Some of the problems of life under a raft of apartheid legislation and restrictive laws have already been discussed. The Weizmann Hall could only be hired to Non-Europeans under the Group Areas Act and the Separate Amenities Act once certain legal requirements had been met. They could only let it out for a concert for the dependants of the Treason Trial accused on condition that there were no political speeches or addresses.

How did the Jewish community feel about these laws? Milton Shain and Sally Frankental pointed out that “Numbed by the Holocaust, buoyed by the emergence of the Jewish state, reassured by the National Party government’s new attitude to Jews, while still concerned with the search for personal financial security and well-being, Jews for the most part ignored the unfolding of apartheid in the 1950s.” Some emigrated in the wake of Sharpeville in the 1960s, others supported liberal initiatives. But the majority were satisfied simply to blame the government and voice their opposition to the evils of apartheid through the ballot box.[i] Their ‘white’ skin colour automatically made them part of the ruling white minority and they accepted these privileges without complaint and took advantage of the benefits it brought them professionally and economically.

Although now governed by Afrikaans nationalists, the country still formed part of the British Commonwealth and the congregation, most of whom had assimilated into the English – speaking sector of the country, felt a loyalty to Britain. When it came to the coronation of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11, they held a “truly dignified and impressive” special service (24.2.1953).

It was a time of insecurity, fear and farewells as congregants’ children started to emigrate and country communities to shrivel and the synagogue benefitted from gifts from defunct communities. Established in 1924, the services of the Darling Hebrew Congregation Jews had been held in the home of the local Rabbi who had come from Lithuania with a Torah. When Rabbi Gordon died in 1955, their congregation was incorporated into the Malmesbury Hebrew Congregation and the Sefer Torah was given to G&SPHC. They received two Sefer Torahs from the Mooreesburg Hebrew Congregation when it closed in 1956.

The Sharpeville protests in March 1960, during which the police killed 69, followed a week later by a march in Cape Town by 30,000 led by Philip Kgosana resulted in massive state repression. A State of Emergency was declared, tough security laws were passed, 18,000 were arrested and detained without access to lawyers and family, at times in solitary confinement, and the PAC and ANC banned. There were bannings, telephone taps, house arrests, midnight raids, detention without trial for 12 days (1962), 90 days (1963) and then 120 days (1965). Prime Minster Vorster called South Africa "the happiest police state in the world". There is no mention of any of this in the reported messages from the rabbis or president of the synagogue at the time.

Sharpeville, 21 March 1960


Sharpeville, 21 March 1960

Shain and Frankental have pointed out that Jews have always constituted “a miniscule proportion of the population” of South Africa and, like all Diaspora Jewish communities, it needed to focus on self-preservation. The community was scared to speak out, acknowledging that opposition was futile, and although Jews featured prominently in the freedom struggle they were few in number and secular. Politicians and Afrikaans newspapers were quick to point out that, of the 156 accused in the 1957 treason trial, 23 were white, 15 of whom were Jews[ii] and that all five whites arrested at Rivonia in 1963 were Jewish.[iii]

“Where does the Jew stand in the White struggle for survival” asked the Afrikaans newspapers.[iv] “When one is suspicious of a group, one judges it facilely by the deeds of its most extreme members. Hence Goldreich and Wolpe[v] become, in the first place, not saboteurs but Jews who wish to undermine South Africa.”

These antagonistic feelings hardened after Israel voted against South Africa at the United Nations in 1961. Jews were being seen as disrupters of White supremacy from within, and as supporters of Israel, betrayers of South Africa from without.[vi] In order to punish Israel, the government withdrew permission for the SA Zionist Federation to transfer fund to Israel through the Jewish Agency. Verwoerd tried to link the SA Jewish community to this vote, but after two years withdrew this and announced that he would not allow anti-Jewish feeling because of Israel’s vote. The Nationalists were unhappy about Jewish dissidents and in 1968 the Minister of Police asked the Jewish Board of Deputies not to allow Jewish youth to take part in student protests at the University of Cape Town and Wits. The Board[vii] replied that it was unfair to blame the demonstrations on the Jewish students. There was amused embarrassment when former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, visiting South Africa in 1969, turned to the dominee sitting next to him at a lunch given in his honour by the Mayor of Johannesburg and asked him: “How do you explain the fact that Moses married a black woman?”[viii]

Anti-Jewish feelings remained and five years later Jimmy Kruger, the Minister of Justice, stated that “Jews, because of their dubious loyalties have no right to criticise South African laws.”[ix]

Apartheid was to have a seminal influence on the religiosity of the South African Jewish community. For ethical reasons, most Modern Orthodox rabbis were not prepared to accept positions in apartheid South Africa whereas to the more fundamentalist groups like the Lubavitch what mattered was not the politics of the country but the souls they could save by making them more halachically observant. Their job was to bring Jews back to the Torah in order to hasten the redemption and they went wherever the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent them and his secretary, Rabbi Krinsky said the Rebbe encouraged Jewish people wherever they were to make their host country an abode for G-d.

