African Jews Against Apartheid
(See also 'Is Israel an apartheid state?" and The Israel-SA Connection)
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THE FACTS ABOUT SOUTH AFRICAN JEWS IN THE APARTHEID ERA
that Jews comprised only 3.1% of the White population and 0.6% of the total population, South African Jews should take tremendous
pride in the very high proportion that opposed apartheid one way or another.
It is doubtful that any other separate group, whether Chinese, Portuguese, Greek, Catholic, or even the
wealthy Indian Muslim community, can boast anything approaching the proportionate number of Jews who took part in the struggle
the Progressive party headed by Helen Suzman into parliament and where there was no Progressive Party candidate, they voted
for the opposition United Party.
people of Jewish descent should be so prominent in the liberation movement says something fundamental about the compassion
of Judaism. Many Jewish immigrants who arrived in our shores in abject poverty, laying claim to little but their rich commitment
to humanitarian and egalitarian ideals. These commitments were sometimes rooted in traditional Jewish teaching. They sometimes
emerged from traditions of socialism. Whatever the case, Jewish compassion is the fruit of empathy, rather than sympathy.
It is the fruit of struggle over many millennia, against racism and persecution”.
It was not a Jew who expressed the above views. They
were spoken by secretary general of the African National Congress Kgalema Motlanthe in his address to the 42nd Biennial Conference
of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in Gauteng on October 19, 2002
Considering that the small percentage
of Jews in the total population included the aged, infirm and children, South African Jews, far from being shy about their
history during the apartheid era, should take tremendous pride in the very high proportion that opposed apartheid in one way
Regrettably but unsurprisingly, the
behavior of the Jewish community in South Africa during the apartheid period is regularly singled out for unjustified criticism,
while no similar evaluations are made of the behavior of other demographic groups such as the Catholic population or the Portuguese,
Greek, Chinese and Asian communities whose members hardly appear among anti-apartheid activists.
South African Muslim community for example, which comprised 1.1%[i] of the total population compared with the Jews 0.6%.
The number of Muslims known to have actively opposed apartheid is minimal and in fact they were reported to have cooperated
with the apartheid government.
newspapers frequently accused the Jews of subverting the apartheid regime, pointing to the high percentage of Jews among the
whites detained by the police, the Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger in a two-part series, praised the Muslim community for its
cooperation. It said: “Moderate Muslim theologians (geestelikes) in the Peninsula are of the opinion that not even civil
disobedience is permissible for the Muslim minority in South Africa where they are to obey the law and are under obligation
to negotiate if they consider the political system to be unjust or oppressive.”
Conservative Muslim spokespersons
argued that if the government allowed Muslims the religious liberty to pray, build mosques and go for pilgrimage they could
not engage in jihad (struggle) against such an authority. To invoke jihad while
co-operating with non-Muslims, as the radicals did, was not religiously acceptable, they said. An unnamed theologian told the paper that: ‘Islam strongly rejects anarchy and advocates non-confrontation’. Muslims who were unhappy with the status quo should emigrate or undertake hijra (exodus)
to a safer haven. [ii]
Jewish influence towards racial equality
in South Africa dates back to the earliest days of Jewish immigration. As far
back as 1917 a Yiddish-speaking branch of the International Socialist League was formed. This league, a forerunner of the
South African Communist Party (SACP) organized unions and co-operatives without distinction of class or colour, eventually
being absorbed into existing unions.
Another typical example of the early
days was the Garment Workers Union (GWU) a militant and multiracial trade union
led by its general secretary, Solly Sachs from 1935 to 1948. White unions and the government fiercely opposed the GWU.
Nelson Mandela in his “Long
Walk to Freedom” wrote, “I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics,
perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice”.
The Treason Trial
Of the 150 activists charged in the
1956 Treason Trial, 23 were whites. Significantly, of the 23 whites, no less than 14 were Jews. After the Sharpeville tragedy
in March 1960, in which 69 Africans were killed and 180 injured the ANC and the PAC were banned. Oliver Tambo, Deputy President
of the ANC, escaped, assisted by Ronald Segal, founder of the anti-Apartheid journal “Africa South”.
The Communist Party and the ANC established
underground headquarters at the Lilliesleaf farm home of Arthur Goldreich in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia. Nelson Mandela
stayed there in the guise of a farm worker and it was there that a military arm, Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation),
was conceived. Its High Command comprised Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Joe Slovo and Arthur
Goldreich, who was selected because of his experience in the Israel army in 1948.
Significantly, all the whites arrested
in this epoch-making event in 1963 at Lilliesleaf farm, were Jewish: Arthur Goldreich, Rusty Bernstein, Dennis Goldberg, Bob
Hepple, and Dr Hilliard Festenstein. Their trial in October 1963, known as the Rivonia trial, resulted in the imprisonment
of its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, for life.
Harold Wolpe, a member of the Central
Committee of the Communist Party, who was not at Lilliesleaf at the time, was arrested a few days later. He and Goldreich
escaped from Marshall Square police station and crossed the border to Botswana.
