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South Africa has 88,000 Jews in a general population numbering 44 million. The first Jews arrived in 1806 from St. Helena. In 1820, they were joined by a handful of coreligionists who came with 4,000 colonists sent by the English. South Africa then consisted only of the sparsely populated province of Capetown, and a vast, unexplored wilderness stretching into the heart of the Dark Continent. Inhabited by savage Zulu tribes and containing great untapped natural resources, it offered a promise of wealth and adventure to those who could face its dangers and survive. For a century, hardy pioneers hacked at its frontiers, carving for themselves private empires in mountain and veldt. Among them were enterprising Jews such as Aaron de Pass and his son Daniel, who prospered in the country’s infant shipping, fishing and whaling industries, opened copper mines, founded sugar plantations, and established one of Natal’s first industries. Nathaniel Isaacs and Benjamin Norden were active in the “Zulu trade”; the former was the partner and right-hand man of “empire-builder” Cecil Rhodes.

The turning point in South African history came with discovery, in the 1870’s, of the world’s richest gold and diamond mines, in Kimberly and the Transvaal. Bringing unprecedented wealth to the area, it drew immigrants from all over the world. These included East European Jews who migrated via England, Holland and other West European countries. The newcomers swelled the ranks of the community, going chiefly into small trade and establishing some of the country’s earliest manufacturing plants. But it was the old-timers who exploited the mineral finds: Solomon Barnato Joel came to control huge copper fields in North Rhodesia; Barney I. Barnato, who started out as a busboy in London‘s East End, became Kimberly’s “diamond king.”

With the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899, the growing Jewish community found itself fighting with distinction in two armies. The war was fought between the English, who wished to unite the country under their flag, and Dutch farmers (known as Boers) who had trekked northward at mid-century to preserve their independence. The Boers had founded the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, where Jewish farmers and traders had settled early. As in English Capetown and Natal, Jews played an important role in the commercial and political life of the provinces.

The war ended in 1902 with an English victory. Eight years later, Capetown, Natal, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were joined in the Union of South Africa; two years after that (1912), the Jewish communities, scattered throughout the country, joined together to form a united Board of Deputies to represent them before the central authorities. In the national life of South Africa Jews continued to play an important role in politics, law, medicine, and the arts, as well as in the economic life. South Africa’s most Popular writer of English in recent times was Sarah Millin, a Jewish woman, whose husband, Judge Philip Millin, was one of the country’s leading jurists. Jews have sat in Parliament from the outset; they have also held government positions. Jewish patrons have founded the country’s leading art museums. Artists such as Irma Stem are in the first rank of South African painters and sculptors. The country’s best writers include such Jews as Dan Jacobson and Nadine Gordimer.

The wealth and earlier security of South Africa’s Jews did not shield them from the serious threat of antisemitism during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Under the influence of Nazi propaganda, the Powerful Nationalist Party threatened to deprive Jews of economic and political rights. With the collapse of Nazism, this program was discarded, and the community has since been assured that discrimination will not be practiced.

South Africa’s Jewry maintains strong ties with Israel. There has been a Zionist movement in the country since the 1890’s, and today the Zionist Federation is the most active organization in the community. The government of the Union of South Africa has pursued a policy friendly to Zionism and Israel.

Jewish communal life is intensive. The first synagogue was founded in 1841, and during the 19th century both synagogues and Jewish schools were set up in all communities. Since 1928, a Board of Jewish Education has coordinated educational activities. Jewish education, however, is a problem with which the community is seriously concerned, as there is a shortage of both funds and adequately trained teachers. The small but flourishing Jewish press includes a number of weeklies, published mainly in Capetown and Johannesburg, the two largest communities, with a Jewish population of 25,650 and 57,500 respectively. The Hebrew Order of David, similar to B’nai B’rith in the U.S., is active in all Jewish communities.

The entire community is represented in governmental matters by the Jewish Board of Deputies. The Board is the community’s World Jewish Congress affiliate, and is also linked with the Board of Deputies of English Jewry, and the U.S. B’nai B’rith, in the Coordinating Board of Jewish Organizations in the UN Economic and Social Council.

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