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PoliticsSouth Africa

South Africa's anti-Israel stance alarms country's Jews

December 1, 2023

South Africa is home to Africa's largest Jewish community. The ongoing violence in the Middle East has left its mark, with Jewish citizens now more cautious when they leave their homes.

Torn hostage posters and Israel flags after a demonstration in Cape Town
Police have broken up clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Cape TownImage: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP

On Johannesburg's Long Avenue, a kosher deli sits right next to the kosher supermarket, across the street from a kosher burger restaurant. The nearest synagogue is only a few hundred meters away.

One look at an online map and it's clear: Glenhazel, a suburb of South Africa's commercial capital, has an active Jewish community.

Karen Milner, head of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, or SAJBD, can confirm the observation. "The kosher restaurants [in Glenhazel] are full. If you go into the kosher shops, they're absolutely packed," she told DW. "If you go into our synagogues, they're full. If you've gone on a weekend, there are about 20 events that you could choose from — for a tiny Jewish community, that's remarkable!"

Israel-Hamas war divides opinion in South Africa

According to estimates by the SAJBD, the umbrella representative and civil rights group of the South African Jewish community, between 56,000 and 60,000 Jews live in South Africa. In a country with a population of around 60 million, this is only a small fraction. Nevertheless, it's the largest Jewish community on the African continent and the twelfth largest in the world.

The majority of South Africa's Jewish population lives in Glenhazel and other areas of Johannesburg. Smaller communities can also be found in Cape Town, Durban and other parts of the country.

Escape from Europe

The history of Jewish immigration in South Africa began centuries ago, with Jewish people among the passengers on board the ships of Portuguese explorers and Dutch traders. But Jewish immigration to Africa's southernmost country really took off under British colonial rule.

Starting at the end of the 19th century increasing numbers of Eastern European Jews fled pogroms in their home countries, mainly from Lithuania, and found their way to South Africa. After the Nazis seized power in Germany, some Jewish Germans also managed to escape to Africa. During World War II, South Africa's Jewish community is said to have reached its peak at 120,000 people.

A postcard of Johannesburg's New Synagogue, ca. 1905
Johannesburg's Jewish community dates back to the 19th centuryImage: gemeinfrei

In 1948, the white supremacist National Party established the apartheid regime in South Africa. Jews were classified as "white," and could benefit from the highest level of civil rights. Despite this advantage, a disproportionately high number of Jews opposed the unjust apartheid regime, said the SAJBD's Milner.

"Many of the anti-apartheid activists were influenced by their own experience or those of their parents during the pogroms in Eastern Europe or the Holocaust," she said. They included writer Nadine Gordimer, Albie Sachs — who would later be appointed to the Constitutional Court — and civil rights activist Denis Goldberg, whose grandparents came from Lithuania.

Goldberg, who died in 2020, was a member of the South African Communist Party and co-founder of the South African Congress of Democrats, an organization of predominantly white left-wing democratically oriented members. He was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to four life sentences, and eventually released from prison in 1985.

Goldberg served as technical officer in the armed wing of the African National Congress, the political party of South Africa's first Black head of state, Nelson Mandela.

Denis Goldberg speaks at a BDS event in 2015
In the last years of his life, Denis Goldberg also appeared as a speaker for the BDS movement, which calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel over what it describes as mistreatment of the PalestiniansImage: Hassan Isilow/AA/picture alliance

Goldberg's basic anti-Zionist stance led him to distance himself from Israel's settlement policy, as he felt it was comparable to apartheid policy in South Africa. Israeli governments have always rejected such accusations, referring to their commitment to international law.

ANC maintains ties with Palestinian groups

The ANC, which has been in power since the collapse of the apartheid regime in 1994, has continued to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip as apartheid, comparable to apartheid in South Africa.

The ANC always maintained links with Palestinian groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat. Recently, it took days for the South African government to condemn the October 7 attacks by the Islamist militant group Hamas, which claimed some 1,200 lives in Israel — even though South African nationals were among those murdered and kidnapped.

Unlike Israel, Germany, the United States and the European Union, and other countries, South Africa does not classify Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas is even rumored to have an office in Cape Town. 

Pemmy Madjodina, chief whip of the ANC, addresses members of parliament in Cape Town
In late November, South African lawmakers voted in favor of closing down the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria and suspending all diplomatic relationsImage: Nardus Engelbrecht/AP/picture alliance

Foreign Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor drew loud international criticism when she admitted to a phone call with Hamas officials shortly after the October 7 attacks, which she said was to discuss humanitarian aid for Palestinians. She denounced allegations of supporting the militants' attacks on Israel.

Jewish community in shock

Kathy Kaler, director of the radio station ChaiFM — which, she said, is the only Jewish radio station in Africa and the only Jewish talk radio outside Israel — has noticed the change on South Africa's Jewish community since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

"For the first two weeks after the Black Sabbath [October 7], we changed all of our programming," she told DW. "Our listening community didn't want any other topic that wasn't about Israel and what was happening with Hamas."

Kaler said she suspects every Jew in the world knows someone who has been directly affected by the escalation in one way or another. Even in Johannesburg, the community is in shock.

"In the first two weeks after October 7, nobody went out," she said, adding that kosher restaurants and cafes remained empty. "We were just reeling and now slowly, slowly getting back to going out and conducting life as close to normal as possible."

Surge in antisemitic incidents since October 7 

The cautious attitude of many South African Jews is justified. Until the October 7 attacks, antisemitic incidents in South Africa only amounted to a few instances of graffiti scrawled on a wall or online abuse every month, said Karen Milner of the SAJBD.

But according to their latest figures, 180 antisemitic incidents have been registered in the country since the start of 2023 — 110 of those after October 7. Five of these incidents were direct attacks. Jewish institutions have already increased security measures in response.

People gather to stage a demonstration to express their solidarity with Palestinians and protest Israel's military actions in Gaza in front of the Consulate General of United States in Johannesburg
In October, people gathered in Johannesburg to express their solidarity with Palestinians and protest Israel's military actions in GazaImage: Ihsaan Haffejee/AA/picture alliance

Milner fears the government's one-sided stance could encourage further attacks. But she remains convinced that antisemitic incidents are much less likely in South Africa than in Europe.

"Rabbis and religious people [continue to] dress their way," she said, speaking of the distinctive yarmulke. She said people were "a little bit anxious and cautious at this stage," but added that there was no need for them to hide their Jewish identity. 

"We don't believe the threat is so high that people have to not be visibly Jewish in public."

This article was originally written in German.