South African Jewry: A personal account seen through the prism of Limmud FSU

"Limmud is doing in South Africa what it is doing across the world today in 40 countries. It is providing an answer to the question of what an open positive modern [Jewish] identity looks like.”

A PILE of animal bones, by Pitika Ntuli on display at Constitution Hill, is called ‘Gaza.’ (photo credit: CHAIM CHESLER)
A PILE of animal bones, by Pitika Ntuli on display at Constitution Hill, is called ‘Gaza.’
(photo credit: CHAIM CHESLER)
My first exposure to Limmud FSU (although I had heard a great deal about it before) was in 2005, when I led a group of Russian Jewish students from Russia and Israel, together with my partner Sandra Cahn from New York, to Nottingham University in the UK, to explore the possibility of adapting the Limmud model for the tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Now, nearly 10 years later, Limmud FSU is up and running, not only in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, but wherever there are large concentrations of Russian- speaking Jews – in Israel, the US, Canada and most recently in Australia. Over 35,000 people have attended our conferences and festivals so far.
I was delighted and honored to be invited as a guest presenter to speak about my long involvement with Soviet Jewry, at the recent three-day Limmud conference held in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa. (There was also a one-day conference in Durban which I did not attend.) Although I had visited South Africa before – in 1995 on behalf of United Israel Appeal, when the country had just thrown off apartheid rule and I was head of the Jewish Agency delegation to the former Soviet Union, this was my first opportunity to meet and try to understand the country in more depth and the nature of the South African Jewish community.
The first disturbing conclusion that any visiting Israeli must arrive at is the fact that there is a great deal of anti-Israel rhetoric in the public sphere and a serious dichotomy between the official South African attitude toward Israel and its relationship to Judaism, and, by inference, with the local Jewish community.
Obviously discounting the Muslim world, it is my impression that South Africa is one of the most anti-Israeli countries in the world today. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has managed to attract the support of high-profile members of the ANC ruling party and influential people in civil society. The ANC hews to a strong anti-Israel policy and is highly vocal in support of BDS, although it would seem that Joseph Zuma, the president, who is by nature more of a pragmatist, is not as strongly opposed as others on the extreme left of his party.
Zuma and his government continue to support a twostate solution and seem to be withstanding pressures from the BDS lobby. Fuel is added to the flames by the vociferous anti-Israel attitude of the deeply respected Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who just a year ago called for a worldwide boycott of Israel, although he is prone to backtrack and deliver clarifications.
Recently the ANC, led by Obed Bapela, head of the ANC’s Committee on International Relations, has been trying to introduce legislation which would preclude dual nationality, although the government as a whole has distanced itself from the proposal. One of the stated reasons behind the proposal is to prevent South African citizens who also have Israeli nationality from joining the IDF. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation rejected these attempts, stating: “[Mr. Bapela] has undermined the very core value of South African democracy by proposing a change to our law purely to prevent one sector of our society, in this case, South African Jews, from having a relationship with Israel.”
Although it is probably true to say that the vast majority of South Africans have no interest or knowledge of Israel and might have a hard time locating it on the map, in informed political circles, there is a growing attempt to mobilize the highly volatile accusation of “apartheid” on behalf of the Palestinian population, an accusation that naturally carries huge resonance in South Africa (including among some prominent South African Jews). Moreover, many South Africans remember that Israel took a highly ambivalent attitude to apartheid and tried unhappily to sit on the fence when the whole world was actively opposing it, and they have neither forgotten nor forgiven.
