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

In the first of a series of articles from the Rainbow Nation, Haaretz finds out why there has been an exodus from the local Jewish community in the past decade and what’s the one thing you should never tell a South African Jew

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Cape Town
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Scenes from South Africa, including Angel Moses's bat mitzvah ceremony, seen with father Samuel Moses (TL); David Jacobson and Heidi Jane Esakov-Jacobson; Nat Bregman, Nelson Mandela and Lazar Sidelsky; and the old synagogue in Port Elizabeth.
Scenes from South Africa: Samuel and Angel Moses, at her bat mitzvah; David Jacobson and Heidi Jane Esakov-Jacobson; Nat Bregman, Nelson Mandela and Lazar Sidelsky; and Port Elizabeth's old synagogue.Credit: South African Jewish Museum / South Africa Board of Deputies / Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Cape Town

CAPE TOWN — At its height, 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.

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According to preliminary findings shared privately with various community leaders in recent weeks, 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.

The declining population of the Jewish community of South AfricaCredit: Haaretz

Israel calling

South African Jews have long taken pride in the fact there was less anti-Semitism in their country than in others with substantial-sized Jewish communities. To a certain extent that is still the case, at least when it comes to old-fashioned “Jew-baiting.” At the same time, though, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has found especially fertile ground in this country that was itself once a prime target of international boycotts.

The community here has also long taken pride in being among the strongest supporters of Israel in the world: It follows that when Israel is attacked, South African Jews tend to take it personally.

The rising popularity of the BDS movement here would seem to coincide with the most recent wave of Jewish emigration. To be sure, it has caused many South African Jews to feel deeply uncomfortable and in some instances — like during Israeli Apartheid Week, held annually on university campuses around the country — downright threatened.

But it isn’t the reason Jews are leaving.

Prof. Emeritus Milton Shain, a leading authority on South African Jewry, notes that “what’s been happening in the past 10 years is not a Jewish thing — it’s a white thing.” Indeed, the national statistic service in South Africa has reported that, between 2013 and 2018, the white population dropped by about 2 percent to 4.5 million (out of a total of about 57 million).

What is driving Jews out, or at least causing them to think about leaving, are deep concerns about their future — and especially the future of their children — given the state of the economy. In particular, they worry about shrinking opportunities in higher education and the workforce for the minority white population. Indeed, this was an overriding motif in dozens of interviews conducted with South African Jews from all walks of life in recent weeks.

The historic first-ever meeting between Nelson Mandela and the Jewish communal leadership, June 1990. Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris is seated to the right of Mandela, with Helen Suzman to his left.Credit: South Africa Board of Deputies

Elsewhere in the world, the question of whether Jews are white has stirred considerable debate in recent years. But not here in South Africa, where Jews have always been seen as white and, by definition, part of a minority that benefited from the injustices of apartheid.

Wayne Sussman, a political analyst based in Johannesburg, concedes that BDS is a “concern” for South African Jews and “does impact and influence the way they look at their future in the country.” But if they are thinking of leaving, he says, “the majority of Jews would be driven by the economic uncertainty, job prospects for their kids and the likelihood of getting good placements in universities.”

The unemployment rate is currently running at more than 27 percent, with the rate among youngsters — over 55 percent — among the highest in the world. “If youth unemployment remains this high, all population groups, including the Jews, will be caught in the crosshairs,” warns Sussman.

South Africa’s loss would appear to be Israel’s gain. In the past, a large majority of emigrating Jews preferred other English-speaking destinations — in particular Australia, Canada and the United States. Community leaders say this seems to be changing with growing numbers, if not the majority, heading for Israel.

The Jewish Agency held its annual “Aliyah Fair” in South Africa’s two leading Jewish population centers — Johannesburg and Cape Town — late last month and organizers sounded upbeat.

