In the BDS Heartland: Visiting South Africa's Jewish Community


In post-apartheid South Africa, Zionism is a dirty word, Israel is 'apartheid-ish' and BDS is on the rise. We went there to find out what it means to be Jewish in the Rainbow Nation today | Special project

Podcast | Haaretz in the BDS Heartland: Explaining South Africa's Jewish Exodus

Haaretz Weekly host Simon Spungin is joined by Judy Maltz and writer Roy Isacowitz to discuss Jewish life in South Africa, where – according to Maltz's new seven-part series – Zionism is a dirty word, Israel is the new apartheid and BDS is on the rise. We cover the rapid and dramatic decline in the number of Jews calling the Rainbow Nation home, the impact of the BDS movement on their lives and the historical impact of Israel's support for the Apartheid regime. Listen free >

Part 1 | Jews Are Leaving South Africa Once Again — but Don’t Blame BDS

In the mid-1970s, South Africa’s Jewish community numbered more than 120,000. The figure often cited by Jewish establishment leaders in recent years, following several large waves of emigration in the final quarter of the last century, is about 70,000. So South African Jews will likely be in for a shock later this year when the Kaplan Centre at the University of Cape Town publishes its latest community survey — the first to be undertaken in nearly 15 years. According to preliminary findings, the size of the local Jewish population has shrunk by more than 25 percent since the last count was taken, to fewer than 50,000. In other words, this entire exodus has transpired in post-apartheid South Africa — an era that was supposed to have ushered in hope and positive change. The pace of exodus has seemingly picked up markedly in the past decade. Read full story >

Part 2 | These South African Jews Hate the Occupation as Much as They Hate BDS

What’s a Jew to do who loves Israel but can’t stand its government and is sickened by many of its policies? In the United States, a variety of organizations — some more radical than others — offer outlets for such individuals. But until recently, and not by accident, no such group existed for progressive-minded South African Jews. David Bilchitz is a founding member of the Jewish Democratic Initiative, which officially launched last December. According to its mission statement, the JDI “strives for an inclusive and tolerant South African Jewish community,” advocates for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and does not mince words when it comes to the occupation, deeming it “fundamentally wrong.” It may have taken Jewish liberals here longer than others to find their voice, but considering what many of them have lived through, it was only natural that it would happen at some point, says Bilchitz. Read full story >

Part 3 | On the Road With Africa’s Only Traveling Rabbi

“Some of these communities have one Jew, some have no Jews. Often, my job is simply taking care of the cemetery,” he says. As head of the Country Communities Department at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, his job is to provide religious services to about 250 rural communities and their estimated 1,400 Jews around the country without a full-time rabbi. We went on a road trip with Africa's only travelling rabbi, and here's what we found. Read full story >

Part 4 | From Auschwitz to Rwanda: Drawing New Lessons From the Holocaust in South Africa

Of the hundreds of museums set up around the world to commemorate the Holocaust, few devote much attention to other cases of genocide and racial persecution. South Africa has three. Here’s a clue as to why this particular country is assuming the lead: location, location, location. To open a museum in South Africa that commemorates a genocide that took place in Europe while ignoring another that took place on the same continent much more recently would have been inconceivable, says Tali Nates, the museum’s Israeli-born founder and director. “Let’s remember that we are in South Africa — not Jerusalem,” she notes. “Rwanda is especially important for us here in this country." “Never again. Period. That’s all we hear,” she says. “At this center we put a question mark after those two words. Never again? Really? Look what happened just 25 years ago in a country just a three-and-a-half hour flight from here. Read full story >

Part 5 | South Africa's Oldest Reform Synagogue Is a Place Where Few Jews Dare Venture

Financially speaking, it made no sense to maintain a synagogue in a neighborhood virtually depleted of Jews and notorious for its high crime and poverty rates. True, the historic Art Deco building was home to South Africa’s first Reform congregation and is a treasured relic of Jewish history here. But with fewer and fewer Jews willing to brave the trip to this inner-city slum, and those too poor to live elsewhere unable to afford the annual dues, putting the building up for sale seemed like the most logical choice. But Reeva Forman wouldn’t even consider it. Twenty-five years ago, not long after she had taken over as chairwoman of Temple Israel in Hillbrow, the former top model-turned-prominent businesswoman learned that the Reform movement was planning to put the building on the market. “It didn’t make sense,” she recalls. “That’s because to me, the perfect place for a house of worship is where there are poor members of a particular religion and others who need help and support.” Read full story >

Part 6 | The Jews Working to Leave Their Mark on Rainbow Nation

About a dozen women, all migrants from Malawi, sit in a circle at the back of this roadside café amid large bags of colorful yarn. Some are rocking sleepy babies in their arms, others are putting the finishing touches on their handwoven mats and baskets. They use the leftover yarn to create funky-looking yarmulkes. Pronouncing this Yiddish word presents a bit of a challenge, so they call them “yum-yums” for short. Amanda Solomon, a Jewish South African in her late forties, opened this place nearly three years ago, together with her mother, Jill Lewin. Their objective was to find work for women with no education or skills and few options for gainful employment. But first they had to find a work space that met two conditions: It had to have enough room so the women could bring their preschool children along with them because they couldn’t afford day care; and it had to be walking distance from their homes so they wouldn’t have to waste any of their precious earnings on transportation. Read full story >

Part 7 | How Do You Keep Shabbat if You’re Running After Elephants?

She teaches a popular class called “From Rhinos to Ramban.” She has developed a six-part course — so successful it’s now taught outside of South Africa — called “Ethics of Eden.” And she is affectionately known in her close-knit Jewish community as “the woman who chases elephants.” Meet Ilana Stein, the first Orthodox woman in the world to be gainfully employed as a game ranger. Growing up, she and her family frequently visited Kruger National Park — one of Africa’s largest game reserves and about a four-hour drive away from their home — where her love for animals and nature was kindled. “I decided quite early on that I wanted to become a game ranger when I grew up,” she relays over dinner in a kosher restaurant (she’s opting for the vegetarian menu, obviously). Read full story >

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