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The history of the Jews in South Africa mainly begins with the European settlement in the 19th century. The early patterns of Jewish South African history are almost identical with the history of the Jews in the United States but on a much smaller scale, including the period of early discovery and settlement from the late 15th century to the early 19th century. Jews played a prominent role in the development of the diamond and gold fields, with Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato and others becoming notable Randlords. Many Jews were involved in the anti-apartheid movement, with Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs, Dennis Goldberg, Harry Schwarz and Helen Suzman being among the most notable. South African Jewry differ significantly from those in other developing countries in that the majority of South African Jews still remain in South Africa (62% of the original 120,000 still remain), and that a significant number of those that did move abroad went to countries popular among other South African émigrés such as Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, as well as Israel.
The modern Jewish history of South Africa began, indirectly, some time before the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, by the participation of certain astronomers and cartographers in the Portuguese discovery of the sea-route to India. There were Jews among the directors of the Dutch East India Company, which for 150 years administered the colony at the Cape of Good Hope. Jewish cartographers in Portugal, members of the wealthy and influential classes, assisted Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and 1497. Portugal's baptised Jews were still free until the Portuguese Inquisition was promulgated in 1536.
In 1652 the Dutch began the first permanent European settlement of South Africa under Jan van Riebeeck as a representative of the Dutch East India Company. It has been noted that:
During the seventeenth and the greater part of the 18th century the state religion alone was allowed to be publicly observed; but on 25 July 1804, the Dutch commissioner-general Jacob Abraham de Mist, by a proclamation whose provisions were annulled at the English occupation of 1806 and were not reestablished till 1820, instituted in the colony religious equality for all persons, irrespective of creed.
Jews did not arrive in any numbers at Cape Town before the 1820s. The first congregation in South Africa, known as the Gardens Shul, was founded in Cape Town in November 1841, and the initial service was held in the house of one Benjamin Norden, at the corner of Weltevreden and Hof streets. Benjamin Norden, Simeon Markus, together with a score of others arriving in the early 1930s, were commercial pioneers, especially the Mosenthal brothers—Julius, Adolph (see Aliwal North), and James Mosenthal—who started a major wool industry. By their enterprise in going to Asia and returning with thirty Angora goats in 1856 they became the originators of the mohair industry. Aaron and Daniel de Pass were the first to open up Namaqualand, and for many years (1849–1886) were the largest shipowners in Cape Town, and leaders of the sealing, whaling, and fishing industries. Jews were among the first to take to ostrich-farming and played a role in the early diamond industry.
Jews also played some part in early South African politics. Captain Joshua Norden was shot at the head of his Mounted Burghers in the Xhosa War of 1846; Lieutenant Elias de Pass fought in the Xhosa War of 1849. Julius Mosenthal (1818–1880), brother of the poet S. Mosenthal of Vienna, was a member of the Cape Parliament in the 1950s. Simeon Jacobs, C.M.G. (1832–1883), who was a judge in the Supreme Court of the Cape of Good Hope, as the acting attorney-general of Cape Colony he introduced and carried in 1872 the Cape Colony Responsible Government Bill and the Voluntary Bill (abolishing state aid to the Anglican Church), for both of which bills Saul Solomon, the member for Cape Town, had fought for decades. Saul Solomon (b. St. Helena 25 May 1817; d. 16 October 1892), the leader of the Cape Colony Liberal Party, has been called the "Cape Disraeli." He was invited into the first Responsible Government#Cape Colony, formed by Sir John Molteno, and declined the premiership itself several times. Like Disraeli, too, he early left the ranks of Judaism.
At the same time, the Jews faced substantial anti-Semitism. Though freedom of worship was granted to all residents in 1870, the revised Grondwet of 1894 still debarred Jews and Catholics from military posts, from the positions of president, state secretary, or magistrate, from membership in the First and Second Volksraad ("parliament"), and from superintendencies of natives and mines. These positions were restricted to persons above 30 years of age with permanent property and a longer history of settlement. As a consequence of the fact that Boer republics were only in existence from 1857 to 1902, unfortunately many residents of the Boer republics had limited access to positions in the upper echelons of government. All instruction was to be given in a Christian and Protestant spirit, and Jewish and Catholic teachers and children were to be excluded from state-subsidized schools. Before the Boer War (1899–1902), Jews were often considered uitlanders ("foreigners") and excluded from the mainstream of South African life.
However, a small number of Jews also settled among and identified with the rural white Afrikaans-speaking population; these persons became known as Boerejode (Boer Jews). A measure of intermarriage also occurred and was generally accepted.
The South African gold rush began after 1886, attracting many Jews. The Jewish population of South Africa numbered approximately 4,000 in 1880; by 1914 it had grown to more than 40,000. So many of these Jewish immigrants to South Africa had come from Lithuania, that some referred to the population as a colony of Lithuania. Johannesburg was also occasionally called "Jewburg."
