Jews have been an integral part of the fabric of society in South Africa since the 17th century when some arrived with the early Dutch settlers. However, only with the influx of Jews escaping pogroms in Lithuania and other parts of Europe, or seeking to build their fortunes after the discovery of gold in the country, would the community grow and flourish.
The Jewish community has contributed to the nation disproportionately to its size. Many notable members of the Jewish community were involved in the struggle against apartheid and, as the country emerged from its dark past into democracy, communal leaders enjoyed good relations with the government; bilateral relations with Israel were strong.
However, since Hamas’s barbarous invasion of southern Israel on Oct. 7, South Africa has demonstrated clear bias by strengthening ties with the terrorist organization, which is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state.
As news of the massacre unfolded, South Africa failed to condemn Hamas. President Cyril Ramaphosa reiterated solidarity with the Palestinians and Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor’s phone call to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, and subsequent visit to Iranian leader Ali Khamenei, sent a negative message to the Jewish community.
Jewish leaders from the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD and S.A. Zionist Federation (SAZF) recently met with Ramaphosa, who set out his government’s position regarding Israel and Palestine.
He affirmed that South Africa:
“1. Stands with the people of Palestine who have endured over seven decades of apartheid-type brutal occupation.
“2. Condemned the attacks carried out by Hamas on the 7th of October, 2023 on Israeli citizens, including women and children.
“3. Calls for all hostages to be returned.
“4. Condemns the genocide that is being inflicted against the people of Palestine, including women and children, through collective punishment and ongoing bombardment of Gaza.
“5. Calls for the International Criminal Court to investigate all the atrocities and war crimes committed in Israel and Palestine and to hold all those responsible to account.
“6. Calls for the immediate cessation of hostilities to allow for more humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.
“7. Calls for the resumption of negotiations between Palestinians and Israel that will lead to a two-state solution along the 1967 internationally recognized borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.”
Ramaphosa indicated that the South African diplomats based in Tel Aviv will remain in South Africa for consultations. He emphasized the government’s denunciation of antisemitic behavior towards Jewish people in South Africa, including the boycott of Jewish-owned businesses.
The SAZF slammed the use of the term “genocide” in reference to Israel’s actions, calling it “blatantly false and willfully misleading.” The Federation refuted the term “apartheid,” which “dilutes the meaning of apartheid that black South Africans suffered under. Israel is a multicultural democracy, the only one in the Middle East, and it extends full rights to all its citizens, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.”
“While we have always known our government’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was deeply troubling seeing their initial response to Oct. 7, the relationship of the ruling ANC party with Hamas and the atrociously one-sided and biased understanding of the war. Their soft calls for the release of the hostages in contrast to the vicious aggression against Israel is appalling,” SAZF declared.
“In saying this we do recognize that the government’s security cluster has been incredibly committed to protecting S.A. Jewry. S.A. Jewry has mostly been spared the horrific violent antisemitism and attacks on Jewish installations that some of our fellow Diaspora communities have experienced in the past weeks. We will continue to work in countering and responding to hate and untruths whether they be from government, political parties, media, or social media” the statement continued.
SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn stated: “On 13 December, the SAJBD met with President Ramaphosa and expressed our concerns, including antisemitism in the country. We were reassured by his commitment to fight, speak and act against the boycott of Israeli and Jewish businesses in South Africa and to protect the South African Jewish community against antisemitic incidents and attacks.”
Union of Jewish Women National President Bev Goldman told JNS: “I think the community feels huge disappointment with a president and his cabinet who seem totally immune to the atrocities suffered by Israel at the hands of Hamas.
“Our love of and support of Israel has never before impacted on the strong feelings of loyalty we have to this country. We have always been so proud to be South Africans, to contribute to the growth and development of this beautiful country, and to appreciate the freedom of religion and speech which is a cornerstone of this democracy.
“Now, however, our frustration, disappointment and anger—and in many cases our increasing sense of insecurity—coupled with the overt and vitriolic hostility towards Israel, which is proclaimed loudly in all governmental statements concerning the Middle East, and particularly the threat to young South African Jews serving in the IDF, seem regrettably to be loosening the ties many have with their country of birth, and turning them against it. Aliyah and emigration are more and more topics of dinnertime conversation. So sad.”
Broadcaster and businessman Howard Feldman said: “The ANC has made it clear that they care not a fig for Jewish lives and has chosen a path that will be hard to come back from.
“Although many in the Jewish community knew on a rational level that the ANC cared little for them, their response to Oct. 7 made it horrifically clear. Not only was there no response or attempt to reach out to the Jewish community, but the ANC immediately donned Palestinian scarves, ensuring that the message was driven home.”
South African Jews are proudly Zionist and are extremely proud of their South African heritage. Restoring faith in the government in the wake of Israel’s war with Hamas is going to be a challenge.