Until 1970 Johannesburg Jews were, like the Cape Town Jews, nominally Orthodox and non-observant and their rabbis generally moderately Orthodox. This was to change when the very strict anti-modern Adath Yeshurun congregation in Yeoville opened a kollel and seeing its success, Chabad Lubavitch sent in an emissary in 1972[x] and in 1976, the year of the killings by the police of hundreds of school children during the Soweto uprising, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson sent out Rabbi Mendel Popack to Cape Town and Rabbi Yossi Goldman to Johannesburg to promote the Chabad outreach to less-observant and unaffiliated Jews.

My foundations - Menachem Mendel Schneerson | Rabbi, Modern history, Jewish  art


The Lubavitche Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The Ultra-Orthodox Ba’alei Teshuva movement Ohr Somayach moved into Johannesburg in 1986 and soon established shtiebels followed by schools and a yeshivah. As a result the Jewish community in Johannesburg shifted from an identity based on ethnicity to one based on religion with a fundamentalist undertone. Furthermore, living and being educated under the apartheid regime, South Africans were trained not to engage in critical thinking processes and to avoid asking too many questions and few Jews had studied or were aware of the modern Jewish movements developing in other countries. Whereas the secular public was largely turning left and adopting liberal, democratic and individualist values, the religious public in Johannesburg was generally moving to the right.[xi] This was not the case in Cape Town but the political and numerical strength of Johannesburg Jewry and their religious establishment was later to have major implications on the G&SPHC when the Johannesburg religious establishment forced them to conform.

In the meantime, an indication of how the Sea Point community felt about the imposition of apartheid policies can be gauged by their responses to the activism of their rabbis. Very few Orthodox rabbis were prepared to take a public stand against apartheid or pay the price for condemning what was happening around them as being completely opposed to Torah values. In some cases the price was government harassment or deportation. Judge Dennis Davis commented that in the context of a racist antisemitic government caution was clearly justified. During the 1970s and early 1980s, rabbis like Bernhard, Super, Sherman, Rosen, Isaacson and Franklin spoke out and showed a clear commitment to foundational Jewish values in the wake of oppression. But the Jewish Board of Deputies and the rabbinical leadership under Chief Rabbi Casper continued along the earlier path of obsequious caution in the face of brutal racial oppression.[xii] It was also criticised by Prof Gideon Shimoni who pointed out that most rabbis, particularly the ultra-Orthodox gave scant attention to apartheid, some even speaking out in support of the government. They detached themselves from any sense of responsibility to the society as a whole and followed the lead of Chief Rabbi Casper who believed that as a small foreign body Jews fooled themselves if they thought they could influence the course of events.[xiii]

However, unlike the majority of South African rabbis who tried to hide their disapproval of laws that went totally counter to Jewish values, four of the G&SPHC rabbis were prepared to speak out against apartheid, and this could only have been done with the approval of their committees and congregation. It is greatly to the credit of the G&SPHC that in a period of massive state repression. tough security laws, arrests, bannings and detention without trial, when the Board of Deputies and the rabbinate had decided that it was safer not to play a moral leadership role, they employed and supported rabbis who were prepared to show moral leadership in an unjust world, even if they were not prepared to go as far as to allow Rabbi Rosen to mention the deaths of victims of apartheid brutality in the Yizkor service. The first resigned, the government refused to renew the work visas of two, and the Congregation refused to renew the contract of the fourth.

Rabbi Rabinowitz: Rabbi ES Rabinowitz was the first rabbi to provoke congregational criticism when the contents of his weekly congregational newsletters raised alarm. He was asked in October 1961 to confine his newsletter to religion and congregational matters. In January he was again asked to exercise discretion in his newsletter in order to avoid any possible litigation. Possible litigation? What topics was the rabbi covering? In 1962 Rabbi Rabinowitz agreed to deal more judiciously with controversial matters. Controversial? What was he writing about? The UJW was unlikely to threaten litigation when his complaints led to a full house. By December 1963 the committee decided to meet the rabbi fortnightly to discuss the topics he would be covering and they reported that the newsletter’s absence during the summer holidays, had led to peace and quiet in the community and that the rabbi had agreed to suspend its production. That was wishful thinking. The newsletters continued and so did the complaints. The president decided that the time had come to stop the newsletter and called the rabbi into a meeting in May 1964.

