South African Jews: Apologetic About Apartheid, Abused Over Israel

The Jewish community has confronted its complicity in apartheid, and now finds itself increasingly held to account for Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Benjamin Pogrund
Benjamin Pogrund
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An activist places a pig's head in the meat section of a Cape Town supermarket as part of an anti-Israel protest.
An activist places a pig's head in the meat section of a Cape Town supermarket as part of an anti-Israel protest.Credit: Twitter
Benjamin Pogrund
Benjamin Pogrund

As South Africa celebrates 21 years of freedom this week, the country's Jews are secure, prosperous, strongly Zionist – and surrogates for increasing criticism of Israel.

Today's Jewish community is very different to that of the era of white rule. Back then, it was schizophrenic: Jews helped to maintain apartheid out of all proportion to their numbers because they were so significant in commerce and industry. At its crudest level, a Jewish factory owner who had trouble with his black workers – who had no legal right to strike – acted like other whites and summoned the police who beat a few heads and ended the problem. So apartheid served the factory owner. Jews were also highly prominent as judges, lawyers, academics and doctors.

The community's leaders were careful not to criticize apartheid, only doing so at a relatively late stage when the apartheid system was clearly in crisis. Even more, the important United Hebrew Congregation honored a Jew, Dr. Percy Yutar, who held the government's top legal post and faithfully served the security police. He prosecuted Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial, which resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment. For 11 years he was elected chairman of the UHC.

At the other end of the spectrum, the number of Jews who actively opposed apartheid was out of all proportion to the size of the community. Many Jewish lawyers were noted because they represented anti-apartheid accused. The Jewish dissidents ranged from liberals and anti-apartheid figures, like Helen Suzman, to communists, like Joe Slovo. In the Rivonia Trial, three of Mandela's co-accused were whites – all Jews, although they did not regard themselves as such.

Suzman was celebrated by Jews. But those to the left of her risked being treated as pariahs.

Today's Jewish leadership is embarrassed about the past. They face it and acknowledge that the community betrayed Jewish morality through its silence, even complicity. At times they seem to over-compensate for the past in their praise for hard-left Jews who took part in the freedom struggle.

They are repaid with abuse. A number of the Jewish-born communists take the lead in condemning Israel. They belong to a growing movement: many black people (mistakenly) equate apartheid with Israel's treatment of Palestinians and are reinforced by vocal and influential Muslims. The anti-Semitism is brutally plain.

The ruling African National Congress, the Communist Party and sundry labor unions demand that South Africa sever all ties with Israel. The viciousness of their outlook was demonstrated last year by the ANC's deputy secretary-general, Jessie Duarte, who said Israel has turned "the occupied territories of Palestine into permanent death camps."

They demand that local Jews boycott Israel and aggressively question their commitment to South Africa for refusing to do so. "Kill the Jews" was sung at a recital by an Israeli jazz quartet, and recently the student leadership at a Durban university called for Jewish students to be expelled.

The community stands firm. After over 120 years of existence in South Africa, it is down from its high point of 120,000 people and now numbers some 70,000, about 0.14 percent of the total population. It is overwhelmingly Litvak in origin and homogeneous and close-knit; many have turned inward, to religious Orthodoxy. It has efficient internal organs to look after its own and a network of Jewish day schools. It remains heavily Zionist, even though a minority, mainly among the young, challenges faith in Israel.

Jews are not as prominent in national life as before. They no longer, for example, head huge chains of retail stores. Except Woolworths, linked with Britain's famed Marks&Spencer, which is a target of boycotts for stocking Israeli products, albeit a tiny amount. Woolworths refuses to buckle. But Jews are still at the forefront in fields like finance and health, and are significant contributors to the economy.

The community lives with a built-in contradiction: while the ANC and others rant against Israel and the Jewish community, the government – which is the ANC – stands apart. It supports the Palestinian freedom struggle, but does not question Israel's existence. It restricts its officials from visiting Israel, but trade grows between the two countries. And cabinet ministers speak at Jewish conferences.

As part of the fabric of South African society, Jews have benefited like everyone else from the good that came with the end of apartheid – and are caught up in the problems created by the corruption and cronyism, and resulting incompetence, which have grown into a monster under African National Congress rule.

Like all South Africans, they suffer from the failing infrastructure, whether mass electricity outages or disastrous school and hospital standards, rampant crime or the anger of the have-nots robbed of their dream of a better life. Prosperity protects many Jews. But like a lot of other South Africans, especially whites, they worry about the future of their children.

Benjamin Pogrund's latest book, "Drawing Fire: Investigating the accusations of apartheid in Israel," is published by Rowman&Littlefield.

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