Jews in South Africa

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

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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.


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.