Is BDS still a four-letter word for SA Jews?

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Although BDS consists of only a few activists in South Africa, it has achieved a higher profile due to connections with people in the ANC, trade unions and other organisations. It has pressurised the SA government to sever ties with Israel, posing a dilemma for SA Jews on how to react

In 2014, a furore erupted in the South African Jewish community when a student at a Jewish school wore a keffiyah in public, which was interpreted by many as support for Israel’s enemies. Hundreds of people signed an online petition calling on the school to remove the student from all his leadership roles as deputy head boy and SRC member. Later, a new petition by former head boys and head girls as well as their deputies emerged, calling for the attacks on him to stop. Eventually the school board supported his right to express his own views but to be aware of how it might affect others.

In 2018, two  Jewish pupils at Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town, took a knee during the singing of Hatikva, causing outrage. In the same year, Limmud had to drop three speakers from its programme because they supported BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), which is intensely hostile to Israel, though they were not scheduled to speak about BDS.

What do South African Jews think about criticism of Israel today? Traditionally, they have been extremely sensitive, taking it almost as a personal affront. Attitudes have softened, but it remains a hot topic liable to provoke a vehement reaction, even if it involves only a small number of people.

Support for BDS is more serious than mere criticism of Israel, but isn’t a mass phenomenon in South Africa. However, since Israel regards it as an important enemy in international forums, and actually passed legislation in 2017 barring anyone supporting BDS from entering, diaspora Jews are uncertain about what stance to take. BDS characterises itself as a non-violent human rights group. But is its priority human rights, or annihilating Israel? Most portray it as the latter.

What about South Africa? As part of a general survey of attitudes among the Cape Town Jewish community, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT asked interviewees on their attitudes around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether the community should engage with Jews who support BDS. Findings were presented at Limmud two weeks ago. The survey did not ask about direct engagement with BDS, only the extent of interaction with community members who support BDS. More generally, should Diaspora Jews feel free to criticise Israeli policy?

Jews younger than 30 were relatively more often open to public criticism of Israel and engaging with community members who support BDS, relative to older Jews. It is possible this result stems from Diaspora Jews’ diminishing attachment or even alienation towards Israel, and a lesser sense of what nationhood means to them generally. Among the middle aged group (30-50) attitudes are more mixed. As would be consistent with this age range, one might assume that professionals and academics are more likely to be open to both criticism of Israeli policy and BDS, while others still believe BDS’ only aim is Israel’s annihilation. Also, during their entire lives Israel has been criticised for occupying the West Bank; they want to know more. Older Jews (50+) are still likely to maintain past attitudes and oppose all public criticism of Israel. It is likely that this age cohort still considers Israel a precious haven for persecuted Jews after the Holocaust; if Israel acts harshly, it has no choice but to defend itself; and criticism is mostly anti-Semitic.

Aside from the survey, what about SA politics? BDS-SA has very loudly pressurised the ANC government to sever ties with Israel, often bringing trade unions and similar groups into the picture to paint Israel as an unqualified evil. In a dramatic development in April, the Minister of International Relations announced the downgrading of South Africa’s Embassy in Tel Aviv to a Liaison Office, to the justified outrage of SA Jews who felt that cutting ties is completely the wrong way to go.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far from resolution and SA politics in turmoil, attitudes towards Israel will stay fluid and often expedient. Many SA Jews report that in work and social environments, they hesitate to say they support Israel because of the hostile reaction. Unfortunately, the chance for open discussion remains slim and may have to wait until there is real movement on Israeli-Palestinian peace.


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