Gabriella Farber, a 22-year-old Jewish student at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, is very possibly an unprecedented phenomenon, at least when it comes to campus politics.
Earlier this month, Farber was elected to the Student Representative Council (SRC) of the Johannesburg-based university commonly known as “Wits” on the slate of the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) — a coalition comprised of the African National Congress, the Muslim Students Association, the South African Students Congress and the Young Communist League. All of these organizations have pushed the view, separately and together, that the State of Israel is the reincarnation of South Africa’s old apartheid regime, and therefore anyone who calls themselves a Zionist is a “racist,” and most probably a “fascist” and “colonialist” as well.
And yet Farber — who proudly identifies as a religious Zionist — came in second on the PYA’s slate of 13 candidates, and was duly elected to the Wits Council on Oct. 7.
As Farber explained in an extensive interview with The Algemeiner on Tuesday, getting to this point was far from easy. In the weeks leading up to her election, she faced a campaign of vilification from anti-Israel activists furious that a white Jewish woman who called herself a Zionist had been accepted as a candidate on a progressive slate. For her part, Farber insists that she would never allow a conflict thousands of miles from South Africa to interfere with the vital work of empowering disadvantaged students at her own university.
How exactly did Farber — who arrived on campus “having not been interested in politics before” — end up in her present position?
As she described it, she grew up in a “Jewish bubble” in Johannesburg, attending the Yeshiva College Jewish day school and becoming a leader in the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement. Upon leaving high school, Farber moved to Israel for two years, where she studied at Midreshet Harova, an all-womens’ seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem.
“Then I came back, and I went to Wits, and for the first time I exited my Jewish bubble,” Farber recalled with a laugh. “I’d never even had a non-Jewish friend, because the Jewish community in South Africa is quite insular, you don’t really leave your Jewish space.”
On her first day on the campus, Farber noticed an energetic protest involving a large number of students. “I’d never seen a protest before, besides in the movies,” she said. Refusing the entreaties of her friends to depart for home for the day, Farber continued observing the demonstrators. “On the one hand, I was a bit scared, and on the other I was intrigued,” she said. “What’s going on? I didn’t want to just run away.”
The protest involved Black students from impoverished backgrounds rejecting a hike in fees imposed by the university administration. For Farber, it was a rude awakening to a side of her country that she had never really seen and the experience transformed her.
“I felt it was my obligation to get involved, because I have the privilege of knowing that my fees are paid, that I have somewhere to live, that I know where my next meal is coming from,” Farber said. “You can’t enjoy freedoms when there are so many people around you not enjoying those same freedoms.”
As her social activism developed, Farber found herself more and more troubled by the disparities between Black and white students at Wits. Most of the white students attend lectures on campus but live at home, she explained, while the large majority of Black students find themselves alone for the first time in unfamiliar, often intimidating, surroundings.
For example, many students encounter computers for the very first time at university, where they are also compelled to speak English all the time, having come from homes where African languages were the vernacular.
“There are lots of mental health issues, there’s a high suicide rate, there are problems with access to food,” said Farber. “There’s a lot of hunger among the students.”
Farber is now a seasoned campus protester, a tactic she believes gets results. More than 200 homeless students who were sleeping in university libraries were eventually housed after Farber and others launched a petition, she said. A group of students who were going hungry received immediate food aid following a sit-in at the vice chancellor’s office. “People don’t have the right to complain about the problems in this country if they’re not prepared to do something about them,” she said.
Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — filtered through a seemingly endless interrogation of Farber’s Jewish and Zionist loyalties by hostile students — continues to cast a shadow over her determination to work for students’ rights as an activist within the ANC, the ruling party which she argues provides the best route to getting the results she seeks.
Prior to her election, one student group expressed its disgust with the PYA at Wits for having “deployed an unapologetic Zionist as a candidate in the SRC elections.” Pro-Palestinian activists even created a fake Twitter account to remind student voters that Farber had served as chair of the Wits branch of SAUJS.
Meanwhile, the campus branch of the Palestine Solidarity Committee issued a statement that announced “with great sorrow” its withdrawal of support for the PYA electoral slate, on the grounds of its “reported affiliation with Zionist forces on campus” — apparently a euphemism for Farber herself.
“It did become a very hostile environment for me on campus, because the Muslim Students Association, Palestine Solidarity, even elements of the general student population, were attacking me for being a Zionist,” Farber said. “In South Africa, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a one-sided story. Zionism has these connotations of fascism and racism and violence and oppression and colonialism. Israel is seen as an apartheid state like the one their parents fought against here.”
Farber is struggling to make her fellow students understand that for her, Zionism is an integral component of her Jewish religious identity and practice, rather than a political orientation.
“It’s the place that for me is a religious homeland, it’s the place where I would go on holiday with my family, it’s the direction I face when I recite the Amidah prayer,” said Farber. “It’s a place that I am grateful for, because I can go there safely as a Jew. I went to Poland during my gap year, and Israel was the place I turned to after I walked through the Auschwitz concentration camp.”
While holding these convictions, Farber was thrust into a lion’s den of ad hominem attacks peppered with antisemitic tropes.
“People accused me of bribing my way in with money stained with Palestinian blood,” Farber recalled. “I was asked to declare Israel an apartheid state, and to wear a Palestinian keffiyeh. I said, ‘I can’t do any of this because I am Jewish. If I did one of the things you are asking me to do, you would be asking me to denounce my religious identity. That’s discrimination, because it’s a protected right in our constitution.’”
Farber continues to articulate a message to students that nothing is more important, in political terms, than achieving equality on campus.
“The chances of student activists making a difference in this country are really high,” she said. “Yet there’s this fixation on Israel and Palestine. It’s used to try and prevent me from helping students in South African society, and from helping South Africa as a country. I never brought it up. I didn’t speak about Israel. I went there to serve students, and I didn’t want to bring my Zionist views into this. My religious views are in my heart and with my religious community — I can keep them separate, but people persist on bringing my religious views into this space.”
Farber concluded our discussion with a suggestion for her adversaries.
“It’s very hard for me to concentrate on a conflict thousands of miles away when there are students here suffering,” she said. “How about putting some of the energy in your hatred of my Zionist and Jewish beliefs into helping students?”