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.

Economically and politically, Ashkenazi Jews have been white in Southern Africa from the moment they stepped out of the customs house.

In an oral interview, Geoff Sifrin recounts that his grandfather told a story from when he just disembarked in Southern Africa and walking along the sidewalk some Black people had quickly stepped aside for him and averted their eyes, he was astonished. “In Russia, nobody would have stepped aside for a Jew!” (The Wandering Jew, 2010).

While the Yidn were arriving in South Africa, fleeing intense overcrowding and poverty, violent and deadly racial discrimination, forced removals and massacres, they settled in a South Africa in which the British were usurping more land through wars against the Pedi, Tswana, Zulu, and Xhosa polities, and where the Boer (later self-re-identified as Afrikaners) Republics were dispossessing the Venda. 

After 250 years of these wars of dispossession, the end of the Anglo-Boer war in 1902 solidified the British Empire’s control over the region and allowed them to fashion society in such a way as to ensure their supremacy, and increase their profits. The alliance of the “two White races,” British and Boers, was based on an extension of “the supremacy of the White man,” and was reflected in political debates and legal plans that resulted in the 1910 Union of South Africa.

Joining white society ///

Elkana and Ella arrived, like many other Yidn, at this moment. Not into a settler state with a homogenous white identity, but with a white alliance that specifically made space for cultural, linguistic, and religious difference within its understanding of whiteness. The tacit agreement was that whatever infighting occurs between white groups—and tensions remained between English and Afrikaners throughout the 20th century including divided loyalties on who to support during the world wars—they would be united as a settler class based on what Tunisian anticolonial theorist Albert Memmi describes as a consciousness based on “profit, privilege, usurpation” (The Colonized and the Colonizer, 1957).

More economically well off and politically minded Jews than my ancestors were aware of this move and sought to become considered as another white group. As one pertinent example, in many an editorial of the leading English language Jewish newspaper, the South African Jewish Chronicle, Lionel Goldsmid in 1905 explored and encouraged fellow Jews to “lead a White man’s life,” stating firmly that Jews, “if they wish to act up to their name, are pledged to maintain the superiority of the white man in this country.”

He had picked up that to be accepted into the settler class, Jews could not just be white, they had to act white too. So they donned a white mask.

This was not always simple for newly arrived Yidn, as British settlers brought their antisemitism from home. In the early 1900s, Yidn were often regarded as dirty Others, described sometimes in national media, and perhaps more worryingly by state officials, public health officials, and politicians, as “slovenly,” “unkempt,” “unwashed peregrinators of disease,” “parasites,” “depraved,” and “scum,” were scapegoated as responsible for illicit trading, and speaking a “disreputable gibberish.” 

There were early worries from Ashkenazi communities that Yiddish (as it is written in Hebrew), would be considered an “Asiatic” language and, hence, that Yidn would be treated as “Asians” for the purposes of immigration, business, and later the vote. This concern was raised again as the “Jewish Question” in the 1930s. In the early 1900s, it prompted the formation of the Jewish Boards of Deputies whose first project was to get Yiddish recognized as a European language. Fully invested into showing the colonial state their alliance, they put their effort into uplifting poor Jews, ie making sure, as Riva Krut describes, they “lived a white man’s life,” and assisted in the “deportation of unwanted Jews”—mostly Jewish sex workers, and illicit liquor traders—(Building a Home an a Community, 1985). They also worked with the state to provide Yiddish speaking customs officials for immigration checks, worked with the colonial police to arrest Jews involved in criminal activity, and with Jewish orphanages to ensure that Jewish children weren’t being raised by African women or with African children. The South African Zionist Federations’ first major local success consisted in being recognized as the “Jewish consulate in South Africa” to help the state distinguish between desirable and undesirable Jews (who did not have a country to represent them). Their 1905 national congress ran a naturalization campaign, encouraging Jews in South Africa to act as model citizens to prove to the British that they were ready for governance—consciously drawing links between being colonizers in South Africa and a desire to colonize Palestine.

This relationship between official Jewish organization, most South African Jews, and antisemitism from the rest of the white settler society continued through to the end of Apartheid, with the official organization very weary to “provoke” existing antisemitic allegations and doubling down on the Jewish population to “whiten up” and to “live a white man’s life.” They understood what Frantz Fanon had later noticed: that for Jews in European/white society “his actions, his behavior are the final determinant” (Black Skin, White Masks, 1952).

The official Jewish community organizations’ use of patronage and policing was deployed both for disciplining individual lives and the Jewish collective writ large and functioned to transform Jews to colonialists, not only inhabiting the structural position of a settler population but also the ideological and practical allegiance to white supremacy. Overtime this created, and continues to maintain, a greater Jewish identification with other white South Africans, and deepens the divide, both structurally and psychologically between Jews and African and Asian communities.

Joffe Hunter Funambulist 3
The 156 people accused in the 1956 Treason Trial with ten of the thirteen Jews highlighted. / Photo by Eli Weinberg (available at https://www.ethnicradicals.co.za/treason-trialists).

Antisemitism and its lessons ///

Despite ongoing efforts to secure their place in white society, antisemitism was always around the corner in its changing guises. Besides, the early forms of British antisemitism, the 1930s also brought a rising Afrikaner antisemitism most virulently expressed through groups such as the Ossewabrandwag (lit ox wagon sentinel) that attacked Jewish people and businesses and protested at docks to prevent further German Jewish refugees from entering. During Apartheid, the antisemitism from various sectors of white society changed form but remained present. In the 1960s, my mom attended an Afrikaans school in a small town whose principal, in the morning assemblies, would go on an anti-Jewish tirade and encourage a boycott against the local Jewish businesses, mentioning them by name. My uncle jokes that he learned to run from having to escape from the older boys who would beat him up for being Jewish. 

