History of the Jews in South Africa

History of the Jews in South Africa

The history of the Jews in South Africa mainly begins with the general European settlement in the 19th century. The early patterns of Jewish South African history are almost identical with the history of the Jews in the United States but on a much smaller scale, including the period of early discovery and settlement from the late 15th century to the early 19th century.


Portuguese exploration

The modern Jewish history of South Africa began, indirectly, some time before the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, by the participation of certain astronomers and cartographers in the Portuguese discovery of the sea-route to India. There were Jews among the directors of the Dutch East India Company, which for 150 years administered the colony at the Cape of Good Hope. Jewish cartographers in Portugal, members of the wealthy and influential classes, assisted Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and 1497 . Portugal's Jews were still free until the Portuguese Inquisition was promulgated in 1536 .

The Dutch Settlement

In 1652 the Dutch began the first permanent European settlement of South Africa under Jan van Riebeeck as a representative of the Dutch East India Company. It has been noted that:

:"A number of non-professing Jews were among the first settlers of Cape Town in 1652, despite restrictions against the immigration of non-Christians. Religious freedom was granted by the Dutch colony in 1803." [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/South_Africa.html]

During the seventeenth and the greater part of the eighteenth century the state religion "alone" was allowed to be publicly observed; but on July 25, 1804, the Dutch commissioner-general Jacob Abraham de Mist, by a proclamation whose provisions were annulled at the English occupation of 1806 and were not reestablished till 1820, instituted in the colony religious equality for all persons, irrespective of creed.

The 1820s

Jews did not arrive in any numbers at Cape Town before the 1820s. The first congregation in South Africa was founded in Cape Town in November 1841, and the initial service was held in the house of one Benjamin Norden, at the corner of Weltevreden and Hof streets. Benjamin Norden, Simeon Markus, together with a score of others arriving in the early thirties, were commercial pioneers, especially the Mosenthal brothers -- Julius, Adolph (see Aliwal North) , and James Mosenthal -- who started a major wool industry. By their enterprise in going to Asia and returning with thirty Angora goats in 1856 they became the originators of the mohair industry. Aaron and Daniel de Pass were the first to open up Namaqualand, and for many years (1849-86) were the largest shipowners in Cape Town, and leaders of the sealing, whaling, and fishing industries. Jews were among the first to take to ostrich-farming and played a role in the early diamond industry.

Jews also played some part in early South African politics. Captain Joshua Norden was shot at the head of his Mounted Burghers in the Xhosa War of 1846; Lieutenant Elias de Pass fought in the Xhosa War of 1849. Julius Mosenthal (1818-80), brother of the poet S. Mosenthal of Vienna, was a member of the Cape Parliament in the fifties. Simeon Jacobs, C.M.G. (1832-83), who was a judge in the Supreme Court of the Cape of Good Hope, as the acting attorney-general of Cape Colony he introduced and carried in 1872 the Cape Colony Responsible Government Bill and the Voluntary Bill (abolishing state aid to the Anglican Church), for both of which bills Saul Solomon, the member for Cape Town, had fought for decades. Saul Solomon (b. St. Helena May 25, 1817; d. Oct. 16, 1892), the leader of the Cape Colony Liberal Party, has been called the "Cape Disraeli." He several times declined the premiership and was invited into the first responsible ministry, formed by Sir John Molteno. Like Disraeli, too, he early left the ranks of Judaism.

At the same time, the Jews faced substantial anti-Semitism. Though freedom of worship was granted to all residents in 1870, the revised "Grondwet" of 1894 still debarred Jews and Catholics from military posts, from the positions of president, state secretary, or magistrate, from membership in the First and Second "Volksraad" ("parliament"), and from superintendencies of natives and mines. All instruction was to be given in a Christian and Protestant spirit, and Jewish and Catholic teachers and children were to be excluded from state-subsidized schools. Before the Boer War (1899-1902), Jews were often considered "uitlanders" ("foreigners") and excluded from the mainstream of South African life.

