JOHANNESBURG, Sept. 15 (JTA) — South Africa’s main Jewish group is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and concerns about the community’s future — as well as its past — are dominating the organization’s efforts. One of the issues causing the concern is the widely held conviction among South African Jews that their government is pro-Palestinian — particularly rankling to a community that has always been strongly pro-Zionist — and that the Jewish community is being sidelined. The Jewish community’s perceived lack of support for the anti-apartheid cause is also under scrutiny. These issues came to the fore at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ recent conference, held in honor of the group’s centenary. Russell Gaddin, newly elected president of the board, discussed his concern that the community is being pushed into a “smaller and smaller” role in national politics. To secure a meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki took the board “many, many months of urging. I feel that as representatives of South African Jewry, we should have been granted a meeting on request,” he said. “Perhaps we were a little bit spoiled by former President Mandela, who was defended by Jews” — in his trials by the apartheid government — “and had Jewish doctors and advisers,” Gaddin said. The Jewish community’s small size — 75,000 — as compared with the roughly 1 million Muslims in South Africa, may account for some of the perceived neglect. But ties between the ruling African National Congress and anti-Israel groups also could be to blame, some say. “Why, when there are so many pressing issues in South Africa such as crime and the Zimbabwe situation, does Israel continually come up for debate in Parliament?” Gaddin asked, voicing the community’s feelings of insecurity on the matter. Fueling the concerns, the Jewish leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Tony Leon, talked about the meeting earlier this year between the country’s deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, and the anti-Israel Lebanese militia group Hezbollah. After the May meeting, Pahad commended Hezbollah and pledged to continue contact between it and the South African government, Leon said. But delivering the keynote address at the opening of the conference, Mbeki reassured the community that the government would not tolerate anti-Semitism. He paid tribute to the “many patriots from the Jewish community who played a role to free our country from racist tyranny” and added that Jews were also among those prominent in rebuilding the country. Mbeki addressed another issue: the viability of the community and its institutions after large-scale emigration that has seen it drop to around 75,000 today from 118,000 in the mid-1970s. Since South Africa’s transition to democracy, emigration has been fueled by rising violent crime as well as by affirmative action. Many young people leave after finishing college for job opportunities abroad. A resolution passed at the conference addressed the issue, calling on the board to “pay urgent attention to finding ways of reducing emigration.” Mbeki expressed his concern at a survey conducted by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research in conjunction with the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, which found that 60 percent of the community did not see a long-term future for Jews in this country and referred to their “pervading sense of unease” towards an increase in anti-Semitism. “Let me say clearly and unequivocally,” he said, “that our government would be pleased to spend as much time as may be required to address the concerns of our Jewish community with its representatives.” Mbeki said the government supported the “road map” for peace and would “continue to do everything in its power to facilitate this outcome with both the Israeli government and the Palestinians.” Commenting after the speech, the past president of the board, Mervyn Smith, said there is no doubt that there were “major issues concerning the lack of easy access to the South African government, which the Jewish community no longer enjoys,” but said the president’s speech was “remarkable for an open invitation he issued to the community to come and talk about issues that concerned it.” In honor of the centenary, the World Jewish Congress held its first-ever meeting in South Africa after the board’s meeting. The board also engaged in some soul-searching by highlighting an issue that attracted more criticism to it during the past than any other — its failure to speak out against the apartheid system. Addressing the conference, Smith said the community’s leaders had displayed a lack of moral leadership and that in his view, the Jewish community of South Africa had failed “the struggle” — as the fight against apartheid is sometimes called here. In addition, the failure to speak out had its effects in present-day South Africa, he said. “Because we were not connected to the struggle, we failed to develop meaningful contact with future black leadership which would have stood us in good stead today.” While the South African media is also perceived by the community to be anti-Israel, leading Jewish journalist Jeremy Gordin warned against “shooting the messenger,” saying that Israel was not always right. But the board’s media team gave examples of slanted reporting and steps that were taken to combat Islamic fundamentalist views.
Moira Schneider is a JTA correspondent in South Africa. A law graduate and psychology major, she is the Cape Town correspondent for the South African Jewish Report. She contributes to London's Jewish Chronicle, is a reporter for the Cape Jewish Chronicle and has been published in the Cape Times and Cape Argus.