Ivan Kapelus holds a BA, LLB from Stellenbosch University and an LLM (Tax) from Kings College, University of London. He has an extensive legal and international tax planning background. His books include Reflections on a Visit to Lithuania" (2009) and From the Baltic to the Cape - the journey of three families (2013).
I crave your indulgence! I would like to start this discussion in the middle, as it were, by quoting from a four thousand-word article by Dr H F Verwoerd (later National Party Prime Minister and hard right wing supporter of “Apartheid”) in the Afrikaans newspaper Die Transvaler of which he had become editor. The article appeared on 1 October 1937 under the title ‘The Jewish Question as seen from a NP [National Party] Viewpoint’. Having done so, I would like us to look backwards, and then forwards to 1948 and beyond, to follow the socio-economic journey of the Afrikaners as well as the Jews of South Africa.
The reader may ask why I am interested in the Afrikaner/Jewish relationship? Well, I am known to my Afrikaans friends, many of whom I have known for most of my life, as a “Boere Jood” (“Farmer Jew”) – one of us/them! My grandparents lived in the ‘country’ – North Western Cape – Calvinia. There my father was born and went to school.
My paternal grandfather, who came from Lithuania to the Cape Colony in 1897, was a peddler who plied his trade in the farming area between Ceres, his first home, and Calvinia, where he settled in 1911. He died in 1946, still owning and farming his farm, “Rooiputs”. My maternal grandparents (also Lithuanian) arrived with my mother from Scotland in 1937 and owned a hotel in Calvinia. In 1941, my newly-wed parents moved some 85 miles south to the village of van Rhynsdorp, where they lived until my father died, aged 80, in 1995. My sister and I were brought up in the village, where we started our schooling in Afrikaans before being sent to English boarding schools in Cape Town; me at the age of 9 and my sister, five years my junior, at the age of 10. In van Rhynsdorp, we spoke English at home and Afrikaans to all but our parents. After school, I studied law at an Afrikaans university, Stellenbosch. We were a traditional Jewish family, proud of our heritage and maintained our culture, even in a village that by the 1950s had only two Jewish families.
The Jewish Question – The view of Verwoerd
So, what did Verwoerd write? He set out his premise that there was “A conflict of interests between the disadvantaged Afrikaner majority and a privileged Jewish minority (vreemdelinge -strangers/outsiders)” which had entered the towns and cities long before the Afrikaners, and now dominated commerce and industry along with people of British descent. Jewish owners and employers filled the most important positions in these businesses with fellow Jews, he claimed.
Verwoerd saw two further elements that exacerbating the “botsing van belange” (clash of interests) between the Afrikaner and the Jew. The Afrikaner, he wrote, was “compelled to become a handlanger or ondergeskikte [subordinate] often earning a meagre wage. Jewish dominance of the economy enabled the younger generation of Jews to crowd out Afrikaners in the professions. For example, the increase in the number of Jewish attorneys and advocates is largely the result of their compatriots’ controlling the business concerns that pass on most of a lawyer’s day to day work.” He then asserts that the Jews were backed by the “English press and political parties” to exert disproportionate influence on government. For Verwoerd, “No Afrikaner dare underestimate their political activities, which are aimed at hindering the cause of nationalism”. He mused “Is it any wonder that Afrikaners are beginning to feel that Jews have a choke-hold on their continued existence?”
Verwoerd declared that the basic aim and solution for the Afrikaner was to ensure that their own population group would, “share, proportionally, in all the opportunities and privileges the country has to offer. It does not begrudge any other population group its fair share, proportionate to its size”. He went on to write that Afrikaner nationalists admired the way in which Jews stood by their own and that the NP did not take their religion or race into account in developing a policy. The problem was of an economic kind, namely over-representation in key economic sectors.
As Hermann Giliomee comments in his book The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (2003, p417), Verwoerd had “failed to identify a reason why Jewish dominance was more dangerous than that of any other ethnic group. Neither did he attempt to make a case that there was a common Jewish agenda in South Africa”.
As we shall see, Verwoerd was not a lone purveyor of this kind of antisemitic rhetoric. This had started even before the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and persisted intermittently until at least 1948.