Historically, the Jews were never associated with the dominant Afrikaner regime and its leadership. But the majority of the Jewish community did not actively oppose apartheid although the anti-apartheid parties received a high level of Jewish support. Many Jews were close associates of Nelson Mandela, who died in 2013 and is still accorded a near saintly position in the country’s pantheon; tangible evidence of this is the vast statue towering over Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, a wealthy area of Johannesburg, some 45 minutes from the teeming black suburb of Soweto. In fact, Mandela’s first steps in the legal profession were taken when he was hired as an articled clerk by the lawyer Lazar Sidelsky in the 1940s – it was virtually unheard of at the time that a white firm would take on a black clerk. That particular wheel came full circle when Mandela, on his one and only visit to Israel (in 1999), met Barry Sidelsky, the son of Lazar, who now lives in Israel. Another lawyer, Israel (Issie) Maisels, was president of the South African Zionist Federation and defended 156 people, including Mandela, in the notorious so-called “Treason Trial” of 1956.
Mandela was apparently very offended that Israel was one of the only countries that refrained from extending an official invitation to visit after his release from prison in 1990. Two close associates and supporters of Mandela, Arthur Goldreich, an artist and later head of industrial design at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and a fellow defendant in the Treason Trial (he died in 2011), and the journalist Benjamin Pogrund, the former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, both came to live in Israel. In all, it is estimated that some 20,000 South Africans have immigrated to Israel since the establishment of the state.
As I have said, there is a distinct and palpable difference between the official ambivalent and often hostile attitude toward the State of Israel, and that to the Jews and Judaism. We visited the South African Jewish Museum of Jewish History in Cape Town, the benefactor of which was Mendel Kaplan. (I had worked with Kaplan when, as chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, he was active in the cause of the struggle of Soviet Jewry.) We were impressed to see throngs of black, white and colored children in organized visits to the museum, listening to their guide’s explanations. Except for some few extreme voices, as in any other country, there is very little evidence of anti-Semitism.
On a visit to Constitution Hill, the site of the highest constitutional court in Johannesburg built on the remains of an old colonial prison, we saw a large display of animal bones, simply titled “Gaza.” Our guide, a former Communist and anti-apartheid activist, took pains to draw a parallel between Israel’s actions in Gaza as illustrated in the so-called art work and the Nazis in the Second World War. We expressed our outrage at his remarks. In the same building, we noticed among a display of photographs of high court judges, one of Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the ill-advised United Nations Goldstone Report that was issued in 2009 following Operation Cast Lead,” the war in Gaza in 2008-09.
When I commented on this to our Jewish guide, we were shocked and surprised to hear him say emphatically that “Goldstone was a zaddik [righteous person] who should get the Nobel Prize.” When I pointed out the false claims of so-called apartheid policies directed against Israel, the guide said, “Goldstone revealed the true apartheid face of Israel.” When I reminded him that in fact, Goldstone had himself retracted part of his findings in 2011, the guide denied it and said Goldstone had stood his ground.
At Limmud Johannesburg, we met David Bilchitz, who is a professor of law at the University of Johannesburg and current chairman of Limmud International. He told us that he and a group of volunteers visited Limmud UK in 2005 (by coincidence, the same year as my first visit). After two years of planning, the first South African Limmud events were held in Johannesburg and Cape Town in August 2007. In Johannesburg the one day event had received 200 preregistrations but on the day, 400 people turned up. Since then the growth has been exponential – 700 in 2008 and 1,000 by 2009. Johannesburg changed to a multiday residential event in 2011, as did Cape Town. This year, the 10th anniversary, there were 1,000 in Johannesburg, including 450 day visitors, 700 in Cape Town and 220 in Durban.
Wayne Sussman, chairman of Limmud South Africa says, “Limmud SA had a massive impact. There were over 550 crammed into the hotel in Johannesburg for Shabbat. Hundreds more came on the Sunday. In Cape Town the hotel was so packed that there was not enough space to accommodate them. Durban had its biggest turnout in the last few years. The general feedback from all three communities was overwhelmingly positive. We have grown among the Orthodox part of our community but at the same time there was a strong turnout of those who would define themselves as secular and/or on the Left. Most of our volunteers and leaders are young people.
