“Confronting Apartheid” by Moira Schneider

November 11, 2011

The history and implications of apartheid on the South African Jewish community and how it has adapted post-apartheid took centre stage at the Cape Town conference of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s representative body, Oct. 29-30. The conference is the first time that the organized Jewish community has examined itself in this regard, an effort that was described as courageous by Dan Diker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, who delivered the keynote address at the gala opening.

Panelists did not shy away from sensitive issues. Deborah Posel, professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town, stated that white South Africans, including Jews, were beneficiaries of apartheid and need to acknowledge this in publicly symbolic and material ways.

“There is still a tendency among white South Africans, including Jews, to deny our complicity with apartheid,” she continued, adding that the community was “at risk again of becoming complicit with an ethically abhorrent situation – this time, a situation of deepening inequality. As Jews, we need to confront this and think about how to respond in ethically appropriate ways, and to compensate for our history of material advantage.”

Veteran community leader Mervyn Smith drew attention to the influence of Jewish students at the Universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand (Wits) who had played a leading role in the struggle against apartheid. “Many of these left South Africa because they felt there was no future here.

“One of the lesser sins of apartheid was that it took our children away from us, where our loss was those Jewish communities’ gain. Think what our Jewish community would have been like with them here,” he said.

Referring to the board’s policy of political non-involvement under apartheid, researcher Claudia Braude spoke of the concomitant marginalization of “leftist” Jews that had divided the community. This old dynamic took on a new life in post-apartheid South Africa, she contended, this time with international consequences.

“The people who really could counter the Israel-apartheid analogy are precisely the anti-apartheid Jews who fought the struggle, but who have this massive farribel [Yiddish for family quarrel] going down with the board and are not going to be seen to be associating with this. This is the effect of not having dealt with this history.”

Anti-apartheid activist Howard Sackstein suggested there was a “lot of bridge building” that needed to take place between the organized community and former activists, as there had been “such alienation over such a long time.” As a student at Wits, he had found himself under threat not only from the authorities, but from leaders within the Jewish community.

Wendy Kahn, the board’s national director, commented that it was now seeking guidance on many issues from the activists, acknowledging that there was “a long, hard road ahead.”

Diker appealed to the South African Jewish community to work with WJC “to help us get through the assault using the false, grotesque apartheid analogy against the Jewish nation state. You’re the experts; we’re your students. Help us learn,” he urged.

Participants indicated that there was much room for improvement when it came to assessing how the community has measured up in the new democratic order. Martine Schaffer feels the Jewish community has, since 1994, become “more insular. We have become more religious and inwardly focused,” she said.

“We have lost the voice that earned us respect as a group of people who believed in fighting for justice. We have built walls and barriers, physically and emotionally,” whereas “we have a responsibility to be active citizens,” she continued. “We are extremely quick to criticize the South Africa that we live in today…. I don’t believe we are engaging enough in being part of the solution.”

Schaffer has no doubt that her decision to return to South Africa after spending eight years in the United Kingdom was the correct one. “I am able to make a contribution. I could not do this with the same passion, impact or relevance anywhere else in the world,” she said.

Young lawyer Amy Stein said she found negativity about the country, often among the older generation, “deeply upsetting.” The most common negative perception is that there are no jobs or opportunities for whites in South Africa. In fact, she argued, young Jews should be encouraged to be an active part of the country’s future.

“There is ample opportunity in this country. As a developing nation, the possibilities for growth and development are endless…. Being Jewish and living in South Africa should be viewed as a privilege and with privilege comes responsibility,” she stressed.

Ann Harris, widow of the late chief rabbi Cyril Harris and a director of Afrika Tikkun, the community’s outreach initiative, commented that there was “not much community buy in” to Jewish-initiated outreach projects. “The connection between donors and clients is very lacking,” she stated.

On the political front, outgoing vice-chairman of the Cape Board Rael Kaimowitz noted that the government is not a friend of Israel. “We see, on a regular basis, a bias towards the Palestinians, largely due to the historic relationship of the African National Congress (the ruling party) and the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Large-scale emigration during the apartheid years had resulted in an aging community, with families spread all over the world, and the financial burden often resting with the local community. A “sharp growth” in religiosity – something Kaimowitz attributed to “the uncertainty of apartheid and the birth pangs of our democracy” – had seen a “widening gap” between the observant and non-observant, while also highlighting the split between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.

Moira Schneider is a JTA correspondent in South Africa and the Cape Town correspondent for theSouth African Jewish Report.