New Jews in a new South Africa

Jews, reconciled with their country and their country reconciled with Israel, say they are no longer a schizophrenic community.

When Warren Goldstein was inaugurated as South Africa's new chief rabbi in April, among those attending at Johannesburg's Sandton shul was President Thabo Mbeki. "When in history has a head of state ever been present at the inauguration of a rabbi?" wondered Goldstein during a recent interview at his in-laws' house in Ra'anana. During his two previous years as rabbi of Johannesburg's Glenhazel shul, four South African Jewish families who had left the country returned to the congregation. "Mass emigration has ceased to be a significant phenomenon in the South African Jewish community. It's down to a trickle, and at the same time we're also getting reverse movement of people coming back," said Goldstein, an energetic, ambitious but warm gentleman of 34. Outside South Africa, the popular image of the country's Jews is that of a dying Diaspora a community whose young are fleeing the encroachment of black, Third World rule on what used to be, in the days of apartheid, the most materially comfortable and morally uncomfortable Jewish community in the world. South African Jewry is in terminal decline, goes the common belief, because Johannesburg, where about two-thirds of the country's roughly 80,000 Jews live, has become a killing ground of murderers, rapists, carjackers and muggers such that nobody ever leaves his home or office except to get straight into the car, and then to drive only with all the windows locked. The consensus wisdom further holds that South African Jews and other whites can't get professional jobs anymore because, with massive affirmative action in gear to try to make up for the decades of apartheid, all the good jobs are going to blacks. In addition, it's a waste to go to a South African university because, with near-open enrollment for blacks again, to atone for apartheid academic standards have plummeted and university degrees have become badly devalued, especially when taken overseas. Worst of all, anti-Semitism is a terrible problem in the country due to black, Third World solidarity with the Palestinians and hatred of Israel, to the memory of Israel's close military relationship with the old apartheid regime in the Seventies and Eighties, and the sea of Muslim fundamentalists in Cape Town and Durban. Durban: Since the UN-sponsored, anti-Israel hatefest there in 2001, the simple mention of the name fills Jews with dread. So is it true that South African Jewry is a community without a future? "Not at all, not at all. On the contrary," said Goldstein with quiet earnestness. The horror stories about life for Jews in South Africa that have reached overseas are either distorted, grossly exaggerated or woefully outdated. South Africa is a great success story, the rabbi maintained, and so is South African Jewry. For all the increased security at many synagogues, as far as anti-Semitism goes, Goldstein pointed out, "There is nowhere in the country where you can't walk comfortably with a yarmulke on your head." When prominent rabbis and religious scholars come to speak at the shuls, notices go up on lampposts in Jewish neighborhoods. "We have complete freedom to do that, there's no public anti-Semitism to worry about," he asserted. In fact, he maintained, South Africa has fewer anti-Semitic incidents than any country in the world where Jews live. "When the second intifada started and anti-Semitic incidents spiked everywhere in the world, our figures stayed consistently low," he noted. In 2004, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 37 anti-Semitic incidents, none of them violent, in that country of 45 million people. Most cases amounted to catcalling from passing cars at Jews on their way to or from synagogue, graffiti sprayed on synagogues or homes, and anonymous letters to prominent Jews. "The relatively low level of anti-Semitism in South Africa can in part be attributed to the strong non-racist ethos that has prevailed in the country since the demise of white minority rule," wrote the ADL in its annual world report. Anti-Semitism, the report found, enters the public sphere mainly through radio broadcasts and bookstores in the Muslim community, which numbers 800,000. The worst of the rhetoric came after the IDF killings of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz Rantisi in Gaza. As for crime, Goldstein acknowledged that it is a serious problem in Johannesburg, but said that it is decreasing and, at any rate, isn't nearly as bad as many white South Africans and foreigners think it is. "When I'm walking to shul, it's not uncommon for a black person passing by to wish me 'good Shabbos,'" he noted. The job market has in fact tightened because of affirmative action; it may take a little longer to find a good job, Goldstein noted, but Jewish doctors, lawyers, engineers, business