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Passover Feature a Decade After Apartheid, Jews in South Africa Building New Identity


For South African Jews, this Passover falls at a time when the symbols of oppression and liberation embedded in the Haggadah resonate particularly strongly with the atmosphere in the country.

South Africa is celebrating a decade of democracy, with national elections due on April 14, the day after Passover ends.

The country’s first free election in 1994, which marked apartheid’s official end, brought Nelson Mandela’s largely black government into power. Since then, South Africa has attempted to remake itself into what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “rainbow nation.”

It has put in place basic democratic institutions, such as a powerful constitutional court — headed by a Jew, Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson — but faces enormous problems of poverty and land distribution and the absence of a strong democratic tradition, which could pose challenges to future political stability.

The Jewish community also has gone through huge changes. One has been the accelerated emigration of Jews for English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, the United States and England.

Emigration has reduced the size of the community from roughly 125,000 in the 1980s to some 80,000 today. The reasons range from the violent crime rate — among the highest in the world — to whites’ difficulties in getting jobs and general anxiety about the country’s political stability.

After some years of demoralization, the Jewish community recently has begun to rebound. It has placed in key leadership positions young, dynamic people who are less burdened by the baggage of apartheid and who are vigorously engaging with symbols of the new South Africa.

Examples of this young blood are Yehuda Kay, 28, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies; Zev Krengel, 31, chairman of the board’s Johannesburg area council; Avrom Krengel, 35, chair of the South African Zionist Federation; Rabbi Craig Kacev, 32, acting director of the South African Board of Jewish Education; and Warren Goldstein, 32, recently chosen as the country’s chief rabbi.

“The fact that I was at school during the apartheid years and only voted for the first time in the 1994 elections enables me to relate to South African society with a clean slate,” Goldstein said in an interview with the South African Jewish Report, the country’s main Jewish newspaper.

One example of the community’s new, outward-looking approach is a “Pesach Freedom Seder,” organized by the board of deputies, to be held at the legendary African National Congress headquarters at Lilliesleaf Farm near Johannesburg. Lilliesleaf is where the core group of liberation movement leaders was arrested in 1963, resulting in a trial at which Mandela and eight others were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Jewish and non-Jewish religious and political leaders, including several Cabinet ministers, have been invited to the seder. Also due are Jewish activists who played a vital role in the country’s freedom struggle.

The new Jewish leadership also is trying to heal an old rift in the community between highly conservative mainstream Jews and left-wing Jews who were active in the anti-apartheid struggle. Activists have been highly critical of the mainstream, accusing it of not speaking out sufficiently against apartheid.

Mainstream Jewish organizations, which never openly supported apartheid, maintained that speaking out too forcefully would ignite anti-Semitism in the government and society, and that criticism had to be moderate to protect the Jewish community. Only in the mid-1980s did the board of deputies publicly denounce apartheid.

The board recently hosted a meeting with 30 left-wing Jewish human rights activists and academics to discuss Jewish and South African issues. The atmosphere was positive though the activists’ views on Israel, Judaism and various South African issues often differ from the mainstream’s.

The issue of Israel continues to be a source of anxiety for Jews: Governmental and societal sympathies lie strongly with the Palestinians. But the government repeatedly has stated that its official policy is recognition of Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, alongside a Palestinian state.

In the upcoming election, most Jews are unlikely to vote for the ANC, the dominant black political party, which grew out of the liberation struggle. Though the ANC is credited with effectively steering the economy through difficult times in recent years, many Jews believe it represents the interests of the black majority more than those of minority groups such as Jews.

Jews are expected to vote more for the Democratic Alliance, a liberal opposition party headed by a Jew, Tony Leon.

In other areas, such as the arts, Jews continue to play a significant role in the new South Africa. Past examples have included Johnny Clegg, whose mix of African and western music gained international acclaim and inspired many South Africans under apartheid by showing what could be achieved culturally with interracial cooperation.

Indeed, different artistic expressions are emerging that combine African and Western traditions. One Jewish proponent is Maurice Podbrey, an actor and theater director who left South Africa in 1957 for Canada and created the groundbreaking Centaur Theatre in Montreal.

Podbrey, who received the Order of Canada as well as awards in the performing arts, returned to South Africa in 1997. He recently produced a groundbreaking play called “Tshepang,” which deals with the rape two years ago of an infant, a crime that shocked the country.

“The prospect of contributing toward the formation of a new era in South African theater was overwhelmingly attractive,” he told JTA. “South African playwright Athol Fugard, with whom I had collaborated over many years in Canada, observed that I had fallen in love with South Africa all over again. Each South African ethnicity has a great deal to offer. If we can tap into the enormous cultural bank of this country, the results would be dynamic.”

Also prominent is Sylvia Glasser, a dancer and teacher who has created an innovative dance company called “Moving into Dance Mophatong,” with mainly black dancers and a strong socio-political emphasis.

As the South African Jewish community finds a renewed sense of identity, Jewish leaders and artists believe they can inject a new dynamism into the community, reinforcing Jews’ interaction with the wider society.

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