Jews fought on both sides during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). Some of the most notable fights during the three years' Boer war — such as the Gun Hill incident before the Siege of Ladysmith — involved Jewish soldiers like Major Karri Davies. Nearly 2,800 Jews fought on the British side and the London Spectator counted that 125 were killed. (Jewish Encyclopedia)
Around 300 Jews served among the Boers during the second Boer War and were known as Boerjode: those who had citizenship rights were conscripted along with other burghers ("citizens"), but there were also a number of volunteers. Jews fought under the Boers' Vierkleur ("four colored") flag in many of the major battles and engagements and during the guerilla phase of the war, and a dozen are known to have died. Around 80 were captured and held in British concentration camps in South Africa. Some were sent as far afield as St. Helena, Bermuda, and Ceylon to where they had been exiled by the British. Some Jews were among the Bittereinders ("Bitter Enders") who fought on long after the Boer cause was clearly lost.
Although the Jews were allowed equal rights after the Boer War, they again became subject to persecution in the days leading up to World War II. In 1930, the Quota Act of 1930 was intended to curtail the entry of Jews into South Africa. The vast majority of Jews immigrating to South Africa came from diaspora communities in Lithuania. The 1937 The Aliens Act, motivated by a sharp increase the previous year in the number of German Jewish refugees coming to South Africa, brought the migration to almost a complete halt. Some Jews were able to enter the country, but many were unable to do so. A total of approximately six-and-a-half thousand Jews came to South Africa from Germany between the years 1933 and 1939. Many Afrikaners (i.e. Boers) felt sympathy for Nazi Germany, and organizations like Louis Weichardt’s "Grayshirts" and the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag were openly anti-Semitic. During World War I, many Afrikaners, who had little respect for Britain, objected to the use of "Afrikaner women and children from the British concentration camps" in fighting the German territory of South West Africa on behalf of Britain. This had the effect of drumming up pro-German sentiment among a population of Afrikaners. The opposition National Party argued that the Aliens Act was too lenient and advocated a complete ban on Jewish immigration, a halt in the naturalization of Jewish permanent residents of South Africa and the banning of Jews from certain professions. After the war, the situation began to improve, and a large number of South African Jews, generally a fairly Zionist community, made aliyah to Israel. While it is understandable that many South African Jews would feel uncomfortable with formerly pro-Nazi Afrikaners rising to power in 1948, many leading apartheid-era Afrikaner politicians publicly apologized to the South African Jewish community for their earlier anti-semitic actions and assured it of its continued safety in South Africa.
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When the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power in 1948 it did not adopt an anti-Jewish policy despite its earlier position. In 1953 South Africa's Prime Minister, D. F. Malan, became the first foreign head of government to visit Israel though the trip was a "private visit" rather than an official state visit. This began a long history of cooperation between Israel and South Africa on many levels. The proudly Zionistic South African Jewish community, through such bodies as the South African Zionist Federation and a number of publications, maintained a cordial relationship with the South African government even though it objected to the policies of Apartheid being enacted. South Africa's Jews were permitted to collect huge sums of money to be sent on as official aid to Israel, in spite of strict exchange-control regulations. Per capita, South African Jews were reputedly the most financially supportive Zionists abroad. During the 1980s Harry Schwarz, a prominent Jewish anti-Apartheid politician engaged in private meetings with Israeli Prime Minister's Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir and was assured by them that Jews in South Africa would not become isolated and links between the Jewish community and Israel would be maintained.
South African Jews can be described as being mostly mildly liberal and overwhelmingly supported opposition parties such as first the United Party, then the Liberal Party, Progressive Party and its successors during the decades of National Party apartheid rule. (See Liberalism in South Africa). The community in general was not aligned with any particular Communist or revolutionary elements, or violent movements though there were prominent South African Jewish socialists and communists such as Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Denis Goldberg and Albie Sachs. The prime example of the more moderate approach is that of the highly-assimilated Harry Oppenheimer (1908–2000) (born Jewish but converted to Anglicanism upon his marriage), the richest man in South Africa and the chairman of the De Beers and Anglo American corporations. He was a supporter of the liberal Progressive Party and its policies, believing that granting more freedom and economic growth to South Africa's Black African majority was good politics and sound economic policy. The banner for this cause was held high by Helen Suzman, as the lone Progressive Party member in South Africa's parliament, representing the voting district of Houghton, home to many wealthy Jewish families at the time.
