South Africa is America on steroids. It’s even more sports-obsessed. It’s even more violent. Its state-sponsored racism was even more brutal. Its racial progress has been even more jaw-dropping. Its gulf between rich and poor is even more awful.
South Africa’s debate over Israel is more extreme too. The right is further right; the left is further left. And the big reason is apartheid, which haunts South Africa’s Israel conversation at every turn.
First, apartheid heightened the Zionism of South African Jews. To be sure, South African Jews were Zionists long before the National Party began instituting its policy of legalized racism in 1948. In fact, because South Africa had no significant Reform movement—which served as the locus of American Jewish anti-Zionism in the early twentieth century—a Zionist consensus emerged among South African Jews decades before it did in the United States.
But apartheid intensified South African Zionism because it kept Jews from becoming fully South African. Under apartheid, because South Africa’s government ruthlessly prevented racial and ethnic mixing, group identity flourished while national identity did not. When Jews looked at South Africa’s flag and national anthem, they saw Afrikaner symbols, not ones they could embrace as their own. It’s no coincidence that the best book on South African Jews, by Milton Shain and Richard Mendelsohn of the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research (full disclosure: I was Shain’s guest at the Kaplan Centre last week) is titled not The Jews of South Africa, but The Jews in South Africa.
In South Africa, therefore, Jews focused the emotional attachment they did not feel toward their own country on Israel. And this made them even more Zionistic than Jews in the United States, whose Zionism complemented their Americanism rather than substituting for it. In America, you occasionally find a Jewish baby boomer who spent time in her youth in a Zionist youth movement like Habonim, Bnei Akiva or Beitar. In South Africa, you occasionally find one who did not.
Conversely, apartheid turned many of the South Africans who were struggling to forge an inclusive, non-racial South African identity against the Jewish state. Most obviously, that’s because, as Sasha Polakow-Suransky has chronicled, Israel and apartheid South Africa were close allies. But it’s also because for the people struggling against it, apartheid gave ethnic and religious nationalism a bad name. Determined to defy the South African government’s efforts at divide and rule, the anti-apartheid activists of the African National Congress defiantly insisted they were South Africans first, not members of an ethnic group or tribe. The same went for the ANC’s Jews, many of whom were communists, and virtually all of whom downplayed their Jewishness in favor of their South Africanness.
Since the ANC took power in the 1990s, its anti-Zionism has endured. Partly, that’s because it retains a sympathy for those regimes that supported the anti-apartheid movement (no matter how tyrannical they are at home) and a resentment toward those that did not. Partly, it’s because given the leftist, anti-imperialist lens through which ANC activists see the world, it’s easy to see Palestinians as the rough equivalent of South African blacks. Partly, it’s because there are many more South African Muslims than Jews, and since Jews were deemed white under apartheid while Muslims generally were not, Muslim perspectives tended to carry greater prestige in anti-apartheid circles. And finally, it’s because those Jews who enjoyed influence in the ANC—and there were many—self-consciously rejected their community’s apartheid-reinforced tribalism. They believed the South African Jewish mainstream had used its devotion to Israel to duck its responsibility to the country in which South African Jews actually lived. And as passionate universalists, the ANC Jews generally lacked the commitment to Jewish peoplehood that underlies Zionism. Thus, instead of countering the criticism of Israel leveled by their African and Muslim colleagues, many influential ANC Jews have reinforced it. In 2001, for instance, longtime ANC National Executive Committee member Ronnie Kasrils convinced over 200 Jews involved in the anti-apartheid movement to sign a letter calling Israel a “virtual colonial power” and denouncing the “conservatives and reactionaries” who dominated official South African Jewish life.
As the anti-apartheid left has turned South Africa into a global center for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, countering “delegitimization”—the same campaign that now fuels much Zionist activity in the United States—has become an even greater focus for Jewish leaders in South Africa. In the United States, Jewish officials warn that Jews who defend Zionism risk becoming pariahs on their college campuses. But in South Africa, it’s actually true. By and large, Jews are prospering in the new South Africa. Emigration, which hit epic levels in the 1980s and 1990s, seems to have tapered off. Zionism, however, has become a dirty word.
Like their counterparts in the United States, Jewish leaders in South Africa fret that in the face of this onslaught, younger South African Jews aren’t sufficiently championing Zionism’s cause. That’s partly because as the legal walls between ethnic groups have crumbled, younger South African Jews have begun to assimilate. Because they feel more fully South African, many also feel a greater obligation to the millions of their fellow citizens devastated by poverty and AIDS. And so some young South African Jews who might once have directed their idealism toward Israel now focus it on South Africa itself. Moreover, it is not lost on younger South African Jews that many of the Jews who best met apartheid’s moral challenge are critical of, if not downright hostile to, Israel. As Milton Shain notes, “some of the younger Jews know that the mainstream community didn’t cover itself with glory during apartheid and now on Israel they don’t want to be caught with their pants down too.”
While in Cape Town, I spent a Shabbat evening with forty or so college-age members of the Labor Zionist youth movement Habonim. And when I asked these twenty-somethings whether they felt comfortable calling themselves Zionists, only about half raised their hands. It’s not that these young people want Israel to disappear, or that they’d identify as anti-Zionists. But many young secular South African Jews today, like their American counterparts, find the word “Zionism” uncomfortable, in part because they identify it not with the rich and multifaceted struggle for Jewish self-determination, but simply with the policies of the Israeli government.
If the end of apartheid has weakened Zionist commitment among young secular South African Jews, however, it has intensified it among South Africa’s swelling population of young religious Jews. Yet again, this echoes what’s happening in the United States, where—as I’ve argued before—the older, relatively secular Zionists who once dominated organized American Jewish life are gradually being replaced by religious Zionists from the Orthodox world. But in South Africa, the transition is even more dramatic because the growth of religiosity has been even more dramatic. By the 1990s, many of South Africa’s most talented and ambitious Jews had left the country. The community that remained lacked leadership, and was increasingly fearful of crime, which in Johannesburg in particular had reached epidemic levels. At roughly the same moment, ultra-Orthodox outreach movements like Chabad and Ohr Sameach began sending rabbis, many of them American, to minister to South African Jewry’s needs. These young, dynamic rabbis began replacing the nominal Orthodoxy that had long defined South African Jewry with the stricter religious observance, and greater emphasis on religious study, which defines Orthodoxy in the United States. And their outreach efforts succeeded in part because Jews were already retreating into gated communities to protect themselves from South Africa’s terrifying crime wave. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis gave these physically gated communities a theological rationale and infused them with Jewish purpose. And the fervently religious young South African Jews emerging from these Orthodox enclaves are fervent Zionists too.
Fundamentally, South African Zionists face the same challenge they faced during apartheid: How to support Israel while also meeting their obligations to the country in which they actually live. Under apartheid, being a Zionist was easy but being fully South African was hard. Today, being fully South African is easier, but the more you embrace the new South Africa’s universalistic, human rights-oriented ethos, the harder being a full-throated Zionism becomes. In post-apartheid South Africa, even more than in America, liberalism and Zionism are at odds. It is only through the struggle for Israeli democracy that they may be one day reconciled.