However, a small number of Jews also settled among and identified with the rural white Afrikaans-speaking population; these persons became known as "Boerejode" (Boer Jews). A measure of intermarriage also occurred and was generally accepted. [http://www.ajol.info/viewarticle.php?id=17688&jid=35&layout=abstract]

econd Anglo-Boer War:1899-1902

Jews fought on both sides during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Some of the most notable fights during the three years' Boer war — such as the Gun Hill incident before the Siege of Ladysmith — involved Jewish soldiers like Major Karri Davies. Nearly 2,800 Jews fought on the British side and the London "Spectator" counted that 125 were killed. (Jewish Encyclopedia)

Around 300 Jews served among the Boers during the second Boer War [cite web |publisher=The South African Military History Society (Military History Journal - Vol 10 No 2) |date=November 21, 2006 |title=Three South African "Boerejode' and the South African War |url=http://rapidttp.com/milhist/vol102ds.html] and were known as "Boerjode": those who had citizenship rights were conscripted along with other "burghers" ("citizens"), but there were also a number of volunteers. Jews fought under the Boers' "Vierkleur" ("four colored") flag in many of the major battles and engagements and during the guerilla phase of the war, and a dozen are known to have died. Around 80 were captured and held in British POW camps in South Africa. Some were sent as far afield as St. Helena, Bermuda, and Ceylon to where they had been exiled by the British. Some Jews were among the "Bittereinders" ("Bitter Enders") who fought on long after the Boer cause was clearly lost. (Jewish Encyclopedia) & (Saks, 2005)

From Union through World War II

Although the Jews were allowed equal rights after the Boer War, they again became subject to persecution in the days leading up to World War II. In 1930, the "Quota Act" of 1930 was intended to curtain the entry of Jews from Eastern Europe. The vast majority of Eastern European Jews immigrating to South Africa originated from Lithuania. The 1937 "The Aliens Act", motivated by a sharp increase the previous year in the number of German Jewish refugees coming to South Africa, brought the migration to almost a complete halt. Some Jews were able to enter the country, but many were unable to do so. A total of approximately six-and-a-half thousand Jews came to South Africa from Germany between the years 1933 and 1939. [ [http://www.ctholocaust.co.za/view.asp?pg=refuge_sa_2 Cape Town Holocaust Centre] ] Many Afrikaners (i.e. Boers) felt sympathy for Nazi Germany, and organizations like Louis Weichardt’s "Grayshirts" and the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag were openly anti-Semitic. The opposition National Party argued that the Aliens Act was too lenient and advocated a complete ban on Jewish immigration, a halt in the naturalization of Jewish permanent residents of South Africa and the banning of Jews from certain professions. [ [http://www.anc.org.za/books/reich4.html The Rise of the South African Reich - Chapter 4 ] ] After the war, the situation began to improve, and a large number of South African Jews, generally a fairly Zionist community,Fact|date=April 2008 left to join the new nation of Israel.

Post World War II

outh African Jews and Israel

When the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power in 1948 it did not adopt an anti-Jewish policy despite its earlier position. In fact, during that year, the modern State of Israel was created on Palestine, and the Afrikaners identified with Israel. In 1953 South Africa's Prime Minister, D. F. Malan, became the first foreign head of government to visit Israel though the trip was a "private visit" rather than an official state visit. [http://books.google.com/books?id=7v-g21ksdVsC&pg=PA110&lpg=PA110&dq=malan+israel&source=web&ots=VZ6Bt9WtRP&sig=M3sa9h0kOtkURnqQfA6fxiWYzj8] This began a long history of cooperation between Israel and South Africa on many levels. The proudly Zionistic South African Jewish community, through such bodies as the South African Zionist Federation and a number of publications, maintained a cordial relationship with the South African government even though it objected to the policies of Apartheid being enacted. South Africa's Jews were permitted to collect huge sums of money to be sent on as official aid to Israel, in spite of strict exchange-control regulations. Per capita, South African Jews were reputedly the most philanthropic Zionists abroad. [cite news |url=http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1704037,00.html |title=Brothers in arms - Israel's secret pact with Pretoria |date=2006-02-07 |author=Chris McGreal |publisher=The Guardian]

outh African Jewish moderation and liberalism

South African Jews can be described as being mostly mildly liberal and overwhelmingly supported opposition parties such as first the United Party, then the Liberal Party, Progressive Party and its successors during the decades of National Party apartheid rule. (See Liberalism in South Africa). The community as a whole was not aligned with any sort of violent Communist or revolutionary elements though there were prominent South African Jewish socialists and communists such as Moses Kotane, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Denis Goldberg and Albie Sachs. The prime example of the more moderate approach is that of the highly-assimilated Harry Oppenheimer (1908-2000) (born Jewish but converted to Anglicanism upon his marriage), the richest man in South Africa and the arch-capitalist chairman of the De Beers and Anglo American corporations. He was a staunch supporter and uncompromising backer of the liberal Progressive Party and its policies, believing that granting more freedom and economic growth to South Africa's Black African majority was good politics and sound economic policy. The banner for this cause was held high by the Jewish Mrs. Helen Suzman, as the lone Progressive Party member in South Africa's parliament, representing the heavily Jewish suburb and voting district of Houghton, home to many wealthy Jewish families at the time.

