by irwin manoim
RABBI Andre Ungar died aged 90 at his home in New York on 5 May 2020 after a long illness. Due to COVID-19 lockdown regulations, only three people were permitted to attend his funeral.
Rabbi Ungar, who spent two years in Port Elizabeth during the mid-1950s, has been largely forgotten in South Africa. But as South African Jews continue to come to terms with the apartheid era, Rabbi Ungar deserves a special niche in our local history: he was the only rabbi to enrage the apartheid government to such an extent that they expelled him.
A Hungarian Jew, Rabbi Ungar spent his childhood hiding from the Nazis in Budapest under false identities in a non-Jewish part of town. The horror of Nazism, witnessed first-hand, would colour Ungar’s attitudes for the rest of his life and shaped his attitudes in South Africa, where he was offered his first job as a rabbi in 1955, at the Reform synagogue in Port Elizabeth, Temple Israel.
Ungar found his new community friendly enough. He was given a bigger house than he’d ever lived in, complete with garden and servants. Ungar started asking his congregants questions about the silent, ubiquitous but invisible host of black servants and labourers in their employ. As he himself put it in an article later:
How did they live? What were the relationships between them and us? Naively, I voiced such questions before my new-made friends. That, I was told, is a lifetime’s study. You must be born here to understand it. Foreigners can know nothing about it. Besides, it is an unsavoury topic, a communist thing to worry about.
There was a certain mischievousness to Ungar: he was a provocateur. He made black friends – almost unheard of behaviour among whites in the 1950s. His friends included Govan Mbeki, later to be the Robben Island cellmate of Nelson Mandela, and the father to President Thabo Mbeki, and the activist poet Dennis Brutus, who would also be jailed, then flee into exile.
As Ungar puts it again:
An unforgiveable sin … they came to my home. I went to theirs. I would actually be seen going for a drive or a walk with a coloured person … More impudently still, I invited my white and black friends together, at the same time, not necessarily having warned the white against the ploy in store for them. You should have seen them squirm when faced with the dilemma of whether to accept the outstretched hand and shake it or pretend it was not there or simply walk out in a huff!
Ungar accepted the chairmanship of an interracial discussion forum, the 20th Century Club, whose members — Africans, Indians ‘and a handful of oddball whites’, met once a month, an arrangement considered distasteful by many within white Port Elizabeth. ‘The very notion of togetherness was a vile horror for the normal white South African.’ He proposed to his congregants a series of public lectures on the great religions of the world, which was enthusiastically supported until he said that the talk on Hinduism should be given by an Indian. The lecture series was abandoned. There was disapproval that the nanny was left to babysit in the living room, that the cook was paid a pound more than the local average, that the maid was given a lift by car to her family home. Ungar raised money for a scholarship to a promising African student, but the women’s committee resisted, urging that the money be given instead to a Jewish candidate.
The rabbi began giving sermons with a political edge. The first to cause controversy beyond the walls of the Temple discussed the case of a local schoolboy, Stephen Ramasodi, who had won a scholarship to a prestigious American college, but was refused a passport. The rabbi made parallels between Ramasodi, who had been denied his dreams, yet was innocent of any crime, and Moses, who was refused entry into the Promised Land. The next morning’s Eastern Province Herald, under the headline “Rabbi Slates Passport Refusal to Boy”, gave generous space to the rabbi’s argument, and quoted one sentence in particular: “The harsh verdict over this young man was passed by arrogantly puffed-up little men in heartless stupidity.”
A stream of angry letters from readers poured into the paper, such as this one from J Jankelson of Port Elizabeth: “I wish to express the hope that the majority of the Jewish people, local and general, will … dissociate themselves from the remarks made by that Rabbi, especially his adjectives referring to our government.” The Afrikaans press took up the controversy, and were particularly enraged by the phrase “arrogantly puffed-up little men”.