managers and other professionals continue to flow into the economy. He acknowledged, though, that affirmative action has more Jews than before looking to start their own businesses. "But this is not the first time the community has had to deal with this issue," he said, noting that under apartheid, Jews and other English-speaking whites couldn't get certain jobs that were reserved for Afrikaners, the ruling majority within the white minority. Goldstein stressed that affirmative action for blacks is a justified way of "leveling the playing field" that was so hopelessly tilted under apartheid. Meanwhile, South African Jews still maintain a disproportionately large presence in the civil sector, especially in politics and the judicial system. The leader of the parliamentary opposition to the dominant African National Congress (ANC) is a Jew Tony Leon of the Democratic Alliance as is the country's most prominent jurist, Judge Richard Goldstone. Complaints about falling university standards are likely informed by "latent racism," the rabbi suspects. He noted that he had spoken to lunchtime audiences of scores of Jews at the traditional hotbed of black and left-wing political activism, Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand, the country's leading university, where he just got his doctorate in human rights law. So much for the consensus wisdom. Goldstein sat for the interview after attending the funeral of Rabbi Cyril Harris, his predecessor as chief rabbi, who was buried at Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetery on September 15 after succumbing to cancer at age 68. Nelson Mandela, who invited Harris to speak at his 1994 inauguration, issued a statement saying, "In that difficult challenge of our transition and early democracy to pull and keep our country together, he played a central role that will be remembered in our history." Mandela ended his statement with the African blessing, "Hamba kahle ("go well" or "rest in peace"), Cyril." Harris left England for South Africa in 1987, when the anti-apartheid struggle was raging and whites, including Jews, were fearful for their personal safety and welfare, no matter what their political and moral views of apartheid. There had been "white flight," including that of Jews, after the 1976 Sharpeville Massacre, which resulted in the escalation of government repression and black discontent. The mass clashes of 1985 exacerbated the tensions. By then some 120,000 Jews lived in the country, but in the ensuing years about of one-third of them would move to Australia, England, Canada, the US and, in a much lesser proportion, Israel. The national currency, the rand, which used to be stronger than the dollar on the world market, lost over 90 percent of its former value after 1985. South Africa came under international sanctions; it turned into the most hated country in the world. At home, lethal confrontations between crowds of blacks and columns of police, as well as between rival black factions, became hellish. And as the ANC had historically been aligned with communism, wealthy South Africans, among whom Jews had always been prominent, feared that if the black majority gained power, their businesses would be nationalized and their property confiscated. In the early '90s, the Israeli Embassy in Johannesburg warned Jews in the country that time was running out, that aliya could be a matter of life and death, and made plans for emergency mass evacuation. Yet the nightmare scenario never came to pass. The passage from apartheid to democracy was achieved peacefully, with Mandela as the great, inspirational unifier. "We just celebrated 10 years of freedom and democracy, separation of powers, freedom of press, three general elections, a presidential succession and an independent judiciary," said Goldstein. The rand has recovered, the economy is growing steadily and South Africa is today a social democratic, capitalist country. And as life in South Africa has improved and fears have subsided, aliya from that country has dwindled from 595 new immigrants in 1994 to just 97 last year. Still, for Goldstein as for Harris before him, the only legitimate alternative for a South African Jew is Israel. "Our motto in the community," he said, "is 'either go home or stay home.'" The general sense is that just about all the Jews who were going to leave South Africa have already left. Those who have remained, said Goldstein, are almost by definition optimistic about, or at least reconciled to, the new, post-apartheid "dispensation." "You're living in Africa, and you have to be comfortable with that," he said. During the apartheid era, South African Jewry was a schizophrenic community. On the one hand, its presence in the the white auxiliary of the anti-apartheid struggle was completely disproportionate, incomparable to that of any other South African white community. Joe Slovo and his wife Ruth First, Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, Harold and AnnMarie Wolpe, Bram Fischer, Albie Sachs, Denis Goldberg and many other Jews were jailed for as long as decades, forced into exile and, in First's case, assassinated by the police in the anti-apartheid cause. Helen Suzman led the fight, or fought it single-handedly, in Parliament, while Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, was and presumably still is an ANC member. