White Skin, White Masks: Ashkenazi Jews in Southern Africa



Joffe Hunter Funambulist 2
Ray Alexander Simons (center) with officials from the Food and Canning Workers Union. / Richard Mendelsohn and Milton Shain, The Jews in South Africa, 2008.

Are there any nuances of whiteness within a settler population? This text by Mitchel Joffe Hunter does not answer the question. However, it presents the trajectories of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews in 20th century South Africa, between other European settlers’ antisemitism and their own assimilation of the processes through which white supremacy operates. From there, Mitchell asks whether part of the Jewish identity can be exhumed to humbly contribute to anti-colonial solidarities.

Arriving in Southern Africa ///

In 1904 my maternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Ella Lurie (nee Gutman) stayed behind in the port city of Libau, Latvia (now Liepāja) while her husband, Elkanan left to seek opportunity. They spoke Yiddish (and perhaps German and Russian), had no formal education or training, and no money. The Luries were a part of an already numerous diaspora of Ashkenazi Jews, Yidn, who were leaving the Russian Empire as refugees. They were a subjugated population of the Russian Empire, but when they reached Southern Africa to seek a better life for themselves, they were inserted close to the top of a rapidly reifying racial hierarchy. 

Elkanan landed in Cape Town, in the British Cape Colony, and started trading goods, buying items on credit and reselling them making small profits. Two years later, he got a bank loan and a merchant credit to set up a general goods shop in Kraaifontein. Ella then made the journey with their two-year-old son and kept the shop running until the 1940s when my granny would visit, as she recounted to me. Kraaifontein is now an outlying suburb of Cape Town, but back then, it was a small town on the train line from Cape Town to Paarl. There were only two white families in town when the Lurie’s settled there, the Jewish shopkeepers and a Christian family who ran the hotel.

In this context, Yidn were white: they could own—rather than rent—property and businesses, they were given loans and credit, they could work in white-reserved positions, they could travel freely without a passbook, they could vote and run for office (once naturalized). Between 1907 and 1910, there were six openly Jewish mayors of prominent South African cities, though they were English and German born.