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South Africa’s Reform Jews Leading Jewish Struggle Against Apartheid

January 6, 1986
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Reform Jews in South Africa are in the forefront in the battle against apartheid, but they themselves are considered second class Jews, says a leading Reform rabbi from South Africa.

Rabbi Norman Mendel, spiritual leader of the Temple Emanuel in Johannesburg, told an audience here recently that Reform Jews, known as Progressive Jews in South Africa, are leading the Jewish fight against apartheid, which they consider “indefensible, immoral and evil.”

But Reform Jews in South Africa, who number about 5,000 families of a total Jewish population of between 110,000 and 112,000, are a “beleaguered, anxious” community who are taking more and more risks in speaking out against South Africa’s policy of racial segregation, Mendel said. He said Reform Jews are fighting apartheid “against a backdrop of Jewish discrimination” emanating from the Orthodox community.

“There is day to day diminishment in the Reform movement in South Africa. Reform are considered a second class Jewish community,” said Mendel, a native of Oakland, Calif. who moved to South Africa in 1978 after having served communities in Fremont, Calif., Kansas City, Missouri, and Boca Raton, Fla.


Orthodox Jews are only now beginning to do something about apartheid, Mendel maintained. “They’re beginning to realize it’s more sophisticated than they thought,” he said.

Reform Jews, he said, have been fighting apartheid for years by holding educational programs with Blacks and “coloreds,” or those of mixed race, and in going “on record as abhoring apartheid.” Mendel called on Reform congregations in the United States and Canada to join in the battle by “adopting” sister Reform congregations in South Africa.

Part of the problem in apartheid is in the attitude of Afrikaners–white, native-born South Africans who are “an obdurate, stubborn” people, far more “intractable” than other whites, “Mendel said.

“The Afrikaner sees himself as the Israeli of South Africa. it is his people, his folk (begin threatened). His sense of people hood must dominate. He believes his people will be pushed into the sea.” By the year 2000, Blacks in South Africa will number 50 million from the current 25 million, Mendel said.

In general, the rabbi maintained, South African Jews have not been “as forthcoming” about apartheid as they should be.


Mendel hinted that more economic sanctions against South Africa may not be in the best interests of Blacks and coloreds, since current sanctions are costing about 1,000 jobs a week, mainly among non-whites.

Jews face “an excruciating moral dilemma” in serving in the South African army, which must patrol Black townships, with violent results almost daily, he continued.

As for the sensitive issue of economic and military ties between Israel and South Africa, Mendel said that on paper, trade between the two nations is still “much less” than between South Africa and other countries. Israel, whose people have suffered from racism more than any other, has continually come under fire for trading with South Africa.

According to some recent newspaper reports in Toronto, Israel last year imported $120 million worth of goods from South Africa and exported $80 million worth. But, the reports added, a great deal of barter takes place between the two, in which South Africa exchanges minerals for military equipment and knowhow.

Mendel conceded that Israel “must re-examine” its military ties with South Africa but at the same time, Israel must be in South Africa “in a highly visible way, in working with people.”

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