Anti-Apartheid activities

Though Jews accounted for only 2.5% of South Africa's white population and 0.3% of South Africa's total population, many Jews played notable roles in the anti-apartheid movement. For example, when 156 political leaders arrested on December 5, 1956, more than half of the whites arrested were Jewish. They were charged with high treason resulting in the Treason Trial which lasted from 1956-1960. And, all of the whites initially charged in the 1963 Rivonia Trial were Jewish.

Jewish politicians like Helen Suzman attempted to stop the abuse of black political prisoners. Writer Nadine Gordimer helped edit Mandela's speech in his defence at the Rivonia Trial (in 1991, Gordimer donated her Nobel Prize money to the Congress of South African Writers, which was allied with the African National Congress).

Harry Schwarz was in the minority opposition for over 40 years and was a prominent opponent of the National Party. He was the leader of the opposition for the United Party from 1963-1974 in the Transvaal. He was one of the founders of the Torch Commando, an ex-soldiers' movement to protest against the disenfranchisement of the coloured people in South Africa. Schwarz was one of the defence barristers in the Rivonia Trial. In 1975, Schwarz left the United Party and formed the Reform Party which later merged with the Progressive Party. in 1991 Harry Schwarz was made ambassador to the United States. Beginning in the mid-seventies, Schwarz played an increasingly important role on the Jewish Board of Deputies, serving as chairman of its committee on international relations and often acting as spokesman for the board to Jewish agencies abroad. He argued that violent change could ultimately lead to a nondemocratic government, incompatible with Jewish ethics and with the interests of the Jewish community. He emphasized that Jews needed not only a democratic society for all, but also "The right to follow [their] own religion and love for Israel freely."

During the Rivonia Trial Dr. Percy Yutar, South Africa’s first Jewish attorney-general, who was said to be indifferent towards Apartheid [http://news.scotsman.com/topics.cfm?tid=1039&id=791052002] , prosecuted Nelson Mandela while Jewish attorney Arthur Chaskalson was part of Mandela's defense counsel. In that trial, Dennis Goldberg, engineer and leader of the Congress of Democrats, was sentenced to life in prison along with Mandela and other ANC leaders.

In 1979, Chaskalson established the Legal Resources Center, an organization dedicated to the pursuit of justice and human rights in South Africa. Chaskalson challenged the implementation of apartheid laws, provided legal services, and trained paralegal personnel to help blacks. When Mandela came to power he appointed Chaskalson as President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and later as Chief Justice of South Africa.

Many Jewish anti-apartheid activists were the target of state security force violence: Ruth First was assassinated; Albie Sachs lost an eye and an arm. Rowley Arenstein was exiled for thirty-three years. Abstract painter Arthur Goldreich was arrested as a political prisoner in July 1963 but eventually escaped. Joe Slovo, longtime leader of the South African Communist Party, served on the ANC's National Executive Committee, as did Ray Simons and Raymond Suttner. Ronnie Kasrils was head of intelligence for the ANC's military wing. (Adler 2000)

Jews also played a significant role in providing humanitarian assistance for black communities. Ina Perlman founded "Operation Hunger", an organization that reached two million South African blacks. Influenced by skills learned in Israel, the South African Union of Jewish Women (UJW) developed outreach programs in black townships: they focused on teacher training and pre-school development and even sponsored a few black South African teacher visits to Israel. UJW also created a multiracial youth group and engaged in the Women's National Coalition. The group was the first to import black dolls from the United States so that children might have a choice. (Adler, 2000)

Johannesburg's Oxford Synagogue and Cape Town's Temple Israel assisted the black townships by running nurseries, medical clinics and adult education programs, and by providing legal aid for victims of apartheid laws. (Adler 2000)

Many Jews objected to enlistment in the South African Defence Force and the Border War. Johnathon Handler, chairperson of the UCT branch of South African Union of Jewish Students, was one of a group of 15 conscientious objectors to make public their resistance to war in the townships shortly before the End Conscription Campaign was banned.

