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South African Jews as the Silent Minority

December 6, 2013
by Richard Weiner Discussed in this essay: The Jews in South Africa: An Illustrated History, by Richard Mendelsohn and Milton Shain. Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2008, 276 pages. [caption id=“attachment_23253” align=“alignright” width=“300”]The author in his high school uniform, posing with a servant from his household. The author in his high school uniform, posing with a servant from his household.[/caption] As an 18-year-old draftee in the South African Navy in the 1970s, I was one of only two Jews on my destroyer. I was called “Jewboy” by my peers and by my chief petty officer, who, learning that I was planning to move to Israel after demobilization, told me that he might bump into me in the streets of Haifa, where he was going for training by the Israeli Navy. He revealed this to me at a time when Israel vociferously denied any formal relationship with the apartheid military forces. One evening I was called by the captain to his cabin to meet with three Israeli officers whose ship had docked alongside ours in the middle of the night. My strong Zionist identity took a beating that night. I was disgusted to see “my people” fraternizing with enforcers of the apartheid regime. My paternal family came to South Africa from Eastern Europe in the late 1880s; my mother came later, as one of the relatively small number of Holocaust survivors who made it to South Africa after the war. Prior to that, the Protestant-dominated government wasn’t keen to let Jews and Catholics in (although in later years they welcomed anyone who would help bolster the ranks of the white population). Growing up as a Jew within the white minority, I was fascinated by all things South African-Jewish. Trips to the Jewish Library in Johannesburg were a real treat. I would persuade my father to shlep me to small towns and villages in our region where Jewish communities either no longer existed or were barely functioning, just so that I could take pictures of their synagogues. We’d stop in small towns in the vast semi-desert Karoo, and I’d ask passersby if there was a Joodse Kerk (Jewish church). I pored over census figures to find out how many people “of the Jewish persuasion” lived in various South African communities. At the time, there were still Jewish families scattered in two hundred and twenty rural towns, many of them with old congregations that were barely holding on. At the peak in the early 1970s, about a hundred and twenty thousand Jews lived in South Africa. As a percentage of the white population of four million (about 12 percent of the total population of South Africa, although census figures were rough and inaccurate in the apartheid years), Jews numbered about 3 percent — similar to American Jews out of the total U.S. population. Johannesburg was our New York City, Muizenberg our Florida beach resort. Our small Jewish community in Pretoria (the “belly of the apartheid beast,” as we called it), had clear boundaries: All my friends were Jewish and I never saw a Christmas tree outside a storefront window. Like what you're reading?Yet with my budding political consciousness (which probably began in my first years of elementary school as I absorbed more of my mother’s Holocaust stories), I also began questioning the role of the Jewish community and our communal leadership in relation to the apartheid regime. Given that we were living in Pretoria, home of the military headquarters, the police force, the Security Branch, and the Pretoria Prison where so many were tortured and hanged, why did our rabbi never speak out about the inhumanity of apartheid? Why did we ask God in our shabbat services to safeguard our political leaders? Why did the South African Jewish Board of Deputies hide behind the statement that “Jews . . . are to be found among the members and supporters of all political parties . . . there is no question of a Jewish stand or a Jewish vote”? Why did they not speak out about the cruel injustices that surrounded us, which were publicized in the brave English-language media? When small voices of dissent within the Jewish community attempted to expose this conspiracy of silence, they were easily quashed. One little-known attempt that I was aware of through personal connections was the newspaper published by Brian Walt, whose family was prominent in the mainstream Jewish community. In the mid-1970s, Walt, who was later to become executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in the U.S., exposed substandard wages at the large Jewish old age home in Cape Town. How was I to understand that both the prosecutor and the defense lawyer in Nelson Mandela’s trial were Jews — or that the trial had been held in the beautiful old synagogue in Pretoria, now known as the Old Synagogue Court? Jews as individuals figured prominently in the anti-apartheid struggle, yet these activists