Surviving Apartheid — and New South Africa

Jewish Community Struggles To Find Place Amid Change

African Jews: South African Jewish children celebrate the soccer World Cup in 2010. The community survived apartheid and now is struggling to find its place in the new South Africa.
getty images
African Jews: South African Jewish children celebrate the soccer World Cup in 2010. The community survived apartheid and now is struggling to find its place in the new South Africa.

By David Hazony

Published August 27, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

My first visit to South Africa, and the impressions were jarring.

I grew up in liberal America, where apartheid was a curse and a cause rather than a way of life. I knew very few South Africans, Jewish or otherwise. And then I moved to Israel, and then Nelson Mandela whooshed to president from prisoner, and then life just went on for so many years. And now it’s 2012, and I land in Johannesburg for the Limmud conference, which took me to Durban and Cape Town, as well — legendary places along the seam between Atlantic and Indian oceans, between vicious past and misty present.

In Jo’burg it hits you right away, on the drive from the airport. Reddish earth, rusty buildings, poverty that makes Palestinian villages look wealthy. All the pedestrians, every last one of them, are black. The whites people today live in gated communities, where they sarcastically call themselves the “last outpost of the British Empire” and exchange stories about getting mugged as they look out past the barbed wire that keeps out the crime.

“That’s not barbed wire,” someone said, laughing . “It’s electric.”

Nearly two decades after its first democratic elections, South Africa is still a work in progress. Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, has been suppressed, and English has taken over as the public lingua franca.

Corruption is rampant, and this prevents the effective fighting of crime. More murders, rapes and carjackings here than anywhere else. The rand, once even with the dollar, is now worth about 12 cents.

At the same time, the country’s successful postapartheid constitution and mostly independent judiciary make for greater hope of genuine democracy than perhaps anywhere else in Africa.

And the Jews?

Jews here, like everywhere else, are torn between their ideals and the demands of communal survival. Not unlike the Jews of the United Kingdom and elsewhere, they are (a) generally liberal in both politics and religion, (b) struggling with an increasingly intemperate ultra-Orthodox minority and (c) embarrassed by Israel. (When asked why, one local Limmudnik answered, “Settlements, Lieberman and Lieberman.”)

But on that first day, I notice that embarrassment can run both ways, and my Boston-bred liberal instincts suddenly had me feeling very uncomfortable. The role of local Jews in both supporting and fighting apartheid is a very sensitive subject. People on both sides of the divide found themselves praying in the same synagogue.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.