South African Jewish Community, Apartheid, and Israel

Before this blog heads to an Israel at the brink of civil war (Oh…you think I’m exaggerating?  Well, President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just used that term in the last 10 days.), it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about the relationship between South Africa and Israel over the last 75 years, and the role of the Jewish Community in South Africa in that relationship, and frankly, in the history of the world.

Here’s a coincidence if not an irony.  In the same year, 1948, that Israel became an Internationally recognized independent nation, South Africa’s Nationalist Party won an election which ushered in the Apartheid era. During the post World War II era, many countries throughout the world, and especially in Africa, gained their independence. What a travesty that South Africa would use this de-colonializing era to institutionalize its own racially based caste system of oppression.

As the 1950s moved along toward the 1970s and 80s, the relationship between Israel and South Africa took on a strange and deeply disappointing turn.  The two nations, which were increasingly spurned internationally, grew a bond of convenience.  The pariahs found in each other some shared emotional ties and economic interests.

Meanwhile, the small South African Jewish Community, found itself under mixed pressures.  Some Jews with business interests, propped up the economy.  But most – from my understanding the vast majority – were appalled by Apartheid and saw it as inconsistent with Jewish values. Many South African Jews – including those in my family – fled the country because they couldn’t abide this new political-economic system.  As citizen-members of the British Commonwealth, some went to England, Canada or Australia.  As Jews, some went to Israel.

The role of those Jews who remained in South Africa during the Apartheid era was a fundamentally positive one for advancing social and economic justice. Some of the most famous and effective non-Black anti-Apartheid activists were from the Jewish community. Helen Suzman, Nadine Gordimer and many others were fearless international figures in the law, politics and literature.

Exhibit at the Cape Town Jewish Museum, showing scenes from the famous Rivonia Trial of Nelson Mandela and other Anti-Apartheid activists.

Upon Apartheid’s fall, with the incoming Mandela administration, there was a strong awareness by the government of the importance of their Jewish allies in the liberation struggle.  But there was also a stark understanding of the previous government’s alignment with fellow pariah Israel.  Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War left it in military control of much land that had previously been within Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Over the ensuing decades, Israel’s occupation of these lands, settlement patterns of these lands, and demarcation of land as designated for either Arabs (Palestinians) or Jews, began to be seen by many in South Africa as a new kind of Apartheid.

A 2001 UN conference on “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” held in Durban, South Africa, became a focal point for not only challenging Israeli occupation as Apartheid, but a mixing and meshing of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric and physical and emotional attacks on Jewish attendees. In the 20 years since that conference, the official relations between the nations of South Africa and Israel have pretty much been on a downward trend. Yet, even amidst some rise in anti-Semitism, there is still a reservoir of respect and appreciation for the Jewish contributions to ending South African Apartheid.

In this last visit to South Africa, I had an opportunity to personalize some of this history and witness the ongoing efforts of the Jewish community to advance justice.

After my street-cred improving conquest of the poker table (see the previous blog entry), Elana’s husband Grant asked me whether I had any interest in touring a Cape Town area township. “Of course,” I replied. Blog readers will note that this continuing trip theme of “yes” has served me well so far.

Turns out, Grant is on the Board of Directors of a long-established non-profit called Ikamva Labantu. which manages various anti-poverty programs in South African townships. He made a quick call and arranged for me to take a tour the next day of the organization’s programs in the nearby township of Khayelitsha.

Khayelitsha, one of the largest slums in the world, with beautiful Table Mountain in the background.

Ikamva Labantu is commemorating 60 years of its existence this year. It was founded, and still run, by a courageous woman from the Cape Town Jewish Community named Helen Lieberman. Cousin Sybil is quite familiar with Helen, her dedicated works, and the centrality of her Jewish background to the cause she has devoted her life to advancing.  More on the Jewish connection in a moment.

Townships, by definition, were those areas under Apartheid that were set aside exclusively for Blacks. 30 plus years after the end of those race-based legal restrictions, townships are still essentially racial enclaves of the poor. And as we have already found, the inequalities of income, wealth, health outcomes, and education between the townships and the principally white middle and upper middle-class neighborhoods has grown larger post-Apartheid. Khayelitsha is the largest township in the Cape Town area, containing approximately 500,000 people and now rapidly growing. Please click on the above link to read more about this township.

On the Khayelitsha tour with me was the son (Michael) of one of the true heroes of the anti-Apartheid political movement, Harry Schwartz. I encourage readers to take a look at the extensive Wikipedia entry on him. But briefly, he was a South African Jewish immigrant from Nazi Germany in 1934, getting out just in the nick of time. Growing up in poverty, he excelled in education and became a leading figure in the anti-Apartheid movement, first as an attorney and then a politician. Somehow, he was able to gain respect across the political spectrum as an intellectual and moral giant.  By 1990, to legitimize the country’s commitment to part from Apartheid, he was appointed Ambassador to the United States.

I noticed on the Ikamva Labantu headquarters wall a picture of Helen Lieberman and Bill Clinton. “Yeah,” Helen responded. “That was at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting. He was worthless. Gave me an award, we got a picture, and then he provided zero money.”

Michael Schwartz and his wife Tammy, who is an American emergency room physician, now lead a foundation established by his parents and they were touring Khayelitsha to determine how best of support the program. The three of us met with Helen, who told us of her relationship with Harry and his brave and brilliant wife, Annette, and their joint efforts in the anti-Apartheid struggle. I became a fortunate observer of Michael, Tammy and Helen’s interactions. Also in that initial meeting at Ikamva’s Cape Town headquarters was Helen’s niece, Janine Glantz, the finance director of Ikamva. It was Janine who would take us in her car on the township program tour, as Helen needed to return home that day.

Janine took us to three sites of the Ikamva program.  The first was a training center for pre-school educators. We met with the program director who explained its goals for improving the quality of pre-school education in the township and the successes and challenges of the program over the years.  The site was a well-constructed building with a large central gathering spot and multiple classrooms. While we were there, we saw not only instruction of the student teachers, but also active pre-school classes broken up by age groupings.  The place felt like a happy and safe place for the very young.

Next we went to the after-school program for pre-teens.  At that time, some of the children were in the process of receiving school uniforms and school supplies.

Showing off the new uniforms.

Finally, we sat in on a senior’s program.  It was just wrapping up, and they ended their session in song.  Please click on the following link to listen and watch the seniors say so long to each other.

Non-profit programs like Ikamva are no effective substitute for broadly inclusive and adequately funding public programs in education, infrastructure and social and economic justice.  They are no substitute for the kind of massive and equitable private investment which is necessary for community development.  But they make a huge difference in the lives of many.  As the expression from the Pirkei Avot goes, “Whoever saves a single life has saved the whole world.”


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