Jewish South Africa Deals with its Past

by Steven Gruzd on 4 December 2011

in Articles

Examining our roots, nurturing healing shoots …

Nic Wolpe, Paul Goldreich and Steven Gruzd at Liliesleaf, August 2011

Recently, SA Jewry has been grappling anew with how the community – collectively and individually – experienced apartheid and its aftermath. This was the theme of the recent Cape Council conference of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) on October 29 and 30, entitled “TransformNation: Confronting our History, Embracing our Responsibility.”

The conference rattled some skeletons out of the communal closet, with the speakers –including Claudia Braude, Judge Dennis Davis and Professor Deborah Posel – calling on the communal leadership to shake out even more, and avoid complicity in contemporary SA’s problems. As parents regularly tell their children, picking scabs is unhygienic, impolite and disgusting. It’s usually best to let wounds heal naturally, over time. But it’s also important to acknowledge and confront what caused the wound in the first place, to allow regeneration and new growth.

These issues were brought into sharp focus for me when I joined the staff of the SAJBD in July. The SAJBD’s Human Rights Award was to be posthumously presented to Arthur Goldreich, who passed away in Israel in May. Two of his four sons, Paul and Amos Goldreich, were travelling from London to accept the award on his behalf, and I was asked to help arrange a suitable venue for them to talk about their father and the anti-apartheid Struggle.

I immediately suggested Liliesleaf, the property where Arthur and his family lived in the early 1960s and which served as the clandestine headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe, armed wing of the by then banned African National Congress.

All of the White activists seized in the police raid on this place in July 1963 were of Jewish origin, as indeed were a high proportion of whites involved in other aspects of the Struggle.

Perhaps naively, I thought that this task would be simple – pick the venue, secure the speakers, send out the invitations and hold the event. However, the invitation elicited mixed reactions. Some were enthusiastic about attending, others politely declined, saying they were away, many did not reply at all, and some gave their reasons for not wanting to attend.

The last had to do with the way that Jewish Struggle activists were supposedly treated by the Board and other Jewish organisations and individuals before 1994, and how these relations had developed (or not) since then.

Cosatu even called for those invited to boycott the event, because the Board had the audacity to host it, and because of the Jewish community’s support for Israel. I was struck by a feeling of people talking past each other, or not talking at all, of communal fractures and fissures, of unfinished business.

Yes indeed, there are unresolved issues and strong opinions on all sides on what should or should not have been done during the apartheid era.

In the context of a minority community reeling from the effects of the Holocaust and the threat and reality of pre-war antisemitism in South Africa, choices taken by individuals and institutions are probably understandable, if not, with hindsight, always excusable.

But efforts to bridge the divide are being made. The Board of 2011 is different from the Board of 1941, 1961 or 1981.

Since 1990, its leadership has genuinely sought to lead the Jewish community in being an active, identifying part of our emerging democratic, non-racial society. At Liliesleaf Zev Krengel, then SAJBD national chairman, unequivocally apologized for the Board’s failure to have at least rendered humanitarian assistance to Jewish Struggle activists, as well as their families, who had been persecuted by the State.

Another former Board Chairman, Mervyn Smith, acknowledged faults, misjudgments and silences during the apartheid years. And before that, the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris gave evocative testimony on these issues at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid-1990s.

Among several Jews active in the Struggle, the hurt about how they and their families were treated – by both the apartheid government and the Jewish establishment – still burns. As the new book Jewish Memories of Mandela demonstrates, many white people in the struggle had Jewish roots. Some denied any specific “Jewish” motivation for their actions, like the late Harold Wolpe; others, like the late Advocate Issy Maisels, were proudly Jewish and reached the highest levels of communal leadership.

All of these voices and positions are legitimate. All are part of history, and all need to be aired.

While for some, this conversation is insufficient or rings hollow, others yell “enough, already!” Activist Rhoda Kadalie decried the continual guilt trips in a testy letter to the South African Jewish Report recently, “I read with irritation Prof Deborah Posel’s comments, 17 years after apartheid, that Jews should acknowledge, publicly and symbolically, that they too were beneficiaries of apartheid … it’s time to move on, and that is what I as a black person desire.”

In our complex country, things are seldom black and white. I hope that in future conversations, Jewish South Africans can confront yesterday, understand today, but focus on tomorrow.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent on 4 December 2011

Steven Gruzd
Steven Gruzd is the Senior Researcher & Diplomatic Liaison at the SAJBD’s National Office in Johannesburg.

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