BY ILANIT CHERNICK
SOUTH AFRICA’S 70,000-strong Jewish community is a vibrant melting pot that is loved — and even envied — for its unity, diversity and contributions across the globe.
While the first Jew is thought to have set foot in South Africa as early as 1669, during the early years of Dutch rule, it was only on the eve of Yom Kippur in 1841 that 17 Jewish citizens of Cape Town came together in a private home to form the country’s first ever communal prayer service.
This small gathering marked the formal birth of South African Jewry as an organised community.
In 2016, the community celebrated 175 years of Jewish life. It boasts its own radio station, Chai FM, its own weekly newspaper, The Jewish Report, and numerous kosher establishments run by one of the world’s most respected religious courts.
Charisse Zeifert, spokesman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says that “as a host of a weekly radio show on Chai FM, which focuses on events and issues happening within the Jewish community, I am repeatedly struck by the diversity and talents that lie in this resilient community.
“We are deeply and inextricably bound to this country, and continue to contribute in the fields of outreach, arts and culture, business, entrepreneurship, gender issues, philanthropy and so much more.
“We’re a diverse community with so many different talents and challenges, and yet we are united in the face of diversity. It is a community of doers and can be relied upon when there is a call to action, irrespective of the issue.”
There are many figures within the South African Jewish community who played key roles in the fight against apartheid. And today, there are numerous players and Jewish organisations involved in philanthropic ventures to help uplift disadvantaged communities across the country.
South African Jewish leaders also note that Cyril Ramaphosa, who became the country’s new president on February 15, is closer to the Jewish community than his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
Addressing the National Council of Provinces in 2014, then-deputy president Ramaphosa rejected a suggestion from Economic Freedom Fighters MP Leigh-Ann-Mathys that South Africa sever diplomatic relations with “an apartheid state,” saying it was in its best interests to maintain ties with Israel.
“The government of South Africa has communicated its unequivocal and strongest condemnation of Israeli actions against Palestinians in Gaza to the government of the State of Israel, and we have done this through a number of measures,” he said.
“[But] maintaining diplomatic relations with Israel allows our country to continue to engage with Israel on issues of mutual interest, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
SAJBoD national director Wendy Kahn says that what she loves about South African Jewry is that “we don’t live in silos”.
“You can attend [Jewish] learning at Sinai Indaba in March, Limmud in August, Melton, The Academy, and a huge range of other options. I think this is unique,” she explained.
“Likewise, I am so proud that we have unified events to commemorate Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron and to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“People from across the spectrum together.”
Asked whether or not South Africa’s troubled political and economic climate has affected emigration, Kahn says that it is difficult to assess because the last census excluded religious affiliation.
“We do try to track trends and have seen numbers at schools stabilise and even grow slightly over the last five to 10 years, which is an indicator,” she said. “We do believe there will be renewed emigration as we see every decade or so due to the recent political uncertainty.”
Despite economic challenges, “we are certainly still seeing emerging entrepreneurs and a vibrant Jewish community,” she emphasised.
According to Kahn, South Africa still maintains low rates of antisemitism in comparison with other Diaspora communities “both in terms of numbers and also the nature of the antisemitism, which is non-violent,” despite the government’s anti-Israel narrative and the ruling party’s decision to downgrade South Africa’s Embassy in Tel Aviv.
That said, she warned that the anti-Israel sentiment emanating from the BDS groups “is cause for alarm”.
“It regularly veers into antisemitism — pig heads being placed in retailers that stock Israeli goods, Hitler salutes during Israel-Apartheid Week and chants of ‘Dubula i’Juda’ (Shoot the Jew) outside concerts with Israeli artists,” she said.
“Fortunately, we are a fervently Zionist and tenacious community that refuses to allow our relationship with Israel to be affected by hateful individuals,” she continued.
“We call them what they are — antisemites — and we take action where required.”
Where necessary, the SAJBoD does take anti-Israel groups to task “when they cross the line and [enter] into antisemitism, at the Human Rights Commission, in the courts or in the media”.
Last year, Kahn said, Congress of South African Trade Unions’ international relations spokesman Bongani Masuku was found guilty of hate speech by the Johannesburg High Court after threatening Jewish students at Wits University.
“His defence that he was threatening Zionists, not Jews, did not hold up and Justice Moshidi found him guilty,” Kahn said. “We are pursuing several other cases like Masuku.”
Kahn sees South African Jewry “as a proud and tenacious community who pride themselves on the richness of Jewish life while remaining involved and integrated with all facets of South African life”.
She said: “The incredible outreach initiatives by Jewish individuals and Jewish communal organisations brings great nachas to us all. At our national conference last year, the SAJBoD honoured just one of these impressive initiatives — the Mitzvah School.
“When many black schoolgoers were being denied basic education, they took in learners from nearby impoverished Alexandra and provided top-class teaching for matric level students giving them a key to their futures.
“Thirty years later they still churn out matric learners every year, some of whom have gone onto great things.
“That is the spirit of South African Jewry. We build great structures within our community, but we also build them for the society within which we live.”
A visiting delegation last year underscored the impact of South African Jewry, she said.
“For four days in October, we were able to take a break from downgrades, politics and BDS threats. We hosted the World Jewish Congress National Directors Forum in Cape Town, and for those precious few days, we saw our country and our community through the eyes of 60 of my counterparts from 50 countries around the world — and what they saw made me proud,” she recounted.
“They expressed frequently their surprise at the dynamism and quality of Jewish life in South Africa.
“They were astounded by what they saw on the tip of Africa. The group visited the Afrika Tikkun Centre in Mfuleni, where they saw the comprehensive support that this facility provides, from early childhood development to school enrichment to job preparation.
“They couldn’t get over the commitment by South African Jewry to uplifting disadvantaged communities around us.
“Their exposure to Jewish education during a visit to Herzliya made an impact. They commented on the high level of Jewish and Zionist education that our children receive. The group had an opportunity to question student representatives who shared their views on a variety of topics.”
She highlighted that one of the group members asked the learners “who would be staying in the country. In addition to the learners raising their hands, most of our group did too”.
South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein shares Kahn’s sentiments.
“The South African Jewish community is characterised by unity and pride, derech eretz (courtesy) and menschlichkeit (humanity), tenacity and innovation, as well as strong values of Judaism, Zionism, family and community,” he said.
“In many ways, South African Jewry is a model to other Jewish communities of how meaningful engagement with and contribution to the society in which we live can be coupled with a passionate and proud embrace of Jewish values and Jewish identity.
“On the one hand, the South African Jewish community plays a dynamic and important role in the unfolding process of the creation of the new South Africa.”
He highlights the vital role Jews play in all fields of human endeavour, from business to medicine, law, the arts, philanthropy and social welfare.
“At the same time, it is a community that is deeply connected to its Jewish values and vision, to Zionism and the State of Israel, to Judaism and a vibrant Jewish life in all its manifold expressions, with our extensive network of active shuls, of Jewish day schools, of kashrut establishments and welfare organisations,” he said.