Kaplan Centre study on Black South Africans’ perceptions of Jews


Professor Adam Mendelsohn (Director of the Kaplan Centre), said the study came about after several instances of prominent black South Africans peddled antisemitic ideas in public discourse, particularly those in leadership positions like former Wits SRC leader Mcebo Dlamini, who said he admired Hitler.

“We wanted to know if this was representative or atypical; and if leaders like him were tapping into an undercurrent of prejudice,” said Mendelsohn. “Yet the results show that antisemitism has little traction.”

800 people in urban centres were randomly selected and professional surveyors visited them in their homes. This was a broad survey, capturing attitudes on other racial groups in comparison to Jews. Most of those surveyed were in the 18 to 34 age group as South Africa has a young population. 39% said they were not at all interested in international politics, but 76% said religion was very important to them.

Mendelsohn also pointed out that there is little awareness of Jewish involvement in fighting apartheid, even though Jews were 35 disproportionally over-represented in the struggle. Only 150 people out of 800 associated Jews with apartheid, and of that, 111 said that Jews supported it.

When asked ‘who cares the most for their own?’ Only 7% said Jews, meaning that there is little awareness of welfare in the Jewish community. “Our communal narrative has not reached the wider population,” he said.

In the same vein, only 2% had heard of an organisation or movement working for the Israeli cause in South Africa, and only 4% had heard of anyone working for the Palestinian cause. These views are being expressed in an ‘echo chamber,’ said Mendelsohn.

In discussing the results, Deborah Posel reminded the audience of who was surveyed — most were less educated and affluent, making someone like student leader Dlamini an exception to the survey. She felt that the next step would be to survey ‘elite’ sections of society, like students, which may reveal different results.

She also pointed out that while some numbers may seem low, others will interpret them as high. For example, she was shocked that one in five respondents described Jews as ‘selfish, racist or greedy’; which in her mind was a high number especially when most respondents said they had never met a Jew.

She also queried the strange result that 19% of people said that they knew a person was of the way they face on a daily basis, as opposed to dressed, yet 44% said they couldn’t tell the difference between a Muslim and a Jew. She surmised that there was definitely more clarification needed and more questions to ask, but that the survey had definitely tapped into some crucial data. Steven Friedman pointed out that by saying the survey is on ‘black South Africans’ attitudes towards Jews’, it assumes Jews can’t be black, and he reminded the audience that this is definitely not the case. He said that in his mind, the study confirms that the essential divide in South Africa is race, and that South Africans are essentially concerned with the economic challenges they face on a daily basis, as opposed to something like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which does not impact their everyday lives. “This gives us a sense of perspective, and the implications are for Jews to connect with the primary identity of other South Africans,” he said. In this context, “our Jewish heritage, teachings and where we come from should guide us on how to contribute to an expanded future for all,” stated Friedman. “The challenge is not to beat back antisemitism, but to make a contribution to a more tolerant and kinder country.” The full survey and results can be found at http://www.kaplancentre. uct.ac.za



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