The Socio-Economic plight of the Afrikaners
The rapid industrialisation of South Africa after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) found the Afrikaners left behind, stranded in the rural areas to which they clung, poorly educated, their plight exacerbated by their unfamiliarity with English, the lingua franca of the cities and business, and an unwillingness to do manual labour, that they saw as the work of servants. Subsistence farming was no longer viable. Afrikaner anger at their socio-economic misery was driven and grew ever stronger because of their treatment by the British in the Anglo-Boer War and its aftermath.
During the war, the British adopted a “scorched earth” policy, destroying farmland and homesteads and deporting Boer women, children, and their black labourers to concentration camps. All of this to prevent the Boer commandos from having shelter and supplies. There was no question of the British carrying out genocide, but the conditions in the camps were unhygienic, with poor sanitary conditions, inadequate food rations and little, if any, medical care. In all, 154 000 Boer and Black civilians were held in the camps. It was not long before there were outbreaks of typhoid and measles, resulting in a high mortality rate. Lord Milner wrote to Chamberlain, then Colonial Secretary, that the high mortality rate was “a very dark spot”, but politicians and the public in Britain had no idea of the atrocity occurring in South Africa.
Emily Hobhouse, who had campaigned against the war, received permission to visit South Africa in her personal capacity to inspect the camps. She was appalled at what she found! On her return to Britain in May 1901, she put the matter before the British public. In the meantime, the death rate soared, resulting in an all women commission, led by Millicent Fawcett, to visit the camps in 1901/1902, that not only confirmed the findings of Hobhouse, but indeed, went further in calling for urgent measures to be taken to ameliorate the situation by increasing and improving rations, including vegetables in the diet; providing facilities to boil drinking water and most importantly, to urgently send nurses from Britain to the camps to minister to the inmates. This resulted in the death rate falling sharply but nonetheless 4177 Boer women and 22 074 children ultimately died in the camps. General Jan Smuts estimated that about 10% of the Boer population of the Republics died in the camps. Almost every Afrikaans family lost a mother, child, brother, sister or relative.
The urbanisation of the Afrikaner was inevitable and rapid. In 1910 only 29% of Afrikaners lived in the urban areas, but by 1936, it was 50%, making up a quarter of the White population of Cape Town and Johannesburg respectively, and half of that in Pretoria and Bloemfontein. Twenty- four years later, in 1960, fully 75% of Afrikaners lived in the urban areas of South Africa.
The industrialisation of South Africa and the resultant urbanisation of the Afrikaners brought about a serious national issue – poverty amongst Whites. By the late 1920s, white poverty became a national issue in SA as the world after 1929 confronted a global economic crisis. To compound matters, South Africa suffered a crippling drought destroying crops and livestock in the early 1930s. The non-agricultural sector of the South African economy was virtually monopolised by English speakers (of British descent) and Jews while at that stage the entrepreneurial contribution of the Afrikaners was extremely modest.
In 1929, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) requested the Carnegie Corporation to fund an investigation into the problem. Its report, published in 1932, found there were some 300 000 poor whites, of whom more than 80% were Afrikaners. The government, DRC and other Afrikaans cultural organisations were doing all they could to ameliorate the immediate situation and to improve the education of their people. However, there was much anger within the Afrikaans community, as reflected in the political arena and the press, and it was aimed at those who were perceived to be prospering – the Jews and those of British descent.
Competition for manual jobs came from the black workforce, who could be paid substantially less than a white worker. And, as we have seen, English was the commercial language of the cities and many Afrikaners from the rural areas, at that time, spoke no English.
To make matters worse, the population had increased by some 400 000 white immigrants between 1870 and 1900. Most of these immigrants, like the 1820 Settlers, came from the UK, and, unlike such previous arrivals as the French Huguenots, Dutch and Germans, did not acculturate and assimilate into the Dutch/Afrikaans community. They were culturally, linguistically and religiously far removed from them, which perpetuated, and extended the Anglo-Afrikaner schism.
What did the government do to alleviate the dire straits of the poor whites and to solve the problem of lack of education?
The most pressing issue was to find properly remunerated employment for the poor white unemployed. To this end government used the railways, forestry settlements, the building of irrigation schemes and road and rail construction. In 1928 Prime Minister JBM Hertzog stated that the railways had employed 13 000 whites!
Education became a priority even before the Carnegie Commission. In the years 1912-1926 the spending on education for white children as a proportion of the budget and the percentage of White pupils of post primary age increased from 6% of white pupils (179 000) to 13% (384 000).
