South Africa, according to the 2001 census (the 2011 census did not account for religion), is home to 75,555 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in Africa, and twelfth largest in the world. Comprised of primarily Ashkenazi Jews, with a smaller Sephardic population (including several thousand Israelis), the South African Jewish community is affluent and well-educated; featuring prominently in all aspects of public life, with a complicated role in the struggle against apartheid. The main body of representation for the Jewish community is the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
Though there were periodical instances of a Jewish presence in South Africa from the initial settling of the land by the Dutch, it was only at the beginning of the 19th Century, when freedom of religion was introduced, that Jews were able to come to South Africa legally. At that time, smaller numbers of Jews arrived from Britain and Germany, and the first Hebrew congregation was established in Cape Town in 1841.
The discovery of diamonds and thereafter of gold from the late 1860s onwards attracted worldwide immigration to South Africa, including significant numbers of Jews. In the 1880s, large numbers of Jews began to arrive from Eastern Europe, mainly Lithuania, and their contributions changed the character of the community – mainly espousing a strong sense of Zionism.
Jews fought on both sides of the Anglo-Boer War, and were awarded equal status to Whites at the war’s conclusion. The Eastern European Jewish influx continued in the early decades of the 20th Century before anti-immigration quotas clamped down on immigration throughout the years leading up to the Holocaust. Jan Christian Smuts, a notable military leader, statesman, and Prime Minister from 1939 to 1948, was a longtime supporter of Zionism, ardently supporting the Balfour agreement, and becoming great friends with future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann. On May 24, 1948, nine days after Israel’s declaration of independence, Smuts’ government granted de facto recognition to the State of Israel, just two days before his United Party was voted out of office and replaced with the pro-apartheid National Party. South Africa was the seventh nation to recognize the newly-formed Jewish state.
The rise of the National Party and implementation of apartheid in 1948 constitutes a complicated legacy for South Africa’s Jewish community. A notably disproportionate number of whites who fought the apartheid system were of Jewish origin, many of them on the far-left of the political spectrum. By contrast it was Percy Yutar, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and South Africa’s first Jewish attorney-general, who famously secured Nelson Mandela’s life conviction in the 1963-4 Rivonia Trial. Helen Suzman, for thirteen years the sole representative of the Progressive Party in Parliament, was a vociferous opponent of the National Party and institution of apartheid. Another Member of Parliament, Harry Schwarz, who had immigrated to South Africa from Nazi Germany, was also a strong opponent of apartheid, serving in numerous shadow cabinets, and later serving as Ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1995 during the transition to democracy.
Mervyn Smith, National Chairman of the SAJBD from 1991 to 1995, was instrumental in the Jewish community’s condemnation of apartheid in 1985 and later efforts to support and contribute to the country’s transition to democracy. Joe Slovo, the leader of the South African Communist Party and leading member of the ANC, became the Minister of Housing under President Mandela in 1994. Ronnie Kasrils, the son of Lithuanian immigrations, served as Minister of Intelligence Services from 2004 to 2008, and Tony Leon, after several successful years as leader of the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance, served as Ambassador to Argentina from 2009 to 2012. Gill Marcus, a prominent member of the ANC in exile, served first as Deputy Minister of Finance and thereafter as Governor of the Reserve Bank. The famed anti-apartheid lawyer Arthur Chaskalson was appointed first as President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa (1994-2001) and thereafter as Chief Justice of South Africa (2001-2005).
In 1930, South Africa implemented an immigration quota that banned Eastern European Jews from entering the country. Largely a response to the worsening world economic situation – i.e. the Great Depression – the quota also sought to deal with the competition that immigrants posed to working class Boers, the most economically disadvantaged class in South Africa besides the oppressed African people under a segregated, pre-Apartheid South Africa.
From 1933 to 1936, around 3,615 German Jews came to South Africa. Anti-Semitism became more pronounced as a result, with ardent Afrikaner nationalists, the main driving force behind the formation of the National Party and implementation of apartheid, using it as a means of differentiation to build a political profile on the basis of a Boer “mythos.” As news of the atrocities committed by the Nazis became known, the Afrikaner response was ambivalent.
According to the 2001 census, the Jewish community in South Africa numbered at 75,555 people out of an overall population of 51,770,560. Though the 2011 census did not inquire about the country’s religious statistics, the 2001 census results provide a look into the country religious makeup, with Christians accounting for 79.8% of the population and Muslims accounting for 1.5%. Jews accounted for 0.2% of the total population respectively.
The two largest Jewish communities in South Africa are located in Johannesburg and Cape Town. There are many smaller communities throughout the country as well, including Durban, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth.