A few samples of very many Jewish anti-apartheid activists
Referring to the late Joe Slovo,
one of the many Jews active in the anti-apartheid struggle and the creation of the new South Africa, Mr. Motalanthe said of
“he was proud to acknowledge the Jewish roots of his compassion. Brought up as a child
in a Lithuanian ghetto, he experienced at first hand the degradation and misery of being unfairly treated for no proper reason.
So in the South Africa he grew to love, he determined that no one should be singled out for unfair treatment for no proper
reason..," The disproportionate representation Jews amongst the minority of whites that chose to cast their lot in with the
oppressed did not go unnoticed by the racist regime.’.
Slovo’s funeral in 1995, President Mandela said of him
“We are assembled to mourn
the passing of a leader, a patriot, a father, a fighter, a negotiator, an internationalist, a theoretician and an organizer.
Indeed, it is the combination of all these qualities so splendidly in one individual, which made Comrade Joe Slovo the great
African revolutionary that he was.
When, in 1934, the village of Obelkei in Lithuania,
bequeathed to South Africa an eight-year-old Yossel Mashel Slovo, there was no predetermined course that his life would follow. Forced to leave school at an early age because of poverty; part of the passionate
political debates of that period among immigrants in Johannesburg; - all these factors helped mould one of the greatest South
African and African revolutionaries of our times.
For many years, the lone voice in
parliament that stood courageously against apartheid came from Helen Suzman. As founder of the Progressive Party representing
the predominantly Jewish constituency of Houghton, she was a thorn in the side of the national government. Much to the chagrin
of the government, Suzman made frequent trips to Robben Island to visit Nelson Mandela while he was jailed there.
Advocate Isie Maisels won acclaim
for his leadership of the defense team which achieved acquittal of all the accused in the treason trial As a committed Jew,
he had served as President of the Federation of Synagogues, as well as on the Executives of the Jewish Board of Deputies and
the South African Zionist Federation.
Justice Albie Sachs , presently a
member of the South African Constitutional Court., was a freedom fighter in the ANC. Twice he was detained without trial by
the security police under the Apartheid regime. When he was a 17-year-old law
student, participating in civil disobedience in the early 1950s, he led a small batch of whites, into a post office protesting
the denial of equal rights for Blacks.
About twenty years later he was the
victim of a bomb attack by the South African security force in which he almost lost his life and which left him with one arm
missing. In The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, he describes his recovery from this attempt to kill him.
From his early days, Advocate Kentridge
(later Justice) appeared courageously in highly political matters, unpopular with the apartheid government. He defended cases
for the Garment Workers' Union and its Secretary, Solly Sachs. Also Bishop Ambrose Reeves. He appeared at the inquiry into
the shooting at Sharpeville, in 1961. He attained international acclaim for his powerful cross-examination of the security
police in the inquest into the death of Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko.
During WW2 Wolfie Kodesh was caught agitating black soldiers to stand up for their rights. Together with men like Jock Isacowitz, Jack Hodgson, Rusty Bernsein and Cecil Williams he was one of the
founders of the Springbok Legion. Back in South Africa after the war he was a member of an ANC committee organized to protect
Nelson Mandela when he went underground in 1961.
acquired an apartment in the Whites only Johannesburg suburb of Berea, under an assumed name and persuaded Mandela to take
refuge there, as he believed a White area would be the safest place for him to stay. It was from this apartment that Mandela
went to Goldreich’s farm, Lilliesleaf in Rivonia, leading up to the Rivonia Trial.
Lower profile apartheid opponents
Not everyone who took part in risky
illegal anti apartheid activities was caught. Many managed to evade detection
and therefore remain unknown.
In addition to the well-known high
profile Jewish anti-apartheid personalities, there were very many ordinary Jews who expressed their revulsion of apartheid
in diverse ways and contributed to its eventual downfall.
were active in providing humanitarian assistance for Black communities. Typical
were the Jewish housewives in the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg who organized educational classes for Black adults in their
homes. “Operation Hunger", founded by Ina Perlman reached out to two million blacks, focusing on teacher training and
pre-school development as well as sponsoring Black teacher visits to Israel. The South African Union of Jewish Women created
outreach programs in black townships.
Jews for Justice, and Jews for Social
Justice were organizations which worked to build bridges between the white and black communities.
Johannesburg's Oxford Synagogue and
Cape Town's Temple Israel established nurseries, medical clinics and adult education programs in the townships and provided
legal aid for victims of apartheid laws.
Jews were prominent among the actively
anti-apartheid students at the liberal universities in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
As a student at the University of Witwatersrand, I was among the Jewish students who were highly visible in our opposition
to apartheid. I was an early member of the Federation of Progressive Students (FOPS), a radical student group initiated by
Ruth First, which was subsequently banned by the government. Ruth, who was married
to Joe Slovo, paid with her life for her opposition to apartheid. She was assassinated by means of a parcel bomb while hiding
out in Mozambique.