Focused on internal Jewish communal issues

Despite the over-representation of Jews in the struggle against apartheid, the Jewish establishment and the majority of South African Jews remained focused on Jewish issues. Most individuals were unsupportive of the anti-apartheid cause and communal institutions remained distant from the struggle against racial injustice until relatively late. In 1980, 32 years after the creation of apartheid, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies passed a resolution urging "all concerned, in particular members of our own community, to cooperate in securing the immediate amelioration and ultimate removal of all unjust discriminatory laws and practices based on race, creed or color". A few rabbis spoke out against apartheid early, but they failed to gain support and it was not until 1985 that the rabbinate as a whole condemned apartheid. (Adler 2000)


Although the Jewish community peaked in the 1970s, about 70,000 mostly nominally Orthodox, remain in South Africa. Despite low intermarriage rates, approximately 1,800 Jews leave the country for economic reasons every year, mainly to Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States. The Jewish community in South Africa is currently the largest in Africa, and, although shrinking due to emigration, it remains one of the most nominally Orthodox communities in the world. The South African Jewish Community is widely reputed to be among the most vibrant diaspora communities in terms of Jewish communal and religious life. Although the numbers have reduced over the last three decades, the community continues to thrive. A high crime rate in South Africa and various other factors are the driving force behind emigration. The community has remarkable support structures and is distinctly self sufficient. Levels of anti-semitism in South Africa are among the lowest in the world. The current Chief Rabbi, Dr, Warren Goldstein (2008), has been widely credited for initiating a "Bill of Responsibilities" which the government has incorporated in the national school curriculum. The Chief Rabbi has also pushed for community run projects to combat crime in the country. The community has become more observant and in Johannesburg, the largest centre of Jewish life, with 66 000 Jews, there is a high number and density of Kosher restaurants and religious centres. In politics, the jewish community comtinues to have influence, particularly in leadership roles. Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town and leader of the Democratic Alliance South Africa's main opposition party, is from a Jewish background. Her parents, who are both half-Jewish immigrants, fled from Europe to South Africa during the Second World War. As leader of the party, she is also the successor of Tony Leon, who also has a Jewish background and led the opposition party between 1994-2007.


The Lemba, a minority ethnic group which resides in Mpumalanga, may have been the first ethnic Jews to have resided in what is now South Africa, having emigrated to the area some 2,500 years ago from San'a', Yemen. Today, most Lemba adhere to Protestant Christianity while observing Judaic-like customs. However most Jewish communities do not consider them Jews.

Jewish education in South Africa

Traditionally, Jewish education in South Africa was conducted by the Cheder or Talmud Torah, while children received secular education at government and private schools. There were, initially, no formal structures in place for Rabbinical education. (Note that although the majority of South Africa's Jews are descendants of Lithuanian Jews who venerated Talmudic scholarship, the community did not establish schools or yeshivot for several decades.)

An important change took place in 1948, when King David School was established as the first full-time dual-curriculum (secular and Jewish) Jewish day school - the high school was established in 1955. Today, King David is amongst the largest Jewish day schools in the world, with thousands of students. King David's equivalent in Cape Town is the Herzlia School, with Carmel School in Pretoria and Durban (both subsequently renamed), and the Theodore Herzl School in Port Elizabeth. In Total, nineteen Day Schools, affiliated to the South African Board of Jewish Education, have been established in the main centres [http://shemayisrael.co.il/sa/sajbd/sajbd.htm] . The Jewish day schools regularly place amongst the top in the country in the national and provincial "Matric" examinations [http://www.ieb.co.za/Formal/FETC_top50.htm] [http://www.ieb.co.za/Formal/FETC_top50_2005.htm] .

The first religious day school, the Yeshiva College of South Africa, was established in the mid 1950s, drawing primarily on the popularity of the Bnei Akiva Religious Zionist youth movement. As an institution with hundreds of pupils, Yeshivah College is today the largest religious school in the country. Other educational institutions within this ideology include the Yeshiva of Cape Town, a "Torah MiTzion" Kollel, and the Bet Midrash and Midrasha of Mizrachi, Johannesburg.

In parallel to the establishment of Yeshiva College, and drawing on the same momentum [http://www.jewishgen.org/SAfrica/youth-movements/history/modlink/index.htm] , several smaller yeshivot were opened, starting in the 1960s. The Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg [http://www.rabbis.org/forms/Approved_Yeshivot.pdf#search=%22yeshivah%20gedolah%20johannesburg%22] , established in 1973, is the best known of these, having trained dozens of South African Rabbis, including Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein. The Yeshiva follows the "Telshe" educational model, although accommodates students from across the spectrum of "Hashkafa" (Hebrew: worldview, outlook, beliefs within orthodox Judaism).

