A couple of months ago, I wrote a hard hitting post on South Africa almost topping the Antisemitism charts in the 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey. South Africans (along with Spaniards, Mexicans and Brazilians) were found to have some of the most negative views of Jews of all the non Muslim nation surveyed. A shocking 46% claim to have an unfavourable view of Jews. Breaking this figure down further, over two thirds of these South African who dislike Jews dislike them in the extreme. This is compared to an unfavourable score of 9% from Britain, a country which is regularly in the Jewish press for its high levels of anti-Semitism or 11% for Australia where attacks on Jews are also often reported. Even African nations like Tanzania and Nigeria were found to be less anti-Jewish than South Africa. Negative sentiments towards Muslims in South Africa were also found to be unacceptably high in the survey.
In response I called on the leadership of the South African Jewish community to desist its destructive denialism and hold an urgent press conference on the issue. As I put it ‘South Africans from the government, to media, to NGOs, to business, need to be challenged to do some serious soul searching about the high levels of intolerance that are plaguing our society. This of course is not limited to Jews and Muslims. The shocking xenophobia that we experienced at the beginning of the year has its source in the same septic pit.’
Of course no such press conference was held but the SAJBD did agree that the findings were of concern. In particular they found the fact that the Pew report seems to contradict the low level of Antisemitic incidences that are reported in South Africa worrying. They therefore approached development consultant Jocelyn Smith to contextualise the Pew report. Although I am disappointed with the limited response, I do think the SAJBD deserves praise for its sensitivity to the concerns of the community. It has been a consistent feature of the current leadership under Zev Krengel and Wendy Kahn that our worries and at time criticism are
addressed. Below is Jocelyn Smith’s findings:
PEW 2008 Global Attitudes Survey: Unfavourable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase
Shedding More Heat then Light
When attitudes towards Jews are shown to be unfavourable, our history teaches us that we must be concerned. The respected PEW Global Centre's 2008 Global Attitude Survey reveals a disturbing rise in ethnocentric, and specifically negative attitudes towards Jews and Muslims, highest in European Spain, Russia, and Poland. Significantly, of great concern to Jewish South Africans, is the report's finding that 46% of South Africans view Jews unfavourably. As disquieting as that is to read, an appropriate response to what these numbers mean to us needs to strike a balance between an emotional reaction brandishing the Survey report in hand, and a reasoned response based on the data presented in it.
In considering whether the Survey's findings can be generalised to South Africa, these issues should be noted: Barring countries with majority Muslim populations, those with negative attitudes to Jews also have negative attitudes to Muslims; "publics that view Jews unfavourably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light". Muslims are also viewed unfavourably by 45% of the South African population sampled.
This is inconsistent with our South African experience (post 1994), which has been that anti-Jewish attitudes are driven in the most part by Muslims and are primarily by-products of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The originators of these attitudes in South Africa are then hardly likely to also have negative views of Muslims. The Survey offers no context for the views offered.
In Western Europe, the Survey shows, the increase in anti-Jewish attitudes is driven by older, less educated people on the far right of the political spectrum. Interestingly, in those countries, the data also shows a 17% increase in the numbers of people viewing Christians unfavourably. Negative attitudes to Jews in Eastern Europe are growing most among younger, less educated people.
In pre-1994 South Africa, the far right wing publicly expressed anti-Semitism. Since then however, the opposite has been true. Where anti-Semitic remarks have been made, they have tended to be on the left of the spectrum. In South Africa's case, the Survey offers no analysis of respondents' age, gender, education or position on the political spectrum. The Survey shows an increase in negative attitudes in other countries by showing differing attitudes over time. There is no such comparison in South Africa's case. In fact, the report states that it did not use South African data obtained in a previous survey because the sampling techniques were changed. Therefore, no inferences about an increase in negative attitudes towards Jews in South Africa can be made at all from the Survey.
Perhaps the best general response to a growing tendency to view "others", including Jews and Muslims, negatively, should be to redouble efforts to promote tolerance and a greater understanding of other cultures. As a community we discount indications of negative views of Jews at our peril. Undoubtedly our community faces significant challenges, especially in the light of our support of Israel, but it would be disingenuous to use the findings of the PEW Survey as proof of an imperilled future as Jewish South Africans.
Jocelyn Smith is the sole proprietor of JS & Associates, specialising in research, consulting and project management in the development sector, particularly in the arena of small and micro enterprise development. After working as National Director of The Continuing Education Programme, a national NGO that assisted companies and organisations to implement adult basic education in their workplaces, Jocelyn has, since 1998, worked with different partners on a variety of projects. Clients she has worked with include Investec (on their enterprise development project The Business Place), social scientist Prof Lawrence Schlemmer, The Centre for Development and Enterprise, Markdata, SSACI (Swiss South African Co-operation Initiative), BEES Development Organisation (for the BANKSETA, Human Sciences Research Council, and the International Development Research Centre) and the South African Institute of Race Relations. She completed a BA degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1986, followed by a Higher Diploma in Education (post grad). She taught in a high school for two years, and then went into adult education, and completed a Higher Diploma for the Educators of Adults at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1993.