South Africa's Jews have a rich past, but do they have a future?

You wouldn’t think so if you read a report published last November by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that found South Africa the second most antisemitic country in the world after Poland.

Wendy Kahn at a pro-Israel protest rally outside the Gauteng legislature at the end of Israel Apartheid Week (photo credit: SAJBD)
Wendy Kahn at a pro-Israel protest rally outside the Gauteng legislature at the end of Israel Apartheid Week
(photo credit: SAJBD)
Exactly three decades ago South Africa changed forever.
On a cloudless Sunday afternoon, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, walked out of Victor Verster Prison, east of Cape Town, flanked by his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his right-hand raised and fist clenched.
Four years later, having guided the country through a dramatic transition that marked the end of apartheid, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
Thirty years on, where does the South African Jewish community stand?
“What we have,” reflects Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), “is an incredibly strong community with an active Jewish life and wonderful schools. To a large extent we are the envy of many other Jewish communities.”
But you wouldn’t think so if you read a report published last November by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that found South Africa the second most antisemitic country in the world after Poland. It shocked the local Jewish community.
“Their findings were totally inconsistent with our understanding of antisemitism in South Africa,” says Kahn.
“We know that antisemitic incidents in this country are some of the lowest in the world. We believe the methodology they used was flawed for South Africa. Concepts like the blood libel are unfamiliar to the majority of South Africans because we live so far from Europe.”
The SAJBD has just released its own report which shows that there’s been a 42 percent decrease in antisemitic incidents from 2018 to 2019, and a 10 percent decline in the last 12 years. 62 incidents in 2018 fell to 36 the following year. By comparison, Australia had 366 incidents, Canada 2 041, France 541 and the United Kingdom 1 652. 
“South Africa has quite a low bar for recording antisemitism,” observes Benji Shulman, director of public policy at the South African Zionist Federation. Whereas in France they don’t even bother to record drivers who scream at Jews in the street because it’s so common, the SAJBD reflects it. If it was to use French standards, there’d probably be just one incident of antisemitism.
“South African antisemitism lives in the elite part of the society,” explains Shulman.
“If you’re considered a culturally, politically connected South African, your chances of interacting with antisemitic rhetoric are much higher. Your average South African doesn’t have that problem. And I think that what you see in Europe is the opposite. While European leaders are very strong about dealing with antisemitism, your average European probably still has antisemitism in their bones like they did in the earlier part of the century and I think that’s the difference.”
The Jewish community is vigilant and doesn’t shy away from taking people to court.
“We also have President [Cyril] Ramaphosa who I think has been very good at just dialing down the rhetoric. Before him, under Jacob Zuma, there was all this white monopoly capital stuff and we get sucked up into that,” says Shulman.
What’s more, he doesn’t think Ramaphosa is particularly ill-disposed towards the community; nor is his ruling African National Congress (ANC) but “if you look at their policies and look at how they approach problems, the knee-jerk reaction of the ANC tends to be anti-Israel.”
A key policy ANC meeting that was scheduled for June has been postponed amid fears of the coronavirus. The conference is a source of concern for the community because of a resolution that has been tabled calling for the downgrade of relations between South Africa and Israel.
“That resolution goes against the principles of South African international relations which revolve around dialogue, negotiation and bringing parties together to find solutions. It’s not about punitive action,” points out Kahn.
“We as South Africans know that downgrading relations would be the worst thing to do and we’ve encouraged our government to try and find a role for themselves in facilitating discussions and restarting a peace process. I think positive might be too strong a word to use but I think that we are pleased and encouraged that at this point there hasn’t been an implementation of the resolution.”
Shulman stresses that the “resolution is not about us. The policy conference is about Ramaphosa’s position in the ANC and whatever particular policy on this issue or a number of others is, it will be seen primarily in how much does it hurt Ramaphosa to have it on the table or how much does it not hurt him to have it on the table. I think that will be the key factor.”
