Jews in South Africa

The health and state of this Jewish community presents a complex picture.

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Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma magazine's Nov. 2003 issue.

As South Africa moves toward its first decade of democratic rule, the health and state of its Jewish community presents a complex picture. On the one hand, the community is diminishing in size (from 118,200 or 3.1 percent of the "white" population in 1970 to about 80,000 or less than half a percent of the total population). On the other hand, religious and cultural life is showing a remarkable efflorescence.

What is clear, however, is that the community does not have the self-confidence, prestige, and access to authority it enjoyed in the "old" South Africa.

Welcome Societal Changes

This is not to say that the "new" South Africa is at odds with Jewish well-being. On the contrary, Jews have welcomed the new democratic dispensation. Like all South Africans, they are fully protected under the constitution by a Bill of Rights, which enshrines religious and cultural freedom. And, given the ANC-led government's opposition to racism, the climate for opposing anti-Semitism in South Africa publicly is more favorable than in the past. In short, the new democratic South Africa poses no problems for Jewish comfort and cohesion.

That cohesion is manifest in strong centralized institutions such as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Zionist Federation, and the United Orthodox Synagogues. In addition, a powerful civil religion has evolved, centered upon the Holocaust and Israel, ensured by a network of Jewish day schools that cater to the vast majority of pupils.

Ideological differences rarely impinge on Jewish cohesion and have certainly never threatened to undermine unity. The sorts of divisions and debates that characterize North American Jewry in most cases bypass the tip of Africa. While relations between Jews and Christians are cordial and comfortable, ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, like those in the U.S., are rare.

Tensions & Challenges

If there are divisions and incipient debates among Jews, these concern the rise of ultra-Orthodoxy among significant segments of the community, especially in Johannesburg, where about two-thirds of Jews reside, and where groups such as Lubavitch and Ohr Sameach [both of which work to make Jews more observant] have grown substantially. In Cape Town the baal teshuvah movement [non-observant people who have become observant] is less prevalent, although hitherto unknown tensions between Orthodox and Reform Jews (the latter less than 10 percent of the affiliated population) have emerged.

To the extent that divisions within the community exist, these are minimized against the backdrop of burgeoning Muslim anti-Zionism, often blended with crude anti-Semitism. In recent decades, South African Muslims have increasingly identified with international Islamic struggles in general and with the Palestinian people in particular.

In Cape Town, where the majority of the approximately 650,000 Muslims reside, their voice is powerful and often threatening. This was particularly evident in the wake of the failed Camp David talks in 2000 and at the "World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance" in Durban in 2001. Muslim extremists turned the gathering into an exercise in bigotry and prejudice, palpably hijacking the occasion.

Emigration

Such events serve only to consolidate Jewish cohesion and loyalty. But even without such hostility, the prospects of Jewish assimilation into the "rainbow" nation are minimal. Youth emigration poses the greatest challenge to Jewish continuity. In a national survey carried out in 1998, only 12 percent of Jews anticipated leaving the country within five years. But for the age group under 30, the figure is substantially higher: about one in four. Personal safety and security are cited as the main concerns.

Undoubtedly, the future of South African Jewry depends on the nature of transformation. The vast majority of Jews do not wish to emigrate; they are deeply rooted in the country of their birth, and the community's values are essentially consonant with the new open and market-driven South African ethos. Their skills can certainly assist in the development of a democratic South Africa.

In the unlikely event of instability and a major demographic shift, all aspects of Jewish life will be affected: institutional memberships, synagogue life, welfare needs and services, schooling, funding--to say nothing of general morale. The emigration of philanthropists and benefactors is already being felt in an aging community heavily dependent on self-funding. Of course, emigration also affects the quality of leadership, and at this time of social transformation the need for wise and sensitive guidance is acute. To date this has been manifest and there is good cause for optimism, both insofar as the Jews of South Africa are concerned and the country as a whole.

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Milton Shain

Professor Milton Shain is Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town. His most recent book, co-edited with Richard Mendelsohn, is Memories, Realities, and Dreams: Aspects of the South African Jewish Experience.