To help solve the paucity of Afrikaners entering the trades, the Apprenticeship Act of 1922 was passed. It made the passing of Eighth Grade (Standard 6, +/- 13 years old) a minimum qualification for entry into forty-one trades. This helped, but in 1933 it was found that out of one-hundred Afrikaans children who started school together, 44 left without passing Eighth Grade, 17 passed Tenth Grade (Standard eight – 15/16 years-old) and only eight completed Matric! Less than three went on to university.
In 1939, the Afrikaners comprised 56% of the White population, yet less than a third of all white students at universities were Afrikaners. The main reason for this was the continued popularity of farming as a career for Afrikaans boys, even though the commercialisation of farming was pushing many farmers off the land.
The table below shows the percentage of Afrikaners, compared to other ethnic groups, in the wider economy at that time.
Owners of companies, Directors, self - employed manufacturers 3%
Medical Doctors 15%
Civil Service 25%
About 40% of adult male Afrikaners were, unskilled laborers, mine workers, railway workers and bricklayers, whereas only 10% of non-Afrikaans males were in these occupations. As late as 1939, Afrikaners did not control a single large industrial undertaking or finance house, commercial bank or building society and not a single company quoted on the Johannesburg stock exchange!
Afrikaner politicians, cultural societies and intellectuals were resolutely intent on changing the situation, but made it clear that they would do so themselves, hence the motto: “’n Volk help homself” propagated by the Broederbond (the Brotherhood) and its cultural organisations, FAK (Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge) and their financial vehicle, FVB (Federale Volksbeleggings). They articulated that their intention was to do so fairly and not boycott English firms or businesses.
The first step was the creation of the parastatal ISCOR (Iron and Steel Corporation) that was almost entirely run by Afrikaans speakers. Then followed the life insurance company SANLAM, SANTAM, a Trust and Assurance Company, the bank Volkskas and a building society, Saambou. The growing Afrikaans press included Die Burger in Cape Town and Die Vaderland and Die Transvaler in Johannesburg and Pretoria. By employing their own, matters changed dramatically for the Afrikaans youth.
With the introduction of mother tongue education in the schools, after the recognition of Afrikaans as an official language in 1925, (the second official language was taught as a separate subject), as well as the Afrikaans youth being increasingly urbanised, and staying in education longer, tertiary education became increasingly important.
As a result of the creation of Afrikaans language universities, of which Stellenbosch, Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein were the forerunners, together with generous bursary/loans from the government, the percentage of Afrikaners at university steadily increased, albeit remaining low as a percentage to its share of the white population. By the late 1950s, with the increased number of Afrikaners having a tertiary education and entering the professions, particularly teaching but also medicine, law and accountancy, together with being employed in financial and commercial institutions, the view of themselves changed. No longer did they feel inferior or less worthy than their English-speaking compatriots! Even so, by the end of the 1960s the percentage of English-speaking children who passed matric was double that of the Afrikaners, as were the number of English-speaking graduates.
The “Russian” Jews – Arrival and Acculturation
If one considers the pattern of Jewish immigration to South Africa during the period 1881 -1930, it is not surprising that the antisemitic rhetoric started as early as the early 1890s. This, however, did not exclude cordial and co-operative relationships between Jews and Afrikaners in the cities and towns of South Africa throughout this period. An example of this is illustrated by the following incident that occurred in Calvinia: In a letter to Reverend Joel Rabinowitz written in 1878, Louis Rosenblatt complained that it would be impossible for him to celebrate Rosh Hashanah ‘except to the ruin of my business’, as Professor Hofmeyer of the Stellenbosch Seminary was travelling to Calvinia to celebrate the September Nachtmaal
(Communion), which fell on the same day as Rosh Hashanah. Nachtmaal was celebrated at specific times of the year and local farmers would travel by horse and cart to the village for the weekend so that they could buy their provisions for the next few months. Very often the farm labourers would travel with the farmer and his family and would also make necessary purchases. This was an important time for the economic welfare of both the farmer and the general dealer. In a letter published in the Jewish Chronicle of 6 December 1889, Rabinowitz, reports that he wrote to Hofmeyer asking him kindly to postpone the Nachtmaal so that the Jews of Calvinia could celebrate Rosh Hashanah after Hofmeyer agreed and wrote to the DRC Council of Calvinia to make the appropriate arrangements. When a similar situation arose in 1932, the DRC community agreed once more to postpone the Nachtmaal so that the Jews of Calvinia and the district could celebrate Rosh Hashanah without being concerned that either of their or the farmers’ livelihoods were threatened.
How different the very south of Africa was to be from the north when it came to Jewish history and tradition! The first book of the Torah, Genesis, ends with Jacob and his family settling in Egypt. Exodus, the second book, describes the Jews departing circa 1275-1250 BCE after a stay of some 210 years. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE and again Jews settled in the land. Their number swelled when Ptolemy I attacked Palestine in 301 BCE and sent large numbers of Jewish prisoners to Alexandria, where they practised their ancient faith and established a community that flourished, lasting until modern times.
From 1652, when the Cape was first settled by the Vereenigde Nederlandsche Oost Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) to 1806 there were no professing Jews in the country, to take advantage of the freedom of worship granted by the Batavian Republic in the “Kerkenorde” of 1804. By 1875, the small, mainly Anglo-German Jewish population in the Cape numbered about 495 souls. These Anglo-German Jews were largely secularly well-educated and assimilated easily into the Victorian culture of the day. They felt at ease in their surroundings as Jews. In his speech at the laying of the foundation stone of the synagogue in Kimberley in 1875 Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of the Cape, praised the Jewish community for their ‘wholehearted loyalty’. He went on to say, “I have had opportunities of becoming acquainted with them in many colonies, and I have ever found them as a body obedient to the law, ready to take their part on all occasions as good citizens and to co-operate in works
of benevolence and mercy.” Jews and Gentiles seemed to have got along well, as is illustrated by a resident of Kimberley, who is reported to have said, “generally, Jews are much respected by the other inhabitants….”
All this was to change dramatically from 1881 onwards with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, mainly Lithuania. The first wave, numbering some 40 000, arrived between 1880 and 1910, with another 30 000 arriving between 1911 and 1930, as can be seen in the table below.
Year Jews Whites Total Population
1880 circa. 4000
1904 38 101 1 116 805 5 175 463
1911 46 926 1 276 182 5 972 757
1936 90 645 2 013 650 9 587 863
1946 104 156 2 372 690 11 415 925
Unlike their Anglo-German coreligionists, the Eastern European Jews were not secularly well educated. They spoke Yiddish and later heavily accented English and Afrikaans, dressed differently and were altogether more orthodox in their religious practices. Most (around 90%) settled in the cities, but a fair number chose to start their new lives in the dorpies, small villages in farming areas or towns along the transport routes, where they had family, kinsmen or landsman, people from the same village or town back home in Lithuania. Here they would feel comfortable, as the small villages were much like those back home. Some remained in the rural areas while others flocked to the cities, particularly after World War II.
The Lithuanian tradesmen – such as tailors, carpenters and glaziers - could immediately find work in the mining areas, but by far the majority had to learn new skills, often allied to their traditional role as traders back home. They often learnt their new business skills from their first employer, and many began life in South Africa as smouse (peddlers) before moving on to become traders, general dealers, shopkeepers and businessman. As in Eastern Europe, they became the intermediaries between the new markets of the towns and growing cities, and the producers, both black and white. In fact, they were instrumental in the significant economic change that took place in the rural areas of the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, providing producers with access to the markets on the one hand, and, offering a wide array of goods to the emerging country consumer on the other.
The rise of Antisemitism
Newspapers of the day reported that the Commission of Enquiry into Labour in the Cape Colony of 1893 (which had nothing to do with immigration) was: “... wholly unanimous against the introduction of Russian Jews ... a most undesirable people, as already found in the Uitenhage District, where these people have pushed out many poor shopkeepers and have obtained property intensively”. This negative and stereotyped image of the Eastern European Jew was fast becoming pervasive in country and city newspapers and weeklies. The Cape
Town weekly The Owl was one of the more virulent antisemitic papers. All this resulted in the ‘Russian Jew’ being stigmatised as ‘undesirable’, ‘unassimilable’ and ‘the scum of Europe’.