Harry Schwarz was one of the most prominent anti-apartheid leaders and politicians of the Jewish community. He arrived as a Jewish refugee from Germany in 1934 at the age of 10. An early advocate for non-violent resistance to apartheid, he co-founded the Torch Commando, an ex-soldiers' movement to protest against the disenfranchisement of the coloured people in South Africa. As an advocate, he was on the defense team of the Rivonia Trial and visited Nelson Mandela in prison. Advocating a credible and more aggressive political opposition to the National Party in the 1960s and 1970s, he clashed with the United Party establishment, until finally he signed the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith with Mangosuthu Buthelezi for a non-racial democratic society in South Africa that led to the realignment of opposition politics in South Africa. A passionate opposition leader, both inside and outside parliament, he forcefully denounced the National Party's racial policies and was recognised as amongst the most effective and forthright campaigners against apartheid. In 1991 Schwarz was appointed as Ambassador to the United States, South Africa's top diplomat and the first Jew and sitting opposition party member to become an ambassador in South African history.
Politician Helen Suzman, represented the Houghton constituency as the Progressive Party's sole member of parliament, and the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid, from 1961 to 1974. Suzman was noted for her strong public criticism of the governing National Party's policies of apartheid at a time when this was atypical of white South Africans, and found herself even more of an outsider because she was an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men. She stepped down from Parliament in 1989, though continued to campaign against apartheid. She visited Nelson Mandela on numerous occasions while he was in prison, and was present when he signed the new constitution in 1996.
Writer Nadine Gordimer helped edit Mandela's speech in his defence at the Rivonia Trial (in 1991, Gordimer donated her Nobel Prize money to the Congress of South African Writers, which was allied with the African National Congress).
During the Rivonia Trial Dr. Percy Yutar, South Africa’s first Jewish attorney-general, who was said to be indifferent towards Apartheid, prosecuted Nelson Mandela while Jewish attorney Arthur Chaskalson was part of Mandela's defense counsel. In that trial, Denis Goldberg, engineer and leader of the Congress of Democrats, was sentenced to life in prison along with Mandela and other ANC leaders.
In 1979, Chaskalson established the Legal Resources Center, an organization dedicated to the pursuit of justice and human rights in South Africa. Chaskalson challenged the implementation of apartheid laws, provided legal services, and trained paralegal personnel to help blacks. When Mandela came to power he appointed Chaskalson as President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and later as Chief Justice of South Africa.
Many Jewish anti-apartheid activists were the target of state security force violence: Ruth First was assassinated; Albie Sachs lost an eye and an arm. Rowley Arenstein was exiled for thirty-three years. Abstract painter Arthur Goldreich was arrested as a political prisoner in July 1963 but eventually escaped. Joe Slovo, longtime leader of the South African Communist Party, served on the ANC's National Executive Committee, as did Ray Simons and Raymond Suttner. Ronnie Kasrils was head of intelligence for the ANC's military wing. (Adler 2000)
Jews also played a significant role in providing humanitarian assistance for black communities. Ina Perlman founded "Operation Hunger", an organization that reached two million South African blacks. Influenced by skills learned in Israel, the South African Union of Jewish Women (UJW) developed outreach programs in black townships: they focused on teacher training and pre-school development and even sponsored a few black South African teacher visits to Israel. UJW also created a multiracial youth group and engaged in the Women's National Coalition. The group was the first to import black dolls from the United States so that children might have a choice. (Adler, 2000)
Johannesburg's Oxford Synagogue and Cape Town's Temple Israel assisted the black townships by running nurseries, medical clinics and adult education programs, and by providing legal aid for victims of apartheid laws. (Adler 2000)
Many Jews objected to enlistment in the South African Defence Force and the Border War. Johnathon Handler, chairperson of the UCT branch of South African Union of Jewish Students, was one of a group of 15 conscientious objectors to make public their resistance to war in the townships shortly before the End Conscription Campaign was banned.
Despite the over-representation of Jews in the struggle against apartheid, the Jewish establishment and the majority of South African Jews remained focused on Jewish issues. Most individuals were unsupportive of the anti-apartheid cause and communal institutions remained distant from the struggle against racial injustice until relatively late. In 1980, 32 years after the creation of apartheid, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies passed a resolution urging "all concerned, in particular members of our own community, to cooperate in securing the immediate amelioration and ultimate removal of all unjust discriminatory laws and practices based on race, creed or color". A few rabbis spoke out against apartheid early, but they failed to gain support and it was not until 1985 that the rabbinate as a whole condemned apartheid. (Adler 2000)
Although the Jewish community peaked in the 1970s (at around 120,000), about 70,000 mostly nominally Orthodox, remain in South Africa. Despite low intermarriage rates (around 7%), approximately 1,800 Jews emigrate every year, mainly to Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States. The Jewish community in South Africa is currently the largest in Africa, and, although shrinking due to emigration, it remains one of the most nominally Orthodox communities in the world. The current Chief Rabbi, Dr. Warren Goldstein (2008), has been widely credited for initiating a "Bill of Responsibilities" which the government has incorporated in the national school curriculum. The Chief Rabbi has also pushed for community run projects to combat crime in the country.