Indeed, a steady stream of visitors was observed filing into a building made available for the event in Cape Town’s main Jewish cultural center. There were envoys from the Agency, as well as student and army organizations, on hand to answer questions about rights and benefits for immigrants. Real estate agents could also be seen offering information and tips for prospective property buyers.

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

But according to one of the organizers, who asked not to be quoted by name, the number of visitors attending did not tell the full story.

“Many people who are considering aliyah don’t want other people to know, so they set up meetings with us in other places, away from the crowds,” she explained. “Clearly, though, there are more and more Jews here who see no future in South Africa and are interested in Israel because other countries have become more difficult to get into.”

Recent months have seen a clear spike in immigration, says Liat Amar-Arran, the newly appointed director of the Israel Centre in Johannesburg and the Agency’s senior envoy in South Africa. “Over the past decade, on average, about 350 South African Jews moved to Israel each year,” she notes. “Since the first quarter of the year, we’ve seen a 20 percent increase.”

If South African Jews feel compelled to uproot themselves, Jewish community leaders console themselves in the fact that many are going to Israel. “For us, that’s a positive thing,” says Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Geoff Cohen, the educational director of Herzlia, the leading Jewish day school in Cape Town, says his students are sent off with the following message: “If you’re not going to stay home, then go home.”

And that is what Jewish lawmaker Michael Bagraim is advising his own children. “I go to lots of Shabbat dinner tables, so I know what people are talking about,” says the Democratic Alliance MP — one of four Jews to serve in the current parliament. “They are extremely worried. Everyone is encouraging their children to leave. I’m encouraging mine as well. And yet I’m a proud South African. I don’t want to leave ever. But I know that if I have to run — and I’ve always got a bag packed — I’ll run to Israel.”

A wide network of communal institutions built up over the years, dedicated to caring for members “from the cradle to the grave,” has long been a source of pride for South African Jews. These institutions could not have existed without the support of a cadre of very wealthy and committed local philanthropists. The latest wave of emigration, however, has taken quite a few of them with it, putting unusual strain on the system.

Kimberley synagogue in South Africa (date unknown).Credit: South Africa Board of Deputies

Philip Krawitz, head of the board of the United Jewish Campaign, which raises funds for both local and Israeli causes, says he is witnessing the effects firsthand

“The problem is that we’re living with an aging and increasing poor community because only the rich can afford to emigrate,” says Krawitz, chairman of Cape Union Mart — a giant outdoor clothing retailer. “Our home for the aged here in Cape Town is operating now with an enormous deficit because people can’t pay their fees. And what we have been noticing lately is that people in their sixties are starting to go there, because they have nowhere else to go.”

Religious and political divisions

Ann Harris, a retired lawyer and widely respected member of the Jewish community, was married to the late and widely popular former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris. A founding board member of Afrika Tikkun, an organization created in 1994 after the fall of apartheid, she has been a driving force in Jewish outreach efforts to the local black community.

Harris doesn’t let recent prophecies of doom get her down. “I’ve been here for 31 years now,” she says. “When we came from England, they told us it was a dying community and would never pull up; that it wasn’t thriving religiously; and that people were running away to Canada and Australia. It’s been ups and downs here as long as I can remember. It isn’t a good space at the moment, but if you look around the world there’s no good space anywhere for Jews.”

Of far greater concern to her are the “horrible divisions” emerging for the first time in the community, which she blames on “a terrible lack of correct leadership, both religious and lay.”

These divisions, Harris suggests, have been caused by the ongoing shift to the right of community leaders — both with regards to religious observance and attitudes toward Israel.

A Jewish wedding in Cape Town, circa 1902.Credit: South African Jewish Museum

Referring to the religious leadership, she says: “Many of our community rabbis today do not have much in common any more with their congregants.”

As for the lay leadership, she laments that fighting BDS has become its main priority, at the expense of other causes of far greater relevance to the community.

“Spending money you haven’t got on a fight you’re never going to win seems to me a bit ridiculous,” she says.

