Menu JTA Search

South African Jews urged to engage

CAPE TOWN, Jan. 8 (JTA) — South Africa’s central Jewish institution has come up with a plan to bolster the future of South African Jewry and help the country as a whole. Referring to a survey showing that most young South African Jews do not plan to make their future in the country, South African President Thabo Mbeki challenged the Jewish community to do something about it. Michael Bagraim, the newly elected chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization of South African Jewry, outlined the contours of the community’s new plan in a recent interview with JTA. The crux of the plan is to make young Jews proud of their identity both as South Africans and as Jews, in large part by increasing Jewish involvement in the general South African community, particularly when it comes to securing equal rights. “It’s very exciting for the Jewish community,” Bagraim said. “We can improve our lot, at the same time improving the lot of others. We want people to be full-fledged citizens, exercising their citizenship rights as well as improving the rights of everyone.” Bagraim said board leaders would meet with Mbeki in the next two months to convey the plan to him. In the immediate future, when South Africa celebrates the tenth anniversary of its transition to democracy in 2004, the Jewish community will take an active role in the celebrations. The community also will participate in the Proudly South African campaign, launched in 2001 by government, business, labor and communal organizations, to boost job creation by promoting South African products. Bagraim said the board was developing an ongoing program, not just a one-time thing. The country’s chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, approached the campaign from a different angle. In contrast to the Proudly South African campaign, which was mainly commercial, “ours has much more to do with morale,” Harris said. But, he added, “We are deliberately linking ours to Proudly South African because we feel the South African Jewish community is unique in many ways.” The community is strongly Zionist, and most children attend Jewish day schools. There also is a strong movement of people becoming religiously observant. “There are very many positive factors to South African Jewry. We would like to perpetuate them. It’s as simple as that,” Harris said. “If we don t do something now, it’s clear that in 20 or 30 years time we’re going to be left with the rump of the community, the old and the poor.” Harris added that the country’s Jewish population has fallen from a peak of 120,000 to about 72,000 today. Many young Jews who leave the country cite the high crime rate and difficulty finding work as a result of affirmative action policies for blacks instituted in 1994. Harris, who also is a member of the board’s management committee, will chair a special task force which will propose a blueprint for the campaign to the board next month. The essentials of the plan should be ready in time for the meeting with Mbeki. Bagraim said the board wouldn’t try to tell members of the community what to do. “Obviously we would like everyone to make aliyah. That is the essence of Zionism, and the South African Jewish community is 90 percent Zionistic,” he said. “But if people have chosen to stay, we want them to endorse South Africa, be good citizens and make living conditions favorable for Jews and enhance the society in which we are living. “As Jews, we want to take our involvement in the community one level higher and not keep seeing ourselves as a minority within a minority,” Bagraim said, referring to Jews’ place in white South African circles. “That challenge, properly used and properly answered, will bring us even more into the mainstream of South African life.” A few years ago, Bagraim said, Jews in South Africa seemed to be withdrawing into what some called internal exile. Though he took issue with the characterization, he conceded that Jews weren’t doing enough to join the mainstream. “We need to engage,” he said. “I am engaging left-wing Jews who don’t fit into mainstream Judaism. We also want to engage right-wingers. We want to start talks between ourselves and the African National Congress, with all the faith groups.” The planned Proudly South African Jewish campaign entails reaching out to South Africa’s other political, racial and religious groups, he said. Although South Africa’s government often has adopted a pro-Palestinian line, it also has said it won’t tolerate racism of any kind, including anti-Semitism. Bagraim contrasted the community’s situation with that of French Jews, pointing out that France’s chief rabbi recently warned members of his community not to wear yarmulkes in public places for fear of attack. “Here in South Africa we don’t have that problem,” Bagraim said. “We love to see the downside of South Africa, but inherently the blacks in South Africa are not anti-Semitic. We are actually living an idyllic life on that level.”