The Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry

Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa

Gideon Shimoni

Cover of "Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa"

The first thorough account of South African Jewish religious, political and educational institutions in relation to the apartheid regime.

A fundamental fact underlies this provocative study: the Jews of South Africa shared in the status of the privileged in a society based upon a system of legalized racial discrimination.

Viewed in the broad context of Jewish history, this was a highly unusual situation. What was the Jewish experience in these circumstances? What was the political behavior of Jews as members of the white group? What were the perceived implications of Jewry’s moral heritage and historical experience? How did South African Jewish leadership, lay and religious, seek to reconcile these implications with its responsibility for the safety and welfare of its own community?

Based on exhaustive research, Gideon Shimoni's "Community and Conscience" begins with a brief description of Jewish immigration to South Africa from Great Britain and eastern Europe and the consolidation of a South African Jewish community in the early 20th century. Shimoni then turns his attention to that community under the Afrikaner nationalist regime that came to power in May 1948, which established apartheid as a governmentally sanctioned system of discrimination based on race. The body of the book explores the Jewish community's political relationship to the Afrikaner government and its policies. Shimoni looks at the behavior or Jewish political, religious and educational institutions, South African Zionism and ties to Israel and Israel-South African relations in the global arena.

The author documents the apparent paradox that while many whites who actively opposed apartheid were Jews, few Jews were active opponents of apartheid. He seeks to explain both the largely bystander comportment of the Jewish community and the contrasting major role of Jews in all forms of resistance to apartheid. Balancing the more predictably conservative views of many Jewish institutions are riveting portraits of dozens of liberals and leftist radicals who worked to dismantle the apartheid regime.

From the other side, Shimoni’s look at black perceptions of the Jewish community (including the increasingly antagonistic views of the Muslim minority) suggests the contradictions of being Jews under apartheid, where, as whites, they had many privileges but, as Jews, raised strong and sometimes negative feelings in non-Jews, both white and black. Shimoni concludes his book with a discussion of new directions for the Jewish community in post-apartheid South Africa.

About the Author

Gideon Shimoni heads the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, where he also holds the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations. His published works include "The Zionist Ideology" (UPNE 1995).