Many here point to a ban on Limmud South Africa — the annual Jewish learning event held in communities around the country that draws growing numbers of participants each year — issued by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein as evidence of the religious radicalization overtaking South African Jewry. As national chairwoman Adina Roth notes: “I do think that the Orthodox community in South Africa has in many ways become more conservative and doesn’t align with some of the trends we’re seeing overseas in the Orthodox world, especially around women.”

(Goldstein takes issue with the term “ban,” noting that only Orthodox rabbis are prohibited from attending. “We have multiple educational platforms and we don’t think this one is the best one because of its pluralistic foundations,” he says.)

There was also the controversial decision to ban women from singing at the annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony here — out of deference to ultra-Orthodox men. The ban, imposed by the board of deputies and in effect from 2005 through 2016, was ultimately overturned following a lawsuit. As part of a compromise agreement, community rabbis now absent themselves from the ceremony when female singers take the stage.

Until not that long ago, a large majority of South African Jews who identified as Orthodox were not necessarily observant. But now growing numbers are — a trend undoubtedly linked to the spread of Chabad and other Orthodox outreach movements in recent decades.

South Africa Jewry: Breaking down the numbersCredit: Haaretz

The growing numbers who flock to Limmud each year can be seen as part of the pushback against this rightward lurch. So is the spread of Reform Judaism, which, although it remains a marginal phenomenon, has been attracting many more members in recent years, especially in more liberal Cape Town.

According to Rabbi Greg Alexander, the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in this coastal city, his congregation is now more than 2,000 strong — about 15 percent of the total estimated Jewish population of Cape Town. “We are growing at a rate of 10 to 15 families a year, despite some members emigrating or passing away,” he says.

Success for BDS

Israel was long an issue that united South Africa’s Jews, but now it, too, is driving a wedge in the community.

That became painfully evident last August when Limmud was forced to disinvite several speakers from its Cape Town session after protests erupted over their affiliation with the BDS movement.

Views on Israel threatened to split the community yet again in November after two ninth-graders at the Herzlia school were punished for kneeling in protest during the singing of the Israeli national anthem at a ceremony.

“I think BDS has been a significant actor in these divisions,” says Sally Frankental, an anthropologist and inaugural director of the Kaplan Centre. “It has turned Israel into front-page news here — while other places in the Mideast and elsewhere are ignored — and many people have felt it important to articulate other points of view.”

Jewish protesters taking part in a pro-Palestinian march through Cape Town, May 15, 2018.Credit: RODGER BOSCH / AFP

While only a small number of Jews in South Africa support BDS, she notes, they tend to be very vocal, creating the impression that they are a much larger group.

“My guess is that most identifying Jews in South Africa would not want to engage on the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” says Frankental, also a co-founder of the Jews for Justice group that worked to create bridges with the black community during the apartheid era.

“What does being a Jewish state mean and what are the practices of the Israeli government on the ground? Those are the issues that divide us,” she explains.

Meanwhile, David Jacobson, a former head of the Jewish Board of Deputies in Cape Town, says he was shocked to discover that the latest Kaplan Centre survey included a question about whether it was acceptable to criticize Israel publicly.

“How can you answer ‘no’ to a question like that in a democracy?” he wonders aloud. “It’s hard to imagine something like this would be asked in a survey in America, and it suggests to me that democracy is not in the DNA of Jewish South Africans. That’s because we didn’t grow up in a democracy,” he says.

Those who would stifle criticism of Israel argue that it plays into the hands of enemies of the Jewish state — of whom there are many in this particular country.

But their critics counter that the very fact that they are South Africans, who have witnessed terrible injustices in their own country means they must speak up.

Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Credit: Judy Maltz

Mitchel Hunter is considered persona non grata by many in the South African Jewish community. One of three scheduled presenters who was disinvited at the last minute from the last Cape Town Limmud event because of his very vocal support for BDS, he is still welcome in some quarters.

