At the recent memorial celebrating South African former president, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein stood alongside other religious leaders and performed a moving interfaith service for the watching millions.
For many Jewish South Africans, the Chief Rabbi’s presence signified the miracle of Mandela’s tenure: the acceptance of the Jewish community into mainstream South African life foll-owing the end of apartheid in 1990.
Hundreds of individual Jews played major roles in the struggle against the apartheid. By contrast, Jewish leaders during the apartheid years displayed a complacency that bordered on the complicit.
The Jewish Board of Deputies believed that antagonising the ruling National Party, which counted Nazi sympathisers and avowed antisemites among its luminaries, would lead to South African Jewry’s destruction. It was a position that remains a blight on an otherwise remarkable history.
Following his release from prison in April 1990, Mr Mandela chose not just to ignore but to forgive these political expediencies. Jews were one of myriad religions and ethnicities absorbed into the Rainbow Nation and if at first we practised tentatively — crime and violence ripped through the country following democracy — Jews now walk without fear to Shabbat services in Chabad houses and Orthodox synagogues and Reform temples throughout the country’s more affluent suburbs.
With Mandela’s passing, talk has once again inclined towards the tentative Jewish position in South Africa. The tenor of the discussion, however, has changed since the 1990s. Yes, there is some concern that Jewish South Africa’s unflinching Zionism puts the community on the wrong side of the ruling African National Congress, whose antipathy to Israel is grounded in Shimon Peres’s and Yitzhak Shamir’s administrations maintaining ties with the apartheid regime after the imposition of international sanctions in 1986. And that is to say nothing of the one-time liberation movement’s natural affinity with the Palestinian cause.
And, yes, violent skirmishes flare up during Israel Apartheid Week, and other anti-Israel brouhahas.
For the most part, however, a composed reading of the national tea leaves would allow that antisemitism is practically non-existent.
Nonetheless, South African demagoguery during the waning of the Mandela era has taken on a very different, but potentially more dangerous, slant as far as the community is concerned.
While Mandela’s ANC successfully managed the political turnover, they badly botched the economic transition. The country is still unsustainably divided between rich and poor. While the Black Employment Empowerment initiative, along with other ill-conceived affirmative action programmes, replaced a narrow Afrikaner elite with a narrow black elite, those who were economically enfranchised at the end of apartheid remain very much so now.
The populist battle has rounded on the elites, and the mainstream Jewish community certainly qualifies as such.
Mandela understood the pitfalls of the forcible redistribution of wealth; he did not understand, or was unable to institute, a fairer balance between those crushed under the apartheid regime, and those who benefited from it.
In the coming years, the redressing of this balance, however ad hoc, will be the battleground on which the country’s Jews may find themselves casualties.