In Australia, Some South African Jews Still Stained by Apartheid

The second installment of a two-part series on South African Jews in Australia looks at how Jewish complicity in the apartheid regime continues to haunt some émigrés an ocean away.

Here is the tension at the heart of the Jewish experience in South Africa during the apartheid era: While some Jews were at the forefront of the struggle, the elected leadership failed to fight the racist regime.

Many Jews fought the injustice and were imprisoned or exiled as a result. But officially the Jewish community’s non-political stance did not oppose the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, even with its anti-Semitic underbelly.

Professor Colin Tatz, an expert in South African history and politics who left Johannesburg for Australia in 1960, following the Sharpeville massacre – where South African police opened fire on a crowd of black demonstrators, killing 69 people – argues that the prominence of Jews at the helm of the anti-apartheid movement “gave an illusion of masses of dedicated Jewish opponents.”

True, 14 of the 23 indicted whites in the Treason Trail of 1956 – when 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were tried and eventually acquitted of treason – were Jews. As were all six of the indicted whites in the Rivonia Trial of 1963, when several leaders of the African National Congress, including Mandela, were given life prison sentences for sabotaging the apartheid regime.

But they and other Jewish activists, Tatz said, were in the minority.

“The majority of South African Jews went along with the apartheid system, prospered by it, voted for it and condemned those of their sons and daughters who opposed it,” Tatz concluded in the 2007 book, “Worlds Apart: The Re-Migration of South African Jews.”

As for the elected leadership, the Director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies wrote, “Of all the formal religions represented there, the Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg was the very last of the denominational institutions to condemn apartheid.”

The weight of history

Ultimately, then, most Jews who stayed enjoyed the fruits of apartheid, even if they were bittersweet. And herein, perhaps, lies the inconvenient truth confronting some South Africans who emigrated late: The stain of apartheid may have accompanied them in their suitcases – and, perhaps, in their souls.

“The people who left early were the people who had conscience,” said Rabbi Richard Lampert, who left for Sydney in 1977 in the wake of the Soweto riots.

“The people who left later were fleeing for their lives,” he said. “It’s unfair of me to criticize them.”

Lampert took his conscience to the pulpit at Temple Emanuel in Johannesburg, most famously on Kol Nidrei in 1976, as the embers of the riots in Soweto – triggered by a decree that all schools must teach in Afrikaans, which was widely viewed as the language of the oppressor,as well as in English – were still smoldering.

Whereas most of the Orthodox rabbinate declined to rail against the regime – with a few notable exceptions, such as Durban’s Rabbi Selwyn Franklin, who later immigrated to Sydney – the Reform rabbis were outspoken.

Lampert distributed pamphlets to his 1500-plus congregants with an adaptation he’d written of the “Al Chet” prayer, which referred to “the sin we have committed by forgetting we were oppressed” and the “sin we have committed by keeping silent in the face of injustice.”

It created a furor, he recalled: “There was criticism, some people protested afterwards.”

Ultimately, he paid a price. Authorities raided his home several days later and confiscated works that were considered seditious.

It was the final straw for Lampert, who soon after set sail for Australia and took up the pulpit at North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, where he remains Rabbi Emeritus.

Some of the later émigrés found it more difficult to integrate, Lampert noted. “They [Australians] called them the ‘boat people’ – the South Africans came to Australia and bought a boat.”

Asked if those Jews who stayed longer benefited from apartheid, he sided with Tatz, saying, “My word, did they ever.”

Ingrid Shakenovsky, who left Johannesburg with her family in 1998, said, “Absolutely we did. I can’t say we didn’t.”

Prompted to leave by her “fear of crime and fear that the children would not be able to get work,” Shakenovsky came to Sydney with about 20 other South African families.

“We had a huge circle of friends when we arrived, so for us, we were fairly insulated and we had a lot of support.”

A people apart

But the insularity of the community has not helped her integrate. “I definitely don’t feel I’m Australian,” said Shakenovsky, a photographer who has documented Sydney Jewish life since she arrived.

“I feel I’ve still got a lot of Africa in me. I’ve only got one Australian friend really, that’s all.

“I’ve held onto a lot of my South African friends. When Australian kids come to my home, they can feel it’s a South African home.”

Tatz believes some of the later émigrés have not allowed themselves to belong in Australia.

“They haven’t migrated. They’ve relocated,” he said. “The relocation is to bring every value, every principle, every part of life and [they’re] not willing to enter Australian society, except in business.”

Noting the opening last month of a new $5 million synagogue in Melbourne, built by South Africans immigrants largely for South African immigrants, Tatz said, “They’ve imported their shtetl here. It’s comfortable to be themselves, because they don’t have to accommodate the non-South African ways.”

Some have brought an attitude toward the service industry, he added. “They [servers] are treated with contempt, with a tone of a masterclass talking to a serving class.”

This “hangover” of separateness dates back almost two centuries to before the advent of apartheid in 1948, Tatz explained. From the time of the mass Jewish immigration from Lithuania to South Africa in the early 20th century, the Jews were “saturated” with the notion of separateness.

“Jews in South Africa never really belonged,” said Tatz. “They were just white enough to be considered white but they were always on the outside looking in.”

Lampert admitted some South African immigrants have not endeared themselves in Australia, dubbed the land of the “fair go” with a “she'll-be-right-mate” laid-back attitude.

“Gentiles living in St Ives [a suburb on Sydney’s north shore] are not fond of South Africans because of the attitude some have – we can be arrogant, brash, we work hard, we demand high standards and we don’t keep quiet so we have a bad name.”

That reputation was not aided when explosive revelations appeared on the front page of the Sydney Morning Heraldin 2009 alleging that Barry Tannenbaum, a South African immigrant, had scammed investors out of $1.5 billion in a Ponzi scheme that was likened to Bernie Madoff’s crime in the United States.

Tannenbaum vehemently denied the allegations. Despite a warrant for his arrest, he moved from Sydney’s north up the coast to Queensland, according to media reports, while the scandal embroiled Jews back in the "alter heim."

Fighting for souls

But South Africans Jews have other issues to worry about these days as local leaders struggle to stem the exodus from the community, which has shrunk from about 120,000 people in 1970 to 70,000 or so today. Some 15,000 people have migrated to Australia, with other large waves going to Israel, the U.S. and Canada.

The large exodus helps explain why a furor erupted in 2008 when two Jewish leaders who had emigrated from South Africa to Australia returned to their native country to market Sydney to those Jews already considering life elsewhere.

Zev Krengel, then the national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, lashed “Project Sydney,” a joint initiative by the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Communal Appeal in Sydney, as “distasteful in the extreme and embarrassing for South African Jews.”

In a letter at the time, he wrote, “Seldom in the history of our community has there been such outrage towards the Jewish community of another country.”

Amanda Goodman, head of strategic planning at the Jewish Communal Appeal, said the project was intended to assist migrants who had decided not to go to Israel “to see Sydney as a place where they will feel comfortable, welcomed and be treated as part of the community.”

It was terminated in 2010, although the organization is always willing to help ensure new immigrants have a “soft landing” in Sydney, Goodman said.

But will the “soft landing” help newer arrivals remove the stain of apartheid?

Lampert is confident time will heal. “The young people hopefully will have abandoned the attitude of their parents and will become proud Australians,” he said.

For Tatz, apartheid culture will only end “when those kids move into an Australian milieu.”

It already appears to be happening. “My daughter is married to an Aussie,” Shakenovsky said. “The next generation will be more integrated, 100 percent.”

Henry Benjamin
Henry Benjamin
Henry Benjamin