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In South Africa, apartheid-era divisions linger in Jewish community

The late philanthropist Mendel Kaplan showing former South Africa President Nelson Mandela around the South African Jewish Museum, which was opened by Mandela in 2000. (Shawn Benjamin/Ark Images)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (JTA) – When anti-apartheid activist Lorna Levy first became involved in politics as a student in the late 1950s, she remembers being the target of hostility from the Jewish community in her native South Africa.

In the 1960s, she and her husband, Leon, made their mark as trade unionists at a time when black trade unions were not recognized and the government viewed attempts at unionizing with extreme suspicion.

“As soon as they took any action or had any activity, they would be arrested and harassed,” Lorna, a former union organizer, remembers.

In 1963, Leon was detained by the notorious South African security police. The couple eventually left for London, where they lived in exile for 35 years.

“My parents had quite a rough time, they were ostracized” by the Jewish community, Lorna recalls. “My various relatives, when they visited London, never looked me up. I know that it really hurt my father, who had been very good to his sisters and their children.”

At one point, Lorna served as the go-between between Nelson Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie, when Mandela was in hiding from the police in the 1960s.

Lorna, who returned to South Africa in 1997, three years after the end of apartheid, recalled her apartheid-era experiences in an interview after this weekend’s conference in Cape Town on apartheid and South African Jewry.

Called “Cape Conference 2011: TransformNation, Confronting our History, Embracing our Responsibility,” the conference examined the effects of apartheid on the Jewish community and how the community has adapted to post-apartheid South Africa. The forum was organized by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s umbrella body.

The confab not only brought up some painful episodes from the country’s past, but also showed how old resentments between the Jewish community and early anti-apartheid activists still linger today.

Under apartheid, the Board of Deputies maintained a stance of political non-involvement. In reality, anti-apartheid activists were marginalized or worse.

In 1983, anti-apartheid activist Howard Sackstein was a Jewish student leader at the University of the Witwatersrand. He said he found himself under threat not only from the authorities – he was shot at by riot police, tear-gassed and chased by police dogs — but also from the Jewish community.

When the leadership of the Board of Deputies placed ads in a national newspaper supporting a proposed tricameral parliament that made token provision for a role for those of mixed race and Indians — but excluded blacks — Sackstein recalls publicly opposing the position and being threatened with withdrawal of funding from his university group.

In 1985, when a large Johannesburg synagogue invited Cabinet minister and then-chair of the state security council Pik Botha to be the guest speaker at its 50th birthday celebrations, Sackstein and others met with the synagogue committee and rabbi and asked that the invitation be withdrawn.

“The chairman said to me, ‘Why don’t we just get you detained so you’ll miss your final exams and spend the next six months in jail?’ ” Sackstein recalled. “When the rabbi said, ‘You can’t speak to a fellow Jew like that,’ he said, ‘Well, we have an alternative: Why don’t we just get your head smashed in?’ ”

Sackstein accuses the community’s leadership of suffering a “catastrophic moral failure” during apartheid.

University of Cape Town sociologist Deborah Posel said that whites, including Jews, need to acknowledge the ways they benefited from apartheid and compensate for them.

“There is still a tendency among white South Africans, including Jews, to deny our complicity with apartheid,” Posel said. “As Jews, we need to confront this and think about how to respond in ethically appropriate ways, and to compensate for our history of material advantage.”

After apartheid ended, the bridge building between the organized community and former activists began. Today, said Wendy Kahn, the Board of Deputies’ national director, the board is seeking guidance from the activists on many issues. But she acknowledges that there is still “a long, hard road ahead.”

Many of the Jewish students who led in the struggle against apartheid left South Africa some time ago because they felt there was no future here.

“One of the lesser sins of apartheid was that it took our children away from us,” said veteran community leader Mervyn Smith, president of the African Jewish Congress. “Think of what our Jewish community would have been like with them here.”

Large-scale Jewish emigration during the apartheid years left South Africa’s Jewish community with some serious problems today. It is a relatively old community, and the financial burden of caring for the elderly often falls on the local community. Families are split up around the world, with many members having immigrated to places like Australia and Israel.

Owen Futeran, a former chairman of the Board of Deputies, said the legacy of apartheid-era South Africa’s cozy relations with Israel still reverberates today, harming Israel’s reputation in the post-apartheid era among South Africa’s people and government.

The outgoing vice chairman of the Cape Board, Rael Kaimowitz, says the current government led by Jacob Zuma of the African National Congress is no friend of Israel.

“Although the official policy is a two-state one,” he said, “we see on a regular basis a bias towards the Palestinians, largely due to the historic relationship of the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organization.”

Claudia Braude, a researcher and editor of “Contemporary Jewish Writing in South Africa: An Anthology,” said at the conference that “The people who really could counter the Israel-apartheid analogy are precisely the anti-apartheid Jews who fought the struggle but who have this massive family quarrel going down with the Board and are not going to be seen to be associating with this.”