That was not a wise thing to do. Rabbi Rabinowitz gave them an ultimatum. His contract was due for a renewal in May 1965. If the renewal was dependant on the discontinuation of the newsletter, he would leave. Until his contract ended, his newsletter had to continue as before although he undertook to be as circumspect as possible in writing about controversial matters, otherwise he would discontinue its publication forthwith on condition that the committee informed the general body that this was done at their request and give the reason why such a request was made. This indicated that the rabbi was sure of support. The committee decided that neither compromise was acceptable but agreed that the newsletter would continue since the rabbi had undertaken to be as circumspect as possible in publishing controversial matters. The next month, however, Rabbi Rabinowitz wrote terminating his services. The committee asked him to reconsider. He agreed. Then the local secular press published comments Rabbi Rabinowitz made in his newsletter of 6.11.1964 and now the Board of Deputies was also concerned. The committee decided not to post the next issue of the 13.11.1964 and to stop all future issues. That was the last straw. The Rabbi gave notice, refused the offer of a farewell function only agreeing to a small brochah after the service and said his prime reason for leaving was to be near his children in England.

What was in the newsletters that could have resulted in litigation? That resulted in the order to confine himself to religion and congregational matters only?[xiv] Would he have mentioned Sharpeville? What were his thoughts when Prime Minister Verwoerd told Parliament that the riots could not be described as a reaction against the Government's apartheid policy, had nothing to do with passes, poverty and low wages but were just a periodic phenomenon? Might he have referred to the 90 and 180-day detention laws or the escape of Harold Wolpe and Arthur Goldreich? We do not know as the newsletters have not survived and fifty years later all Cantor Badash could recall was the Rabbi’s complaints about Jewish women shopping on Saturdays.

It needs to be remembered, when looking back at the actions of the committee fifty years later, in an environment that has seen a complete paradigm shift of attitudes towards freedom of speech and human rights, that one cannot blame a community living in what Prime Minster Vorster had called "the happiest police state in the world", a world of bannings and detention without trial, for its reticence and anxiety at not wishing its rabbi to rock the boat of their security. One can also understand how rabbis, looking at the world with eyes steeped in religious lessons about justice, justice, shall thou pursue and treating others the way one would like to be treated, would feel impelled to speak out at the human rights abuses happening all around them. The same problems between rabbis and committee over speaking out was to recur with Rabbis Rosen, Franklin and Steinhorn.

Once Rabbi Rabinowitz left, although they had no trouble in filling the shul, they had trouble finding a rabbi despite considerable effort and search parties sent to interview prospective candidates. Cantor Badash believed that no rabbi would take the position because it had ‘chased away” Rabbi Rabinowitz, but distaste for South Africa’s politics was a more likely cause and more enlightened outward-looking rabbis were leaving the country as they felt it was morally wrong to live under apartheid and others were refusing appointments in the country. There were some nibbles. One rabbi accepted, then got cold feet and returned the ticket with a doctor’s certificate.

[i] Shain, Milton and Frankental, Sally, “Accommodation, Activism and Apathy: Reflections on Jewish Political Behaviour during the Apartheid Era”, In Jewish Affairs, 52: No 1, Autumn 1997, 53-57


[ii] Saks, D (1997) “The Jewish Accused in the South African Treason Trial” IN Jewish Affairs, 52: No 1, Autumn 1997, 43-47


[iii] Shain, M & Frankental, S, op cit (1997), 54


[iv] Dirk Richard in Dagbreek, quoted in Shimoni, Gideon, Jews and Zionism: The South African Experience (1910-1967), Cape Town 1980, 234


[v]Arrested at Rivonia with Sisulu and Kathrada; they escaped - Goldreich went to Israel.


[vi] Shimoni, G, op cit. 341


[vii] Auerbach, F, “Do we apologize? South African Jewish Community Responses to Apartheid”, IN Jewish Affairs, Jews and Apartheid, vol 54 no 1, 33


[viii] Gilbert, Martin, 1998, op cit. 294


[ix] Hellig, Jocelyn, “Antisemitism Then and Now”, Jewish Affairs, Autumn 1997, 52: 1, 38


[x] Fachler, David, ”The Religious Revival and the Emergence of Haredi Orthodox Judaism”, abstract, Jews in South Africa: New Directions in Research, On line Conference, Institute of Jewish Studies, UCL & Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, UCT, 2020


[xi] Herman, Chaya , “The Jewish community in the post-apartheid era: same narrative, different meaning” In Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa, no 63, 2007, pp. 23-44


[xii] Sifrin, Geoff, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris: How Humanity, morality and humour helped lead a community, The Chief Rabbi CK Harris Memorial Foundation, Sandringham,. Johannesburg, 57


[xiii] Shimoni, Gideon, Community and Conscience: the Jews in Apartheid South Africa, David Philip, Glosderry, Cape Town, 2003, 140-141