History of the Jews in South Africa

The history of the Jews in South Africa mainly began under the British Empire, following a general pattern of increased European settlement in the 19th century. The early patterns of Jewish South African history are almost identical to the history of the Jews in the United States but on a much smaller scale, including the period of early discovery and settlement from the late 17th century to the early 19th century. The community grew tenfold between 1880 and 1914, from 4,000 to over 40,000.
Jews were instrumental in promoting the extension of diplomatic military ties between Israel and South Africa. South Africa's Jewish community differs from its counterparts in other African countries in that the majority have remained on the continent rather than emigrating to Israel. Among potential Jewish emigrants, many were likelier to select a destination popular among other South Africans, such as Australia.


Portuguese exploration

The modern Jewish history of South Africa began, indirectly, some time before the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, by the participation of certain astronomers and cartographers in the Portuguese discovery of the sea-route to India. Jewish cartographers in Portugal, members of the wealthy and influential classes, assisted Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and 1497. Portugal's baptised Jews were still free until the Portuguese Inquisition was promulgated in 1536.

The Dutch Settlement

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company began the first permanent European settlement of South Africa under Jan van Riebeeck. It has been theorised that "a number of non-professing Jews" were among the first settlers of Cape Town. Non-Christian migration to the Dutch Cape Colony was generally discouraged until 1803.
There were Jews among the directors of the Dutch East India Company, which for 150 years administered the colony at the Cape of Good Hope.
During the seventeenth and the greater part of the 18th century the state religion alone was allowed to be publicly observed; but on 25 July 1804, the Dutch commissioner-general Jacob Abraham de Mist, by a proclamation whose provisions were annulled at the English occupation of 1806 and were not reestablished till 1820, instituted in the colony religious equality for all persons, irrespective of creed.

The 1820s through 1880s

Jews did not arrive in any significant numbers at Cape Town before the 1820s. The first congregation in South Africa, known as the Gardens Shul, was founded in Cape Town in September 1841, and the initial service was held on the eve of Yom Kippur in the house of 1820 Settler and businessman Benjamin Norden, located at the corner of Weltevreden and Hof streets. Benjamin Norden, Simeon Markus, together with a score of others arriving in the early 1820s and '30s, were commercial pioneers, especially the Mosenthal brothers—Julius, Adolph, and James Mosenthal—who started a major wool industry. By their enterprise in going to Asia and returning with thirty Angora goats in 1856 they became the originators of the mohair industry. Aaron and Daniel de Pass were the first to open up Namaqualand, and from 1849 to 1886 they were the largest shipowners in Cape Town, and leaders of the sealing, whaling, and fishing industries. Jews were among the first to take to ostrich-farming and played a role in the early diamond industry. Jews also played some part in early South African politics. Captain Joshua Norden was shot at the head of his Mounted Burghers in the Xhosa War of 1846; Lieutenant Elias de Pass fought in the Xhosa War of 1849. Julius Mosenthal, brother of the poet S. Mosenthal of Vienna, was a member of the Cape Parliament in the 1850s. Simeon Jacobs, C.M.G., who was a judge in the Supreme Court of the Cape of Good Hope, as the acting attorney-general of Cape Colony he introduced and carried in 1872 the Cape Colony Responsible Government Bill and the Voluntary Bill, for both of which bills Saul Solomon, the member for Cape Town, had fought for decades. Saul Solomon, the leader of the Cape Colony Liberal Party, has been called the "Cape Disraeli." He was invited into the first Responsible government, formed by Sir John Molteno, and declined the premiership itself several times. Like Disraeli, too, he early left the ranks of Judaism.
At the same time, the Jews faced substantial antisemitism. Though freedom of worship was granted to all residents in 1870, the revised Grondwet of 1894 still debarred Jews and Catholics from military posts, from the positions of president, state secretary, or magistrate, from membership in the First and Second Volksraad, and from superintendencies of natives and mines. These positions were restricted to persons above 30 years of age with permanent property and a longer history of settlement. As a consequence of the fact that Boer republics were only in existence from 1857 to 1902, unfortunately many residents of the Boer republics had limited access to positions in the upper echelons of government. All instruction was to be given in a Christian and Protestant spirit, and Jewish and Catholic teachers and children were to be excluded from state-subsidized schools. Before the Boer War, Jews were often considered uitlanders and excluded from the mainstream of South African life.
However, a small number of Jews also settled among and identified with the rural white Afrikaans-speaking population; these persons became known as Boerejode. A measure of intermarriage also occurred and was generally accepted.
The South African gold rush began after 1886, attracting many Jews. In 1880, the Jewish population of South Africa numbered approximately 4,000; by 1914 it had grown to more than 40,000. So many of them came from Lithuania that some referred to the population as a colony of Lithuania; Johannesburg was also occasionally called "Jewburg".