Yidn in South Africa all carry both intergenerational and personal trauma: intergenerational trauma from either the pogroms or holocaust, or from early experiences in South Africa, and personal experience with antisemitism. 

And yet, Yidn have never not been white in South Africa. In the settler colonial context, in a system brutally designed to oppress, dispossess, exploit, and murder Black people, Jews occupied a position of security and opportunity. This combination of a psychology of victimhood combined with a condition of privilege war turned into a lesson in self-preservation. 

This ethic of self preservation produced heart wrenching contradictions. In the early 1900s, Jewish groups of different political persuasions were involved in raising money and political support for Jews that were victims of forced removals in Eastern Europe, and at the same time bought land in the cities and rural areas of South Africa was only available due to recent forced removals (let alone speaking of the colonial land dispossession). Jews later bought land in parts of the urban areas made available to white citizens through the forced removals of the Group Areas Act. They advocated for and celebrated access to citizenship rights just as a white only franchise was instituted and further entrenched between 1910 and the 1940s. They never wished to “plead on behalf of undesirables” (Morris Alexander in Cape Times, 1903) with regards to immigration restrictions, only that Jews were not undesirable. In my lifetime, elderly Jews would still use racist slurs in Yiddish to refer to Black people, despite strong advocacy against antisemitic slurs. The contradictions are numerous. This lesson—that Jews are always at risk of becoming an underclass again that the only solution to virulently upholding their position as white by living “a white man’s life”—has sunk deeply into everyday Jewish life.

The tendency to explain away complicity with a violent past as a form of protection from antisemitism can be explained by Steve Biko, South African freedom fighter and founder of the Black Consciousness movement. He dismissed ideas of internal difference within white society from the perspective of Black liberation: “Basically, the South African white community is a homogenous community. It is a community of people who sit to enjoy a privileged position that they do not deserve, are aware of this, and therefore spend their time trying to justify why they are doing so” (“Black Souls in White Skins?”, 1970).

However, other options have always been available. Many Yidn have taken the more difficult path and become accomplices in the struggle against white supremacy.

Yeshua Israelstam is an early example. A Lithuanian born socialist, he founded the Yiddish speaking branch of the International Socialist League in South Africa, and raised money for victims of pogroms in Eastern Europe. He was also a frequent accomplice to antiracist actions and strikes, and guest to the founding of the South African Native National Congress in 1912 (the forerunner to the African National Congress, ANC). He argued in the Jewish and national press against racist thinking. 

Another example is Ray Alexander Simmons. She worked for the communist party and the militant Food and Canning Workers Union until she was banned in the 1950s. She then joined Lilian Ngoyi, Florence Mkhize, and others to found the multiracial South African Federation of Women in 1954, which launched a major pass strike and the women’s charter. Exiled from the country, she moved to Lusaka to work with the ANC headquarters in exile. Simons rejected parochialism, an approach taken by many in these later generations: “I didn’t think of myself as being Jewish, because I just felt that I belong to the world. I am an internationalist” (Milton Shain and Richard Mendelshohn, The Jews in Southern Africa, 2008).

There are many such biographies of radical Jews who threw their lot in with the African majority in fighting against oppression. It is true and often stated that proportionally more Jews were involved in the struggle against Apartheid than any other group. For example, Jews made up over 8% of those accused of Treason at the 1956 Treason Trial despite never constituting even close to 1% of the population. This is an important recognition that many Jews refused the lessons explored above. However, many Jews were involved though, they were still only a tiny minority of the Jewish community and were often socially and even officially excluded from the organized Jewish life. From calls to exclude Israelstam in 1904, to banning anti-zionist Jews from Jewish conferences in 2018, there are common practices to squeeze out the radical recognitions that our history of victimization should lead not to self-preservation, but to work in solidarity with all those who resist oppression and fight for freedom.

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Richard Mendelsohn and Milton Shain’s 2008 illustrated history of The Jews in South Africa held in front of the Garden’s Community Centre, which hosts the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust and Genocide Centre, a Jewish Library, synagogue, and many offices of Jewish organizations behind an entrance with airportesque security features including bag and body scanners, and ID verification and home address verification.

A 21st century Yid? ///

It has been almost 120 years since Elkanan and Ella Lurie arrived in South Africa. I am a fifth generation Jew in South Africa, but am I a Yid? Acculturating to whiteness has forced, required, and rewarded Ashkenazi Jews to lose or adapt many parts of our culture into the strangle settler blend. My Yiddish is a set of idioms and exclamations rather than a language, Klemzer is gone, the landsmanshaftn (hometown societies) are forgotten, bundist organizing for a socialist and antifascist struggle against antisemitism has disappeared. This is an immense and painful cultural loss that can be placed at the feet of global antisemitism and Zionism and, in South Africa, at the feet of whiteness as the tribute it demanded for its barbed rewards. Our ancestors would not recognize us.

We cannot turn back the clocks though, nor would we want to. Reclaiming our cultural heritage back from assimilation does not constitute resistance to whiteness. It is important work for ourselves but inconsequential to the structures of oppression and exploitation. 

Black people are resisting whiteness throughout the country, and the world. From everyday acts of resistance, to adhoc collaborations, and decade-long movement building such as Abahlali baseMjondolo (shack dwellers), in every sector of society there are pockets of revolutionary, generative practices.. 

As 21st century Jews, we can perhaps be recognized by our ancestors through the embrace of the lessons learned by Israeltam, Simmons, and others: that antisemitism and other forms of racism come from the same white supremacist politics, that systems of oppression should be fought whether you are the intended target or not, that resistance is possible, and that in South Africa, we should throw our lot in with emancipatory politics and be accomplices to the struggle. It’s time to take off our white masks. ■