb of South Africa's commercial capital Johannesburg that has an active Jewish community.

A family strolls to a cafe, its four boys each wearing a yarmulke, also known as a kippah, the customary caps for Jewish men.

Just a few meters away, more than 100 'kidnapped' posters are emblazoned on the wall of the Kosherworld supermarket, each of which has a photo of somebody who was kidnapped by the Palestinian militant Islamist organization Hamas during its terror attacks on Israel on October 7.

The Israeli military (IDF) says Hamas took hostage at least 199 civilians and soldiers during the attacks. Germany, the European Union, the United States and other countries classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.

"It was an emotional experience when we put them up," said Joel Baum, who runs the kosher supermarket. "It was on a Friday -- many people came and took part."

Loyalty to Palestinians as a legacy of apartheid

Israel responded to the terror attack by vowing to destroy Hamas and launched a military offensive in Gaza, during which 29,692 people have been killed, according to figures from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

October 7 has also left its mark on South Africa whose government has clearly sided with the Palestinians and has accused Israel of genocide at the United Nations International Court of Justice.

The closeness of the South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) to the Palestinians has its origins in the 1960s and 1970s, when Nelson Mandela and his comrades-in-arms were still fighting against the system of apartheid that privileged white people and oppressed black people.

Under the impact of the Holocaust -- the deliberate murder of Jewish people during the Nazi reign of Germany from 1933-1945 -- many Jews in South Africa also stood by the victims of apartheid.

Some Jewish South Africans also criticized Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Today, the estimated 60,000 South African Jews have to accept that their government shows little empathy for the Jewish victims of terror.

'We don't agree with the policy'

Baum added that he was not speaking as a retailer, but as a private individual.

"We don't agree with politics at the moment. And politics has its own momentum. But let's wait and see, there will be elections soon," Baum told DW.

Parliamentary elections in South Africa are expected to be held in May, in which the ANC could lose its absolute majority for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The escalation in the Middle East conflict has changed little in his supermarket -- at most, the global trade restrictions because Yemeni Houthi militias have been disrupting international trade routes.

This also applies to security. "If we want to go to synagogue on the Sabbath, for example, there is no problem. But there are concerns -- it would be naive to say otherwise," admitted Baum.

Compared to Europe, South Africa traditionally has had a much lower level of antisemitic attacks.

However, since October 7, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) the umbrella representative and civil rights group of the South African Jewish community, has noted a sharp increase.

From October to December 2023, the organization counted 139 incidents, mostly of a verbal nature -- more than six times as many as in the same period last year.

In 2023, there were also six physical attacks on people -- by far the highest figure in the survey.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft told DW that he has also had antisemitic experiences in recent weeks.

At a Jewish cemetery in the Free State province, three men from a passing car recently insulted him as a Jew and shouted that he should go back to Israel.

The orthodox rabbi looks after Jewish communities throughout southern Africa. However, the climate has changed the most in South Africa.

"People here now dare to express themselves in an anti-Zionist way because they know that the government supports it," said Silberhaft.

Verbal insults are tolerable, but the rabbi is concerned that members of his congregation could also be subjected to physical attacks.

He therefore advocates a certain amount of restraint. "Since October 7, we have to be a little more careful about our behavior, including when it comes to displaying our faith."

This is not about living in fear or withdrawing.

"Speaking out when necessary is important. But it has to be well thought out and weighed up," Silberhaft added.

'A slap in the face for Jews in South Africa'

Gabriella Farber-Cohen, former spokesperson for the ANC Women's League in Gauteng, has spoken out.

In a public statement in mid-October, she resigned from the party.

The fact that her government condemned the Hamas attacks only after several days was incomprehensible to her.

"For me, it was tantamount to disrespecting my own life. I am Jewish, if I lived in Israel, it could have been me who was killed, kidnapped or raped," said Farber-Cohen.

South Africa accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians and bringing the case to The Hague is like a "slap in the face for all Jews in South Africa."

Farber-Cohen has high hopes for the elections - and that the political elite will be voted out of office. Ultimately, it is the government that is not on the side of the Jews, nor the people of South Africa.

After the election, Farber-Cohen wants to look for a new political home.

"As Zev Krengel from the SAJBD once said, being a proud South African means waking up every day and contributing to a better South Africa."

In his supermarket, Joel Baum also relies on social cohesion: "We South Africans have survived many difficult phases," he told DW.

He remembers the bloodbaths in the townships at the end of apartheid, the release of Mandela and the first democratic elections.

"We have withstood everything and will continue to do so," said Baum.

"There are different opinions among us 60 million South Africans. But we find a common denominator."

This article was originally published in German.

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