Second Anglo-Boer War: 1899–1902

Jews fought on both sides during the Second Boer War. Some of the most notable fights during the three years' Boer War — such as the Gun Hill incident before the Siege of Ladysmith — involved Jewish soldiers like Major Karri Davies. Nearly 2,800 Jews fought on the British side and the London Spectator counted that 125 were killed.
Around 300 Jews served among the Boers during the Second Boer War and were known as Boerjode: those who had citizenship rights were conscripted along with other burghers, but there were also a number of volunteers. Jews fought under the Boers' Vierkleur flag in many of the major battles and engagements and during the guerilla phase of the war, and a dozen are known to have died. Around 80 were captured and held in British concentration camps in South Africa. Some were sent as far afield as St. Helena, Bermuda, and Ceylon to where they had been exiled by the British. Some Jews were among the Bittereinders who fought on long after the Boer cause was clearly lost.

From Union through World War II

Although the Jews were allowed equal rights after the Boer War, they again became subject to persecution in the days leading up to World War II. In 1930, the Quota Act of 1930 was intended to curtail the entry of Jews into South Africa. The vast majority of Jews immigrating to South Africa came from diaspora communities in Lithuania. The 1937 The Aliens Act, motivated by a sharp increase the previous year in the number of German Jewish refugees coming to South Africa, brought the migration to almost a complete halt. Some Jews were able to enter the country, but many were unable to do so. A total of approximately six-and-a-half thousand Jews came to South Africa from Germany between the years 1933 and 1939. Many Afrikaners felt sympathy for Nazi Germany, and organizations like Louis Weichardt’s "Grayshirts" and the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag were openly anti-Semitic. During World War I, many Afrikaners, who had little respect for Britain, objected to the use of "Afrikaner women and children from the British concentration camps" in fighting the German territory of South West Africa on behalf of Britain. This had the effect of drumming up pro-German sentiment among a population of Afrikaners. The opposition National Party argued that the Aliens Act was too lenient and advocated a complete ban on Jewish immigration, a halt in the naturalization of Jewish permanent residents of South Africa and the banning of Jews from certain professions. After the war, the situation began to improve, and a large number of South African Jews, generally a fairly Zionist community, made aliyah to Israel. While it is understandable that many South African Jews would feel uncomfortable with formerly pro-Nazi Afrikaners rising to power in 1948, many leading apartheid-era Afrikaner politicians publicly apologized to the South African Jewish community for their earlier anti-semitic actions and assured it of its continued safety in South Africa.
During this time, there were also two waves of Jewish immigration to Africa from the island of Rhodes, first in the 1900s and then after 1960.

Post World War II

South African Jews and Israel

When the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power in 1948 it did not adopt an anti-Jewish policy despite its earlier position. In 1953 South Africa's Prime Minister, D. F. Malan, became the first foreign head of government to visit Israel though the trip was a "private visit" rather than an official state visit. This began a long history of cooperation between Israel and South Africa on many levels. The proudly Zionistic South African Jewish community, through such bodies as the South African Zionist Federation and a number of publications, maintained a cordial relationship with the South African government even though it objected to the policies of Apartheid being enacted. South Africa's Jews were permitted to collect huge sums of money to be sent on as official aid to Israel, in spite of strict exchange-control regulations. Per capita, South African Jews were reputedly the most financially supportive Zionists abroad.
Settlement of South African Jews in Israel
A number of South African Jews settled in Israel, forming a South African community in Israel. Perhaps the most famous South African community founded in Israel is Savyon, which remains the wealthiest suburb in Israel. Large houses were built in the style that the community was accustomed to from their life in South Africa, each with a pool, and developed around a country club.

