Behind the Headlines South African Jews on a Tightrope
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Behind the Headlines South African Jews on a Tightrope

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As emergency regulations imposing severe curbs on Black political expression enter the fifth week in South Africa, the Jewish community is sharing the physical fears and harsh economic woes facing the white community.

Travel agents in Johannesburg indicated that there has been a sharp increase in the purchase of one-way tickets out of the country, since the state of emergency was declared July 20. In fact, trips to Australia in the travel business are known euphemistically as “LSD Trips” … “Look See and Decide” or “Look Schlep and Deposit”.

“The Jew has an important role to play here. We are definitely committed to South Africa and encourage people not to panic and simply leave,” stated Rabbi Mendel Lipskar, 37, director of the Lubavitch Foundation of South Africa. Lipskar, who was born in Germany and grew up in Canada, has lived in South Africa for the past 13 years. “There has been a revival here in religion and Yiddishkeit over the past 10 years,” he said.

Executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Aleck Goldberg, related that emigration of the Jewish community has had enormous repercussions upon family life. “Many families have split, and demographic studies show this is an aging Jewish community,” explained the 62-year-old Goldberg.

According to the World Jewish Congress, somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews have left South Africa in the past two decades. Presently, 120,000 Jews live in South Africa comprising 2.6 percent of the white population and .04 percent of the overall population.


Dr. Israel Abramowitz, former chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, told a Washington B’nai B’rith public affairs forum last month that the Jewish population in his country has remained steady since 1970 because of an influx of Jews from Israel and Zimbabwe.

It is estimated that there are 15,000 Israelis in South Africa but Abramowitz indicated that the Jewish population is expected to shrink to 64,000 by the end of this century.

In addition, Jewish communities in outlying areas have continuously been diminishing in number and size over the years. In this regard, statistics compiled by the Board’s Country Communities Department, show 10,064 Jews in country areas in 1951, only 3,080 in 1981.

Towns which once had small but flourishing communities, are now left with only a handful of Jews, if any at all. In these instances communal properties such as synagogues and halls have been sold, although a few communities still maintain a viable Jewish existence.

Lipskar, however, spoke hopefully about the Jewish community in South Africa. “I believe there is a future for us. I believe the Jew is very much part and parcel of that community which can enable this country to develop a harmonious state of economic and political welfare for the entire country.”

Concerning the current state of emergency, Lipskar noted, “Honestly … This isn’t affecting anyone (whites) in Johannesburg, except psychologically.” He added that the suspension of normal police procedures is “quite frightening”, but the practical affect is “minimal.”

As of this week, police reported that 2,000 persons had been arrested under the emergency regulation, with some 1,000 of those having been released. Still, regular incidents of violence are occurring, primarily in the Black townships surrounding Johannesburg and in the eastern section of Cape Province around Port Elizabeth.

Although authorities have declined to release figures on total numbers of people killed since the state of emergency was declared. Scores have been killed and wounded.

Both Goldberg and Lipskar, however, were reluctant to address the situation directly. “It is important to promote the Jewish element here rather than political concerns,” Lipskar said, adding, “Lubavitch does not take a stand on politics … In this overheated international atmosphere whatever one says is open to misinterpretation.”


Goldberg explained that the duty of the Board of Deputies is “to act as a guardian of the civic and political rights of the Jewish community against anti-Semitism and discrimination.” He reflected that it is up to individuals to promote disapproval of government actions.

However, during June, the Board of Deputies rejected apartheid and condemned racial discrimination. In a resolution adopted after a three-day debate at its biennual National Asembly in Johannesburg, the Board endorsed the “removal of all provisions in the laws of South Africa which discriminate on grounds of color and race.” The resolution also “rejects apartheid” and “calls upon all concerned to do everything possible to ensure the establishment of a climate of peace and calm in which dialogue, negotiation and process of reform can be continued.”

The Board is an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress, which requested earlier this year that its affiliates in 70 countries join the world-wide campaign against apartheid and racism.

“We felt the situation here was becoming such that we needed a stronger statement on apartheid,” Goldberg said. Presently, it is believed that the Jewish community is the only ethnic segment of the white minority in South Africa to publicly call for an end to apartheid within the country.

Lipskar and Goldberg agreed that any racial comparison made by Nobel Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu between apartheid and Nazism is untenable. “I do not agree that Nazism is the same as apartheid … The government is trying to move away from apartheid,” stated Goldberg. Lipskar commented, “Any racial comparison of Nazi atrocities and apartheid is a misrepresentation of what people imagine … As a Jew I find this to be in poor taste.”

Goldberg indicated that the Board of Deputies has tried to establish a dialogue with the Black community and has provided some educational grants. “We don’t know who the authentic Black leaders are,” he said, adding that more radical elements within the Black community do not accept advances made by the Board.

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