South African Jewry

Milton Shain

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
South African Jewry

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Non-Protestants, including Jews, were denied the right to settle during the rule of the Dutch East India Company (1652–1795). This practice was changed under the relatively enlightened Batavian administration (1803–1806) and maintained thereafter by their administrative heirs, the British, beginning in 1806. A handful of Jews, mainly of English, Dutch, and German origin, availed themselves of the new circumstances, which allowed Jews the right to settle. In 1841 they founded Tikvath Israel (Hope of Israel), forerunner of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. Their numbers were consolidated by the influx of eastern European Jews, mainly from Lithuania, after the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and the discovery of gold two decades later. About 40,000 Jews came to the country in the three decades prior to the First World War, but mass immigration of Jews to South Africa was virtually curtailed with the introduction of the Quota Act in 1930. The eastern European newcomers readily adopted the Anglo-Jewish lifestyle, rapidly discarding their distinctive garb and mores. They did not, however, dilute their Jewish identity and indeed helped establish a wide range of communal institutions and organizations designed specifically to safeguard that identity. Most important, the eastern European Jews brought with them a Zionist fervor that continues to characterize the South African Jewish community to this day. By 1961 virtually the entire South African Jewish population, slightly enhanced by a trickle of Sephardi immigrants from the Belgium Congo, was urbanized, with the overwhelming majority living in the metropolitan areas of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Pretoria. At its zenith in 1970, the Jewish community numbered 118,200, or 0.6 percent of the total population of 21.4 million, and 3.1 percent of the white population of 3.7 million. Despite the emigration of an estimated 40,000 South African Jews since 1970, the community remains vibrant, exemplified in the two major organizations: the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation. While the board deals essentially with domestic matters and the South African Zionist Federation deals with Israel-related activities, the lines have blurred in recent years. The population is now approximately 75,000, less than 0.5 percent of the total South African population of nearly fifty million. The Jewish community is grappling with its past in apartheid South Africa and finding its place in the new and multicultural dispensation.

Article.  8596 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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