South African Jewry dwindles; not for the usual reasons

Wolmarans Street Shul 1

Reminders of the heyday: Grand Wolmarans Street synagogue building in downtown Johannesburg, once a centre of Jewish life, is empty after Jews emigrated from the country and others moved elsewhere

WHEN asked how many Jews remain in South Africa, Jewish leaders usually fudge the question, though they know the community’s size is falling. No-one wants to be a prophet of doom, but for most of them the answer is not a happy one. The generally accepted figure is 60-70,000, roughly half of the community’s size in its heyday in the 1970s.

Jews have always been on the move, everywhere they have lived. Large numbers came to South Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s from Europe to escape anti-Semitism and seek a better life.

Now Europe has again become a place of anxiety. It is astonishing that after the terrible things that happened there in the last century, including the Holocaust, Jews are in distress again there and urged to move. History keeps replaying itself.

Three countries serve as examples: In Spain, Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Meir Bar-Hen warned last week after terrorist attacks in which 14 victims and five suspected terrorists died in Barcelona and Cambrils: “Jews are not here permanently”. The attacks were not aimed specifically at Jews.

“I tell my congregants: Don’t think we’re here for good… Better [get out] early than late.” He calls Spain a “hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe.”

In France last year, Paris’ Synagogue de la Victoire rabbi Moshe Sebbag claimed every French Jew is considering leaving because of anti-Semitism. French Jews number between 500,000 and 600,000. Many will not do so, because they fear the upheaval in their lives.

A recent Human Rights First survey said anti-Semitic incidents in France had risen dramatically in the last few years; and some 82% of Jews had experienced anti-Semitism, but not reported it. One leader said Jews in Paris and elsewhere feel “they can’t safely wear a kippah outside their homes or send their children to public schools, where Muslim children bully Jewish children.”

In Britain, an anti-Semitism survey shows British Jews feeling directly threatened by BDS’s anti-Israel activities; some 31% had “considered” leaving the country. And some 37% of respondents said they avoided “displaying outward signs of their Judaism in public.”

How does South Africa fit into this picture? The reasons Jews leave this country are starkly different from Europe. It is not anti-Semitism, which remains very low – indeed, displays of racism are generally confronted quickly and harshly by the media and government, and different faith groups live in relative harmony. Jews have little fear in identifying themselves publicly as Jews.

But there is increasing fear about the country’s future, as it teeters ominously under President Jacob Zuma’s corrupt and inept government. Uncertainty is rampant about future prospects, epitomised by the downgrading to “junk status” of its economy by respected international rating agencies. Questions are asked about how minority groups – such as the white Jewish community, Afrikaners and others – will be treated in future.

Many younger Jews, when asked, will say they are emigrating not so much for themselves, but for their children’s future, as they witness the decline in the quality of schools and universities, diminishing prospects for whites in finding jobs in the face of affirmative action policies, and other factors.

One local leader most familiar with the issue is Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, known as the “travelling rabbi”, who constantly traverses the country, taking care of 220 small Jewish cemeteries containing 30,000 graves, in rural areas and small towns where once flourishing Jewish communities no longer exist. In his address to a Jewish conference in Johannesburg on Sunday, he said one of the questions he is most often asked is how many South African Jews remain. The only answer he could give – rather glumly, as his expression at the podium revealed – is that “The numbers are down.”

That the numbers are declining is without doubt, and brings a sadness to people who remember the “old days.” The obvious question going forward is whether South African Jewry will manage to recalibrate itself as a smaller community in a country in tremendous and often traumatic flux, so as to remain part of the country and involved in its affairs. Or will it dwindle into a minor outpost of Jewish life?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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One thought on “South African Jewry dwindles; not for the usual reasons

  1. Pingback: French rabbis of the suburbs confront anti-Semitism | From guestwriters

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