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Ahead of national elections, South African Jews feel hope, trepidation

If the African National Congress is re-elected, a South African Jewish radio host predicts that many Jews will leave the country.

Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Credit: Courtesy.
Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Credit: Courtesy.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, religious leader and CEO of the African Jewish Congress, was recently walking in Johannesburg when a car passed by and the passengers screamed antisemitic insults at him.

It was his first such experience in three decades of living and traveling in South Africa, the Johannesburg-based Orthodox rabbi told JNS.

“South African Jewry are feeling more and more in danger,” said Silberhaft, who sees the Jew-hatred of the country’s governing African National Congress party as part of decades of its antisemitism.

He called the sitting government “almost a dictatorship,” which “does not handle antisemitic incidents.”

“There are zero allies in the ANC government. In the minority parties, there are a lot of people that love and respect Jews, Judaism, Israel, Zionism,” he said. Some “speak out in favor of Israel and its survival,” including millions of black African Zionists, some of whom organize rallies, as well as send money and gifts to Israeli soldiers, he said. 

But anti-Israel South Africans have become emboldened by “the government’s decisions and behavior,” he told JNS.

‘Disillusioned with government’

Despite a 631% rise in incidents of antisemitism in South Africa from Oct. 7 until the end of the year compared to the same period in 2022, Jews feeling “concerned” and “vulnerable” aren’t likely to flee the country en masse, according to Silberhaft. He sees South Africa’s troubled economy and high crime rates as larger motivators of emigration.

South Africa Roslyn Basserabie
Roslyn Basserabie, radio host and writer in Johannesburg. Credit: Courtesy.

Roslyn Basserabie, a radio host and writer in Johannesburg, told JNS that if the ANC is re-elected on May 29, she believes that there will be a Jewish exodus from the country.

Those who were on the fence about emigrating after South Africa accused Israel of genocide recently at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the principal U.N. judicial arm, will “now feel that their country is definitely not South Africa any longer” if the ANC is re-elected, Basserabie predicted.

“The Jewish community are in the main disgusted and disillusioned with the present government,” she said, adding that the ANC “does not treat antisemitic incidents satisfactorily.”

Basserabie sees a “supportive voice” among Christian South Africans. “So far and fortunately, it’s only the radical Muslim groups that instigate unrest,” she told JNS.

“I think that the Jewish community of South Africa is shocked at the way the ANC has really come out against Israel,” Kathy Kaler, CEO of the Jewish radio station ChaiFM, which broadcasts out of Johannesburg on 101.9 FM.

South Africa Kathy Kaler
Kathy Kaler, CEO of the Jewish radio station “ChaiFM.” Credit: Courtesy.

“While they’ve never been pro-Israel, I think South Africa very seldom takes a stand on an international stage that would polarize it, yet it’s done it against Israel,” Kaler told JNS. “I think that’s highly significant.”

‘Deeply connected to Israel’

At recent awareness events about the Israeli hostages on the Cape Town promenade, the Durban beachfront and at the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg, non-Jewish passers-by reacted positively, according to Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

“We were moved and heartened by the outpouring of emotion,” she told JNS. “Many of the opposition parties in our parliament have also shown such friendship and support during this time.”

The ANC government’s case against Israel in The Hague reflects its “obsessive hostility to Israel,” she said.

Warren Goldstein, the chief South African rabbi, told JNS that “the important thing to understand is how antisemitism has risen everywhere.”

“Street-level interaction with the general society is a non-issue,” he said.

South Africa Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft
Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, religious leader and CEO of the African Jewish Congress. Credit: Courtesy.

What results is an “interesting paradox,” according to Goldstein. “On the one hand, you have a very anti-Israel government, and yet on the other hand, at the grassroots level the relationship between the Jewish community and South Africans is a very good relationship.”

The Jewish community has been “deeply disturbed by the anti-Israel, pro-Hamas position taken by the ANC,” he told JNS. The government’s approach has “affected and upset our community deeply because we’re a very Zionist, pro-Israel community, deeply connected to Israel and have been for many decades.”

Jewish men aren’t removing kippot, and children continue to wear “outwardly, proudly Jewish” parochial school uniforms, according to the chief rabbi. South African universities have their fair share of protests, “but it’s very, very mild, and is way less than what is experienced across North American campuses,” he said.

Goldstein doesn’t think that the South African government’s position reflects the view of most South Africans—a population of some 60 million who are overwhelmingly Christian.

The governments of other countries have supported Israel more, “yet on ground level, there’s been greater antisemitism,” the rabbi said. “South Africa has the reverse thing, and I think that that’s what makes it an interesting story.”

In a recent speech to AIPAC, Goldstein was optimistic.

“When it comes to South Africa, a superpower of the continent, don’t judge the country by its government, sinking under the weight of corruption and ineptitude,” he said. 

“South Africa has the potential to be one of the most steadfast partners and allies of Israel and the United States. Now is the time to make this happen,” he said at the AIPAC event. “Not the time to disengage from South Africa.”

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