Several weeks ago, for example, he was the featured speaker at a Lag Ba’omer bonfire celebration organized by Temple Israel. He wasn’t invited to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or BDS, but rather the less controversial, though still uncomfortable, subject of his academic research: Jews and white supremacy in pre-Union South Africa.

Not many Jewish spaces in South Africa would have hosted him. But then again, the spiritual leader of this Reform congregation is not your typical South African rabbi. When asked to explain his bold move, Alexander responds: “No person should be forced outside the tent for articulating challenging views — rather, let us engage with them, let them speak and let the community make its own mind up.”

The Z word

The problem for the vast majority of Jews here who still care about Israel is that in the new, post-apartheid, democratic South Africa, Zionism has become a dirty word — at least in many of the progressive, intellectual circles where they once felt comfortable. The fact that Israel once supplied weapons and training to the apartheid government is not easily forgotten or forgiven here.

And the constant analogies drawn between the apartheid government’s treatment of blacks and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians don’t help either. In fact, there are few things that spark as much outrage among South African Jews as such analogies.

As Jacobson, associate director of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, says: “The allegation of Israel being apartheid-ish is such anathema to the organized Jewish community that they react like tigers in a cage. In South Africa, that’s the worst accusation you can lay on anything.”

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

Just ask Chief Rabbi Goldstein what he thinks about such comparisons. “It’s a lie, an insult to the Jewish state and an insult to the real victims of apartheid,” he responds. “For me, that apartheid accusation is on the level of blood libels in Europe, and it needs to be treated as such.”

It is a sign of how successful BDS is here, though, that such comparisons have become commonplace. It may also explain why Ben Swartz, national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, goes so far as to use Holocaust analogies when railing against the movement and its tactics (which have included storming events with Israeli guests and boycotting stores that carry Israeli products).

“This is a Kristallnacht,” he says, referring to the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms that engulfed Germany in November 1938.

BDS has arguably been more effective in South Africa than anywhere else. Many credit it with the recent decision by the South African government to downgrade diplomatic relations with Israel. “If you would have told me in 1990 that we might downgrade ties and eventually cut ties with Israel, I would have told you that all the Jews here would leave,” says Shain, who has written a well-received book on anti-Semitism in South Africa. “But it’s like the frog in boiling water: You make it hotter and hotter, and it just gets used to it.”

Many also credit BDS with the unprecedented resolution passed in March by the senate at the University of Cape Town to impose a blanket boycott on Israeli academia. (The decision is now under review by higher authorities at the university, but not entirely off the table.)

While the BDS movement has been effective at lobbying the ruling ANC party, Jewish establishment figures like to point out that millions of black people here are church-going Christians who are very sympathetic to Israel. Seeing how evangelical Christians in the United States have used their political clout to influence President Donald Trump’s positions on Israel, they have begun courting leaders of the Christian churches in recent years, hoping to eventually bring pressure to bear on government leaders to soften up on the Jewish state.

A driving force behind this campaign is the Zionist Federation, which several years ago set up a group called South African Friends of Israel (its Facebook page currently has about 110,000 followers). “We have engaged with some of the most formidable and respected churches in South Africa — including the Zion Christian Church, which is the biggest of them all,” boasts Swartz.

Geoff Cohen, the educational director of Herzlia. Students are advised about making aliyah: “If you’re not going to stay home, then go home.”Credit: Judy Maltz

When the group was launched, he recounts, there had never been a conference on Israel here that included participants outside the Jewish community. The first such conference, held six years in Johannesburg, drew 50 Jewish and 50 Christian leaders. “Last year, we held our third conference in three different locations — Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban — with a total of 1,250 church leaders attending.”

Members of South Africa’s progressive Jewish community are not overly thrilled with this budding alliance, though. “When it comes to issues like gay rights and abortion, I certainly don’t share the values of these religious Christians,” says Sussman.

