By Sharon Bacher
Living in relative isolation for the past 6 months, I particularly welcomed the opportunity to watch Telfed’s zoom lecture on the Jews of South Africa in 2019 by Professor Adam Mendelsohn from the Cape-based Kaplan Centre. As an ex South African with a daughter still living in Cape Town, I am of course concerned with what’s going on there. My daughter, tends to paint a rosy glow over life in Cape Town, so it was good to get some facts.
I learned was that there are still some 52,000 Jews in South Africa; down from the 70,000 that had been previously reported. Over the years, the population has eroded from various natural causes as well as emigration. The main Jewish concentrations are Johannesburg (with 58% of the population), followed by Cape Town (with 24%) and Durban (7%). And Jews comprise 0.9% of the total South African population.
Professor Mendelsohn provided the relevant statistics but I’m not one who can hold statistics in her head and recommend reading the report online on the Kaplan Centre website.
The median age of the Jewish population is 45 years, while the greatest population groups are in the over 60’s group, in all the main centers. This means that a relatively small number of younger people have to support a larger number of elders. In Johannesburg, where they have the largest Orthodox community, they also have the youngest Jewish community.
South African Jews, on the whole, support and identify with Israel. Some 89% have visited Israel and 32% say that they hope to permanently settle here at some point in the future. Some 41% say that they are likely to leave within the next five years and 51% of these are considering Aliyah. Since many children attend Jewish Day schools and learn some Hebrew, this will facilitate their absorption in Israel.
92% agree that Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people and a majority support the elected government here, right or wrong. Interestingly, 83% think it is never acceptable for Jews to publicly support a boycott of Israel.
Overall, it appears that Jewish people are still happy and live a good life in South Africa and, according to many indices of involvement, most Jews still enjoy the benefits of a rich communal infrastructure. They participate in communal life, which includes volunteering. I think that South African Jews who have made Aliyah are known for their volunteering and have contributed to the culture of volunteering that we see here in Israel.
Nevertheless, government corruption concerns them. And, as we know, crime is rife. According to the survey, many Jews experience anti- Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment. 66% feel unsafe walking alone in their local neighbourhoods after dark. Some 23% have been victims of burglary in the past five years and 8% feel that Black Economic Empowerment has only benefited a small minority. Some 42% feel that it has adversely affected them directly.
In as far as this presentation (one of the best I have seen) was insightful, it also left me with many questions about the future of Jewry in South Africa and the prospects for them in Israel, in both the short term and the long term. I can conclude by saying that only time will tell.
Click here to watch a recording of the presentation.