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Confronting Jewish Complicity in South African Apartheid

Freedom Day, the anniversary of the end of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections, is on April 27. For many of us in the South African diaspora, myself included, it’s an important day of remembering the struggle, past and present, for a better and freer South Africa.

Many American Jews join in the celebration, at least online. My Facebook newsfeed fills up with commemorations of the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and the black movements that liberated the country. My social media is filled with celebration of the Jewish involvement in the end of apartheid; many American Jews are convinced that Jewish involvement was essential and central to the end of apartheid. “Without Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman, and the brave journalists, where would we be?” the thinking goes.

Yes, they helped. But they are not the center of the story — and to think so may do more harm than good.

As a member of the South African diaspora, with South African parentage and citizenship, I tend to cringe when I see other Jews celebrating the Jewish contribution toward Freedom Day, because much of the nuance and historical bravery is eclipsed by the simplistic celebration of the Jew as the ally.

Some clarification first: Ashkenazi Jews, and most of South Africa’s minuscule Sephardi community as well, have long been socialized and considered as white in South Africa, and as a result benefited hugely from the racist apartheid policies that were only ended in the early 1990s. Even today, most Jews in South Africa benefit from a still-segregated economic and social structure that privileges and benefits white people.

It shocks many American Jews that South African Jews were by and large bystanders to and benefactors of the apartheid regime. We have been raised on a heritage of civil rights advocates like Heschel and liberal justices like Ruth Bader Ginsberg — and so maybe it’s natural that we would want to celebrate Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman, and the Rivonia trial defense lawyers first. But in our celebrations we have often forgotten that we were neither central to the civil rights movement in the United States, nor were as many Jews invested in civil rights as we would like to think.

It’s a similar situation in South Africa. Most South African Jews were quite content to live (segregated) white suburban lives, work within the apartheid system, and benefit from a government that privileged them. The Jewish communal structure wasn’t just one of the last religious structures to criticize the apartheid regime — actively shamed and criticized those who did work against the regime. Communal efforts were directed at Jewish education and support for Israel. Ashkenazi heritage was also corralled in a communal effort to integrate South African Jewry into the white middle class. A narrative of the heroic integration, from poor peddler to middle class, of South Africa’s Jewry into the white population became popular and normalized during the apartheid era.

Since democratization in 1994, the South African Jewish community has been in a long and difficult self-reflection over its behavior during the apartheid era. To some degree, a discussion about the community’s inaction and complicity has been achieved, especially among younger Jews. But some have argued this reflection has not gone far enough. Some say the Jews’ position on the edge of whiteness in apartheid explains both the collaboration of the Jewish communal structure and the difficulty in reflection today. I disagree: the opinions and attitudes of South African Jews really do not differ from most other White South Africans. Nor do their habits. Being on the edge of whiteness still makes you white; you can still “pass.”

Meanwhile, a dialogue of reconciliation and forgetting the past has been used by many white South Africans — Jews included — to detract attention from the continued racial segregation of the South African economy, one of the most unequal in the world. American Jews are assisting this unconsciously. Narratives of normalcy and reconciliation can so easily dismiss the very real continued pain and frustration of non-white South Africans. In the recent Rhodes Must Fall protests, Gillian Schutte noted that appeals to non-racialism or celebrations of the “whites who helped” are more regularly read as excuses for continued inequities in South Africa. When we focus on a white group, we help this technique.

We treasure a Jewish heritage of justice, but for this idea to be made real, we must also acknowledge when our communities worked against justice. Our solidarity cannot be made real until we also acknowledge that an Ashkenazi heritage was racialized in South Africa, or that many South African Jews happily went along with the apartheid regime’s dictates. American money for Jewish organizations was not used to fight apartheid, it was used for other purposes. American tax money was even used to shore up the regime with which the South African Jewish establishment was complicit. A celebration of Jewish justice must not ignore these facts.

We can also honor the memory of the Jews who fought against apartheid. But we need to do it while accounting better for the ways in which Jews have access to privilege. Not “Jewish privilege,” but Jews’ ability to be part of a privileged class and benefit from the oppression of others. Otherwise, we may continue to collude with ideas that perpetuate inequality.


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