Pandemonium during a Pandemic

Reflections on the Jewish community in South Africa – crisis or no crisis?

By David E. Kaplan

In the wake of the unrest across South Africa’s northern provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (9-17 July 2021) sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court, there were a number of popular nightly webinars airing people’s perspectives and anxieties.

South Africa Erupts. Army called in to restore calm.

A country troubled in grappling  with the global pandemic, to then suddenly having to face rampant violent social unrest sent alarm bells ringing across South Africa – particularly in the ears of the ever-diminishing Jewish community hovering at the 50,000 mark – a little less that what would have filled up the grand Olympic stadium in Tokyo were it not for Covid.

South Africans turn on South Africans. People flee from police as they carry goods while looting and vandalising the Lotsoho Mall in Katlehong township, East of Johannesburg (Phill Magakoe/AFP)

South Africans found themselves  once again in a Quo Vadis mode asking:

 “Where is the country heading?”

While this question is being hotly debated on online public platforms, nothing was more eye-catching to this writer than the invitation to a webinar held on the 28 July –  a week after the unrest abated – in Melbourne, organized by Australia’s UIA (United Israel Appeal) under the title:


What stuck out for me was the omission – or was it – of a question mark at the end of the title. It appeared to present as a given  that there was a crisis and that the three guest panelists – all high profile leaders in the Jewish community – invited to present their overview “of the complicated situation which the South African Jewish community currently finds itself

The three panelists were Howard Sackstein – Chairman of the South African Jewish Report, Rowan Polovin – National Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and Philip Kravitz – a high profile businessman, community leader and Chairman of the Trustees of the United Jewish  Campaign.

Signals of the Jewish community facing undue challenges in South Africa were quickly picked up in Israel.

Panelist. Howard Sackstein, Chairman of the South African Jewish Report

MK Ruth Wasserman Lande, who grew up in South Africa and matriculated at Cape Town’s Herzlia School, raised the issue of the South Africa Jewish community in a plenary session in the Knesset, followed up being interviewed on Israel’s Channel 12 on the situation, where she said:

I would say one very important thing, our eyes need to be on the Jewish community there.”

To the question “Do you think the Israeli government should act?” she replied:

 “First of all, I think we need to wait and see when there will be a request, if at all.…from the community leadership there.”

Equally attentive and responsive was Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Dr.  Nachman Shai, who penned a reassuring letter to the Jewish community of South Africa in which he warmly wrote:

All in Israel watched the recent events in Kwazulu-Natal region and around South Africa with deep concern. We stand with you in solidarity…..” adding that “the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is your partner in ensuring the resilience of your community…”.

Most significant was his nuanced message in the line:

The secret of Jewish resilience rests on in our sense of shared responsibility towards each other.”

Concern for a Community. Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Dr.  Nachman Shai, who addressed a reassuring letter to the South African Jewish community would recall when he led a delegation of Israeli legislators to South Africa in 2017 how they were “snubbed” by the then current members of the ruling African National Congress at the Parliament in Cape Town.(Miriam Alster/Flash90).

Subtly acknowledging in the “shared responsibility” the appreciation of the Jewish community of South Africa’s contribution to the development of the State of Israel,  Israel today, stands ready to help and support the SA Jewish community – should such need arise.

However, has that ‘need’ arrived?

Sackstein cautioned the overseas viewership that the unrest – bad as it was – was restricted to select areas and that the majority of  South Africans remained, at least physically, unaffected. So, as Israelis who are all too familiar with how selective optics can created skewed perceptions abroad, the question really is whether, despite the horrifying optics of the unrest in South Africa, is its Jewish community in crisis as the title of the webinar suggested?

Is there a crisis? The UIA Australia Invitation to the panel discussion of the South African Jewish community.

The upfront answer by the three panelists was emphatically NO, preferring to re-character the situation as one less of crisis and more of challenges.

Following the showing of a distressing video clip on the recent unrest by Howard Sackstein which he referred to as  the “Week of Shame”, he then countered his pessimistic perspective of the unrest by saying:

 ‘Too soon to panic” and “there IS no crisis.”

Explaining that the community had been through a number of “difficult times” in the past sixty years and come through, “the South African Jewish community is not in crisis.” On quick reflection, he did then qualify this assertion with:

 “or maybe we have come to learn to live with crises.”

He emphasized that the country has moved on and praised the resilience of South Africans, saying “We have become world experts in resilience.”

Sackstein’s message was that “We are in SA because we want to be; because we consider this our home. We are here by choice and we want to build and create a better society for our community and all of South Africa. It’s not just one crisis but we juggle multiple crises at the same time.  And we are experts in this today.”

Panelist. Rowan Polovin, Chairman of the SAZF (right) seen here with then the Chairman of the Jewish Agency in South Africa, Isaac Herzog, today Israel’s 11th president.

Taking a different line, the Chairman of the SAZF, Rowan Polovin, assured that while Jews did not have to fear the threatening and sometimes lethal type of antisemitism that “we are seeing today in the US and Europe,”  the antisemitism that does prevail “is cloaked within the shroud of anti-Zionism, which pervades all parts of the country’s civil and political society.” Polovin elaborated on four areas:

– government diplomacy

–  the judiciary

– media

– academia.

