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South African Jews: In trouble or thriving?

May 14, 2013 – 12:25 pm2 Comments
Image: eurojewcong.org

Image: eurojewcong.org

This article, by Limmud presenter Daniel Barnett , is the first in our 2013 Limmud-Oz preview series.
The South African Jewish community is renowned for being one of the world’s most close-knit. From a communal infrastructure point of view, it is well-organised, with substantial welfare, educational, political and Zionist institutions in every major Jewish centre. Few communities in the world can profess to having been so strong over such a long period of time. Yet, despite these successes, three major challenges continue to plague the community, threatening its fabric and long-term survival.

Growing up immersed in this community gives one certain foundational experiences almost without exception – a traditional upbringing built on a modern orthodox foundation; strong Zionist ideals and a close affinity to a community which most of one’s friends and associates form part of. Herein lies the first challenge – while this insularity has no doubt contributed towards the community’s tremendous success, it also offers few alternatives to those exploring other facets of their Jewish identity.

The Chief Rabbinate’s response to Limmud, for example, was to offer a modern orthodox learning programme as a clear alternative to Limmud (as opposed to a complimentary option), while his office has gone out of their way to discourage involvement in Limmud. This one-dimensional approach to Judaism (and Zionism, where a conservative agenda has dominated local discourse) has isolated many, some of whom have chosen assimilation over engagement.

The second challenge remains emigration, which has been a Shabbat-table topic of discussion since the late 1960s. Over the last three decades, the community’s numbers have fallen from approximately 118,000 in 1970 to an estimated 70,000 today – a devastating blow. It remains to be seen whether the slowing of emigration will come to a complete halt.

The third challenge lies in the foreign policy of the current African National Congress (ANC) government. This is a government who have propped up an oppressive dictatorship in Zimbabwe, bankrolled a despotic monarchy in Swaziland and banned the Dalai Lama from visiting the country for Desmond Tutu’s birthday, in fear of offending China. Nothing has yet been said against the atrocities committed against Syrian civilians on a daily basis.

Israel, however, receives different treatment. While Israel is, in many respects, not a paradigm of virtue (a topic that needs substantial discussion on its own), the ANC policy towards the Jewish State tends to take criticism and antagonism towards Israel to an extreme. A few examples follow.

Post Operation Cast lead in 2009, the ANC failed to condemn Hamas rocket attacks, the kidnapping of Shalit or Hamas’ use of civilian shields. Only Israel was seen as the aggressor.

After Israel’s skirmish with the Turkish flotilla, only South Africa, Turkey, Nicaragua and Ecuador withdrew their ambassadors from Tel Aviv – an extreme action by any government.

In 2011, the University of Johannesburg, pressured by the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, cancelled a bi-lateral agreement with Ben Gurion University of the Negev, becoming the first academic institution internationally to formally cut ties with an Israeli university.

Israeli speakers – from the political to the completely non-aligned (including a musician living in Berlin) have faced attack, while Jewish communal events have been hijacked by BDS activists.

The South African government has curtailed the training of its officials by Israelis. This has the potential to halt 50 years of Israeli expertise being used to improve South African agriculture development.

After the ANC discouraged South Africans from visiting Israel, the SAJBD criticised its stance as “grossly discriminatory, counter-productive and wholly inconsistent with how South Africa normally conducts its international relations and contradicts its official policy of having full diplomatic ties with Israel.”

But, despite these three challenges, the community continues to thrive. Individuals continue in excel in finance, the arts, law and business, almost all Jewish children attend Jewish day schools and youth movement membership is amongst the highest per-capita in the world.

It seems the right time to analyse the state of the South African Jewish community today, its relationship with the ANC, business and Israel – not to mention itself – and consider its future in light of the above.

Daniel Barnett will be discussing this topic further in “The Triple Threat? Anti-Israel Sentiment, Australia and Assimilation – South African Jewry in 2013” at Limmud Oz 2013. Sunday June 9, 2013 3:45pm – 4:45pm in Engineering Building Room G1.

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  • Jonty says:


    Do you think emigration is more the cause or the effect of community decline?

  • Daniel says:

    Hi Jonty. Difficult to say. I would say a weakening community would be a reason to want to leave (especially as SAF Jews are so community conscious). At the same time, the reasons for Jewish emigration are so many – crime, jobs, uncertainty, moral reasons (espec in the 80s). Worth further discussion I think.

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