The South African Jewish community is unique for three reasons: 1) The community is relatively homogeneous, as almost all members have roots in Lithuania; 2) One umbrella organisation speaks on behalf of the entire community; 3) While most Western Jews grew up in an open and democratic society, most South African Jews grew up in a closed society where the government censored information and instilled fear in those who opposed its racial policies.
The false accusation that Israel is an “apartheid state” and the Russell Tribunal on Palestine have deeply distressed the 60-80,000 Jews living here. While the Jewish community benefited from the privileges reserved exclusively for the white population from 1948-94, it also felt victimised by the apartheid regime. As a fiercely Zionist community with over 80% of its children in Jewish day schools, the accusation that Israel practices the same racial policies that traumatised so many South Africans has propelled the Jewish community to begin an internal conversation on the effect apartheid had on its identity and institutions.
On 30 October, The Cape Jewish Board of Deputies, the umbrella organisation that speaks on behalf of Cape Town’s 16,000 Jews, convened the first conference in history to explore the lasting psychological effects apartheid had on the Jewish community. The conference was entitled “TransformNation”, and its first session looked at apartheid’s impact on the community psychologically and structurally. During this conversation, accusations were made that the communal leadership did not speak out enough against apartheid and did not support Jewish anti-apartheid activists. Former student activist Howard Sackstein recalled that in 1983, the Board of Deputies took out an advertisement in the country’s largest newspaper supporting a new parliamentary system that gave partial representation to Indians and Coloureds, but no representation to the majority black population. When Sackstein and other Jewish students spoke out openly against the advertisement, official leaders within the community threatened to have him detained by the police. While one never knows whether the then-leaders of the community ideologically supported apartheid, many speculate that their silence and/or complicity were due to a fear that the government would retaliate against the community should it be seen as opposing the system. To this day, there still exists deep tension between the official Jewish leadership and former Jewish anti-apartheid activists who felt abandoned during their greatest time of need.
Mervyn Smith was chairman of the Cape Board of Deputies at the height of apartheid from 1983-87. Although Jews benefitted from all the privileges of being white, “one of the lesser sins was that apartheid took our children away from us”, he said. The political instability leading up to the end of apartheid resulted in mass emigration from South Africa, leaving behind an ageing community that numbered 120,000 at its peak in the 1970s. “Think of what our Jewish community would have been like with them here”, asked Smith.
The second session at the conference looked at the current moral dilemmas facing the Jewish community and the country as a whole. Although South Africa became a democracy in 1994, the wealth gap has drastically widened since the advent of democracy, with unemployment at 25% and youth unemployment estimated as high as 50%. University of Cape Town Professor Deborah Posel eloquently stated, “We are at risk again of becoming complicit with an ethically abhorrent situation – this time, a situation of deepening inequality. As Jews, we need to confront this and about how to respond in ethically appropriate ways.” While the Jewish community supports several outreach organisations, many in the community believe that the organised structures do not speak out enough on issues of human rights, possibly out of fear of upsetting the ruling party. Many claim that this is a sign of communal fear dating back to the apartheid era.
Martine Schaffer lived in the UK for 15 years and returned to South Africa to establish the Homecoming Revolution, an organisation that encourages expat South Africans to move home. She believes that democracy has not necessarily reversed the Jewish establishment’s unwillingness to speak out on social issues and to play a bigger role in solving the country’s many challenges. “I feel that the Jewish community has become more insular. We have built walls and barriers, physically and emotionally. Our primary commitment seems to be to ourselves, and not the wider requirements of integrating and building a South African community, where Jews can play an active role. I believe that we have lost the voice that earned us respect, as a group of people who believed in fighting for justice.”
No one knows what South African Jewry will look like in 50 years, as this will largely be dependent on the direction the country takes. However, what is certain is that the community will not fully transform until it looks deeper at the effects that living in a closed and totalitarian society had on its communal structures and leadership. An increasing number of former anti-apartheid activists are beginning to openly challenge the notion that the community “speaks with one voice”, as do members of the community who favour boycotting and divesting from Israel. While few in number, they include prominent members of society. The robust conversations currently taking place within the Jewish community about activism, Zionism and responsibilities as citizens of South Africa will hopefully propel it from fear to confidence. These types of conversations give me much hope for the community’s future. DM