Many South African Jews Considering Emigration to Israel, New Study Shows

Jewish population of South Africa, study reveals, totals 52,300 today – a drop of 25 percent since the last count in 2001

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Herzlia, the leading Jewish day school in Cape Town.
Herzlia, the leading Jewish day school in Cape Town.Credit: Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

About 15 percent of South African Jews say they are likely to leave the country within the next five years, with Israel by far their preferred destination, according to a comprehensive study of South African Jewry published this week. The top reason given was concerns about the future political stability of South Africa.

Among those likely to leave, 51 percent said their preferred destination was Israel, with 12 percent more likely to emigrate to the United Kingdom, 10 percent to the United States, 10 percent to Australia and 4 percent to Canada.

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When asked whether they planned to settle in Israel “at some point in the future,” nearly a third (32 percent) said it was either very likely or fairly likely that they would. Jews from Johannesburg and Jews in their forties were most inclined to consider such a move.

The study, conducted jointly by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London and the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, is being billed “the largest and most extensive of its kind ever undertaken.” The findings are based on a survey conducted in 2019 and, therefore, do not account for how the coronavirus pandemic may have affected the desire of South African Jews to leave their country, if at all.

The last demographic study of South African Jewry was published nearly 15 years ago.

The overwhelming preference for Israel as a destination for emigration represents a marked shift from previous years, when Australia was by far the top choice. Indeed, according to figures published in the latest study, 4,853 South African Jews emigrated to Australia between 2001 and 2015, as compared with only 2,812 who went to Israel.

The study reveals that the number of Jews in South Africa has dropped dramatically in recent decades – a trend highlighted in a special report published by Haaretz last year and based on preliminary findings that had been shared with local Jewish community leaders.

The Jewish population of South Africa, according to the study, totals 52,300 today – a drop of 25 percent since the last time the count was taken in 2001. This entire exodus, therefore, has transpired in post-apartheid South Africa — an era that was supposed to have ushered in hope and positive change.

A map of South Africa's largest Jewish communities Credit: Haaretz

At its peak, in the mid-1970s, South Africa’s Jewish community numbered more than 120,000.

According to the study, the estimated Jewish population of Johannesburg is 30,000, of Cape Town 12,500, and of Durban 3,400. Jews comprise a bare 0.09 percent of the total national population.

Respondents were asked whether, at any point in the past year, they had considered permanently leaving South Africa. This question was asked irrespective of reported intentions or plans to do so and was meant to gauge the “collective state of mind” of Jews in the country. A substantial minority of 43 percent responded affirmatively.

The survey revealed that three in five South African Jews already have close family living abroad. In fact, 25 percent said they had at least one child living outside the country.

Commenting on the report, Adam Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre, wrote: “This report points to a striking paradox. Over the last two decades, the Jewish community has declined in size but appears to have remade and renewed itself in a variety of ways. Uncovering a wealth of information on a variety of themes, the report reveals a dynamic community very much at home in and engaged with South African society.”

The study found that South African Jews tend to be more observant and less assimilated than their counterparts in other English-speaking countries: nearly a third (32 percent) self-identified as traditional, 30 percent as Orthodox, 14 percent as secular/cultural and 12 percent as Progressive/Reform. In Johannesburg, the largest Jewish center in the country, nearly half of all respondents (48 percent) self-identified as either Orthodox or strictly Orthodox, as compared with 22 percent in Cape Town.

Among the respondents, 86 percent reported having two Jewish parents, 80 percent said that more than half their friends were Jewish, a third ate only kosher meat at home, and 99 percent had circumcised their sons. Only 12 percent of all Jews in South Africa are currently intermarried (as compared with more than half in the United States).

The study also reveals that Israel plays a very important role in the identity of South African Jews. Two in three respondents said they felt strongly attached to Israel, with more than half (51 percent) saying they “support the elected government of Israel right or wrong.” The younger the respondents, though, the weaker the level of attachment.

While 57 percent of the respondents said it was sometimes or always acceptable to criticize Israel in the Jewish public sphere, only 37 percent believed it was okay to do so in the broader South African media. An overwhelming 83 percent said it was never acceptable for Jews to support a boycott of Israel. South Africa has emerged as a leading centre of the international boycott movement against Israel.