A most interesting letter from a correspondent

April 28, 2014

In Blog

You may recall from our past correspondence, that I am a product of Lithuanian Jews that emigrated to South Africa, that my parents were active in the anti-apartheid struggle, and that (despite the fact that we were all born in South Africa) we were stripped of our citizenship and deported.  I spent most of the period thereafter in the US working for the World Bank, and in the UK. I now live in Europe, and recently turned 70.
I have been reflecting on your holocaust studies, and trying to recall my own experiences in Johannesburg. I can remember no great obsession with the holocaust among my family and other South African Jews. The first holocaust centre in South Africa was founded as late as 1999. 
You are brilliant at exposing the myths surrounding American Jewry. I wish I were still young enough to attempt to do the same regarding South African Jewry, where the myths are even more distorting. I cant imagine any Jewish community anywhere in the world that lived such a schizophrenic existence as Jews in Apartheid South Africa.
It is perfectly true that South African Jews played a significant role in the struggle against apartheid. My mother was, after all, one of them, and Gillian Slovo was a childhood friend. Almost every well-known Jew in the SA Communist Party were friends of my family. 
However, what has been done is to use that fact to convey the impression that South African Jews were universally liberal and opposed to apartheid. Nothing could be further from the truth. I dont know whether you have read “The Unspoken Alliance” by Sasha Polakow, which documents the close relationship between apartheid South Africa, and increasingly apartheid Israel after 1967. The book contributes a valuable service in exposing and documenting this, but it significantly fails to probe the role of South African jewry and largely echoes the established myth.
I dont know whether post WW2  Jews have ever lived, in such significant numbers, under a regime whose leaders, the National Party, was associated with strong support for Hitler and Nazism. I can recall quite open anti-semitism while growing up in South Africa, including the distribution of nazi-style propaganda against Jews that would have been inconceivable in the US, I think. (I still possess two of these, and would be happy to scan them if you are interested). 
Yet despite living under a form of fascism, South African Jews did not only, in special cases, become prominent in fighting apartheid, they also prospered to an extent which probably surpasses their success in the USA. They did not do so by opposing or fighting against apartheid. They did so by deep collaboration with the system. Many may have held privately critical views about the morality of apartheid, but that remained very private. The exodus of many Jews from South Africa after the fall of apartheid, was most notable. My Jewish family split. Half went to Israel, where like many other South African Jews, they are very prominent in both right-wing politics and business. The rest remained, with continual trips to Israel (many took out Israeli citizenship) making the same fortune as they did, in post-apartheid  South Africa, and with bags packed, ready to go at short notice, if need be. Jews are great last-minute travellers.
South African Jews were active in the supportive relationship between Israel and South Africa. I recall during my youth, how many Jews I knew, would commute between Johannesburg and Tel Aviv. In fact, I hazard to propose that South African Jewry had an earlier and closer relationship with Israel, than existed in the USA until much later, when they became, probably, on a par. The other thing which is interesting is, with a few exceptions, South African Jews focus more on the UK and Europe than they do on the USA. Throughout my life in South Africa, I recall a general distaste for the US among all white sectors. Township blacks, of course, adopted Black American cultural themes, and honoured King and other Black hero figures. But inevitably, because African-Americanism has so little to do with Africa, a distance always remained. Ultimately, America stood for imperialism, and South Africa, for all its warts, was founded on an anti-imperialist platform (and then invented its own special version, called Separate Development).
Although my own nuclear family was associated with the anti-apartheid struggle, it was a tiny minority within the larger family tribe. The brothers and sisters of the family all came from Vilnius at the same time, and only one, my grandfather Joe, was a communist. The others were conservative, anti-Bolshevik Jews. We inevitably has many friends among the non-progressive Jewish community too; after all, my family’s politics were largely clandestine.
I can never recall much vehement anti-black sentiment among my wider family and South African Jews I knew. Rather, there was an attitude that blacks were inferior children (I guess rather like Palestinians) but as long as they worked as good servants, one was nice to them. The family, like other South African Jews I knew, were, however, obsessed by their own racial or ethnic superiority, especially with regard to Afrikaners, and despite their collaboration with apartheid. It was, as I said, a tortuously schizophrenic existence. I know, from my own skills at self survival, that I too, inherited that Jewish combination of improvisation, arrogance, and nerve that allowed me to survive for 20 years in the World Bank, despite my deep disagreement with much of what it stood for.
Do you have any special knowledge, or perspectives, on what I have written above ? Do you know of any good studies I can read ?
I continue to greatly enjoy your writings and increasingly numerous videod lectures. Do you know that in addition to being an impressive ambassador for truth, you are also a great entertainer ? My son loves your droll humour.
Best wishes