were nowhere to be found in my community. I left South Africa in 1976, a few months before the Soweto uprising. It was a prescient move that was guided more by my desire to heal myself of the trauma of my military service, and of my sense of despair at the potential for change in South Africa, than by any anticipation of the upheaval that was to take place a few months after my departure. Many unanswered questions about my home country trailed me long after I arrived in the United States. How did the Jewish labor movement in South Africa differ from that in the U.S.? Did Yiddish go through a similar transformation in South Africa in the face of quick acculturation in the early 1900s? Was the community really as homogeneous as I’d always assumed, with the majority of our antecedents coming from a specific region in Lithuania? The Jews in South Africa: An Illustrated History answers many of these questions and illuminates my formative years by providing some of their historical context. Finally, a book that deals head-on with the political role of the Jewish community, warts and all! By contrast, the yearbook published in 1968, South African Jewry 1967-68, had only frustrated me by describing the community’s history and impressive achievements in education, business, medicine and other fields as though they occurred in a political vacuum. “Good Jews, good South Africans,” exclaimed a caption in the book for the photo of Herzlia Jewish Day School’s rugby team. It was obviously designed to convey a sense of Jewish patriotism in order to ward off any repeat of the anti-Semitism of the 1930s, which the Jewish leadership feared could be reignited by the presence of many Jews within the of anti-apartheid movement. I knew the book didn’t speak for me or my Jewish friends, but there was no other history to be found. Reading The Jews in South Africa reminded me of the dangers, both perceived and real, of opposing apartheid, and why Jewish communal leaders were reluctant to speak out. I felt a modicum of rakhmones (mercy) for them, and even stronger appreciation of the bravery of those who did protest. A small anecdote from my youth illustrates this paradox: As a child of a survivor, I was conscious at a very young age of the parallels between the photos of anti-Jewish signs on German shop windows and the “Whites-Only” signs that were ubiquitous in my neighborhood in Pretoria. One night, together with a couple of my Jewish friends, I removed a “Whites Only” sign from the neighborhood post office. Although I felt a teenage sense of bravado, this token act generated an even stronger feeling of impotence, alongside the fear of being caught. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia that ruled below the surface of white South African normalcy kept most people who objected to apartheid in line. The South African Jewry yearbook included a “Who’s Who” in South African Jewry. While the hundreds listed include bottle (liquor) store owners and prominent jewelers, nowhere did luminaries appear such as Nadine Gordimer, or anti-apartheid leaders such as Albie Sachs, Ruth First, Ronnie Kasrils, or Joe Slovo. They included only Helen Suzman, the sole liberal opponent of apartheid within the white Parliament, who was as far left as the editors were willing to go. By contrast, authors Richard Mendelsohn and Milton Shain address head-on the complex relationship between Jews and other communities in South Africa, with sections entitled, “The Jewish Workers’ Club,” “Bold Women: Challenging the Status Quo,” “Roads to Radicalism,” “The Attitude of Africans and Coloureds to Jews,” and “Mandela’s Rabbi” (Cyril Harris, chief rabbi of South Africa until his death in 2005; Harris was credited with aiding in the reconciliation process during the transition from apartheid to democracy). Their book also reminded me of the enormous pride (and nervousness) we felt whenever the names of Jews arrested for anti-apartheid activities were publicized. I learned that of the twenty-four whites who were arrested with Mandela and others in the great treason trial of 1956, thirteen were Jewish. When some of those who survived became prominent in the new South Africa, they did not hold back in their criticism of the Jewish establishment’s silence in the earlier years. Indeed, it took until 1985 for the Jewish Board of Deputies to finally issue a statement unequivocally condemning apartheid. As noted in the book, “The Board’s pronouncement came at a time when even the supporters of apartheid had begun to question publicly its claims, moral and otherwise.” For American readers with some knowledge of the anti-apartheid struggle and with an interest in the role of the Jewish community in South Africa, The Jews in South Africa provides a fascinating overview. Still, it left me desiring more in-depth analysis of some questions that have not previously received much attention, at least outside of academic circles. Some of these questions are political: Were pressures placed on the rabbinate to refrain from speaking out against apartheid, or was this largely a personal decision? Other questions are historical: Why did the East European immigrants to South Africa acculturate within English-speaking society in overwhelming numbers (over 90 percent spoke English), rather than learning to speak Afrikaans, which was closer linguistically to Yiddish? (Yiddish, Afrikaans and Dutch are all considered continental West Germanic tongues, in contrast with the other Germanic branch, Anglo-Frisian, which includes English.)  