SOUTH AFRICANS can see something of their own history in Robert Bowers, the killer of 11 Pittsburgh Jews in their synagogue on Saturday who said he “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” For him, Jews were outsiders coming to take over his beloved America.
Adult South Africans will remember the alarmist cry the Nationalist Government sounded about the ‘swaart gevaar’ – the black danger they said was at the gates waiting to come in and slaughter white people. Whites had to collectively man the barricades, they said. South Africa’s painful history is based on the horrible things you can do when you define another people as malicious outsiders. The whole structure of apartheid was built on seeing blacks as a danger to white society.
Robert Bowers saw Jews as outsiders who had to be stopped by any means. His comments on the right-wing GAB website, which regularly runs conspiracy theories and extremists, include: “Why hello there HIAS! [the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” For Bowers, the equivalent of the South African ‘swaart-gevaar’ was an American ‘Jew-threat’. His hatred of Jews was not about individuals. When he opened fire, he shouted, “All Jewish people must die.”
He was probably influenced by statements of US President Donald Trump, who has referred to African countries as “shithole countries” and has stigmatised Mexicans, refugees, Muslims and Africans. Trump claims Americans are under threat from outsiders. Nobody has accused the president of being an anti-Semite, but amidst the resurgence worldwide of hate speech and authoritarian regimes, his rhetoric fills people with resentment and fear.
Where does South Africa, land of the k-word, stand on an issue like this? An undercurrent of xenophobia exists, aimed at Indians, Muslims, as well as Africans from other countries such as Somalia. It has, at times, surfaced violently and chaotically, and people have been killed in their homes, shops and in the streets. Xenophobia is an ongoing, dangerous problem simmering under the surface.
For Jews, there have been unpleasant anti-Semitic incidents, particularly on social media, but no direct violence or anything like what Bowers did. On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the Pittsburgh attack, and has called for society to refrain from anti-Semitism. A demand in South Africa for Jews to be thrown out would probably be condemned by all political groups. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility that an extremist might see Jews as representative of the white establishment and try to do something similar to Bowers.
Being an outsider is the most tragic theme in Jews’ long history, which has led indigenous populations to turn on them, including even sending them to gas chambers. Some people are more positive about this condition, believing that being an outsider is a source of Jewish genius, that not being allowed to truly ‘belong’ in a society gives you perspectives others don’t have.
Why do bigots like Bowers get so enraged at Jews? One thing which makes them seem sinister to him is that they look from the outside just like others in mainstream society. The same for homosexuals who, on the surface, appear like anyone else: the bigot becomes outraged at discovering it, as if he has been hoodwinked by some subversive being. On the other hand, blacks, Asians, Indians, as well as people with disabilities are immediately apparent.
America has been the most Jew-friendly country in history, although it feels a little less friendly now. South Africa too, has been good to its Jews. But if America could produce a Robert Bowers, South Africa could also do so.