After the Anglo-Boer War ended in 1902, large numbers of Jews from Lithuania continued to arrive in the Cape, and it was not long before the anti-alien and antisemitic lobby was again vocal and challenging. Now it was not only The Owl that purveyed these sentiments but the South African Review and even the Cape Times.
On 11 November 1902, Colonial Secretary Sir Peter Faure introduced the Cape Immigration Restrictions Act in the Cape Parliament/ The measure was primarily aimed at controlling the influx of Asians, but most certainly also had the flow of ‘Russian’ immigration in mind. It duly passed into law the following day. The section of the Act that had a direct bearing on Jewish migration from Eastern Europe was the definition of ‘prohibited immigrant’, which was as follows:
(a) Any person who, when asked to do so by any duly authorised officer, shall
be unable, through deficient education, to himself write out and sign in the
characters of any European language an application to the satisfaction of the
(b) Any person who is not in possession of visible means of support, or is likely
to become a public charge.
The implication of clause (a) of the Act for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe was immediately obvious. These were Yiddish-speaking people, a language written using Hebrew characters. Would Yiddish be accepted as a European language?
The Act came into force on 30 January 1903, but due to representations from the shipping companies and after action by the Cape Town Jewish community in raising funds and providing employment for passengers who were initially refused permission to land, the government decided that the provisions of the Act would not be strictly applied or enforced
for the first three months (February to April 1903). The passing of the Act galvanised the Jewish communities, both in the Cape and in London to intervene and make representations to the government to have Yiddish recognised as a European language. In Cape Town,
Reverend AP Bender worked assiduously on two fronts: to obtain a liberal and tolerant interpretation of the Act and an acceptance of Yiddish as a European language. Others, such as South African Jewish owner/editor Chronicle Lionel Goldsmid, Morris Alexander KC, a prominent advocate at the Cape Bar and Yiddish journal David Goldblatt were not so ready to rely on the goodwill of an individual, even if he were the Attorney General. They wanted an amendment to the Act specifically stating that Yiddish would be accepted as a European language, necessitating a change in the law through Parliament. Alexander expressed the need for an amendment by asking: ‘What happens when there comes a Pharaoh who does not know Joseph?’
So how did the deputation persuade the government to accept the amendment? They arranged for a non-Jewish German translator who did not know any Hebrew to translate an article in Yiddish (written in Hebrew characters) on the philosopher Agassiz, as it was read by David Goldblatt (so that its resemblance to German was clear). A full report on this demonstration was published the following day in the Cape Times.
In June 1906, the Cape Parliament considered a new Immigration Law. Alexander, now President of the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies, and a Mr Abrahamson, a Member of the Legislative Assembly, met with the Colonial Secretary to push for the amendment on the acceptance of Yiddish. The government agreed and introduced a proviso to Section 3(a) of the Act, ‘provided that for the purposes of this subsection, Yiddish shall be accepted as a European language’. It was passed without any hitches.
As we have seen, the Jewish population nearly doubled between 1911 (46,926) and 1936 (90,645) fuelled by the massive influx of Lithuanian Jews, at the very time that the Afrikaner nation was struggling socio-economically because of the industrialisation of South Africa and the lack of education and training. This influx of Jews and their first South African born generation’s success, to be discussed below, resulted in a return to the Antisemitism, so clearly illustrated in Verwoerd’s article.
The “Russian Jews/Litvak” contribution to South Africa and their success
How did these ‘undesirable’, ‘unassimilable’ and ‘scum of Europe’ get on? People who arrived with “bundles on their back”, who spoke neither English nor Afrikaans and who constituted a tiny percentage of the White population (never exceeding 4.5% of it) were within a generation of their arrival considered “a privileged minority” who “dominated commerce, industry and the professions” and “crowded out the universities”. What contribution did they make to South Africa in the period 1881-1948?
In 1926, no less than 60% of Jewish South Africans were bilingual (total of Jews - 72,169) and even though by 1936 the number of Jews in South Africa had increased to 90, 645, this level of integration into both the English and Afrikaans communities was maintained, as some 60% of them were still bilingual.
By the 1930’s, almost 40% of graduates and diplomates at Witwatersrand University (Wits) were Jews, as were over 20% of graduates in law, medicine, arts and commerce at the University of Cape Town (UCT). These were the very people who the Commission of Enquiry into Labour in the Cape Colony had said in 1893 were ‘a most undesirable people, … [who] have pushed out many poor shopkeepers and have obtained property intensively’. The ‘Russian Jews’ were considered by them to be ‘not what the country needed economically’.