In November 1956, the rabbi was one of seven speakers at a meeting in protest against the new Group Areas Act. The others, like Liberal Party leader and novelist Alan Paton, who had just written Cry The Beloved Country, were far more famous. But it was Ungar’s speech which made the headlines because he described how Hungarian Jews had been driven into the ghettoes by the Nazis, and said he was seeing the beginnings of something similar here. The Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger reported
Race hatred is an abomination and the Group Areas Act is a despicable abomination, said Rabbi A Unger on Monday evening in Port Elizabeth at a protest meeting. This was one of the vicious attacks by seven speakers at the Feather Market Hall on the Group Areas Act … the audience, which consisted of a small group (klompie) of white men and women among hundreds of natives, Asians and Coloureds, greeted the attacks with applause and jeering laughter … Rabbi Unger said that Hitler was once again on the march in the Transvaal, Natal, the Cape and in the ironically named Free State … .
The article drew yet another barrage of letters, including one from “Jewish Reader” of Port Elizabeth, who wrote to the Afrikaans press. “I want to state that this rabbi represents only a very small section of the Jewish community in Port Elizabeth, namely the “Reformed Jewish Church” and that his behaviour is not approved of even by his followers … the largest section of the Jewish community in South Africa do not voice Rabbi Ungar’s opinions and do not belong to his sort of church.”
Relations became strained, and to general relief, Rabbi Ungar announced that he would resign and leave in January. But six weeks before his departure, a sheriff arrived on the doorstep of the Temple Israel congregation, delivering a letter to the secretary, giving Rabbi Ungar one month to leave the country or be jailed as a prohibited immigrant. Various things were curious about the expulsion order. It was served on the congregation, not on the rabbi. And the authorities knew perfectly well that Ungar was leaving anyway. The rabbi suggested that the purpose of the expulsion order was not so much to teach him a lesson, as to serve as a warning to the Jewish community.
Ungar received very little support from the local Jewish community, other than from liberal Jews in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The head of the local Jewish Board of Deputies wrote to the papers to say that the Jewish community was made up of people with many different viewpoints, that Rabbi Ungar spoke only for himself and had to take the consequences, and that there was no reason to believe the government was attempting to intimidate the Jewish community.
An editorial in Jewish Review, the publication of the Eastern Province Jewish community, criticised the local press for making a huge “tzimmes” over the deportation issue, and said the “entire Jewish community resents Dr Ungar’s act of making a publicity stunt of it.” The writer wondered whether the rabbi had insufficient work that he could waste his time on attacking the government and said that “Dr Ungar’s departure from our country will be received by some of us with a sigh of relief”.
To be fair to the Temple Israel congregants, on the Sunday morning of the rabbi’s departure almost the entire membership arrived at the airport for a farewell ceremony, where the Hebrew School children loudly sang Hevenu Shalom Aleichem in the departure lounge. Newspaper photographs show some of the children crying. As the rabbi himself put it:
In the eyes around me, there were relief and regret, affection and annoyance, pain and puzzled apology … A silent group of dark skinned friends stood in the opposite corner, aware that any gesture from them would land them in jail … Then a few of them, in a mad mood of daring, walked over and hastily whispered their greetings. I shook hands with them, horrifying the white onlookers by kissing my dearest friend’s wife on the cheek … .
Rabbi Ungar can recall receiving only one message of support from a Jewish religious leader. It came in the form of a cryptic telegram from the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Louis Rabinowitz, who had hitherto been no friend of any Reform rabbi. The cable said: ‘RESPECTFUL SALUTATIONS — CHIEF RABBI RABINOWITZ’. But although Rabinowitz made a number of political pronouncements at the time, he made no public mention of Ungar.
Postscript: Rabbi Ungar ended up in New Jersey where he served two Conservative congregations, one for 44 years. He became prominent among the rabbis supporting the civil rights movement in the South in the sixties, one of 20 rabbis who went to Birmingham to register voters, and joining the protest marches – both of these dangerous activities at the time. He returned to South Africa on his 80th birthday in 2010 for a visit to Port Elizabeth, where he presided over a baby naming for the grandchild of a congregant he had taught for his Bar mitzvah.
This article is an edited excerpt from a lecture delivered to Limmud UK in December 2019, on the topic of rabbis who spoke out against apartheid.
Irwin Manoim is a former newspaper editor, currently a researcher at the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT, exploring previously ignored aspects of South African Jewish history. His recently completed history of the Progressive Jewish movement in South Africa, Mavericks inside the Tent (UCT Press, 2020), will be on sale once the COVID-19 lockdown has ended.