Behind the Headlines the Jews of South Africa
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of South Africa

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Daniel Elazar and Peter Medding, in their work, Jewish Communities in Frontier Societies, wrote that the period from 1910 to 1948 was “undoubtedly the least happy” for South Africa’s Jews. It was a period, they argue, that saw an estrangement between Jews and Afrikaners — the largest white group in the country.

Jewish immigration was singled out for restriction by Afrikaner nationalists and, under the influence of Nazi ideas, anti-Semitism spread. In 1930, the Minister of the Interior and future National Party Prime Minister, pro-Zionist Daniel Malan, introduced the Quota Bill which favored immigrants from such countries as Germany, France and Italy.

After 1933, when increasing numbers of German Jews sought refuge, a new Aliens Act was passed to close this unforeseen loophole. Malan claimed that the Aliens Act was really in the best interests of Jews.

As late as 1941, when the Nazis were readying the gas chambers for European Jewry, the National Party issued a formal statement reiterating support for the Aliens Act. In 1943, the Transvaal branch of the party officially banned Jews from membership. And these anti-Jewish sentiments, say Elazar and Medding, penetrated the very influential Dutch Reformed Church.


Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, suggested in the 1930’s that Jewish economic activity should be regulated by a quota system. In the wake of the Holocaust, when the full impact of this tragedy seeped in, the National Party underwent a metamorphosis vis-a-vis Jews.

Six months before the 1948 general election, which the Nationalists won for the first time, Malan published a policy statement on Jews. He acknowledged that there were anti-Semitic members in the party, but denied that the party itself was anti-Jewish.

After the election, the Jewish Board of Deputies held a meeting with Malan, and Malan said he “looks forward to the time when the so-called Jewish (issue) will disappear altogether from the life of this country and its politics.” He added: “Apart altogether from the question of immigration, we believe that there must be no discrimination in regard to the Jews who are in South Africa. “

The rapprochement between the Nationalists and the Jewish community was perhaps also an historical necessity: the Nationalists needed the Jews to maintain a “united” white community. And, as Elazar and Medding point out, the rise of the National Party to full political power coincided with the creation of Israel. Since the Afrikaners had a special affinity with the Old Testament, they looked upon Israel with great favor.

Inevitably, Israel’s establishment generated “a new respect for Jews in South Africa,” remarked Dr. Sylvia Kaplan, national president of the South African Association of Arts.


Louis Pienaar, a Cape Town lawyer, and an Afrikaner, explained how the complex relationship between Jews and Afrikaners has changed since World War II: “We had a mixed approach to the Jewish community. Endearment for those rural Jews with whom we associated closely, fear and jealousy for those in the city who were economically successful.”

Since then, he added, the Afrikaners have assumed political power and have come to realize the important contribution of Jews to the economy. “This role is accepted and respected, and the image of the Jew as Hoggenheimer (a mythical, anti-Semitic caricature of Jewish financial power) has disappeared.”

Kaplan, who lives in the port resort of Durban, agreed that since 1945 attitudes of prejudice have broken down. “There is less anti-Semitism and a greater acceptance of Jews. Jews have been able to identify as South Africans. There are still restrictions in social clubs, right here in Durban, for example, but in every day life one is hardly aware of anti-Semitism.”


John Moshal, president of the Council of Natal Jewry, in Durban, an engineer by profession, said that anti-Semitism no longer is viewed as a serious problem by the Jews of South Africa. Nevertheless, Jews must put up with anti-Semitic pinpricks:

* Some clubs are out of bounds to Jews, as they are elsewhere in the world, and a number of anti-Semitic publicists — notably S.E.D. Browne of the SA Observer and Ivor Benson of Behind the News — rant on.

* Recently, on the University of the Witwatersrand campus, anti-Semitic graffiti showed up.

* Some Blacks who support the Palestinian cause tend to be anti-Semitic, but Black anti-Semitism is also a reaction to Jewish shopkeepers and landlords, observers say.

All in all, anti-Semitism, South African style, is far from being an urgent problem. How then, can the Temple Israel bombing — an extremely grave event — be explained?

Temple Israel, a Reform synagogue in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow district, was heavily damaged last August when a limpet mine exploded. The authorities immediately blamed the banned African National Congress, for South African President Marais Viljoen had been scheduled to attend a service to mark 50 years of Progressive Judaism in South Africa. No one today is certain who was behind the explosion, but it has caused synagogues and Jewish institutions throughout the nation to tighten security.

Theo Aranson, a Jewish MP who represents the National Party, told this reporter that the Temple Israel incident embarrassed the government. “Every bomb that goes off undermines our stability and foreign confidence in South Africa,” he observed. Archie Shadling, a Jewish communal leader in Cape Town, concurred. “It’s simply not in the government’s interest to permit overt acts of anti-Semitism, ” he said.

The government has been particularly tough on Eugene Terre Blanche’s movement, the Afrikanse Weerstands-beweging. On the basis of his statement that Jews should be deprived of their political rights, Prime Minister P.W. Botha blasted Terre Blanche, saying there was no room for neo-Nazism in South Africa, and that Jews had served South Africa faithfully. For good measure, the authorities warned Terre Blanche that his activities were being monitored.

More recently, the government expelled Brendan Wilmer, a British neo-Nazi, after his application for permanent residence was rejected.

Harry Schwartz, an opposition MP who sits on the national executive of the Jewish Board of Deputies, said South African Jewry remains vigilant. “This is a community that doesn’t take anything lying down, ” he said. “We’re a fairly tough and aggressive lot, and we don’t stand for anti-Semitism.”

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