I imagine that the largely urbanized and worldly Jewish immigrants were more likely to learn English in their quest for upward mobility, but the book does not directly address this issue. I know that my zeyde’s role in the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) was rather ignominious: When he was guarding a bridge, we were told, he put his bullet belt on upside down and all the bullets fell out. Curiously, however, no one in the family remembered which side he was fighting on, as though this were irrelevant to a relative newcomer from the Old Country. Jews apparently fought on both sides, but because of their greater presence in the British-controlled Transvaal, they fought in greater numbers on the British side. How did this influence the Boers’ (and later Afrikaners’) attitudes towards the Jewish community? These questions are touched on only fleetingly in the book. I’ve often questioned why the Jewish leadership avoided confronting the role that some South African government leaders played in World War II. Key Afrikaans leaders were actually imprisoned by the British for supporting the Nazis, yet no one in the Jewish establishment seemed to make a fuss about it. (Mendelsohn and Shain even note that a number of the key segregationist tenets incorporated in the design of apartheid came from lessons learned from the Nazis.) They pay more attention to the central role that Zionism played in the South African Jewish community, and to Israel’s complex relationship with South Africa. On a per capita basis, they note, South African Jews contributed far more volunteers to the 1948 and 1967 wars, and far more money in subsequent years, than any other Jewish community in the world. In their description of “The Pretoria-Jerusalem Axis,” Mendelsohn and Shain suggest that “Israel’s growing ties with apartheid South Africa from the early 1970s were a consequence of the dramatic collapse ot its longstanding diplomatic initiatives in Africa.” The symbolic financial donation that Israel made to the African National Congress prior to the Yom Kippur War, in addition to Israel’s condemnation of apartheid at the United Nations, left many South African Jews feeling very conflicted in their loyalties. But following the “1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, which was supported by most of Israel’s former allies in Africa,” they continue, “. . . Israel drew closer to an even more isolated South Africa.” A few years ago I visited South Africa for my mother’s funeral. She had always been fiercely resistant to Orthodox Judaism, yet she was buried according to Orthodox tradition, because that was the default identity of our community. Across a narrow lane from the Jewish section of the cemetery is the German section, where a memorial stands in honor of Rudolf Hess, the prominent Nazi. I’m told that it’s also where neo-Nazis gather on his birthday. The wakher (overnight custodian of the body before burial) did not spend the night with my mother’s body because the burial chapel had been burnt down a few months before and his safety at night could no longer be guaranteed. There my mother lay, pursued by anti-Jewish forces at the end of her life as she had been in her youth, in a country from which she had always felt alienated but was never able to leave. When we were travelling and people asked her where she was from, she always said “Hungary,” where she hadn’t lived since 1944. Yet for me, in some ways, South Africa, despite its history and despite my departure over thirty years ago, will always feel like home. My sorrow at leaving the country is a wound, occasionally opened up by a movie or a conversation with old friends. When I think of my mother growing up in Hungary, my grandparents in Lithuania, and my son in Oakland, California, I think of how much we are part of the chain of Jewish tradition, searching for a place we can call home. In some ways, my experience feels very different from those of my Jewish American peers, but sometimes it seems I’m just one generation behind them in the immigrant experience. When I cringe at the American accent of my nine-year-old son, he tells me I’d better get used to it, because, as he puts it, “I’m an American.” And so he is. Richard Weiner is a transportation planning consultant in San Francisco, specializing in accessible public transit for people with disabilities and older adults.