Still a good life

Ironically, all the anxiety and outrage caused by BDS still hasn’t made South Africa any less safe for Jews. As Deena Katzen, president of the South African Union of Jewish Students, notes: “We’re actually pretty lucky. There are very few instances of outright anti-Semitism on our campuses. Our students walk around freely with kippot and tzitzit, and it’s just not an issue.”

David Saks, associate director of the Jewish Board of Deputies, is in charge of monitoring anti-Semitism in the country. Last year, he says, a total of 65 incidents of anti-Semitism were reported. “The average per year is about 50 incidents, so we were up a little — but it’s still very low compared to other countries.”

But that’s little cause for comfort these days, he says. “The mood of the Jewish community is inseparable from the situation in the country, and the country is in a state of crisis,” says Saks, “although it’s now turned a corner after coming close to dissolution as a functioning democracy.”

Deena Katzen, president of the South African Union of Jewish Students.Credit: Judy Maltz

A consensus does indeed appear to have emerged among Jews across the religious and political spectrum that the results of the recent election, held last month, were positive. True, the Democratic Alliance — the party overwhelmingly supported by Jews in South Africa — lost seats. And true, the Economic Freedom Fighters — the far-left party that is largely feared by Jews in South Africa — gained seats. But many find reason for hope in the overall outcome.

“I’m glad the ANC got in,” says Frankental, referring to the party that has ruled South Africa for the past 25 years. “But I’m also glad they got in with a reduced majority at the national level. I don’t want them to rule forever.”

Kahn, the head of the Jewish Board of Deputies, says she has detected a “lightening of the mood” ever since the results were announced. “Our president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was almost in a caretaking position before the election. But now he’s been firmly elected and has a much stronger mandate to take the actions needed to move this country forward,” she says.

Despite its dwindling numbers, South Africa’s Jewish community is still remarkably vibrant. More than 80 percent of Jewish children here attend Jewish day schools. The big youth movements, Bnei Akiva and Habonim, report high attendance rates at their events. Intermarriage, while rising, is still very low by international standards. And as Shain notes, “You can twice a week have your pick of a Jewish film here or attend a wonderful lecture by a visiting Jewish scholar.”

Harris, the wife of the former chief rabbi, is also relatively optimistic. “It might be a smaller community, and it might be a poorer community, but I think there will always be a Jewish community in South Africa,” she says. “The more I watch what goes on here, the more I understand why so many European Jews didn’t move more quickly in the 1930s — because the options are very, very difficult. And besides that, there are people here who are very committed to their roots, as well as to the idea of a multiracial society.”

Katzen believes that she and her peers have even better prospects for the future than their parents did. “It’s particularly true for those of us who are activists,” she says. “We don’t want to leave. We want to make South Africa a better place.”

Sally Frankental, an anthropologist and inaugural director of the Kaplan Centre in Cape Town.Credit: Judy Maltz

Frankental predicts there will continue to be a vibrant Jewish community in South Africa 10 years down the road. But “20 years from now, I don’t know,” she cautions.

“If people continue to make a good living and have a good life, I don’t see a mass exodus,” she adds.

“That is, unless a state of emergency is declared or it becomes impossible to do business here if you’re white. But you can have a very good life here in South Africa, especially if you’re willing to close your eyes to all sorts of stuff — and that has always been the case.”

Take a deep dive into 'the BDS heartland', with Haaretz's special project on South Africa's Jewish community:

Jews are leaving South Africa once again — but don’t blame BDS
On the road with Africa’s only traveling rabbi
These South African Jews hate the occupation as much as they hate BDS
From Auschwitz to Rwanda: Drawing new lessons from the Holocaust in South Africa
This South African synagogue caters to Jews of all colors
The Jews working to leave their mark on Rainbow Nation
How do you keep Shabbat if you’re running after elephants?

A photograph taken at the consecration of Cape Town synagogue in 1903.Credit: South African Jewish Museum

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