The community has become more observant and in Johannesburg, the largest centre of Jewish life, with 66,000 Jews, there is a high number and density of Kosher restaurants and religious centres. In politics, the Jewish community continues to have influence, particularly in leadership roles. Currently, the sole national Jewish newspaper, with a readership of about 40,000, is the South African Jewish Report. In 2008 a Jewish Radio Station, Chai FM, commenced broadcasting in Johannesburg, and also broadcasting on the internet to the large South African "diaspora". Despite a fall in number, since 2003 the number of South African Jews has stabilised. Furthermore, they are growing evermore religious with over 80% of South African Jews claiming to be Orthodox.
The Lemba or "wa-Remba" are a southern African ethnic group to be found in Zimbabwe and South Africa with some little known branches in Mozambique and Malawi. According to Parfitt they are thought to number 70,000. Many of them claim a partial common descent to the Jewish people.
Traditionally, Jewish education in South Africa was conducted by the Cheder or Talmud Torah, while children received secular education at government and private schools. There were, initially, no formal structures in place for Rabbinical education. (Note that although the majority of South Africa's Jews are descendants of Lithuanian Jews who venerated Talmudic scholarship, the community did not establish schools or yeshivot for several decades.)
An important change took place in 1948, when King David School was established as the first full-time dual-curriculum (secular and Jewish) Jewish day school – the high school was established in 1955. Today, King David is amongst the largest Jewish day schools in the world, with thousands of students. King David's equivalent in Cape Town is "Herzlia" (United Herzlia Schools) with Carmel School in Pretoria and Durban (both subsequently renamed), and the Theodore Herzl School in Port Elizabeth (est. 1959). Umhlanga Jewish Day School, was opened in January 2012, to cater for Jewish children in the greater Durban area. In Total, nineteen Day Schools, affiliated to the South African Board of Jewish Education, have been established in the main centres. The Jewish day schools regularly place amongst the top in the country in the national "Matric" examinations.
The first religious day school, the Yeshiva College of South Africa, was established in the mid-1950s, drawing primarily on the popularity of the Bnei Akiva Religious Zionist youth movement. As an institution with hundreds of pupils, Yeshivah College is today the largest religious school in the country. Other educational institutions within this ideology include the Kollel (Bet Mordechai) and Midrasha (Emunah) of Mizrachi, Johannesburg, and the Yeshiva of Cape Town, a Torah MiTzion Kollel.
In parallel to the establishment of Yeshiva College, and drawing on the same momentum, several smaller yeshivot were opened, starting in the 1960s. The Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, established in 1973, is the best known of these, having trained dozens of South African Rabbis, including Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein. The Yeshiva follows the "Telshe" educational model, although accommodates students from across the spectrum of Hashkafa (Hebrew: worldview, outlook, beliefs within orthodox Judaism).
This era also saw the start of a large network of Chabad-Lubavitch activities and institutions. There is today a Lubavitch Yeshiva in Johannesburg (Lubavitch Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg) serving the Chabad community, a Chabad Semicha programme in Pretoria (having ordained 98 Rabbis since its establishment in 2001), and Lubavitch Day schools in Johannesburg (the Torah Academy school) and Cape Town. Johannesburg boasts ten Chabad Houses, Cape Town two and Kwazulu-Natal one- all of which offer a variety of Torah classes, adult education programmes and informal children's educational programmes.
The 1980s saw the establishment of a Haredi kollel, Yad Shaul, as well as the growth of a large baal teshuva ("returnees" [to observant Judaism]) movement – this was supported by the Israel-based organizations Ohr Somayach and Aish HaTorah which established active branches in South Africa; Arachim also has an active presence. Ohr Somayach, South Africa operates a full-time Yeshiva in Johannesburg – with its Bet Midrash established in 1990, and its Kollel (Toras Chaim) in 1996 – as well as a Midrasha (Ma'ayan Bina); it also runs a Bet Midrash in Cape Town. There are several Haredi boy's schools in Johannesburg - each associated with one of the yeshivot - as well as a Beis Yaakov girls' school.
The Progressive Movement maintains a network of supplementary Hebrew and Religious classes at its temples. These schools are all affiliated to the SA Union for Progressive Judaism.
Limmud was introduced to the country in 2007. The Limmud South Africa conferences are held in August/September each year, with over 1000 attending. South Africa's Orthodox rabbis do not participate, taking their lead from the UK Orthodox Rabbinate; see Limmud: Relationships with Centrist Orthodoxy in Britain.
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