The SAJBD, a Jewish representative body that acts as the civil rights lobby of the South African Jewish community and representative to the government and other institutions, is the community’s spokesbody and civil rights lobby. Its objectives include promoting the safety and welfare of South African Jewry; combating anti-Semitism and fostering understanding between Jews and the broader South African population. The SAJBD has regional branches in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. Its Country Communities Department represents Jews living in the country areas and smaller towns.
Other communal bodies in South Africa mainly work in close association with the SAJBD in regional capacities. The South African Zionist Federation, a constituent body of the World Zionist Organization, focuses on building support for Israel in South Africa and advocating on behalf of the South African community, working to reduce anti-Israeli sentiment in political, religious, and cultural forms through education, advocacy, and lobbying.
Philanthropic institutions are also a fixture in the community, including the Chevrah Kadisha, the largest Jewish welfare organization in Africa that offers a plethora of services for the community. The Union of Jewish Women of South Africa provides welfare projects for the entire South African community, with a focus on empowering disadvantaged societal sections to become self-sufficient, and the Israel United Appeal-United Communal Fund serves as a major fundraising body.
Most of the South African Jewish community is religiously traditional, with some 85% of the community affiliated with Orthodox synagogues. Other streams are active as well, with about 8% of South African Jews affiliating with the Progressive movement and a smaller number with the Masorati (Conservative) movement. The Union of Orthodox Synagogues and the South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ) are the main umbrella movements.
There are multiple rabbinical institutions serving the various streams. The chief rabbi of South Africa is chosen by the Union of Orthodox Synagogues and the South African Association of Progressive Rabbis is linked to the SAUPJ. In 2005 Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa, thereby becoming the first South African-born and trained rabbi to hold the position, while multiple rabbis represent the Progressive community
Kosher food is widely available throughout South Africa, namely in the major cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban, and there are several kosher restaurants and hotels. Smaller communities may have less options, but kosher food can be found in most parts of the country.
The Jewish day school system is comprehensive, embracing some 85% of Jewish children. The South African Board of Jewish Education represents the Jewish community in educational matters, and acts as the controlling body of the King David Schools – a network of Jewish day schools in Johannesburg. There are a number of smaller, more religiously focused schools, ranging in orientation from Mizrachi to Haredi, in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
The Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, the traditional Orthodox community’s rabbinical studies center, and Lubavitch Yeshiva Gedolah, the Chabad community’s rabbinical studies center, both constitute the options available to South African Jews interested in Jewish religious tertiary education. Some secular institutions also offer courses in Jewish higher education, with some form of Jewish studies offered at the major universities in South Africa. At the University of Cape Town, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research offers courses in Jewish history and brings out regular publications on these topics. The South African Union of Jewish Students acts as the representative of Jewish college students across the country. The Mizrachi South Africa and London School of Jewish Studies and the Melton Adult Education Program – an international organization associated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – operating out of Johannesburg and Cape Town, both offer opportunities in adult Jewish learning. Annual Jewish learning festivals are run by Limmud South Africa and by the Union of Orthodox Synagogues’ ‘Sinai Indaba’ programme and attract large attendances.
Jewish youth groups in South Africa include major international fixtures such as BBYO (in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban), Bnei Akiva, Betar, Habonim Dror and Netzer South Africa (a Progressive-based youth organization, which works to encourage community building while striving for reform Zionism). The movements pursue their goals through various activities and events, such as camps and retreats.
A number of weekly, monthly, and quarterly publications – notably the weekly newspaper the South African Jewish Report and the journal Jewish Affairs published thrice annually by the SAJBD – offer the South African Jewish community opportunities to keep up with updates affecting South Africa, Israel, and the Jewish world at large.
There are numerous notable Jewish sites throughout South Africa, including synagogues of all streams, such as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation (or “Gardens Shul”, the mother congregation of SA Jewry), Temple Israel in Hillbrow, Johannesburg and the Great Park Synagogue, Johannesburg’s oldest Jewish congregation founded in 1887, in Houghton. There are also a number of Jewish museums, such as SA Jewish Museum in Cape Town and the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation – the first Holocaust center in the country and continent with locations in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg. The Johannesburg section notably includes exhibits on the Rwandan genocide in an effort to highlight the connections between the two, and demonstrate the importance of continuing to combat the hatred, racism, and extremism seen in both atrocities. South Africa’s wine country outside of Cape Town in also home to the Zaandwijk Winery, the country’s only kosher vintner.
Israel and South Africa have full diplomatic ties, but relations have – and continue to be – delicate. In the United Nations and other forums Israel was often signaled out for special condemnation on account of Jerusalem’s commercial and military ties with Pretoria during the apartheid regime, despite the fact that compared to the level of trade with other states, the scale of Israel’s ties was negligible. Despite some tension with the ruling party’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the post-apartheid era has seen a notable increase in trade and cooperation between the two countries.
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