Harold Behr
Harold Behr

How did South African Jews see Antisemitism during the Second World War?

Can science crack the nut of antisemitism? I believe that it can, just as I believe that it can lead us towards an understanding of why each of us comes to perceive our Jewish identity in the way that we do.

In support of this view, I offer a study by Simon Herman, social scientist at the Hebrew University, on the attitudes of South African Jewish students to antisemitism. This was conducted at the height of the Second World War and published as a monograph in 1945. Herman found that most of the students accepted antisemitism as ‘natural and inevitable’, something they had grown up with.

Students were invited to complete a questionnaire, loosely enough structured to enable them to write in some detail about their experiences of antisemitism and how these had come to shape their attitudes towards themselves and others. Many of the students reported antisemitic remarks directed either at them or at Jews in general by their teachers and peers. As well as commonplace insults and humiliations they remembered being made to ‘feel out of it’ during Afrikaner commemorative events such as the Voortrekker Centenary of 1938. They were also aware of para-military organisations, notably the Ossewa Brandwag (Ox-wagon Torch Vigil) and the Greyshirts, operating in South Africa against the backdrop of White Afrikaner nationalism and the influence of the Nazi radio station, Zeesen. However, they felt that by comparison with the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe they were lucky to be in South Africa.

The sense of being inured to persecution led to a hardening of attitudes in two different directions, one towards a strengthening of their Jewish identity, the other towards a recognition of the global significance of persecution and an identification with underdogs, regardless of whether they were Jewish or not. One respondent said, “I have not been so much affected by the persecutions since the war, as I felt that other people were sharing in it, and not just Jews exclusively.”

Several spoke of having to toughen up in the face of antisemitism. According to one, “Nothing happened in class but that she [the teacher] referred it to ‘Jewishness’. She disliked me…during that year I think I became ‘toughened’. Before that I had been sensitive and retiring. I became naughty, lost my supersensitiveness and took the lead in class.” Another wrote in similar strain: “My first teacher in Johannesburg was quite obviously antisemitic, and made my existence quite miserable. I became extremely naughty…”. Quite a few reported that antisemitism had made them ‘cynical’.

Excessive guardedness and lack of trust in relation to gentiles were mentioned by many. A significant majority endorsed the statement, ‘Most gentiles are not to be trusted when it comes to their attitudes towards Jews’, and a majority agreed with the statement, ‘Because of discrimination against him, a Jew in most occupations has to be abler and work harder in order to succeed.’

To the question, ‘Does bad behaviour on the part of Jews cause antisemitism?’ the majority answered in the negative, some saying that it merely gave antisemites another pretext for hating but that they “would have hated all the same”. At the same time there was an almost universal sense of shame and anger when someone who was obviously Jewish conducted themselves badly.

Behaviour which stamped the Jew as ‘outlandish’, such as speaking Yiddish in public when non-Jews were nearby was similarly frowned on, though not to the same extent. A substantial minority (39%) thought that Jews should avoid ‘overcrowding’ certain professions in order not to increase antisemitism. By contrast, students were emphatic about the fact that they were proud of Jewish achievements and eager to be able to claim famous personalities as Jewish, even if the personality in question (e.g. Disraeli) had left the Jewish fold or had little association with the Jewish group. Typical statements were, “When I come across the name of a famous inventor, I try and find out whether he is Jewish,” and “It is something if you can say, ‘look at what Jews have done'”.

There was a division of opinion between those students who generalised about their persecutors, as in “I tried my hardest not to do as the antisemites and hate the whole group for the sins of the few, but I am afraid that this attempt was only moderately successful. I became anti-Afrikaans completely…” and those who resisted the temptation to generalise, expressed in statements such as, “I have grown up in a very antisemitic atmosphere. Yet I do not hate a class. I hate the individuals who are antisemites” and “It made me intensely dislike certain youngsters”.

The majority were prompted to re-think their position in society. One student said, “It made me realise that trying to submerge your identity is no solution to the Jewish problem.” There was also the recurring thought that “what happened there might happen here, to me”. Statements such as, “The Jews in South Africa may be tolerated but they are never certain of safety or security here,” were frequently made.

To the question, ‘Do you think an Allied victory and the destruction of Nazism will end antisemitism?’, 94% replied in the negative. A number of those responses sounded a historical and predictive note, such as, “There were always antisemites. The eradication of Nazis will not eradicate antisemitism. Besides, the Nazis are not the only antisemites in the world”.

The feeling of insecurity made several students decide to emigrate to Palestine (as it then was). A typical response was, “It made me feel that if ever I were truly happy, it would be in a country which I could genuinely call my own, live amongst my own people, and have the protection of our own Jewish State”. The majority, however, did not give the impression of thinking of life elsewhere than in South Africa, despite their feeling of insecurity. Nevertheless, they were prepared to support the fight for a Jewish National Home.

Simon Herman considered the overall effect of antisemitism on students’ lives and concluded that the majority of students were left with feelings of inferiority, for which they attempted to compensate realistically rather than by escape into ‘fantastic superiority’. Those more at risk of succumbing to feelings of inferiority had little or no understanding of Jewish history or culture. They had no positive picture of their own of the Jewish group and tended to accept the verdict of the antisemites.

Herman believed that the best antidote to the harmful effects of antisemitism was for the Jewish child to be gently initiated into a sense of their belongingness through the teaching and spirit of the Jewish home. When they were attacked by the antisemites, said Herman, such youngsters knew where they stood. The knowledge that the insults were directed not so much against them personally but against the group to which they belonged was a source of consolation and strength.

Reading Herman’s monograph in 2021, I have become aware of how relevant the findings are, not only to Jews in South Africa but everywhere, and indeed to all ethnic, cultural and religious groups. We all experience pride in the achievements of the group to which we feel we belong and conversely, we experience shame, hurt and anger when our group is disparaged. When disparagement turns into persecution, anger turns into hatred which can either take the form of self-hatred or be directed against the persecutors. By examining the different facets of these universal emotions and by attempting to understand their origins in childhood experience, we might just be able to force antisemitism to the fringes of society, where it belongs with other forms of extremism.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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