Britain’s quietest immigration story

The JC Essay

By Andrew Caplan, June 9, 2013
Students at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, Cape Province, South Africa fasted on the steps of their library in May 1965 to protest against the government

Students at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, Cape Province, South Africa fasted on the steps of their library in May 1965 to protest against the government

We have been talking about the politics of immigration since the 1960s, sometimes with a barely hidden xenophobic subtext. At first, the focus was on migrants "of colour"; of late it has become a proxy for anti-Europeanism and concern about the "clash of civilisations".

All the while, there has been another, quieter immigration story, clearly visible from the heights of north west London and Canary Wharf, but little remarked on elsewhere. This is the gradual accumulation over the past 60-odd years (accelerated since the 1990s) of a small but substantial South African Jewish population that has settled in north London.

South African Jewry is descended from migrants from the Baltic (mainly Lithuania) and Western provinces of the old Russian Empire. By the 1970s, it numbered upwards of 120,000, largely centred in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Now it has declined to 73,000 and falling, as people have upped sticks for Australia, Israel and America, heading for work, joining family, and trying to recreate a semblance of the life they had enjoyed in South Africa. And a smaller fraction has settled in the UK.

A few years ago, the Centre for Minority Studies of the Royal Holloway was asked to examine the particular circumstances of South African Jewish migrants to London.

Whereas most studies of migration have focused on the movement of people from deprived circumstances - mainly economic, but also socio-political - to areas of greater economic and political freedom, this looked at a relatively privileged group who were neither oppressed or expelled. An additional challenge was posed by the dearth of reliable statistics on the size of the community. Best estimates, based on the 2001 Census and GLA survey, suggested it was in excess of 6,000 in 2009.

The research team interviewed 314 people aged between 27 and 92, living and/or working in the Greater London area. They found a typical middle-class community - three-quarters married, 85 per cent with children, 92 per cent possessing a higher-education qualification, and 89 per cent owner occupiers, most commonly in Camden, Barnet and Harrow and the contiguous districts of south west Hertfordshire. In most respects the South African Jewish community in London resembled the "comfortable" sector of the host Jewish community.

They retained a moderate to strong attachment (particularly second and third generation South Africans) to their homeland, reinforced by regular visits, following the news and the ease of contacting family using modern technology. Early arrivals, often single and in search of work, education and a cosmopolitan lifestyle, had immersed themselves in British relationships to a greater degree.

More notable than the continuing strength of South African identity is that of Jewish identity, which is as strong as any national identity, with a solid commitment to Jewish education at least until barmitzvah. The community has continued the tradition of charitable giving (mainly to UK Jewish charities) but shed the generally left-leaning liberal stance of the apartheid period for a southern-England conservatism. Attachment to Israel is strong, although accompanied by criticisms of its policies, and the move to London does not seem have affected the commitment to a diaspora-centred Zionism.

The "push" factors for emigration varied widely from a lack of belief in the viability of their future, politically and economically, particularly during the apartheid era, to a feeling of displacement and distrust since the fall of apartheid. A typical remark of an early migrant was: "I couldn't remain and do nothing and I didn't want to go to jail". Later arrivals are older, have come with family, and were concerned that they had lost their role in the new South Africa. The break with the old country has left nostalgia for the cultural and religious life of the community there, as well as for the sights, tastes and smells of the African landscape and beach life.

Many had envisioned their future outside the country from an early age - to fulfil a Zionist dream, break out from colonial insularity, enhance professional and cultural opportunities, and a variety of other personal reasons. Constant, however, was a feeling of a collapsing future ("getting out before the curtain comes down") that would not include them - in the words of one migrant: "I knew I was going to leave - just not when. I felt I didn't belong. As a Jew… I was always on the periphery." When the peaks of emigration are plotted against political events (for example the Sharpeville massacre, the Soweto riots, Mbeki's presidency) there is a strong correlation - though these seem to prompt the decision rather than directly cause it - and emigrants in general had time to reflect, plan and make a relatively orderly move.

Despite "feeling" South African (and being seen that way), the vast majority have developed a substantial attachment for "England" and feel at home here without having thus far been transformed into full "Englishmen and women". In general, South Africans have adapted themselves well to their new lives and are unlikely to leave (although whether this will hold true for their children is impossible to say). They live in, or in relatively close proximity to, London and near other Jews, especially South African ones; prefer their children to attend Jewish schools; and encourage their children to seek "traditional" (though short of strict Orthodoxy) Jewish partners.

Zionism is an issue of great concern to this community, virtually all of whom have visited Israel. They suggested that antisemitism now masqueraded as anti-Zionism; that non-Jews and Islamists now had a freedom to express their hitherto private views publicly without fear of ridicule, criticism or contradiction.

In effect, the reduction in social antisemitism that had been previously prevalent in England (but apparently not in South Africa) and associated with the political right, had been replaced by a political anti-Zionism on both wings. Despite variations in religious observance, feeling and commitment, South African Jews in London, especially those in the "heartland" boroughs generally mix with their own religious group and maintain South African-based friendship groups that are reinforced at times by the synagogue. As a so-called "South African mafia" has developed in recent years, and opportunities to meet, socialise and do business with fellow ex-South Africans has blossomed. The desire to "de-tribalise" and "fit in" has somewhat receded and South Africans feel freer to be themselves. Given the widely entrepreneurial nature and high achievement of the group, it is not surprising that its members attract employment in the higher levels of the London tertiary economy.

The limits of attachment were often felt over sport and the maintenance of the connections with the teams of one's youth - mainly cricket, but also rugby - most strongly felt by ex-practitioners. Several people invoked the Tebbit "cricket test" as evidence of their support for/ambivalent attachment to England, and referred to the "tribal" nature of sporting support.

The Jewish community has often been complimented - in implicit contrast to other seemingly more troublesome ethnicities - for its record of dutiful loyalty. South African Jewish immigrants, with their white skin, English-based education, and European-influenced culture, had opportunities not offered to other immigrants to integrate and assimilate. By all obvious criteria, they have integrated well. The question of "assimilation" - the loss of individuality by blending into the mainstream - is more problematic.

To the extent that we can read the future by a study of the past and present, there are signs of blending and fusing. When asked whether they felt more British or South African, more than a third said they felt more British (though "it felt like a desertion", said one) and a fifth said they felt both equally. The minority who felt strongly South African were among the more recent arrivals, and possibly reflected that it is now less "cool" to be British.

South African Jews who arrived early, or who are in relationships with British or non-Jewish partners, or who live outside the "heartland", show all the signs of seamless mutation into the mainstream. They have lost the South African vowels and intonation; they rarely communicate with South African friends or family and ignore news of South African interest. For these, in time, the South African sojourn may well be but a temporary episode in the wandering migration out of Lithuania. And then, given this group's general prosperity and qualifications? Re-migration to who-knows-where? The South African episode could be confined to an album of faded snaps of the beach at Muizenberg and a half-remembered childhood song about a "Train to Kimberley".

Andrew Caplan is an honorary research associate of the department of history at Royal Holloway University. He gave three talks at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in association with the recent 'Memories of Muizenberg' exhibition

"A so-called ‘South African mafia’ has developed in recent years, while the need to ‘de-tribalise’ has somewhat receded"

Last updated: 9:45am, June 9 2013