This era also saw the start of a large network of Chabad-Lubavitch activities and institutions. There is today a Lubavitch Yeshiva in Johannesburg serving the Chabad community, a Chabad Semicha programme in Pretoria (having ordained 98 Rabbis since its establishment in 2001 [http://www.phc.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13&Itemid=31] ), and Lubavitch Day schools in Johannesburg (the Torah Academy school) and Cape Town. Johannesburg boasts ten Chabad Houses, Cape Town two and Kwazulu-Natal one- all of which offer a variety of Torah classes, adult education programmes and informal children's educational programmes.

The 1980s saw the establishment of a Haredi kollel, Yad Shaul, as well as the growth of a large baal teshuva ("returnees" [to Judaism] ) movement - this was supported by the Israel-based organizations Ohr Somayach and Aish HaTorah which established active branches in South Africa; Arachim also has an active presence. Ohr Somayach, South Africa operates a full time Yeshiva in Johannesburg - with its Bet Midrash established in 1990, and its Kollel in 1996 - as well as a Midrasha; it also runs a Bet Midrash in Cape Town. There are several Haredi boy's schools in Johannesburg, as well as a Bais Yaakov girls' school.

The Progressive Movement maintains a network of supplementary Hebrew and Religious classes at its temples. These schools are all affiliated to the SA Union for Progressive Judaism.


* Adler, Franklin Hugh (2000), "South African Jews and Apartheid". "Patterns of Prejudice", 34 (4), 23-36. - ( [http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/routledg/pop/2000/00000034/00000004/art00004 abstract] )

ee also

*History of South Africa
*Detailed Jewish population count of South Africa
*Orthodox yeshivas in South Africa

External links


* [http://www.jewish.org.za Jewish South Africa]
* [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/South_Africa.html Jewish Virtual History Tour of South Africa] - Jewish Virtual Library
* [http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history_community/Jewish_World_Today/JewishDiasporaTO/SouthAfrica.htm?GL=true South African Jewry A glimpse into the future] , Prof. Milton Shain, University of Cape Town
* [http://www.mindspring.com/~jaypsand/sa2.htm Jews in South Africa] - Jay Sand
* [http://www.joburg.org.za/content/view/1902/168/ Jews mark 120 years in Joburg] , joburg.org.za
* [http://www.queensu.ca/samp/news/artic1.htm Lithuanian Jews make big impact in South Africa] - "Reuters"
* [http://jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=988&letter=S South Africa] - Jewish Encyclopedia
* [http://www.jewishgen.org/SAfrica/commando.htm "Jews on Commando"] , Saks, D.Y. (2005), Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy
* [http://www.zjc.org.il/showpage.php Zimbabwe Jewish Community history web site] A comprehensive overview of the history of the community, from early settlement in Northern and Southern Rhodesia to life today.
* [http://www.btimes.co.za/96/1215/columns/news3.htm How the guard has changed since Rhodes stormed the SA economy] , "Without the Jewish people, the country would have taken many more years to evolve", "The Sunday Times (South Africa)"

Jewish education

* [http://www.saujs.co.za South African Union of Jewish Students ]


* [http://www.jewishweb.co.za/pages/education/education.htm Full listing]
* [http://www.kdlinks.co.za/ Site of the King David Schools in Johannesburg]
* [http://www.herzlia.co.za/ Herzlia Schools]
* [http://www.yeshivacollege.co.za/index.html Yeshiva College of South Africa]
* [http://www.torahacademy.co.za/ Torah Academy School- Johannesburg]


* [http://www.jewishweb.co.za/pages/synagogues/synagogue.htm List of Synagogues]
* [http://www.aish.com/branches/sa_johannesburg/ Aish HaTorah - South Africa]
* [http://www.chabadjoburg.org/ Chabad, Johannesburg]
* [http://ohr.edu/yhiy.php/ohr_somayach/worldwide_branches/south_africa/ Ohr Somayach South Africa]
* [http://www.yeshiva.org.za/about.htm Yeshiva of Cape Town]
* [http://www.phc.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13&Itemid=31 Machon L'Hora'ah The Pretoria Yeshiva]
* [http://www.saupj.org.za/index.html South African Union for Progressive Judaism]

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