These ‘undesirable scum’ and their descendants, the first South African born generation, continued to contribute to their chosen fields out of all proportion to their numbers. This is particularly apparent in the professions of law, medicine, accountancy, dentistry, and academia. By 1960, 20% of the Jewish population economically active were in the professions compared to 9.7% in 1936.
An example of their dominance in the medical profession can be gauged from the fact that nearly 23% of practising doctors in 1960 were Jewish and the percentage among medical specialists was nearly one in three. (Those involved in the ‘sales’ category declined just as spectacularly, from 48% to 29.1% during the same period.) Jews were employers rather than employees – they created employment for others. Of the Jews economically active in 1970, some 28% were employers as compared to 12% of the white population. This was the reality rather than the rhetoric.
To fully understand and appreciate what a haven South Africa was for the “Russian Jews”, one must appreciate that, in contrast to their experiences in the “Pale of Settlement” The north-western provinces of the Russian Empire after the annexation of the Baltic States and Poland by Russia in 1795, they for the first time could be a Jew without fear, have the same rights as every other white, own property, do any kind of work, and follow any profession for which they were qualified. The Romanovs and their governments were hostile to every minority within their territory and subjected all of them to intensive Russification. Minorities had to give up their language for Russian, change their religion to Russian Orthodoxy and amend their names to the Russian equivalent. No minority was as hated and despised as the Jews; so much so that, in 1727, Russia expelled all Jews from its territory.
Ironically, after the land grabs from Poland of 1772, 1793 and 1795, the Russian Empire found that along with the land, it had also acquired a substantial, unwanted Jewish population of between 800 000 and 1000,000 souls. The Russian government recognised this as the ‘Jewish Problem’.
During the reigns of Pavel Petrovich, known as Paul I (1796-1801), Alexander 1 (1801-25), and Nicholas I (1825-55), the Russian Senate began to consider how best to deal with the country’s burgeoning Jewish population. The solution preferred by their administrations, central and local, was to be brutal, harsh and systematic, restricting where Jews could live, what work they could do, and conscripting all Jewish males between the ages of 12 and 25 into the army for 25 years.
With the accession of Tsar Alexander II to the throne in 1855 there was some respite for the Jews, as the decrees confining them The Pale, as well as what work they could do, was relaxed. In 1861, he freed the serfs. Sadly, his liberalism was not accepted by all and in 1881, he was assassinated by revolutionaries. His successor, Alexander III (1881-94), a reactionary, who vowed to stamp out liberalism, triggered a devastating series of pogroms throughout most of the Pale, except for Lithuania, that suffered appalling arson attacks. The pattern of the pogroms was such that it soon became clear that they were being planned and carried out to a specific model. The behavior of the police was evidence of government involvement. The world was shocked by the savagery of the pogroms. Accounts of murder, maiming and ferocious attacks on the Jews in Russia were published in the press in Britain, France, the USA, and South Africa.
The Russian government’s callous attitude to the plight of the Jewish community was underlined by the response of the Tsar’s principal minister, the former Procurator General of the Holy Synod, Pobyedonotzev, to a delegation from Paris in 1898. When asked what would happen to the Jews under a regime of constant persecution, he remarked, ‘One third will die out, one third will leave the country, and one third will assimilate without trace!’
Antisemitism, pogroms, and savagely restrictive laws made it extremely difficult for the Jewish population of the Pale to earn a living and support their families. Fortunately, from 1881 Russia opened its borders, enabling them to leave the country. Many rushed to take advantage of this opportunity and poured out in their hundreds of thousands. As we have seen, a total of 70 000 made South Africa their home.
In an address to the Board of Deputies of UK dinner as reported in the Jewish Chronicle of 15 April 2016, Labour Party leader David Miliband said that British Jewry was a community that had always known what it stood for: “Out of ashes, hope; out of hatred understanding; and out of exclusion, integration” The very same can be said of the South African Jewish community!
It is also important to realise the central role that education plays in Jewish culture and religion. It has echoed throughout the ages in every Jewish home and community – EDUCATION, EDUCATION – TEACHING, TEACHING.
