Jews in South Africa
Jews in South Africa
By contrast, even after Jewish immigrants began to arrive in greater numbers in the 19th century, the Jewish community never exceeded 100,000 members (or 0.2 percent of the population). The majority of these earlier Jewish immigrants escaped prejudice and persecution in Lithuania, and helped set up a commercial and financial infrastructure within their adopted country. With the industrialization of South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, they began to enter industry and commercial enterprise. They adapted more easily to urban life and many among them prospered in commerce, finance, medicine, and law.
Pulitzer Prize reporter Glenn Frankel explains that most of the “Jews who came to South Africa settled in cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, where the dominant culture and language was English.” They left their European heritage behind but “the veneer of English culture that they quickly acquired did not lead to complete assimilation. Most South African Jews were still outsiders. They were generally more liberal that other whites and they tended to be less comfortable with white domination.”
In the first half of the twentieth century, antisemitism among nationalist Afrikaners grew. They were relatively less well-off and blamed their economic difficulties on the Jews. During the Nazi regime (1933-1945), many Nationalists sided with Hitler and embraced his racism. For Jews, the German racial theories resonated too closely with the racial rhetoric of Nationalist Afrikaners. Indeed, the more radical Afrikaner Nationalists became deeply antisemitic. And so, when the Nationalist Party won the national election in 1948, many Jews began to prepare for the worst.
As whites, Jews benefited from apartheid—high standard of living, job protection, and good education, among other things. While few actively opposed apartheid, those who did, did so strongly. Indeed, several notable Jews, including Albie Sachs, activist Helen Suzman, and Denis Goldberg, fought apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and his African colleagues.
Anti-apartheid activist Denis Goldberg giving a talk in Germany. Goldberg who was an engineer, joined the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1950s. In the 1960s, its leaders felt that nonviolence protest was ineffective in the face of the extraordinary violence exerted by the government, he helped in a campaign of selected bombing of military targets as a bomb maker. In 1963 he was arrested for 22 years. He joined the struggle again in 1985. The poster in the back says “Do no business with apartheid.”
However, when the National Party began to implement apartheid in 1950s, the Jewish official leadership began to fear for its own place in South Africa, and for the most part assumed the position of bystanders (the Jewish Board of Deputies, representative of nearly all Jewish communities and synagogues, refused to take a stance against apartheid until 1985, claiming that is was not a Jewish issue). New York Time columnist Roger Cohen who grew up in South Africa, explained that, “As a South African Jew, watching blacks without passes being bundled into the back of police vans was discomfiting. But this was not mass murder after all. You tried to look away.” Generally speaking, he continued,
the Jews in South Africa tended to view the blacks as a large buffer against their own persecution even as they were more engaged than most in trying to break the system. It’s a grotesque thought, but if you’re busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks you don’t have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. This thought did occur to the Jews, whose families (many of Lithuanian origin), had fled European pogroms and so avoided the ditches to which Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen would have dispatched them. 
What were the key elements in the nationalist world view of the Afrikaners described in the excerpt? What sort of differences were there between English- and these Afrikaans-speaking South Africans?
- How has history contributed to the Afrikaner worldview Terry Bell presents? To their identity? To the identity of South African Jews?
- Contrast the Afrikaner and Jewish communities. As a minority group, what kind of choices were Jews faced with as the nationalist Afrikaners rose to power in 1948?
Mines - William Kentridge (1991)