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, "I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice." Jews voted predominantly for the liberal or moderate opposition parties against the ruling Nationalist Party. All this went a long way toward stoking Afrikaner anti-Semitism. But then the joke went that Jews voted for the liberals but prayed the "Nats" would win. The large majority of Jews went along with apartheid, and thrived economically under it. Like other whites, Jews of the middle class had low-wage, subservient black housemaids, while the wealthy had whole retinues of low-wage, subservient black maids, cooks, butlers and "garden boys." The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the communal leadership, did not protest the apartheid system, making it a policy to stay out of "political" issues. They were afraid of angering the Nats, who had been pro-Nazi in World War II and were habitually anti-Semitic, but the Jewish establishment's legitimate fear also served as its illegitimate excuse for decades of silence. In his 1997 testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to purge white guilt and black bitterness from the country, Rabbi Harris mentioned the ultra-high Jewish profile in various components of the anti-apartheid cause, but he also acknowledged "the silence of the general Jewish community, as distinct from individuals and specific groups, during the apartheid era." Before the panel led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the two clerics addressing each other as "brother" and "friend" Harris said: "Many in the Jewish community did not agree with apartheid. Almost everyone in the Jewish community had a kind of awkward tension about apartheid, but most of the Jewish community benefited in one way or another from apartheid... In that the Jewish community benefited from apartheid, apology must be given to this commission." As a rule, Jews who went beyond mild liberalism, who dedicated themselves to overthrowing the apartheid system or at least identified with the insurgent movement, broke off from the mainstream Jewish community, which didn't go out of its way to keep them. There were, however, some instances of overlap. Arthur Goldreich, who was arrested with Mandela and nearly all the rest of the anti-apartheid leadership (including four other Jews) in the Rivonia suburb of Johannesburg in 1963, had fought with the Haganah as a teenager. After his escape from a South African prison soon after his arrest, he made his way back to Israel, where he has been a prominent architect, artist and Bezalel teacher, all the while remaining a loyal ANC member. Benjamin Pogrund, a leading anti-apartheid journalist who was jailed for his writing, immigrated to Israel some years ago. 0n the other side of the fence was Percy Yutar, the proudly Jewish prosecutor at the Rivonia trial that sent the defendants to prison, with Mandela staying there for 27 years. The radically shifting tenor of Israel's relations with South Africa has always had a great impact on the status of South Africa's Jewish community. In his 1999 book Rivonia's Children, about South African Jews and other whites in the anti-apartheid underground, The Washington Post's Glenn Frankel writes that Israel had been on the outs with the apartheid regime in the early Sixties, when the Jewish state forged ties with post-colonial black African countries. But after the Six Day War, black Africa began siding with the Arabs and white South Africa began siding with Israel. In 1975, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, purporting to hate apartheid but arguing that Israel needed all the friends it could get, recognized South Africa, and it was the beginning of a friendship lacking any beauty whatsoever. For instance, the gravel-spraying vehicles white South African police used against black protesters were built by Kibbutz Beit Alfa. Writes Frankel: "Afrikaners began to shed the anti-Semitism that had been part of their mystical nationalism and identified with Israelis as another Chosen People in an alien land, beset by dark-skinned native peoples. Israeli technicians, engineers and retired military officers increasingly took up places as consultants and planners of the new tribal homelands, the nominally independent puppet states that the Pretoria government created out of rural wastelands. As ties between the two nations improved, South Africa's Jews became increasingly identified with the government and less with its opposition