"Limmud SA attracts the mainstream, the fringe, the core and the periphery," Bilchitz says, “Limmud has transformed the South African community. Whereas most events cater only to a particular segment of Jews, Limmud SA allows individuals to experience the full richness that comes from celebrating the diverse range of Jewish experience and understanding."
"Limmud not only builds bridges, but it has also brought a creativity and stimulation that has re-energized the community. Limmud is doing in South Africa what it is doing across the world today in 40 countries. It is providing an answer to the question of what an open positive modern [Jewish] identity looks like.”
And yet, not everything is sweetness and light. It was my impression that the average age of participants was substantially older than in other Limmud events across the world (although it should be noted that many whole families attended). This might well be because some young people tend to leave to study at universities abroad – especially in the US, Australia and Canada and do not return – leading to an aging population.
South Africa practices reverse discrimination so that a white student has to be especially gifted to be accepted to a leading university. Evidently, however, the average age at Limmud was lower than in other community events and activities in the country.
The Orthodox rabbinate in South Africa is highly conservative and in fact the chief rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, issued an edict calling on all Orthodox rabbis to refrain from attending Limmud.
Dr. Goldstein even set up a very successful competing event called Sinai Indaba – literally “Meeting” in the Zulu language, suggesting family interconnectivity.
This Torah-based meet is the biggest event for South African Jewry today, attracting nearly 7,000 people. It is only fair to point out that Dr. Goldstein is by no means an anti-Zionist. His concern is to keep and build up a viable Jewish community in South Africa.
Sussman says that there has been a distinct turn towards religion in the country, especially in Johannesburg.
“The community has always been traditional but there has been a turn to religion since the 1980s with more people observing Shabbat and the festivals and keeping kosher. The majority of the community that goes to synagogue at all, chooses an Orthodox one.”
This Orthodox attitude to Limmud has always been the case even in the UK, its birthplace. The highly regarded former British chief rabbi, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks refused to participate in or even visit Limmud, although his successor, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to his great credit, did participate last year.
Nevertheless, Limmud events are still boycotted by many of the Orthodox community – including haredi rabbis – this is the case not only in the UK and South Africa, but even in the former Soviet Union. Orthodox rabbis still cannot come to grips with the open-minded egalitarian, pluralistic and liberal character of Limmud events.
But having said that and as we saw for ourselves, the fact is that many kippa wearing observant people are actually actively participating in Limmud events despite the rabbis – in South Africa as elsewhere.
So I ask myself, is there a long-term future for the Jews of South Africa? On the one hand, the Jews do not suffer from any form of discrimination or anti-Semitism and are fully a part of South African life – in business, in the professions, in studies, in society. On the other, there are few Jewish families in the country that do not have close family living abroad. I cannot foresee where the Jewish community might be in 30 or 50 years’ time – or even the South African white population in general.
For all the benefits of living in what must be one of the most beautiful lands on earth, the country is beset by violence which affects blacks and whites equally so that many of those who are economically well-off, necessarily live behind high walls and in security guarded gated compounds. Perhaps South Africa will follow in the footsteps of neighboring Botswana where a working modus vivendi has been achieved among the various ethnic strands of the population.
Wayne Sussman tells us confidently: “Yes, there is a future for South African Jewry. There is no doubt that our country and our community face major challenges. There is load shedding, our economic growth is way below its potential and many of our core industries are struggling.
At the same time, most of the community is middle class.
They are able to send their kids to good schools, and this of course, includes the Jewish day schools which are being turned into modern educational facilities which will compete with the best schools. In 2016 a Holocaust and Genocide Museum will open in Johannesburg. There will continue to be great business opportunities in South Africa and in the whole African continent.”
Prof. Bilchitz sums it up, “The South African constitution holds out the dream of a nation that is unified across its diversity and guarantees dignity and respect for all. Jews are one important strand of the tapestry that makes up this great country with a long and proud history of making a difference. Whilst there are some challenges South Africa is facing, I hope that Jews will be part of addressing these and helping contribute to the country’s development.”