Although not a South African by birth, my Bloemfontein-born husband and our two children proudly claim this heritage. Ironically, they find my accent amusing. Learning of my American-Israeli roots, people often inquire about my decision to settle in South Africa. This is a story for another time, but the takeaway is that my unique blend of identities gives me a distinct perspective on the increasingly alarming situation for Jews in South Africa.
Amidst various challenges, the Jewish community has thrived since arriving from Eastern Europe in the 19th century. As the 12th largest community in the Jewish world and the largest Jewish community on the African continent, Jews have played a critical role in shaping South Africa. Yet, this landscape has altered significantly since October 7th, especially following the recent accusations of genocide a South African legal team made against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Last week, David Teeger, an esteemed Jewish athlete, was removed as Captain of the South African under-19 Cricket Team for his support of Israel. An article in ‘The Citizen’ alleges that Iran and Hamas may have funded the ANC’s legal fees for the ICJ case against Israel. Journalist Alec Hogg noted a correlation between the ANC’s financial comeback and South Africa bringing the case against Israel to the ICJ. Their lack of transparency, as the ANC has not disclosed their financial sources for the ICJ application, adds to the controversy.
If these allegations are true and the ANC remains in power for another term, what will the implications be for the Jewish community? An even more frightening scenario: if the ANC were to form a coalition government with the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters). EFF Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema has declared his full support for the liberation of Palestine by Hamas, celebrating their ‘freedom-fighting’ tactics of raping, kidnapping, murdering, beheading and mutilating innocent Israelis.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas has ignited intense cross-party debates and an onslaught of malicious antisemitism and propaganda in the press and on social media. The Boerjode are at the front and centre of this uproar, triggering a widespread emotional response. Jewish community members, myself included, feel abandoned, angry and betrayed. Fortunately, allies like the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) have condemned the ANC’s stance on Israel. However, it remains unclear how South Africa’s ploy to use Israel’s conflict with Hamas and its alleged alliances will influence its political future, especially given the government’s current challenges.
The term Boerjode historically describes South African Jews who assimilated into Afrikaner language and culture. By descent, my husband is a Boerejood, or in plural, Boerejode. His grandmother, Sarah Arvin nee Katz, lived in Oudtshoorn, the “Ostrich Capital of the World.” Known as ‘Little Jerusalem’, this town’s Jewish-led ostrich feather industry was once thriving. However, over time, especially post-apartheid, many Boerejood migrated to larger cities or left South Africa. Empty synagogues can be found in many of the smaller rural towns, along with Jewish cemeteries.
In response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s embrace of Islamic jihad, Ruffy Geminder, the first honorary consul to South Africa in Melbourne and proud Boerejood, resigned from his position on January 15, stating, “The late South African President Nelson Mandela would be ashamed of this immoral action. I hope you can understand that regrettably I cannot continue in good conscience to serve the current Government of South Africa.” His resignation underlines the gravity of the situation and the urgent need for a reevaluation of South Africa’s priorities.
The patriotism of the Boerejode is unparalleled in my experience. This makes their current predicament even more devastating. As an American-Israeli in South Africa and a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I find the irony of my situation striking, underscoring my love for a country that has been my home for over 15 years. I experienced the same shock on Oct. 7th, when Hamas terrorists brutally attacked Israel, and again when Jewish students were physically assaulted at Columbia University, my alma mater.
Witnessing South Africa turn on one of its greatest comrades might be akin to what my great-grandfather Nicolas Schonwald, a decorated soldier who fought for the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WW1, experienced when Hungary sent him to a forced labour camp during WW11 while his his beloved wife, Jolan, was gassed in Auschwitz. Mandela famously said, “remember that hope is a powerful weapon even when all else is lost”. This is not the first time we have been faced with an uncertain future, but the current climate is particularly unnerving, and with elections on the horizon, we are gearing up for a challenging year. We are also holding onto the hope that South Africa will shift its current trajectory and choose the moral high ground, for the sake of her Boerejode, and for what is left of the Rainbow Nation.