Understanding antisemitism in South Africa

By Editor

Professor Milton Shain, an expert on the history of antisemitism in South Africa, spoke at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School in late January. Offering three lectures on the topic, Shain divided his talks up chronologically across the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Shain makes a distinction between Ideational and Programmatic antisemitism: the difference being that the one reflects the presence of antisemitic ideas, while the other reflects antisemitic actions, such as violent acts.

As regards the extent of the antisemitism prior to the 1930s, using various examples of antisemitic activity, Shain challenged the notion that there was no antisemitism at this time, and that the problem only surfaced in line with the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s. 

The 1930s and ‘40s saw a set of factors that created a ‘perfect storm’ for antisemitism to flourish, allowing for the intensification of ideational antisemitism. This was evident from the many conspiracy theories relating to Jews that were promoted by Fascist organisations.

In more recent times, anti-Zionism became a more dominant theme, and today little distinction is evident between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. For Shain, recent events highlighting this include the anti-Herzlia School sentiment; and the government’s stance on the Gaza war, which stands in stark contrast to its silence on the many other humanitarian crises elsewhere (e.g. in Syria, Yemen, and with the Uyghurs in China).

For the first decades of the twentieth century Jews were seen as not quite ‘white’, although many held important positions. This ended after the Second World War when the Sauer Commission investigating the race question made no mention of Jews as a race apart. The Jewish Question as a public issue was dropped by the National Party which came to power in 1948.

Professor Shain’s course offered a fascinating insight into the history of antisemitism in South Africa, and concluded with his understanding of the hatred being seen since the October 7th Hamas attacks in Israel.

• Published in the March 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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