South Africa and Israel

Most African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Israel began to view the similarly isolated South Africa cordially. Ethan A. Nadelmann claimed that the relationship developed due to the fact that many African countries broke diplomatic ties with Israel during the 1970s following the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, causing Israel to deepen relations with other isolated countries.
By the mid-1970s, Israel's relations with South Africa were warm. In 1975, the Israel–South Africa Agreement was signed, and increasing economic cooperation between Israel and South Africa was reported, including the construction of a major new railway in Israel, and the building of a desalination plant in South Africa. In April 1976 South African Prime Minister John Vorster was invited to make a state visit, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Later in 1976, the 5th Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, adopted a resolution calling for an oil embargo against France and Israel because of their arms sales to South Africa. In 1977, South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha visited Israel to discuss South African issues with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan.
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a controversial Israeli professor of psychology, wrote in 1988 that the alliance between South Africa and Israel was one of the most underreported news stories of the past four decades and that Israel played a crucial role in the survival of the South African regime. Israel's collaboration with Apartheid South Africa was mentioned and condemned by various international organizations like the UN General Assembly. In 1987 Israel announced that it would be implementing sanctions against South Africa. By the beginning of the 1990s, military and economic ties between the two countries had been lost.

Moderation and liberalism

South African Jews have a history of political moderation and the majority supported opposition parties such as first the United Party, then the Liberal Party, Progressive Party and its successors during the decades of National Party apartheid rule.. The prime example of the more moderate approach is that of the highly assimilated Harry Oppenheimer , the richest man in South Africa and the chairman of the De Beers and Anglo American corporations. He was a supporter of the liberal Progressive Party and its policies, believing that granting more freedom and economic growth to South Africa's Black African majority was good politics and sound economic policy. The banner for this cause was held high by Helen Suzman, as the lone Progressive Party member in South Africa's parliament, representing the voting district of Houghton, home to many wealthy Jewish families at the time. The Progressive Party was later led by Jewish politician, Tony Leon and his successor, Helen Zille. Zille is of Jewish descent, her parents separately left Germany in the 1930s to avoid Nazi persecution.
In 1980, after 77 years of neutrality, South Africa's National Congress of the Jewish Board of Deputies passed a resolution urging "all concerned and, in particular, members of our community to cooperate in securing the immediate amelioration and ultimate removal of all unjust discriminatory laws and practices based on race, creed, or colour". This inspired some Jews to intensify their anti-apartheid activism, but the bulk of the community either emigrated or avoided public conflict with the National Party government.
The Jewish establishment and the majority of South African Jews remained focused on Jewish issues. A few rabbis spoke out against apartheid early, but they failed to gain support and it was not until 1985 that the rabbinate as a whole condemned apartheid. The South African Union for Progressive Judaism took the strongest stand of any of the Jewish movements in the country against apartheid. It opposed disinvestment while women in the movement engaged in social work as a form of protest. This includes the Moses Weiler School in Alexandra where for generations the school has been funded and led by women from the Progressive movement, even in opposition to the Bantu Education Act, 1953.


Although the Jewish community peaked in the 1970s, about 70,000 mostly nominally Orthodox, remain in South Africa. A proportion are secular, or have converted to Christianity. Despite low intermarriage rates, approximately 1,800 Jews emigrate every year, mainly to Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States. The Jewish community in South Africa is currently the largest in Africa, and, although shrinking due to emigration, it remains one of the most nominally Orthodox communities in the world, although there is a significantly growing Progressive community, especially in Cape Town. The nation's Progressive communities are represented by the South African Union for Progressive Judaism. The current Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Warren Goldstein, has been widely credited for initiating a "Bill of Responsibilities" which the government has incorporated in the national school curriculum. The Chief Rabbi has also pushed for community run projects to combat crime in the country.
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The community has become more observant and in Johannesburg, the largest centre of Jewish life with 66,000 Jews, there is a high number and density of kosher restaurants and religious centres. In politics, the Jewish community continues to have influence, particularly in leadership roles. Currently, the sole national Jewish newspaper, with a readership of about 40,000, is the South African Jewish Report. In 2008, a Jewish radio station, ChaiFM, commenced broadcasting in Johannesburg, and also broadcasting on the internet to the large South African "diaspora". Despite a fall in number, since 2003 the number of South African Jews has stabilised.
The 2016 Community Survey mini-census conducted by Statistics South Africa found the largest numbers in the following municipalities:
Johannesburg 23,420; Cape Town 12,672; Ethekwini 3,599; Ekurhuleni 1,846; Tshwane 1,579; Nelson Mandela Bay 623; Msunduzi 600; Mangaung 343; Stellenbosch 316; Buffalo City 251; Mbombela 242.


