South African Jews feel ‘abandoned’ as government takes strong pro-Palestine stance

Cape Town Letter: President Cyril Ramaphosa this week filed a referral to the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza

Israel’s military action against Hamas in the Gaza Strip is having major ramifications for South Africa’s Jewish community, steering it into conflict with the government and the country’s pro-Palestine supporters.

South Africans and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party have close ties with Palestine dating back to their own struggle to overthrow white minority rule, which ended in 1994.

So it is no surprise many South Africans are appalled by the Israeli government’s military response to the brutal Hamas attack on its citizens on October 7th, which claimed about 1,200 lives and saw the terrorist group abduct more than 200 people.

As Israel’s military has pursued Hamas into Gaza, and the civilian death toll has reportedly risen to more than 11,500 in just a few weeks, the revulsion in South Africa over what is unfolding has been palpable. Large pro-Palestine protests calling for Israel to end its assault on Gaza have occurred in all major cities and the ANC government has taken concrete steps to support Palestinians.


On Thursday last week, president Cyril Ramaphosa filed a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate alleged war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. South Africa has also withdrawn its diplomats from the Jewish state. “We have put through a referral because we believe that war crimes are being committed there,” said Ramaphosa before adding: “We do not condone the actions taken by Hamas earlier, but similarly, we condemn the actions that are currently under way and believe they warrant an investigation by the ICC.”

Also on Thursday parliament debated a motion tabled by radical left-wing party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), calling on the government to close the Israeli Eembassy in South Africa and suspend all diplomatic relations with Israel. Parliament is expected to vote on the motion over the coming days.

The anti-Israel mood in the country has taken its toll on Africa’s largest Jewish community, which amounts to about 90,000 people who mostly live in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Many South African Jews have friends and family members in Israel who were affected by the October 7th terror attack, the brutality of which has shocked them to the core. While some remain steadfast behind Israel’s right to defend its citizens with military action in Gaza, despite the high death toll, others are as appalled by the loss of life in the enclave as they are about the Israelis murdered by Hamas.

So far more than 620 South African Jews, including many prominent community members, have signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Veteran journalist Anton Harber (65), from Johannesburg, said he signed the letter because “in the midst of all the hate-filled din from extremists from both sides, we need to reassert our shared humanity ... We need to strengthen the voices of peace which are being drowned out by the extremists. We need to push back the warmongers.”

But despite these calls for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, tensions have continued to run high between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel supporters. This culminated in a clash between elements of both groups in Cape Town’s Sea Point suburb on November 10th that required riot police to disperse those involved using a water cannon and stun grenades.

According to the South African Jewish Boards of Deputies (SAJBD), a representative body for the community, anti-Semitism in the country has increased 10-fold over the past six weeks and is being “fuelled by inflammatory rhetoric by some in political leadership”.

“On average, we would expect there to be about nine [anti-Semitic] incidents for the period October 7th to November 15th. Thus far, we have recorded well over 80 for the same period, with more being brought to our attention all the time,” the SAJBD said in a statement.

The anti-Semitism has included physical violence, hate speech, cyberbullying and boycott campaigns, the body stated.

The radical left-wing party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and other pro-Palestine supporters have called on the Western Cape provincial government to close a Cape Town-based Jewish school, the United Herzlia Schools, as some of its students have joined the Israel Defence Forces after graduating.

In response, the school’s management has beefed up security, with heavily armed guards at each of its three campuses.

Aside from the fear of reprisal attacks for Israel’s military actions, Jewish friends have told me their community in Cape Town feels isolated and neglected by its government’s approach to the crisis in the Middle East. Expanding on this, SAJBD national director Wendy Khan explained that during the week that followed the Hamas attack on Israel, South Africa’s government was “silent” about the atrocities committed against Jewish people. “There was no expression of sympathy from the government to our communities, and that silence spoke volumes. We feel abandoned and isolated in our own country.”