The modern Jewish history of South Africa began, indirectly, some time before the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, by the participation of certain astronomers and cartographers in the Portuguese discovery of the sea-route to India. Jewish cartographers in Portugal, members of the wealthy and influential classes, assisted Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and 1497 . Portugal's baptised Jews were still free until the Portuguese Inquisition was promulgated in 1536.
The Dutch Settlement
In 1652, the Dutch East India Company began the first permanent European settlement of South Africa under Jan van Riebeeck. It has been theorised that "a number of non-professing Jews" were among the first settlers of Cape Town. Non-Christian migration to the Dutch Cape Colony was generally discouraged until 1803.
There were Jews among the directors of the Dutch East India Company, which for 150 years administered the colony at the Cape of Good Hope.
During the seventeenth and the greater part of the 18th century the state religion alone was allowed to be publicly observed; but on 25 July 1804, the Dutch commissioner-general Jacob Abraham de Mist, by a proclamation whose provisions were annulled at the English occupation of 1806 and were not reestablished till 1820, instituted in the colony religious equality for all persons, irrespective of creed.
The 1820s through 1880s
Jews did not arrive in any significant numbers at Cape Town before the 1820s. The first congregation in South Africa, known as the Gardens Shul, was founded in Cape Town in September 1841, and the initial service was held on the eve of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in the house of 1820 Settler and businessman Benjamin Norden, located at the corner of Weltevreden and Hof streets. Benjamin Norden, Simeon Markus, together with a score of others arriving in the early 1820s and '30s, were commercial pioneers, especially the Mosenthal brothers—Julius, Adolph (see Aliwal North), and James Mosenthal—who started a major wool industry. By their enterprise in going to Asia and returning with thirty Angora goats in 1856 they became the originators of the mohair industry. Aaron and Daniel de Pass were the first to open up Namaqualand, and from 1849 to 1886 they were the largest shipowners in Cape Town, and leaders of the sealing, whaling, and fishing industries. Jews were among the first to take to ostrich-farming and played a role in the early diamond industry. Jews also played some part in early South African politics. Captain Joshua Norden was shot at the head of his Mounted Burghers in the Xhosa War of 1846; Lieutenant Elias de Pass fought in the Xhosa War of 1849. Julius Mosenthal (1818–1880), brother of the poet S. Mosenthal of Vienna, was a member of the Cape Parliament in the 1850s. Simeon Jacobs, C.M.G. (1832–1883), who was a judge in the Supreme Court of the Cape of Good Hope, as the acting attorney-general of Cape Colony he introduced and carried in 1872 the Cape Colony Responsible Government Bill and the Voluntary Bill (abolishing state aid to the Anglican Church), for both of which bills Saul Solomon, the member for Cape Town, had fought for decades. Saul Solomon (b. St. Helena 25 May 1817; d. 16 October 1892), the leader of the Cape Colony Liberal Party, has been called the "Cape Disraeli." He was invited into the first Responsible government, formed by Sir John Molteno, and declined the premiership itself several times. Like Disraeli, too, he early left the ranks of Judaism.
At the same time, the Jews faced substantial antisemitism. Though freedom of worship was granted to all residents in 1870, the revised Grondwet of 1894 still debarred Jews and Catholics from military posts, from the positions of president, state secretary, or magistrate, from membership in the First and Second Volksraad ("parliament"), and from superintendencies of natives and mines. These positions were restricted to persons above 30 years of age with permanent property and a longer history of settlement. As a consequence of the fact that Boer republics were only in existence from 1857 to 1902, unfortunately many residents of the Boer republics had limited access to positions in the upper echelons of government. All instruction was to be given in a Christian and Protestant spirit, and Jewish and Catholic teachers and children were to be excluded from state-subsidized schools. Before the Boer War (1899–1902), Jews were often considered uitlanders ("foreigners") and excluded from the mainstream of South African life.
However, a small number of Jews also settled among and identified with the rural white Afrikaans-speaking population; these persons became known as Boerejode (Boer Jews). A measure of intermarriage also occurred and was generally accepted.
The South African gold rush began after 1886, attracting many Jews. In 1880, the Jewish population of South Africa numbered approximately 4,000; by 1914 it had grown to more than 40,000. So many of them came from Lithuania that some referred to the population as a colony of Lithuania; Johannesburg was also occasionally called "Jewburg".
Second Anglo-Boer War: 1899–1902
Jews fought on both sides during the Second Boer War (1899–1902). Some of the most notable fights during the three years' Boer War — such as the Gun Hill incident before the Siege of Ladysmith — involved Jewish soldiers like Major Karri Davies. Nearly 2,800 Jews fought on the British side and the London Spectator counted that 125 were killed. (Jewish Encyclopedia)
Around 300 Jews served among the Boers during the Second Boer War and were known as Boerjode: those who had citizenship rights were conscripted along with other burghers ("citizens"), but there were also a number of volunteers. Jews fought under the Boers' Vierkleur ("four coloured") flag in many of the major battles and engagements and during the guerilla phase of the war, and a dozen are known to have died. Around 80 were captured and held in British concentration camps in South Africa. Some were sent as far afield as St. Helena, Bermuda, and Ceylon to where they had been exiled by the British. Some Jews were among the Bittereinders ("Bitter Enders") who fought on long after the Boer cause was clearly lost.