At the forefront of anti-apartheid
demonstrations, we were closely monitored by the Security Police Many of us were assaulted by the riot police or arrested
by the Security Police.
There were many who, while not adopting
high profile stances, opposed apartheid in a variety of ways. Some would tread a fine line, breaking the law by going into
the townships to teach adults to read and write (as I did). Many would join the
various protest movements.
Important contributions were made
in the form of enlightened employment practices of prominent industrialists like Tony Bloom and Mendel Kaplan, as well as
in many, smaller Jewish owned industries where we broke the job segregation law and introduced equitable working conditions.
This also occurred in smaller businesses and households.
Jewish insurance firm CRP headed by Ron Shapiro and Lionel Phillips initiated the very first pension fund for domestic employees
in South Africa. It was a completely revolutionary concept in that era. Donna
Wurtzel assisted in the promotion. Only the employers paid premiums, with no deduction from employees. Federated Life Assurance headed by another Jew, Arnold Beasserabie, underwrote the fund.
Jewish lawyers acted as nominees
for non-whites who were not allowed to buy properties in white areas.
I was also an enthusiastic member
of the Springbok Legion of WW2 ex service men, which had a large proportion of Jewish members. With a peak of nearly 60 000
members it was the only mass movement of whites to take part in the South African liberation movement. It was motivated by
of the discrimination suffered by black soldiers in the SA army. National president Jock Isacowitz, uncle of Lynn Lochoff,
manager of Beth Protea in Herzliya was jailed for his activities.
The Torch Commando
Then came the Torch Commando, led
by Sailor Malan and Kane Berman. It rallied thousands of white South Africans including a high proportion of Jews, in torch-bearing
protests against the decision to disenfranchise coloreds.
The views expressed by influential
rabbis could not be faulted. Rabbis Rabinowitz, Kossowsky, Weiss and Bernard
all spoke out bravely and organized some very important welfare efforts, delivering speeches which drew criticism from the
nationalist press. Rabbi Abner Weiss, Chief Rabbi of Durban during the turbulent 1970’s, was at the forefront of the
protest movement. A constant thorn in the government’s side, he led demonstrations and marches and used every available
platform to berate the government over its policies.
The Black Sash
Bertha Beinashowitz, who now lives
at Ahuzat Bayit, Raanana, was national treasurer of the Black Sash, a group of women with a large proportion of Jewish members,
who stood silently in protests wearing black sashes. They achieved a lot.
Jewish Contribution to the Development of Black Performing Arts Under Apartheid.
The world famous African musical
Ipi Ntombi, which brought South African Black culture to the world stage, was promoted under the most difficult conditions
by Bertha Egnos. After her death last year at age 90, a memorial service was held at Temple Emanuel paying tribute to her
contribution in the stand she took for the rights of Blacks in the Performing Arts. She performed regularly at Dorkay House,
5b Eloff Street extension, Johannesburg where white artists defied the country's race laws by performing together with blacks
under one roof.
Dorkay House was an example of Jewish
involvement in opposing political bigotry. Ian Bernhardt managed the Union of
South African Artists (USAA) there, an organization founded 'to protect and develop black performers, for whom Ian fought
tirelessly. While Dorkay House was a social center for blacks, a few whites were always welcome, including Cyril Green. The
importance of Dorkay House is significant as the alma mater of most of the country's musical greats including Miriam Makeba,
An article in Telfed Magazine by
David Kaplan tells of dance instructor, Fonda Dubb who defied apartheid by training boys and girls in a Colored township.
Determined that her students be given the opportunity to perform in front of White audiences, Fonda needed to apply for a
special permit. Among her memorabilia she has a permit imposing the following humiliating conditions “…that no social mixing with the audience occurs, that the Coloreds do not make use of any
of the change-rooms or any other facilities provided for Whites and that they leave the premises immediately after their performance.” Despite the immense difficulties, her Colored students frequently received highest
marks, some became teachers and a few went on to perform overseas.
Many many more examples of anti-apartheid
activity by South African Jews are available to anyone who takes the trouble to look.
The Board of Deputies
While the Board of Deputies has been
taken to task for its failure to take a public stand in the name of the Jewish community, this was not an indicator of the
private views or actions of its members.
the Board’s attitude to apartheid from minutes of meetings, as done by several historians is completely unrealistic.
The board was as unlikely to leave incriminating evidence in writing, as was Oscar Schindler, of Schindler’s Lists fame.
The board included some very prominent anti-apartheid personalities such as Tony Bloom, advocate Harry Schwartz and advocate
Issy Maisels. Rabbi Duchinsky of Cape Town was instrumental in influencing the Cape Board of Deputies in the mid- seventies
to come out publicly against government policy.
[i] Religious Plurality in South
Africa WCC http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/interreligious/cd34-07.html
[ii] ( Muslim Conservatism in South
Africa by Ebrahim Moosa (Published: July 1998) See ttp://www.wluml.org/english/pubsfulltxt.shtml?cmd%5B87%5D=i-87-2690