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New Book Stirs Debate on Jews’ Role During Apartheid Years in South Africa

October 27, 2003
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A new book that examines the role of Jews in apartheid South Africa is raising awkward questions about what Jews did — and didn’t do — to end apartheid

Gideon Shimoni’s “Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa,” published this summer, has caused a stir among some South African Jews who say the book shames the Jewish community, exposing Jews’ status as bystanders while white South Africa systematically persecuted the country’s black majority.

The author, who was born in South Africa but has lived in Israel since 1961, said the book is intended not to pass moral judgment, but to document the historical record.

“I am neither condoning it nor condemning it,” Shimoni said of how Jews responded to the apartheid system. “My task as a historian is to try to understand and explain. I think every person will make that judgment for him or herself.”

In his book, Shimoni — who holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University — writes that while individual Jews were among the most active whites to oppose apartheid, the total number of Jews actively struggled against the system were few and the country’s main Jewish group was largely silent on the issue. Until the mid-1980s, the community as a whole did not condemn apartheid.

That revelation prompted a past president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to say recently that Jews had failed “the struggle,” as the fight against apartheid is called here.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the board had tried to steer clear of any political involvement, maintaining that there was no Jewish position on political issues. Like other South Africans, they said, Jews participated in their country’s affairs according to their individual convictions.

That, Shimoni said, in effect shifted responsibility for providing moral guidance to the rabbinate.

For the most part, Jewish clergy did not take up the challenge.

“Rare were the occasions when a rabbi adopted a stand of unequivocal opposition to the whole apartheid system, and when it did happen, the response within the Jewish community was anything but enthusiastic,” Shimoni writes.

Interestingly, during the 1960s Israel was among the foremost international opponents of the apartheid system, and the Jewish state’s position drew harsh criticism from South African Jewry and from the Afrikaans press.

By the 1980s, however, the two countries had established some military ties.

Shimoni said Jewish community leaders were more worried about Israel’s early opposition to apartheid than they were with local Jews who were outspoken against apartheid.

Shimoni concludes that during the 46-year reign of apartheid, there was nothing in the record of the Jewish community “deserving of moral pride, neither does it warrant utter self-reproach. From a coldly objective historical perspective, this was characteristic minority group behavior — a phenomenon of self-preservation, performed at the cost of moral righteousness.”

Dennis Davis, a former activist against apartheid who now is chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ Cape Council, was less charitable in passing judgment on his predecessors.

At a panel discussion held here to launch the book, Davis said he was “ashamed of the disgraceful legacy which haunts us.” He described the community’s role during apartheid as “nothing short of pathetic.”

In one episode Shimoni recalls in his book, a Jewish nursery school denied admission four decades ago to a black girl whose mother was Jewish and father was black.

The school board was chaired by the city’s chief rabbi, who said the girl’s application was rejected “fearing that acceptance of a colored child would jeopardize the school’s government license.”

When a group of sympathetic parents protested, saying the child was Jewish, the rabbi suggested the community chip in to send the girl to Israel.

Shimoni said the Jewish community’s approach to apartheid evolved over time.

“Certainly, from the end of the 1970s, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies was becoming increasingly bolder in expressing its disapproval of and repugnance for what was going on in the country,” he said in a recent interview with JTA.

“You cannot say that Jews approved of apartheid or supported it,” he said. “As a community, they adopted a position that made them in a way bystanders, but at the same time, at least theoretically in terms of the Board’s policy, it encouraged Jews as individual citizens to act on their consciences.

Most South African Jews believed the board’s function was primarily to look after the welfare and interests of the community, not to take political positions.

Some individual Jews did, however, actively fight the apartheid system. For example, of the 23 whites charged in the infamous Treason Trial of the 1950s, in which more than 150 opponents of the apartheid regime were rounded up and charged with promoting the government’s overthrow, 14 were Jews.

Six Jews were among those charged in the Rivonia trial, which resulted in 27 years in prison for Nelson Mandela, who would later become the country’s first post-apartheid black president.

In his book, Shimoni pays particular tribute to Helen Suzman, a veteran legislator, who was Jewish. “More than any other political personality,” he writes, Suzman’s 36 years in Parliament “epitomized the white liberal opposition to the apartheid regime as much in the eyes of the world as in those of South Africans. She is undoubtedly the foremost exemplar of those who worked within the system and used it to attack apartheid intrepidly and relentlessly.”

Shimoni’s book also outlines the development of South Africa’s Jewish community, including the pre-apartheid period before 1948, when the Afrikaner national movement, which would later take control of the country, was dangerously anti-Semitic.

“I think that’s vital background to understanding the behavior of the Jewish community after 1948,” Shimoni said.

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