in the liberation movement." Upon his release from prison in 1990, Mandela expressed his gratitude to Yasser Arafat and Muammar Ghadafi (among many others) for the support they'd given him and the ANC over the decades, and pledged his support to the Palestinians and Libya in return. This upset many Jews in South Africa and angered many in Israel, but Mandela, fresh out of 27 years in prison, couldn't be expected right away to forget the undeniable truth: that in the years when the anti-apartheid struggle was gathering force, Arafat and Ghadafi sided with it, and Israel sided with the white regime. Like Tutu, Mandela expressed his support for Israel as a sovereign state immediately after his release, but castigated the occupation, comparing the treatment of Palestinians to apartheid-era treatment of South African blacks. After the first free election was held in 1994 and Mandela and the ANC took over, relations with Israel were awkward, pulled in different directions by the blacks' memory of Israel's alliance with the apartheid regime, their country's support of the Oslo Accord, and Israel's aching desire to start a new page with the new South Africa. But the end of the peace process, and the start of the intifada and Israel's military response to it, put relations on ice. Tutu, while crediting Israel for being "certainly more democratic than its neighbors," endorsed the international movement for divestment in Israel, saying that as sanctions had ended apartheid, so they could end the occupation. Then nearly two years ago, the thaw began. The intifada died down and lost its nightly slot on the TV news, while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan emerged. Sharon's recent meeting at the UN with Mbeki is only the latest example of the change. Possibly the most remarkable sign came in Mbeki's letter of congratulations to Sharon for the disengagement, in which he went so far as to express sympathy for the settlers who got uprooted. "We are acutely conscious of and sensitive to the pain that will have to be borne by the Israeli families to which Gaza had become home," Mbeki wrote. Fumi F. Gqiba, a former major-general in the anti-apartheid guerrilla army Umkhonto We Sizwe, and now his country's ambassador to Israel, sounds like a regular Sharonista. "Sharon should be supported, because without his leadership Israel never would have gotten out of Gaza," he said. "In Israel there are about 6 million Jews who have 1 million opinions. You need not a dictator, but a benign dictator like Sharon. We support him and hope the international community will close ranks around him." Before disengagement, the only Israeli politicians made to feel truly welcome by official South Africa were the delegations of peace activists who went there to learn the South African model of conflict resolution. Not anymore, though; South Africa's ruling ANC and Israel's ruling Likud have gotten to know each other. Goldstein recalled walking into the ceremonial dinner when Ehud Olmert, as trade and industry minister, led a delegation to South Africa over a year ago, "just at the moment when the South African minister [who signed] the trade agreement hugged Olmert. There was great body language between them and a warm atmosphere in the room," he said. A couple of months ago an ANC delegation, accompanied by Johannesburg Jewish leader Zev Krengel, came to Israel to meet with Likud leaders. In November, the South African trade minister will be visiting here, added Gqiba. "We in South Africa know what happened in the past; we're not going to forget. Israel was very close to the old regime. I should have been killed in the bush, in the guerrilla war. But that happened long ago," he said. "We're not going to let that stop us from coming closer to Israel, from sharing expertise and moving forward." The turnaround in diplomatic ties between South Africa and Israel has done a world of good for South African Jewry's sense of well-being, said Goldstein, and for its status in the eyes of their country's political leadership. When Mbeki spoke at his inauguration as chief rabbi, Goldstein said the president "turned to me and said his door was always open to me. He spoke about the Jewish contribution to South Africa, how important it is in all different areas." Mbeki's office also displayed true "derech eretz," Goldstein noted, in forgoing protocol and insisting that the new chief rabbi, not the president, have the honor of entering the hall last. "He sat through the whole ceremony, which lasted more than an hour," Goldstein noted. "He was warm and kind. When we went into the holding room, he sat my son on his lap." For its part, the mainstream South African Jewish community has become much less insular, much more open to and giving of its talents and wealth to the impoverished black majority. For instance, most of South African ORT's contributions go to help poor blacks. Goldstein co-authored a