“We have a BDS movement which has been very successful in infiltrating the ruling party – the ANC” and sites examples of how its impacted government decision-making, namely:-

– influencing the withdrawal of the South African ambassador to Israel and poising the atmosphere to block his return

– blocking a judicial appointment of a Jewish judge, David Unterhalter, to the Constitutional Court for once having been a  member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and

– on 28 July, the very day we were attending the UIA webinar, “the government could not hold back condemning the AU (African Union) for granting Israel Observer Status, after an absence of 20 years.”

Contributing to this increasingly uncomfortable climate for Jews, “We are faced with a very hostile press.” He cited the recent publication in the country’s largest Sunday paper, the Sunday Times, which was “a full-on assault on the Chief Rabbi – Warren Goldstein.” Over and above breaching the acceptable boundaries of civilised discourse, “it was viciously anti-Semitic” despite that the article was written by a Jew – Ronnie Kasrils. An attack on the Chief Rabbi for his strong emotional and spiritual support of the Jewish homeland, is an attack on the Jewish community “and we feel it.”

Studying in Israel. Students from all over the world – including from South Africa –  enjoying a chat with Jonathan Davis, the Head of Israel’s IDC’s International School outside his office window (centre).

Polovin concluded with the impact of BDS at South Africa’s universities  where the anti-Israel sentiment has reached a fever pitch with all-year round activities, press releases, university resolutions and advocating for boycotts of Israel. “All this makes it an uncomfortable environment for Jewish students,” and which the third speaker, Philip Kravitz characterized as South Africa’s loss and Israel’s gain as an increasing number of young South African Jews are opting to study at Israel’s universities  in English “through a special Telfed programme. This is born out that there are over 100 South African students studying in English at Israel’s only private university, the IDC Herzliya, located north of Tel Aviv. “We have the largest concentration of South Africans at any academic institution in Israel and we only expect this too increase,” says an upbeat Jonathan Davis, the Head of the IDC’s Raphael Recanati International School, Vice President for External Relations and a former Jewish Agency emissary to Cape Town, South Africa. “Twenty years ago, we started with one South African student, now we need off-campus fields for students to practice rugby!” remarks Davis with satisfying amusement.

Panelist. Philip Kravitz, receiving in 2015 the Keren Hayasod Award.

Kravitz presents a sobering perspective of South Africa’s present and future. “The major threat,” he believes, “is that over 70% of our youth are currently unemployed; that is an absolutely frightening statistic and we have less than 7% of the population owning about 80% of the national wealth. Truly, we are sitting on a powder keg and until we tackle the issues relating to poverty, all it will take is a small spark to ignite it. We know this and we all of live with this every day.”

As the Executive Chairman of the Cape Union Mart Group of Companies which comprises some 300 stores in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana,  he says, “We were fortunate” in the recent unrest, “that only three of out stores were completely looted. But how they were looted? They walked out with the safes, every coat hanger, even the shelving.”

Coming Home. South African immigrants arriving in Israel during the pandemic being welcomed by the Minister of Aliyah and Integration, Pnina Tamano-Shata (Right).

This situation the Cape Union Mart chairman faced as a South African businessman together with many others, but as a Jew, being personally targeted, was nothing new! When he received in 2015 the prestigious Yakir Award for services rendered to Israel through Keren Hayasod, “the local newspapers picked it up; published articles and what followed was our stores were boycotted and I received death threats.” Then again, after the 2021 Israel-Gaza conflict, “we had demonstrations outside our stores, but I see this as badge of honour; we will carry on and we will survive.”

But will the Jewish community “survive?

We are an aging community and our death rate is higher than our birth rate,” says Sackstein. “Add to this, we loose each year between 500-1000 to emigration so that means we are a shrinking community.”

This means that there is less need for some of the existing institutions, and the name of the game is “consolidation” in order to sustain communal services. “We have had to close two of our Cape Town Jewish Day schools – in Milnerton and Constantia,” reveals Kravitz confirming this inexorable trend.

Israel Hears. MK Ruth Wasserman Lande addressing the concern for the Jewish community in South Africa during the Knesset plenum, in Jerusalem, Israel. (Courtesy)

All three panelists agree that “the numbers are going down” but still nevertheless project a positive front that the community will survive – albeit ever-diminishing  – and adamant that “Jewish life will remain vibrant.”

“There have never been more kosher restaurants in Johannesburg,” says one speaker.

But who would still be there to eat in fifteen or twenty years’ time?

Poignantly illuminating the Jewish community’s uncertain future was a question that solicited the briefest of answers during Q & A. Someone from abroad, probably Australian, asked about the current status of the Jewish community in South Africa’s norther neighbour, Zimbabwe as to how many Jews still live there and how they were faring. The panelists dispensed with the question in double-quick time, answering that the there is “no more of a ‘community’ to speak of”; that there “are very few Jews living there today, and mostly all living in Harare”. Kravitz added  they were being serviced by the country community rabbi from South Africa, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, “who ensures they have the necessary foods during the Yontavim (festivities)”.

Could this be the future scenario for South Africa Jewry down the road?

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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