The Lemba or "wa-Remba" are a southern African ethnic group whose members are to be found in Zimbabwe and South Africa with some little known branches in Mozambique and Malawi. According to Tudor Parfitt they are thought to number 70,000. They speak the Bantu languages spoken by their geographic neighbours and resemble them physically, but they have some religious practices and beliefs similar to those in Judaism and Islam, which they claim were transmitted by oral tradition. They have a tradition of ancient Jewish or South Arabian descent through their male line. Genetic Y-DNA analyses in the 2000s have established a partially Middle-Eastern origin for a portion of the male Lemba population. More recent research argues that DNA studies do not support claims for a specifically Jewish genetic heritage.

Jewish education in South Africa

Traditionally, Jewish education in South Africa was conducted by the Cheder or Talmud Torah, while children received secular education at government and private schools. There were, initially, no formal structures in place for Rabbinical education.
An important change took place in 1948, when King David School was established as the first full-time dual-curriculum Jewish day school – the high school was established in 1955. Today, the King David schools are amongst the largest Jewish day schools in the world, with thousands of students. King David's equivalent in Cape Town is "Herzlia" with Carmel School in Pretoria and Durban, and the in Port Elizabeth. Umhlanga Jewish Day School, was opened in January 2012, to cater for Jewish children in the greater Durban area. In total, nineteen Day Schools, affiliated to the South African Board of Jewish Education, have been established in the main centres. The Jewish day schools regularly place amongst the top in the country in the national Matric examinations
The first religious day school, the Yeshiva College of South Africa, was established in the mid-1950s, drawing primarily on the popularity of the Bnei Akiva Religious Zionist youth movement. As an institution with hundreds of pupils, Yeshivah College is today the largest religious school in the country. Other educational institutions within this ideology include Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School and Cape Town Torah High in Cape Town, the Kollel and Midrasha of Mizrachi, Johannesburg, and the Yeshiva of Cape Town, a Torah MiTzion Kollel.
In parallel to the establishment of Yeshiva College, and drawing on the same momentum, several smaller yeshivot were opened, starting in the 1960s. The Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, established in 1973, is the best known of these, having trained dozens of South African Rabbis, including Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein. The Yeshiva follows the "Telshe" educational model, although accommodates students from across the spectrum of Hashkafa.
This era also saw the start of a large network of Chabad-Lubavitch activities and institutions. There is today a Lubavitch Yeshiva in Johannesburg serving the Chabad community, a Chabad Semicha programme in Pretoria, and Lubavitch Day schools in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Johannesburg boasts ten Chabad Houses, Cape Town two and Kwazulu-Natal one, all of which offer a variety of Torah classes and adult education and informal children's education programmes.
The 1980s saw the establishment of a Haredi kollel, Yad Shaul, as well as the growth of a large baal teshuva movement – this was supported by the Israel-based organizations Ohr Somayach and Aish HaTorah which established active branches in South Africa; Arachim also has an active presence. Ohr Somayach, South Africa operates a full-time Yeshiva in Johannesburg – with its Bet Midrash established in 1990, and its Kollel in 1996 – as well as a Midrasha ; it also runs a Bet Midrash in Cape Town. There are several Haredi boys' schools in Johannesburg, each associated with one of the yeshivot, as well as a Beis Yaakov girls' school.
The Progressive Movement maintains a network of supplementary Hebrew and Religious classes at its temples. These schools are all affiliated to the SA Union for Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked, congregational rabbi of Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue is currently involved in efforts to establish a Rabbinic Academy and Higher Education Institution in Gauteng.
Conservative / Masorti's presence in South Africa is limited to one synagogue in Johannesburg.
Limmud was introduced to the country in 2007. The Limmud South Africa conferences are held in August/September each year. South Africa's Orthodox rabbis do not participate, unlike the UK's Orthodox Rabbinate part of whom have taken part in Limmud UK; see Limmud: Relationships with Centrist Orthodoxy in Britain.