Still rearranging the deckchairs on this Titanic?


22 JUNE 2019

FINGERS are being pointed everywhere about the tragic decline in the numbers of South African Jewry. Every ten years, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town does a survey of the Jews of South Africa. The figures for this year have yet to be compiled and verified, but there are suggestions amongst people in the academic world and amongst community leaders that the numbers of SA Jewry might have declined from its heyday of 120,000 in 1970 to as few as 50,000 to 60,000 today. The figure of 50,000 was quoted in Haaretz on June 16, 2019, but before the actual results are in, this still remains speculative and has been disputed.

Whatever ends up being the final survey figure, it is clear the numbers have seen a massive decline, which is still continuing. Those who say this is not tragic, are either putting on a brave front or fooling themselves.

Part of the explanation is that Jews are leaving the country as part of the broad trend of the white exodus from the country. Between 2013 and 2018, the white population dropped by 2 percent to 4.5 million, out of a total population of 57 million.

The iconic Titanic has been a cipher for many metaphors of collapse. SA Jewry fits here. Some may say the community can be smaller but still vibrant, with active Jewish day schools and so on. That may be true for now, but the numbers tell their story. In ten years time there won’t be 50,000 or 60,000 Jews, but maybe 10,000. Afterwards, as more old people die and younger ones leave, who knows? Within a few years, there will probably be no African country with a sizeable Jewish community. Most Africans will never meet a Jew in their life and only be left with stereotypes from books

Where is the Jewish religious leadership? Religious leaders are a major influence in how Jews see themselves. It would be good if those leaders of whatever rank, would do what they can to build bridges and bolster morale, not divide. The opposite is true in many cases today.

Many believe the orthodox component of this community – the largest – has failed to show the leadership necessary. To an observer, the obsessive attention to whether the international Jewish learning programme, Limmud, is kosher enough, or whether it is kosher for women to sing at the cemetery, is bizarre.

The same goes for orthodox leaders who have used European holocaust rhetoric to bolster arguments against Israel’s critics, rather than exploring if this dying community can be rescued by gathering together its remaining resources. Examples of this trend were published in Haaretz in the article about SA Jewry on June 16, in which the South African chief rabbi is quoted as saying that the apartheid accusation against Israel is “on the level of blood libels in Europe.” And the national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation is quoted as saying that BDS tactics which have included storming events with Israeli guests and boycotting stores that carry Israeli products are “a Kristallnacht.”

Historians and pro-Israel quarters find this trivialisation of the blood libel an insult to Jews who were persecuted in its name over centuries. Similarly, the use of the word Kristallnacht in this way, is insulting to Jews who were destroyed by it – Kristallnacht happened on 9 and 10 November 1938 and heralded the beginning of Nazi persecution of Jews in the Holocaust in which at least 6 million died.

Leaders use these analogies irresponsibly; while the Titanic that was once SA Jewry, quietly begins to list. Rationally analysing the facts and listening to critical voices, would be better than demeaning the critics.

Jewish leaders are constrained by their positions, from expressing personal views openly. They have to stick to the standard line that the community will survive; and that Jews are loyal South Africans.

This column is not constrained: Alarm bells are ringing; this Titanic is sinking. In years to come, there may be a retrospective reckoning about who tried to man the lifeboats and save something, and who let everyone go down as the band played on, because they wouldn’t sit at the same tables as other Jews.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

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