No one in the ANC has yet suggested that South Africa should cut off ties entirely with Israel.
“Even the most aggressive ANC resolutions only called for a downgrade of the embassy and not not to make it an embassy anymore,” says Shulman.
“But that hasn’t happened yet. If you look at the official Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) website, all it says is that the ambassador is not resident there [in Israel] at the moment and that the charge d’affaires is in charge, so it’s still operating like an embassy according to DIRCO. We just have an embassy without an ambassador. South Africa had an American embassy without an ambassador up until a few months ago. I think that if things improved with the Palestinians, we would then probably see things change. And unless there’s another war or something I don’t think there’s a serious risk of severing ties.”
According to David Sacks, associate director of the SAJBD, the reason the ANC is pro-Palestinian is because of the legacy of the Cold War.
“There was a close relationship between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the ANC when many in both organizations lived in exile. The close relationship between Israel and South Africa in the last years of apartheid also hasn’t been forgotten. The reality is that they were both going through painful, difficult times and were supporting each other.”
There is still also an active South African Communist Party who every year wishes North Korea happy birthday on its website.
“This is the level of insanity that we deal with,” observes Shulman. “They have a lot of power in the policy making of the ANC so they’re quite important and they feed into the trade unions who are also equally Stalinist in their international relations view.”
As a whole, the Muslim community in South Africa gets on quite well with the Jewish community and a lot of business is conducted between the two. But their official bodies tend to hold very hostile views that drive the communities away from each other.
“I have to say, though, that is changing,” says Shulman.
“I wouldn’t say that peace is breaking out between the communities but there’s a dialing back of some of the rhetoric which I think has to do with the Saudi and Iranian co-operation that’s going on at the moment because most of the community here are Sunni and they are also quite conservative.”
Most South Africans, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Christian or not, care about family, religion, hard work and maintaining peace. The Jewish community certainly has its challenges but it is not experiencing the same levels of hate and antisemitism that some other Jewish communities in the Diaspora are.
“I’d be naive to say we are immune from the same kind of terror that Jewish communities around the world and many other minority groups are facing,” surmises Kahn. 
The history of the Jewish community
The first white people came to South Africa in 1652 when the Dutch navigator, Jan van Riebeeck, established a refueling stop for ships on the way to the Dutch East Indies where the Dutch had considerable trading interests. The area where Cape Town is today was ominously known as “The Cape of Storms.” 
In later years South Africa became more settled and peaceful as small towns were established and Jews mostly from Lithuania and Latvia started arriving in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is said that when Jews from Eastern Europe told they were leaving for southern Africa, their concerned neighbours would remark, “But that is so far away!”. The natural response was “so far from where?”
The massive discovery of diamonds in the mid-eighties followed by the uncovering of huge amounts of gold shortly afterwards led to a rush of immigrants particularly from Britain and Germany. Jews soon became influential in the gold and diamond fields.
As towns were established it was natural that Jews would form their own communities, however small. Synagogues were opened and in 1912, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies was established to oversee the community.
After the First World War there was considerable immigration to South Africa from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Germany and Poland. Of course there was latent antisemitism mostly from Afrikaners of Dutch descent. They were in the government in the 30s and openly supported the Nazis in Germany. Jews were concerned but kept “schtum” (Yiddish for quiet). In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, the South African government was taken over by General Jan Smuts who was pro-British and incidentally always a friend of the Jews. The community breathed more easily. In 1948 Smuts’ government was one of the first to recognise the State of Israel.
But if Jews thought things were getting better, they were sorely mistaken because shortly afterwards in the general election, the Nationalists under Dr. D. F. Malan won and they had a history of antisemitic behavior. In short nothing bad happened to the Jews— best described as neutral – but they had reason to fear.
The Nationalists were too busy implementing their Apartheid policies and Malan actually visited Israel at some stage.
