exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article Michalya Schonwald Moss argues that one of the greatest crises facing Jewish Millennials in a post-Apartheid South Africa is their struggle to identify strongly as both Jewish and South African.
THE Regional Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, held in South Africa in 2018, looked to bring together young Jewish leaders to examine their “responsibility to the Jewish community alongside their responsibility to be active citizens in the South African context”. It, however, soon became evident that there was a palpable discomfort in how these young community leaders engaged with their South African identities. Being a Jewish-oriented Fellowship, it was perhaps unsurprising that participants strongly identified with their Jewishness and Jewish heritage. For many, their relationship to South Africa proved to be more ambivalent and complex.
"...it was the first time I had witnessed Jewish millennials clearly struggling with the dilemma of ‘how to be Jewish AND South African in a post-Apartheid South Africa?’"
The conference, themed Inside/Out Universalism vs Particularism in the Jewish Tradition, created a space for participants to examine the multiple facets of our Jewish identities in both the global and local South African context. We were also given an opportunity to engage critically with some of the prevailing narratives held by the South African Jewish community. One of the prevailing narratives being that the Jewish community takes great pride in the disproportionate role that Jewish South Africans played in the struggle against Apartheid. Another competing narrative identifies the Jewish community as compliant beneficiaries of Apartheid.
As an American-born Jew the unease in the room during this part of the discussion both fascinated – and surprised me. What I saw again and again, were a sense of guilt and shame. Despite this year marking twenty-five years since the official end of Apartheid, it was the first time I had witnessed Jewish millennials clearly struggling with the dilemma of ‘how to be Jewish AND South African in a post-Apartheid South Africa?’
"I cannot help but wonder whether there is not a direct correlation between Jewish migration from South Africa and a disengaged South African identity?"
Recent newspaper reports have pointed to further decline in the size of the South African Jewish population. Although this can undoubtedly be attributed to political and economic instability , I cannot help but wonder whether there is not a direct correlation between Jewish migration from South Africa and a disengaged South African identity?
When I moved to South Africa a decade ago, I encountered a Jewish community more focused on internal rather than external engagement. This mentality was a stark contrast to the communities which I have belonged to both in the United States and Israel where there was a strong emphasis on social justice and our role as Jews in the greater society. In fact, the Pew Survey has underscored the centrality of ethics and social justice to how Jewish Americans define and understand their Jewish identities.
I remember being a guest at many Shabbat tables in Johannesburg where the conversations never went to the ‘world out there’. I appealed to my Bloemfontein-born husband to move to Soweto or Braamfontein so that I could have the opportunity to engage with larger South African society. I felt that otherwise, I would never have the chance to encounter the ‘real’ South Africa.
Apartheid, and its’ almost obsessive predilection towards ethnic separateness, undoubtedly facilitated what I saw firsthand. I soon discovered that in the ‘new South Africa’, each community had remained (and for the most part, still remains) separate from the other. The social phenomenon of American societies’ ‘melting pot’ has not yet manifested here in South Africa.
"As an American Jew, I too grappled with the challenge of white privilege in the context of race in the U.S."
However, as an outsider, I have been observing an awakening amongst millennials in their need to engage with what it means to be white, Jewish and South African. As an American Jew, I too grappled with the challenge of white privilege in the context of race in the United States. In my freshman year of university, in my “Sociology of Racism” course, as the descendant of Holocaust survivors, I felt compelled to disclose to my peers that I felt more affinity towards African American’s than other ‘white’ Americans, as I related more to their historical struggle. However, context is everything. In South Africa, where Jewish South Africans are still considered privileged by their whiteness, it would be difficult to express feelings of greater affinity with South Africans who suffered oppression under Apartheid.
The urgency in this quest to integrate our South African and our Jewish identities is further compounded by what Adam Mendelson of University of Cape Town has described as early indications of a “youthquake” of the South African Jewish community. A recent study of Jews in Cape Town has found striking trends emerging amongst 16 – 30 year olds in particular.
My understanding is that:
that the complexities of being Jewish today in South Africa are having a ripple effect on the younger generations;
that in Cape Town there is an increasing disengagement from traditional Jewish institutions like the Synagogue;
young people feel an increased sense of alienation from the Jewish community and larger society;
that keeping Kosher and the cost of a Jewish education can be financially prohibitive for many;
that our future in this country is inextricably bound to how we engage around our whiteness and privilege;
That antagonism on campuses towards Jewish students who identify as Zionist, is impacting how they might engage with their South African identities.
All of these factors, coupled with political and economic insecurity have fueled much uncertainty, anxiety, internal division and a large-scale exodus out of South Africa, especially amongst younger South Africans. This trend was recently profiled in Haaretz.
The South African Jewish community has provided institutions that have enabled vibrant Jewish living. Our community leadership have been diligent in prioritising our safety – as well as assuaging our uncertainty. But, largely, it has been ineffective in confronting the complex challenges of reconciling our Jewish identities with our South African identities.
Would it not be more impactful, my peers expressed at the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, if our community created platforms to engage with these complex questions of our Jewish and South African identities, and not shy away from them?
"I would argue that this ... desire to be a part of -- and not apart from -- larger society is the one of the biggest crises facing Jewish millennials in South Africa."
Because of the safe space that was created for my peers at the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, we were able to share how much we yearned to connect with fellow South Africans and how painful it is that we do not have easy access to other communities. My peers lamented, how they only encountered other cultures and races when they reached university and how attending Jewish private schools often means that our children do not engage with broader South African society in a meaningful way.
I would argue that this struggle to challenge the insularity of the Jewish community and the desire to be a part of -- and not apart from -- larger society is the one of the biggest crises facing Jewish millennials in South Africa. It is this insularity which is working to further isolate us, not keep us safe, from the larger society. How might we think collectively around creating community members who are more engaged in South Africa and who are also less likely to disengage from the Jewish community? After all, if these are our community leaders of tomorrow, they have to be able to lead through uncertainty in order to forge more empowering and resilient South African and Jewish identities for generations to come.
Michalya Schonwald Moss is an independent consultant to special projects, a change catalyst and the Regional Coordinator in Africa and the Middle East for Tendrel, a global association for entrepreneurs committed to impact. Originally from the United States, she has consulted to initiatives such as TEDx and Ashoka Southern Africa. Michalya received a B.A in History from Columbia University and an M.A in International Development from the University of the Witwatersrand. Michalya was a volunteer with Tevel b'Tzedek: The Earth in Justice, an Israeli-based international development organisation in Nepal and later served as Deputy International Director. She serves on the board of directors for Mensch and Cadena SA.