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A community divided: South African Jewry under apartheid 1948-1964

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posted on 01.03.2017, 02:03 by Williams, Tony Leigh
When the National Party was elected in the 1948 South African general election and apartheid became official government policy, South African Jewry was already familiar with racial discrimination. Not only had apartheid-like conditions already existed for South Africa's non-European majority for decades before 1948, but the Jewish community itself had experienced racial discrimination that had mirrored the rise of German anti-Semitism beginning in the 1930s. For the mainstream Jewish community, the biggest concern was that after their election victory, the Nationalists would use their electoral mandate to begin legislatively enshrining anti-Semitism. However, in the months following the election Prime Minister Daniel François Malan initiated a rapprochement with the Jewish community. Having determined that white solidarity was needed to ensure the survival of apartheid, the government chose to make peace with the Jewish community, instead turning its attention to white rule over the “Bantu”. Complicating the implementation of apartheid policies was resistance not only from the non-European majority, but a minority of whites who similarly opposed the racialised nature of the State. These dissidents took advantage of their white skin, using it to aid their attempts to undermine the apartheid system. The government's attention quickly turned to combating this threat, and in 1950 the Suppression of Communism Act was passed to help control extra-parliamentary opposition to apartheid. Unfortunately for the Jewish community, a significant proportion of white anti-apartheid activists were also Jewish. This threatened the community's rapprochement with the government and threatened a return to the “bad old days” of widespread anti-Semitism. In contrast, many Jewish antiapartheid activists were critical of the mainstream community for accepting the fruits of apartheid with little official inclination toward opposing its inherent injustice. This thesis examines the circumstances within which the mainstream Jewish community, Jewish radicals and the apartheid government acted, and seeks to address the divided historiographies that have developed around the historical narratives of the two segments of South African Jewry. Each “side” puts forward an interpretation of history firmly embedded within its own perspective and, in so doing, attempts to undermine the other. This thesis proposes a limited contribution, suggesting a way forward can be found between the two historical discourses by moving beyond the political aspects and reassessing the role of both the mainstream community and the Jewish radicals in light of the circumstances which existed and how they influenced the decisions of each group. Chapters one and two examine the circumstances of the mainstream established community and the Jewish anti-apartheid activists respectively, while the third chapter analyses the role of the apartheid government as an actor and influence upon both groups using the case study of the Rivonia Trial.


Principal supervisor

Andrew Markus

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts