No, SA is not one of the world's most anti-Semitic countries

Jeremy Gordin questions the findings of the recent Anti-Defamation League survey

There’s little in life as galling as a blatant own goal by your side. But it happens; the truth will out, as Launcelot Gobbo (“the Jew’s man”) remarks in The Merchant of Venice – and one must man (or person) up and face the facts.

Being a child of the covenant in my seventh decade, I have, as it were, grown up with and taken seriously the ADL – the Anti-Defamation League, formerly the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith (“Children of the Covenant,” a Jewish service organization).

The ADL is an international Jewish non-governmental organization, based in the US, and its stated mission is to “[fight] anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry, [defend] democratic ideals, and [defend] civil rights for all,” doing so through “information, education, legislation, and advocacy”.

I did notice that the ADL went a trifle skeef during the 28-year stewardship (dictatorship?) of Abe Foxman, 1987-2015. He was generally too Jewish-chauvinistic for my pinko-liberal taste and inter alia messed with the late, esteemed historian Tony Judt, of which I didn’t approve; though I’d guess Foxman, a gantse macher if ever there were one, didn’t lose any sleep over my dissatisfaction.

Nonetheless, since its founding in 1913, the ADL has undoubtedly carried out some remarkable work ... and can, I think, fairly describe itself, which it makes certain it does, as “the world’s leading anti-hate organization” (or, as I might have put it, “as one of the world’s leading,” etc.).

I was therefore a trifle chop-fallen when 10 days back I read in Haaretz newspaper that the latest ADL survey of the world’s most anti-Semitic countries found that Poland, South Africa, Ukraine and Hungary topped the list [my emphases].

In fact, I was so surprised that if I weren’t so well-built – and if I hadn’t been so distracted by being more loyal to Israel than to Seffrica, as well as so busy talking about what happened to my family during the holocaust and behaving Jewishly, not to mention being rushed off my feet exercising my considerable power in the business world and my massive control over the global media – I’d have probably fallen off my (non-Jewish) chair.

The ADL reported that its poll of 18 countries, part of the “ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism,” was “fielded” between April and June 2019 in Eastern and Western Europe, Canada, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil.

“Using an 11-question index that has served as a benchmark for previous ADL polling around the world since 1964,” the survey of more than 9 000 [sic[1]] adults found that anti-Semitic attitudes in Argentina, Brazil, Poland, Russia, South Africa and Ukraine have seen marked increases since the last ADL Global 100 survey.

Respondents were asked whether a series of statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” These statements included: (i) Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the country they live in; (ii) Jews have too much power in the business world; (iii) People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave; (iv) Jews have too much control over the U.S. government; (v) Jews have too much control over the global media; and (vi) Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.

The survey found that 47 percent of those polled in Seffrica responded “probably true” to a majority of the statements referred to above and were therefore “considered to harbour anti-Semitic attitudes”.

Now, you don’t have to be Jewish[2] to know, as George Steiner once wrote, that “Somewhere [in the world] the determination ... to harass [Jews] from the earth simply because they are, is always alive. Ordinarily, the purpose is muted, or appears in trivial spurts ...” [3]; and that anti-Semitism, using the term here in its most “general” sense, has also existed in the beloved country since – well, probably since a couple of Jewish sailors, probably the offspring of Sephardi Jewish refugees in Holland, landed at the Cape in 1652 on the good ship Drommedaris.

Moreover, much of the Jewish experience here at the bottom end of Africa has not, shall we say, been rosy. If you check out the work of Milton Shain, notably A Perfect Storm (Antisemitism in South Africa 1930 - 1948), as well as many other books and essays, including the recently re-published “Verwoerd’s final triumph” by James Myburgh, you’ll get the picture.

(Some of) my own teenage years – Brakpan, 1966-69 – as well as my time in the SADF – were sullied by anti-Semitic cant in various forms. However, provided you’re not overly sensitive (and no one’s ever accused me of that), sticks and stones may break my bones, but words, etc.

