Harold Behr

The Plight of South African Jewry in the Current Climate of Antisemitism

South African Jews have a long record of support for Israel and commitment to South Africa, the country which gave them shelter – often reluctantly – from the antisemitic plague that bedevilled Europe. Now, in the face of today’s worldwide resurgence of antisemitism, a shadow is being cast over this dual loyalty by the ruling African National Congress. Partisan identification with the Palestinian cause, coupled with ignorant and misinformed attacks on Israel, show a clear alignment of the part of the South African government with forces that want to see an end to the existence of Jewish Israel. There is an ironic streak of racism in this outlook, given the role of Jews in the black South African struggle for freedom.

What especially disturbs me is the complacency of some within the South African Jewish community who do not appear to see the writing on the wall. Although they are heartwarmingly denunciatory of the ANC stance and profuse in their protestations of loyalty to South Africa, they seem to be oblivious of looming danger.

Admittedly, this is a view from afar. I left South Africa for Britain in 1970 and I have only been back once, in 1994, at a time when the country was bathed in the rainbow glow of the new Mandela era. But I am in touch with other Jewish former South Africans, who report a disturbingly inward looking lifestyle within enclaves of comfort surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and security alarms. Jewish cultural life apparently continues untroubled by outside rumblings or inner qualms.

My mind travels back to the history of Germany in the twenties and thirties. I once read a book, ‘Troubled Loyalty’ by Christopher Sykes, a story, not about Jews, but about the life of one man, a ‘good’ German of educated background and aristocratic lineage, who stubbornly clung to the belief that the Nazi menace was an aberration. Trott believed that the best cultural traditions of Germany could be restored and that it was possible to work within the regime (he was in the diplomatic service) while secretly undermining it. He saw the light too late and was eventually executed as one of the conspirators in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.

Unlike the racism of Nazism, which was founded on a mad cult of Aryan racial superiority and the belief that Jews were an intrinsically malignant force, the epidemic of antisemitism now sweeping swathes of Africa and the Middle East stems from a narrative being cultivated by the hard left which propounds the view that Zionism is the product of a white European colonialist enterprise.

Either way, the Jews serve as scapegoats for the woes of a society in crisis. A mistaken belief in the durability of democracy has been the undoing of many a good person and I, for one, am not criticising the Jews of South Africa for their reluctance to abandon the country which has sustained them. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to tear up one’s roots and say goodbye to dear friends and relatives whom one might never see again, even when one is young and carrying a portable profession.

But I am disquieted when I hear the rhetoric coming from the South African leadership, coupled with calls for action against Israel, and I feel bound to urge my fellow Jews to be alert to the possibilities of accusations of disloyalty being levelled at them. Dual loyalty is coming under increasing strain and our tragic history tells us that it is better to be prepared for any eventuality, sooner rather than later.

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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