By Wendy Kahn National Director, SAJBD
On 27 October, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, with his AR-15 rifle and proceeded to gun down more than a dozen Jews at their Sabbath prayers. Eleven people died. Shortly before this, Bowers had posted the following comment on social media, ““HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The reference was to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s, a Jewish-headed refugee resettlement agency.
There are innumerable cyber trolls who use social media platforms to propagate antisemitic hatred. What made Bowers different was that rather than continuing to denounce Jews for this supposed ‘evil’, he decided to do something about it. Moreover, he made his intentions clear: He was ‘going in’. This was blatant incitement to violence.
Earlier this year, I shared a panel with several visiting experts from the US at a conference on religious freedom, hosted by the American Consulate. At the end of my presentation, I was asked what defined incitement to violence. The Americans explained that in order for them to act on a threat, it had to be imminent and direct and they included an onerous list of conditions for what would constitute incitement. Tragically, no one recognised that Robert Bower’s threat was real and that it would result in 11 dead bodies on the synagogue floor following his announcement that he was there ‘to kill Jews’.
Woe to us all in South Africa if we similarly ignore such warnings. And yet, there seems to be a sense of lethargy in our country when it comes to responding decisively to threats of violence against individuals in our society.
In 2014 Tony Ehrenreich, ANC Cape Town City Councillor and Chairperson of COSATU in the Western Cape, posted an explicitly threatening comment about the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and other “Zionist supporters”, inter alia declaring that the time had come “to say very clearly that if a woman or child is killed in Gaza, then the Jewish Board of Deputies, who are complicit, will feel the wrath of the People of SA with the age old biblical teaching of an eye for an eye”. There was nothing ambiguous about this threat. He made this inflammatory statement it at an extremely volatile time when there were heightened tensions over the emotive issue of the Gaza conflict. South Africa was awash with acts of antisemitic abuse and intimidation, whether against Jewish individual or against Jewish institutions. It was in such a fraught and volatile context that a government leader incited tit-for-tat vigilante violence against the representative body of SA Jewry. It took the Human Rights Commission four years to make a determination of Hate Speech against Ehrenriech.
As we learned with Bowers this week, one can never know what the intention behind the threat is.
We also need to recognise that whether or not Ehrenreich himself intended to act on his words, a pronouncement of this nature, particularly by someone in his position, could easily have inspired others to take him at his words. People holding public office are positioned to influence mind-sets, for good and for bad, and any incitement to cause harm on their part has the potential to trigger action, with potentially devastating consequences.
Tony Ehrenreich is just one of the many individuals, several of whom like himself held public office, who have made threatening and demeaning comments about South African Jewry. A casual overview of what is being said about Jews in the social media will soon reveal how regularly antisemitic tropes are surfacing. Many people, it would appear, do not see anything wrong in alleging that Jews exploit and cheat the rest of the population through their clandestine control of the economy, media etc, that responsibility for wars, disease, depressions and other global disasters should be laid at their door.
What is of even greater concern is that casual calls for Jews to be expelled from the country, or even massacred outright, are becoming more and more frequent. For example, in response to an EWN article on the Pittsburgh atrocity in which I was quoted, a comment was posted on twitter noting: ‘I think we must kill jews in sa…’ (sic).
By demonising individuals or a minority group in society, it has the effect of dehumanising them. This coupled with blatant calls for violence as advocated by Tony Ehrenreich (as well as by fellow Cosatu representative Bongani Masuku, who likewise was found guilty of inciting hatred and harm against the Jewish community) is dangerous and irresponsible.
Jews know only too well that the Holocaust did not start with gas chambers and mass firing squads, but with words. We are thus acutely aware of the danger of threats and the possible outcomes of incitement to violence. For that reason, our community will not stand silently by when a Bongani Masuku threatens our Jewish university students, nor will we look the other way when a Tony Ehrenreich threatens us with `Eye for an Eye’ revenge attacks.
If there is one lesson we should heed from this horrific massacre in Pittsburgh, it is that words should not be dismissed and taken lightly. As Genocide Watch’s Dr Gregory Stanton said, “Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Hateful Words Can Kill You.’
Wendy Kahn is National Director of the SAJBD, a position she has held for 12 years. Prior to this she was an elected leader of the Board and it’s Vice Gauteng Chair.
Her career started at Eskom where she worked with middle management leadership development after which she was a founder and Executive Director of the He’atid Leadership Programme for 14 years taking South African leaders to Israel on various programmes to learn from its many models of development.
Her work at the SAJBD is around protecting our community’s civil liberties, protecting the community against antisemitism, representing the community to and building relations with the broader South African society.