Besides, if I might offer a very truncated and no doubt very simplistic history lesson, it seems to me that from the late 1940s (and even before), once the powers-that-were shifted their focus to dealing with the so-called non-white people of the land, “things” changed for the Jews in SA; it’s not rocket science – we were/are so-called “white”.

Things changed even more following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the fulsome SA-Israel military “cooperation” from 1977 onwards [4]. So much so that the more “enlightened” permanent force SADF officers and even the more koptoe troepies in the deeply koptoe unit in which I “served” (1976-77) were noticeably more circumspect than usual about anti-Semitic calumny – some at times were almost reverential about Israel [5].

Above all, international attitudes shifted; it became in the 60s, especially in the US, simply unacceptable to be anti-Semitic and so it became unfashionable in SA too [6]. Obviously, Steiner’s “trivial spurts” still appear from time to time [7] but so it goes. Moses never promised us a rose garden; he was standing on Mt Sinai – and boy, talk about rainfall problems. 

In short, then, there’s always been “anti-Semitism” in SA, but for decades it’s been mild and irrelevant – certainly not worth writing home (or to the ADL) about.

Recently, of course, the local folk from “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement (BDS) have been busy bunnies. Interestingly, however, the ADL survey found “that, except for South Africa, support for the BDS movement was insignificant in most countries” [my emphasis]. In “most of the other countries,” fewer than 12 percent expressed support for the movement – while in SA 38 percent of respondents said they supported BDS activity against Israel.

Well, we’re a very politically correct and Woke country and we have among us many bright young things who need something to do; more to the point, on those occasions when ANC officials remember that they need to get busy diverting attention from their own peccadilloes, they attack Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians [8]. Nothing like having a straw man (person?) handy.

Don’t get me wrong, however. Although there are many, including the guardians of Jewish communities everywhere, who’d vehemently disagree with me, and although I have quite a number of “issues” with the BDS movement, I personally think the more pressure brought to bear on the Israeli state/government regarding its policies and behaviour, the better.

The point however is that, although some of those who ride in the BDS flotilla are probably, consciously or unconsciously, “anti-Semitic” in some sense, and notwithstanding the moronic things some members do or say and no matter how historically illiterate some are, the guiding aims of the movement in South Africa aren’t directly anti-Semitic.

In short, then, the ADL findings that Seffrica is the second-most anti-Semitic place in the world strikes me as rubbish. When I lived in Israel, I had a Swedish partner who was much amused by my use (and pronunciation) of the word “rubbish”; she spoke English fluently but had not encountered my piquant Seffrican usage; and her repartee was, “Jewish rubbish!” So, yes, the ADL findings are, in my view, “Jewish rubbish” – and inflammatory rubbish to boot.

There’re several questions I’d like to ask. Did the Seffricans surveyed understand the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments? How much did the respondents know about Jews and /or Israel? How many of the respondents had ever met a Jew? (If I recall correctly, in the ADL’s 2014 survey of anti-Semitism, it found that 7 percent of Laotians were anti-Semitic. How many Laotians do you think had ever met a Jew?) Lordy mama, here’s the data! 47 percent of the SA respondents never met a Jewish person ...

Here’s the thing. The probably true/probably false statements put to the respondents were/are clearly tendentious and the responses largely reflect adopted attitudes. Such binary options are also likely to produce a lot of false positives in places where many respondents don’t even really know who “the Jews” are.

Attitudes to Jews are like flat earth thinking in the Middle Ages. They mimic common myths, folk tales and sentiments without any basis in actual knowledge or experience. Jews have the reputation of being rich (wish my family had received that memo), of having undue influence, of being different, etc. That’s the residue of millennia of collective thinking and it can only be changed, if at all, slowly, through familiarity, experience and education. Shock-horror surveys only exacerbate the problem.

Above all, what this survey does not mean is that there is a huge group of people surrounding me who hate Jews and are actively looking for an opportunity to harm them/us.