As related in the Book of Exodus (12), Moses and Aaron are told to summon the Israelites and instruct them on exactly what they must do to prepare for their flight to freedom. This is immediately before the tenth plague. Having instructed them in detail on what they had to do Moses addresses the assembled Israelites. What a momentous occasion! They are on the brink of achieving freedom from slavery and begin their journey to the “promised land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3.17). What would he speak about - the end of slavery, freedom, the journey ahead of them, or to quote Nelson Mandela “the long walk to freedom” In fact none of these! Moses says “And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite? You shall say “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved our houses”.
This theme is repeated in Exodus 13:14: “And in time to come when your son asks you “What does this mean?” you shall say to him “With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. Moses is looking way into the future, talking about generations to come, and telling the Israelites to be a nation of teachers and pupils – educators! Jews became a people who were passionate about education, so much so that by the time the Second Temple was destroyed, they had developed the first system of universal (boys only) education paid for by public funds. This tradition has been observed in most Jewish communities to the present time. Even in Lithuania, where our forefathers lived in poor circumstances, the establishment of communal charitable institutions to facilitate education was a priority.
When one appreciates this passion for education, one can understand why Jewish youth by the 1930s, the first South African born generation of the “Russian Jews”, flocked to the universities to acquire tertiary education and enter the professions and academia
The Changing Dynamics of the Jewish-Afrikaner Relationship (1924-1948)
Having traced the socio-economic path travelled by the Afrikaners and the Jewish immigrants we see two trends emerging:
· The politics of envy – the success of the Jewish immigrants being blamed for the socio-economic misery being suffered by the Afrikaners,
· The emergence of and adoption of the motto “n Volk help homself!” (A Nation helps itself) – echoes of Verwoerd’s statement in his article when he went on to write that “Afrikaner nationalists admired the way in which Jews stood by their own and that the NP did not take their religion or race into account in developing a policy.”
After a relatively quiet period after the Great War, when Lithuania became an independent republic and the virulent antisemitic laws of the Russian Empire were no more, political conditions there changed in the mid-1920s and Jews were on the move again as rabid antisemitism once more came to the fore in Lithuania while in Ukraine and Belorussia (Belarus) the Soviets were imposing a regime that included the massacre of Jews.
However, the changes to the immigration laws of USA in 1924 and of Australia virtually closed their doors to aliens, resulting in South Africa again becoming a favored harbor of safety. This is illustrated in the table below showing the immigration figures for Jews from “Quota Countries” (Eastern Europe) for the period 1927-1930:
Year Jews Total Immigrants
1927 1,581 6,598
1928 2,066 7,050
1929 2,394 7,895
1930 1,698 5,904
This rise in Jewish immigration coincided with the serious national “poor white” problem, that affected the Afrikaners in particular and gave the impetus for the Jewish immigration question to be in the forefront of SA politics once more.
It was not long after the Pact’s (a coalition of the Nationalist and Labour Parties) election success of 1924 that a rabid antisemitic attack was made by Afrikaans folk hero General Manie Maritz (a leader in the opposition to SA’s entry into WW I and supporter of Germany) in a speech delivered in the Northern Cape town of Mckwassie: “We have recently learned a great deal about the poverty of our people in the Northern Cape and Namaqualand. Who are responsible for this? Our arch-enemy, the Jews, who came to this country with a bundle on their backs and always manage to amass a large sum of money. The Afrikaners of these districts were virtually the servants of the Jews. It was similar in all other parts of South Africa, and a people who made their money here out of the suffering of the people usually left the country and spent it somewhere else”.
Although this crude form of antisemitism embarrassed the National Party and was repudiated by them, the issue of Jewish immigration was kept to the forefront of politics because of a remark by J.E. Holloway (Director of Census) that, for the period 1920-25, the figures showed an increase in poor migrants from Lithuania, the majority of whom were involved in commerce; exactly the type, that he stated, was not needed, or wanted at this stage.
The rhetoric against Jewish immigration was pervasive and supported by influential newspapers such as the Cape Times, Rand Daily Mail and East London Daily Despatch, as well as Die Burger. Impetus to anti-Jewish immigration was provided by the Johnson Act of 1924, under which the USA adopted a strict quota system for immigration. Politicians from both the mainly Afrikaner-supported National Party and the predominantly English-speaking South African Party railed against Jewish immigration to South Africa.