book, African Soultalk, with Mandela's grandson Dumani Mandela, based on their e-mail exchanges about the moral reconstruction of their country. "They have a great future," Gqiba said of his country's Jews. "I think for the first time they see themselves as South Africans, not exclusively as a Jewish community." He spoke of Goldstein and the "Krengel brothers" Zev and South African Zionist Federation leader Avrom, both in their 30s, as "the Jewish young lions, the new South African Jewish leadership that has a vision for the entire country, not just their own community." The Jews younger still, from college age on down, belong to the generation of white South Africans known as "Mandela children." Goldstein explained: "People who've grown up since 1990 [the year Mandela was released from prison] don't know of any other South Africa except one in which Mandela was free. So you have a generation of South Africans coming of age who look at the world with different eyes." Many older-generation South African Jews, however, don't like what they see. While warmly eulogizing Harris at his funeral and singling him out as a "prophet," Gqiba said, "Unfortunately, the majority of the [Jewish] old guard supported the status quo. When they see ANC leaders today, they still think of them as terrorists." Even Harris told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: "There's a generation gap in the Jewish community, as there is in most white communities. Old people got so used to apartheid, immune to it, that too many of them still don't realize that, thank God, we now have a non-racial democracy, we have a black majority government in place. The youngsters are the opposite. The younger generation is very into the new South Africa, very cognizant of the necessity of the process." He spoke in 1997; it's likely that since then, the performance of the ANC in power, along with the successful integration of large numbers of blacks into the middle class, has brought many in the Jewish old guard around. In its basic Orthodoxy, communal fiber and support for Israel, the South African community has always been a world leader, and in recent years it has been undergoing a "religious revival," Goldstein said. Chabad, Ohr Somayach and Bnei Akiva are generating large numbers of ba'alei teshuva, or newly religious Jews. While the community's largest Jewish summer camp was traditionally the secular Zionist Habonim, now it is Bnei Akiva, said Goldstein. If South African Jews once commonly joked, "The shul I don't attend is Orthodox," today Orthodox shuls are filled and new ones are being built. The ADL's 2004 Worldwide Anti-Semitism Report notes that more than 80% of South African Jewish youngsters attend Jewish day schools, and the intermarriage rate is below 10%. Still, there is a number of Jews whose politics, especially regarding Israel, puts them completely at odds with the Jewish community. Under the slogan "not in our name," Ronnie Kasrils, a cabinet minister and former Umkhonto We Sizwe guerrilla, headed a list of hundreds of South African Jews in 2001 calling for divestment from Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians. "I think it's true to say that a lot of these Jews who belonged to the [ANC's leading role in the anti-apartheid] struggle didn't identify with the Jewish community and vice versa," said Goldstein. But with Jews falling into line some idealistically, others out of practical self-interest with the new South Africa's dual doctrine of racial equality and "black empowerment," the community's traditional schizophrenia is being healed. There is no longer such a chasm between the interests of Jewish security and Jewish morality. There isn't that literally black-and-white contradiction between Jewish particularism and Jewish universalism that numbed most South African Jews who opted for the former, while driving out of the community and even out of the country so many in the minority who chose the latter. And the more Israel's conflict with the Palestinians becomes defused, the more this long-standing dissonance and discomfort felt by South African Jewry is likely to fade. As it did for South's Africa's deceased chief rabbi Cyril Harris, Judaism for new Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein demands racial equality and black empowerment. Goldstein's doctoral thesis, soon to be published as a book, was titled, "Defending the Human Spirit Jewish Law's Vision for a Moral Society." "When we're talking about the tikkun olam [the Jewish call to "heal the world"] in South Africa, what that means is poverty alleviation. This is kiddush hashem [sanctifying God's name]," said Goldstein. "There is a very exciting human experiment going on in South Africa. Here was a people who were crushed, and now they're standing up and showing the tzelem elokim [image of God]. "For there to be a Jewish community in an African country that's climbing up that's a great thing."