From Union through World War II
Although the Jews were allowed equal rights after the Boer War, they again became subject to persecution in the days leading up to World War II. In 1930, the Quota Act of 1930 was intended to curtail the entry of Jews into South Africa. The vast majority of Jews immigrating to South Africa came from diaspora communities in Lithuania. The 1937 The Aliens Act, motivated by a sharp increase the previous year in the number of German Jewish refugees coming to South Africa, brought the migration to almost a complete halt. Some Jews were able to enter the country, but many were unable to do so. A total of approximately six-and-a-half thousand Jews came to South Africa from Germany between the years 1933 and 1939. Many Afrikaners (i.e., Boers) felt sympathy for Nazi Germany, and organizations like Louis Weichardt’s "Grayshirts" and the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag were openly anti-Semitic. During World War I, many Afrikaners, who had little respect for Britain, objected to the use of "Afrikaner women and children from the British concentration camps" in fighting the German territory of South West Africa on behalf of Britain. This had the effect of drumming up pro-German sentiment among a population of Afrikaners. The opposition National Party argued that the Aliens Act was too lenient and advocated a complete ban on Jewish immigration, a halt in the naturalization of Jewish permanent residents of South Africa and the banning of Jews from certain professions. After the war, the situation began to improve, and a large number of South African Jews, generally a fairly Zionist community, made aliyah to Israel. While it is understandable that many South African Jews would feel uncomfortable with formerly pro-Nazi Afrikaners rising to power in 1948, many leading apartheid-era Afrikaner politicians publicly apologized to the South African Jewish community for their earlier anti-semitic actions and assured it of its continued safety in South Africa.
During this time, there were also two waves of Jewish immigration to Africa from the island of Rhodes, first in the 1900s and then after 1960.
Post World War II
South African Jews and Israel
When the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power in 1948 it did not adopt an anti-Jewish policy despite its earlier position. In 1953 South Africa's Prime Minister, D. F. Malan, became the first foreign head of government to visit Israel though the trip was a "private visit" rather than an official state visit. This began a long history of cooperation between Israel and South Africa on many levels. The proudly Zionistic South African Jewish community, through such bodies as the South African Zionist Federation and a number of publications, maintained a cordial relationship with the South African government even though it objected to the policies of Apartheid being enacted. South Africa's Jews were permitted to collect huge sums of money to be sent on as official aid to Israel, in spite of strict exchange-control regulations. Per capita, South African Jews were reputedly the most financially supportive Zionists abroad.
Settlement of South African Jews in Israel
in Israel was built principally by South African Jews
A number of South African Jews settled in Israel, forming a South African community in Israel. Perhaps the most famous South African community founded in Israel is Savyon, which remains the wealthiest suburb in Israel. Large houses were built in the style that the community was accustomed to from their life in South Africa, each with a pool, and developed around a country club.
South Africa and Israel
Most African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Israel began to view the similarly isolated South Africa cordially. Ethan A. Nadelmann claimed that the relationship developed due to the fact that many African countries broke diplomatic ties with Israel during the 1970s following the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, causing Israel to deepen relations with other isolated countries.
By the mid-1970s, Israel's relations with South Africa were warm. In 1975, the Israel–South Africa Agreement was signed, and increasing economic cooperation between Israel and South Africa was reported, including the construction of a major new railway in Israel, and the building of a desalination plant in South Africa. In April 1976 South African Prime Minister John Vorster was invited to make a state visit, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Later in 1976, the 5th Conference of Non-Aligned Nations in Colombo, Sri Lanka, adopted a resolution calling for an oil embargo against France and Israel because of their arms sales to South Africa. In 1977, South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha visited Israel to discuss South African issues with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan.
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a controversial Israeli professor of psychology, wrote in 1988 that the alliance between South Africa and Israel was one of the most underreported news stories of the past four decades and that Israel played a crucial role in the survival of the South African regime. Israel's collaboration with Apartheid South Africa was mentioned and condemned by various international organizations like the UN General Assembly (several times since 1974). In 1987 Israel announced that it would be implementing sanctions against South Africa. By the beginning of the 1990s, military and economic ties between the two countries had been lost.
Moderation and liberalism
South African Jews have a history of political moderation and the majority supported opposition parties such as first the United Party, then the Liberal Party, Progressive Party and its successors during the decades of National Party apartheid rule. (See Liberalism in South Africa). The prime example of the more moderate approach is that of the highly assimilated Harry Oppenheimer (1908–2000) (born Jewish but converted to Anglicanism upon his marriage), the richest man in South Africa and the chairman of the De Beers and Anglo American corporations. He was a supporter of the liberal Progressive Party and its policies, believing that granting more freedom and economic growth to South Africa's Black African majority was good politics and sound economic policy. The banner for this cause was held high by Helen Suzman, as the lone Progressive Party member in South Africa's parliament, representing the voting district of Houghton, home to many wealthy Jewish families at the time. The Progressive Party (later renamed the Democratic Party and then the Democratic Alliance) was later led by Jewish politician, Tony Leon and his successor, Helen Zille. Zille is of Jewish descent, her parents separately left Germany in the 1930s to avoid Nazi persecution (her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were Jewish).
In 1980, after 77 years of neutrality, South Africa’s National Congress of the Jewish Board of Deputies passed a resolution urging "all concerned [people] and, in particular, members of our community to cooperate in securing the immediate amelioration and ultimate removal of all unjust discriminatory laws and practices based on race, creed, or colour". This inspired some Jews to intensify their anti-apartheid activism, but the bulk of the community either emigrated or avoided public conflict with the National Party government.
The Jewish establishment and the majority of South African Jews remained focused on Jewish issues. A few rabbis spoke out against apartheid early, but they failed to gain support and it was not until 1985 that the rabbinate as a whole condemned apartheid (Adler 2000). The South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ) took the strongest stand of any of the Jewish movements in the country against apartheid. It opposed disinvestment while women in the movement engaged in social work as a form of protest. This includes the Moses Weiler School in Alexandra where for generations the school has been funded and led by women from the Progressive movement, even in opposition to the Bantu Education Act, 1953 (Feld 2014).