It must be said that the Nationalist government acted rather harshly against the non-white sections of the population. The Jews were well advised to keep quiet because nothing could be achieved by active opposition except to injure themselves in one way or another. Among the anti-Apartheid ranks were many prominent Jews but they were carefully monitored by the Special Branch, as it was called, who were basically political police. The policy of banning activists hurt badly.
During the seventies the non-white opposition grew and agitated openly. South Africa was not a happy place with no peaceful future. The result was massive emigration. The Jewish population halved to about 70,000. Most went to Australia, Canada, Britain, America and Israel (not that many). The joke about Toronto was that it should be referred to as “to run to.”
After 1994, South Africa became a different country. There was a change in government and the African National Congress under Mandela took over. After 27 years in jail Mandela showed no sense of wanting revenge and he promoted peaceful relations between all races. Surely a saint. To many peoples’ surprise the Afrikaners accepted the change. The Jews were mostly delighted with the transition and got on with their lives.
A remarkable statistic took place about four years ago. The 50,000th Jew was buried in the Jewish West Park Cemetery and it was morbidly announced that there were now more dead Jews in Johannesburg than alive ones.
According to a new community survey entitled “The Jews of South Africa in 2019,” published by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in the UK and the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, the country’s Jewish population now stands at 52,300, with four in five living in either Johannesburg or Cape Town, and the rest in Durban, Pretoria and other tiny communities.
The corona crisis
When President Ramaphosa announced a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus starting on March 26, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein ordered all local rabbis to close all synagogues, telling the Jewish Report that it had been “the most heartbreaking decision” of his term.
All synagogues, Jewish schools and communal centers were closed. The decision to close houses of worship in South Africa was difficult, says Rabbi Yossy Goldman, president of the South African Rabbinical Association. Moments before he locked his synagogue in Johannesburg, he recited a spontaneous prayer in front of the Aron Kodesh.
“Guided by top observant Jewish medical experts who are at the forefront of this crisis, the decision was made that it is pikuach nefesh, and as broken-hearted as we are to close shuls, minyanim (the 10-person minimum required for a prayer gathering) and shiurim (lessons), we have no alternative,” he stated. Pikuach nefesh is a halachic concept that deems the saving of a life overrides the authority of Jewish law.
“It is a very distressing, uncertain and unprecedented time,” reflects the SAJBD’s Kahn. “The despondency, fear and uncertainty is shared by all South Africans. We understand that our community and all South Africans have a role to play in stopping the spread of the virus and we are resolute that we will do whatever has to be done.”
The Jewish day schools were closed even before the lockdown was implemented. Some have since started distance learning. Wedding celebrations have been either postponed or downgraded to only a family occasion while all bar/bat mitzvot have been postponed. Numbers attending  funerals have been minimalized.
Most importantly, the community has established an online platform for education and communication. There are regular podcasts from experts dealing with issues like self-quarantine, how to look after the elderly, social distancing, the importance of washing hands and the like. A hotline for the community to respond to questions has also been set up.  
In the last few hours before the lockdown, South Africa Friends of Israel, an organization that works with pro-Israel churches around the country, and the South African Jewish humanitarian relief aid organisation, Cadena SA, distributed virus safety kits to the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Short educational videos in local South African languages  on Covid-19 avoidance protocols were also recorded and disseminated on various social media platforms.
Volunteers of the Union of Jewish Women’s Kosher Mobile Meals project, operating since the 1970s, had themselves declared “essential service” so they could continue to visit neighborhoods struggling with urban decay where a few Jewish residents still live. They deliver food parcels to elderly Jews who are not able to shop and cook for themselves.
Among other initiatives the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre was converted into a refreshment station for the South African police service.
But the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown have resulted in a burgeoning of online platforms, including Zoom, that have seen a new form of online hacking, including the introduction of antisemitic content referred to as “Zoom bombing.” This is a new threat, in which extremists disrupt online activities organized by Jewish communities and others.