David Saks of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has remarked that anti-Semitism generally manifests on three levels of escalating seriousness: thinking bad things about Jews; communicating bad things about Jews; and doing bad things to Jews.

The peculiar paradox that emerges from the ADL report – Saks points out – is that countries where anti-Semitic attitudes are relatively low (under 20 percent of the population) report the highest levels of direct anti-Semitic behaviour (the third, most serious level) – while it’s the opposite case in countries with high levels of so-called negative attitudes towards Jews.

According to the ADL survey, for example, only 11 percent of people in the UK “think bad things” about Jews as opposed to almost one in two South Africans, yet last year the UK reported more than 30 times the number of anti-Semitic incidents, many involving violence, than SA did. This year, Saks understands, the disproportion will probably be even greater.

So, what’s the bottom line here? Fake news? Well, without even referring to other frighteningly incorrect work by the ADL pertaining to South Africa [9], I’m afraid that what I’m seeing here, I’m sorry to say, are the efforts of a bunch of very Woke folk looking for donors. (One of the funders of this particular “study” is, I note, Volkswagen ...I’ll say no more.)

C’mon, fellows, anti-Semitism ain’t the problem in South Africa right now, not even for Jews and certainly not for Jewish property owners and businesspeople. I know that – and you (should) know that. 

“A bunch of very Woke folk looking for donors” ...Hmm, that could be classed as a classic anti-Semitic trope, couldn’t it? Well, if the caps fits, you can put it on my head.

But, though certain unsavoury thoughts might cross my mind when I’m pushed aside and trampled in the melee around the food table at a bar mitzvah or wedding, I promise that I really don’t harbour any anti-Semitic attitudes.


[1] 9 000 in each country? Or 9 000 spread across all the countries? The devil, at least when it comes to surveys and polls, lies in the details.

[2] Remember the 1965 comedy album with that title?

[3] “A Kind of Survivor,” in Language and Silence, Pelican, 1969, 119.

[4] Cf. inter alia The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa by Sasha Polakow-Suransky (2010).

[5] I can recall various “conversations,” some with high-ranking officers, often prefaced with embarrassing introductions such as: “Geez, I didn’t know you Jewboys could fight like that, hey” and so on. Readers will doubtless recall that “Operation Entebbe” took place on July 4, 1976 – regarded by military men as the equivalent of winning the Military World Cup.

[6] Ironically, of course, it has now become fashionable among the world-wide Woke (WWW) to bash Israel as hard as possible and, since Jews/Israel are not always clearly separable, especially to non-Jews (and Israelis!), the pendulum might well swing back; some would say it has already ...Had things gone differently, Donald Trump might have had some interesting things to say about Jews but he got well and truly shtupped by his daughter Ivanka converting and marrying Jared Kushner. Poor Donald. But this is a subject for another day.... By the way – lest I be harshly criticised, especially by my leftie comrades in Israel and other good people – I am not suggesting that Israel’s behaviour vis-a-vis the Palestinians and occupied territories should be immune from criticism; au contraire.

[7] Even on Politicsweb, comments occasionally surface about the “Lithuanians” (presumably of the early to mid-1900s) – if not for whom, we are given to understand, there’d have been no dastardly CPSA/SACP and therefore no diabolical ANC. I must admit, by the way, to finding the “Lithuanian” euphemism amusing. Those of us with a bit of a memory will recall that in the 1990s, when white Seffricans started realising that they needed to be a little more circumspect about the nomenclature previously used for black people, the chattering classes started referring to “Norwegians” or “the Greens” – meaning black people. E.g., “Have you noticed how these days the Norwegians are all over Zoo Lake like a rash?”

[8] In 2012, the ANC expressed its support for the BDS, remarking that it was “unapologetic in its view that the Palestinians are the victims and the oppressed in the conflict with Israel” and in January 2018, the ANC notified Israel that “blacklisting individuals who support BDS has only served to strengthen the ANC’s support for the Palestinian people”. I don’t believe Bibi Netanyahu or the IDF chief of staff lost much sleep.