Like a chameleon changing color, so the reasons for the rhetoric against Jewish immigration changed and shifted. The Jews, particularly those from Eastern Europe, were variously accused of being unassimilable and stereotyped as devious, corrupt and always outsiders because they retained their Jewish identity. If they did integrate and contribute to the economy and society, then they were upwardly mobile and so threatened to dominate the country. When Jews did well and contributed to the country, it was always perceived as being at expense of others.
Yet despite all this agitation for a curb on Jewish immigration, the Pact Government (1924-29) did not change its immigration policy. On the contrary, Dr D.F. Malan, then Minister of Interior, undertook not to interfere with Jewish immigration and Oswald Pirow, Minister of Justice (1929-33), assured the Jewish voters of Bethal during a by-election campaign that the National Party would oppose immigration legislation.
In the 1929 General Election, the Pact was re-elected with an increased majority. Without any prior notice in the speech of the Governor General at the opening of Parliament, on 29 January 1930, Malan, despite his prior undertaking, proposed a bill to place certain restrictions on immigration. It was a bolt out of the blue, particularly for the Jewish community.
In introducing the second reading of the Quota Act, Malan emphasised the consensus across party lines for the need and terms of the Bill:
The party newspapers have, with very few exceptions, greeted this Bill as one which is long overdue, and not only in principle but also as far as particular provisions are concerned, they have, to a very large extent, given their support. I have, in the short time this Bill has become known to the country, had proof positive that it meets the desire of a very large majority of the people of this country and that in some quarters, in most, at least, it has been hailed with a sigh of relief.
The Immigration Quota Act (no. 8 of 1930) came into effect on 1 May 1930. Its main provisions were:
1. Creating a two-tier system for immigrants:
1.1 Unrestricted immigration for persons from countries listed in
the Schedule, and
1.2 Restricted immigration for persons from countries not on the
Schedule to 50 persons per year
2. Creating an Immigrants’ Selection Board that had the right to
permit immigration from Non- Scheduled countries subject to certain
criteria set out in the Act and Regulations thereto and subject to the
maximum of such immigrants in any one year to 1,000.
The countries specified in the Schedule to the Act were the territories within the British Commonwealth of Nations, USA, and countries of Western Europe.
Malan called on the Opposition to leave party politics aside and consider the Bill as in the national interest, setting out three principles that he believed underpinned the legislation. These were merely a restating of the rhetoric against Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe: maintaining the character of the whites as ‘Nordic’, assimilability and maintaining Western civilisation, which was said to be different from Eastern European civilisation. The press, both Afrikaans and English, greeted the Quota Act with approval and continued to call for a halt to Jewish immigration. The Opposition in Parliament, in the main, supported the principle of the Act and the only real opposition to it came from four Jewish MPs (M. Kentridge, C.P. Robinson, E. Buirski and E. Nathan) and a handful of their colleagues.
Considering the statements made by both Malan and Pirow that there would be no change in immigration policy, the Jewish establishment and community at large were shocked and surprised by the introduction and passing of the Quota Act, the consequences of which, for the Jewish community of South Africa were deep and considerable.
The main source of Jewish immigration to South Africa was blocked. The overwhelmingly Lithuanian Jewish community was cut off from its source, from its family and people. As the Jewish MP C.P. Robinson presciently said in Parliament on 10 February 1930:
Do not tell me this is merely a Bill for the exclusion of Lithuanian Jews. It sounds the death knell of any more Jews coming to South Africa. At present it is the poor Lithuanian, tomorrow it may be the Jew from Germany or France that will not be allowed in.
Giliomee states, ‘Anti-Semitic sentiments were fueled by Afrikaner frustration over their lack of economic progress in the city.’ In fact, the reason lay much deeper: in the Afrikaners’ view of themselves as white Christians against the black heathen and slaves, which engendered an acute consciousness of race, religion and cultural difference. Hence, they needed always to ask ‘Wat is jy’ (What are you)?
This anti-Jewish invective and rhetoric from politicians and the majority of the press occurred well before the advent of Hitler and the Nazi Party as a dominant force in Germany. Unfortunately, as we shall see, attitudes only got worse through the 1930s and 1940s.
Part 2 of Ivan Kapelus' paper will appear in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Affairs.