The Jewish community of South Africa has now officially joined ranks with the Jewish communities of Europe and North America in facing the dangerous expressions of the conflation of anti- Zionism with anti-Semitism.
At a pro-Israel rally in Johannesburg on August 3, in a joint effort, the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the Jewish Community Security Organisation (CSO) reportedly arrested a “Palestinian national” who had an assortment of firearms and knives in his backpack.
The arrest was made before the suspect could gain entrance into the rally where over 12,000 people gathered. Thanks to the extensive measures the community took to ensure that the rally was safe from any potential threats, what could have been a terrible tragedy was averted.
In the week that has followed, we have seen a whirlwind of anti Israel backlash. Major incidents have included a pro-Palestinian rally in Cape Town, which drew an estimated 30,000-50,000 people, apparently the largest public gathering seen in South Africa since the end of Apartheid. Then, the government threatened to arrest South African citizens for serving in the Israeli military and most recently, the umbrella student organization at the University of Cape Town (UCT) adopted a proposal for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Further complicating the backlash from outside of the Jewish community, there is a growing divide from the inside. The community is split between those who are against the war in Gaza and those who see opposition as the worst kind of betrayal.
Two recent incidents in particular have the community in a standoff: a petition was recently signed by 500 Jewish South Africans protesting the war with Gaza and a picture gone viral of a South African Jewish high school student wearing a keffiyah at a public debate have further contributed to the internal upheaval.
It is a confusing time for this proud and established community. Many South African Jews today are hurt and disappointed by both the left and the right; they feel misunderstood and are seriously questioning the current climate. Some even wonder if a “Plan B” escape will need to be executed at some point in the near future. Others wonder if they should rather stay quiet than risk speaking their truth about the war.
The confusion coupled with fear has created a vacuum inside of which community members have become polarized in their positions and angry at those members on either side of the divide.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear,” Mandela famously said.
Today, another kind of fear has gripped the community. This fear is also survivalist, much like the many other fears this community faces on a daily basis.
What kind of courage do we need to discover to walk together as a community through this storm?
This is the question the South African Jewish community is struggling to answer.
And what if the community cannot figure out how to walk together given all the complexities that have emerged in recent weeks? Will we be strong enough to walk through the fire independently, each on their own path?
Perhaps our triumph over fear will be to walk alone on that very narrow bridge.