Jewish Studies South African Jewry
Milton Shain, Adam Mendelsohn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0053


Non-Protestants, including Jews, were denied the right to settle during the rule of the Dutch East India Company (1652–1795). This practice was changed under the relatively enlightened Batavian administration (1803–1806) and maintained thereafter by their administrative heirs, the British, beginning in 1806. A handful of Jews, mainly of English, Dutch, and German origin, availed themselves of the new circumstances, which allowed Jews the right to settle. In 1841 they founded Tikvath Israel (Hope of Israel), forerunner of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. Their numbers were consolidated by the influx of eastern European Jews, mainly from Lithuania, after the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and the discovery of gold two decades later. About 40,000 Jews came to the country in the three decades prior to the First World War, but mass immigration of Jews to South Africa was curtailed with the introduction of the Quota Act in 1930. The eastern European newcomers readily adapted to their new setting, including acculturation into a segregated society where Jews came to be regarded as white. This, however, did not spare them from anti-Semitism that peaked in the 1930s, much of it driven by Afrikaner nationalists, who ultimately took power in 1948 and imposed the system of apartheid. The immigrants brought with them a Zionist fervor that continues to characterize the South African Jewish community to this day. The two major national Jewish organizations born in the immigrant period—the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation—reflect these twin impulses. While the board deals essentially with domestic matters —primarily responding to anti-Semitism and representing the community in its interactions with the government—the South African Zionist Federation deals with Israel-related activities. By 1961 virtually the entire South African Jewish population, slightly enhanced by a trickle of Sephardi immigrants from the Belgium Congo, was urbanized, with the overwhelming majority living in the metropolitan areas of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Pretoria. At its zenith in 1970, the Jewish community numbered 118,200, or 0.6 percent of the total population of 21.4 million, and 3.1 percent of the white population of 3.7 million. The community remains vibrant, albeit beset with the worries of post-apartheid South Africa and considerably reduced in size because of mass emigration. The population is now approximately 52,300, less than 0.1 percent of the total South African population of 56 million. More than twenty-five years after the first democratic elections, the Jewish community is still grappling with its past under apartheid and finding its place in the new South Africa.

General Overviews

The first scholarly history of South African Jewry was written by the British-born Cape Town educationist Louis Herrman, focusing on early beginnings to 1895 (Herrman 1975). Twenty-five years later, Saron and Hotz 1955, a single-volume history, took the story to the mid-20th century. Gustav Saron, a lawyer by training and a one-time lecturer in classics at the University of the Witwatersrand, was the general secretary of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and Louis Hotz was a journalist and social and economic researcher. These two books became standard texts, providing the received version of the South African past. Both played formative roles in the self-definition of South African Jewry in the apartheid era, presenting an image of an industrious, upwardly mobile, respectable, classless, civic-minded, loyal, and uniformly Zionist community contributing energetically to the commonwealth and generally welcomed by the host society. Shimoni, educated at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Hebrew University, published a scholarly history of the Jewish community of South Africa in the 20th century (Shimoni 1980). Four years later, Marcus Arkin, a professor of economic history at Natal University, edited a collection of essays on South African Jewry (Arkin 1984). Shain and Mendelsohn 2002 is a collection of essays on the South African Jewish experience, which was followed by a coauthored survey, Mendelsohn and Shain 2014, whose authors are historians at the University of Cape Town. Shain 2011 is a critique of the major forces shaping South African Jewish identity and culture.

  • Arkin, Marcus, ed. South African Jewry: A Contemporary Survey. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    This collection of essays deals with Jewish demography, communal life, religious life, education, political behavior, and cultural contributions. A very useful introduction with an excellent annotated bibliography by Reuben Musiker, former professor of librarianship and bibliography at the University of the Witwatersrand.

  • Herrman, Louis. A History of the Jews in South Africa from Earliest Times to 1895. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1975.

    Herrman began his deeply researched study as an inquiry into the origins and development of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, the mother community. This was broadened into a history of South African Jewry, terminating in the mid-1890s, just as the eastern Europeans had begun to make their mark. The book highlights the long record of Jewish contributions to the broader community. Originally published in 1930 (London: V. Gollancz).

  • Kaplan, Mendel. Jewish Roots in the South African Economy. Cape Town: Struik, 1986.

    A detailed description of South African Jewish entrepreneurial activities from the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s to the late 20th century. An internationally renowned Jewish leader and industrialist, Kaplan focuses on some of the country’s leading businessmen, making good use of interviews and extensive business records. Also see Jews and the Economy.

  • Mendelsohn, Richard, and Milton Shain. The Jews in South Africa: An Illustrated History. 2d ed. Cape Town: Ball, 2014.

    This illustrated history, first published in 2008, traces the development of the South African Jewish community from earliest times to the early 21st century. The Jewish experience is at all times situated within the wider South African polity. Incorporating much new research, the challenges and fortunes of the community are analyzed and placed within wider social currents and changes, including the emergence of South African democracy and the new democratic South Africa. See also Jewish Education and Jews and the Economy.

  • Saron, Gustav, and Louis Hotz, eds. The Jews in South Africa: A History. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1955.

    Much of this substantial multiauthored volume is based on original research. Contributors were specifically warned that it was not intended as a volume simply to highlight the successes of Jews; rather, they were instructed to present a Jewish community maintaining its own culture and lifestyle while fully integrating into South African life.

  • Shain, Milton. “Jewish Cultures, Identities and Contingencies: Reflections from the South African Experience.” In Special Issue: Jewish Culture in the Age of Globalisation. European Review of History: Revue Européenne d’Histoire 18.1 (2011): 89–100.

    DOI: 10.1080/13507486.2011.543584

    Examines the context of South African Jewish immigration and the evolution of a distinctive Jewish culture and identity shaped both by domestic and by international events and trends.

  • Shain, Milton, and Richard Mendelsohn, eds. Memories, Realities and Dreams: Aspects of the South African Jewish Experience. Johannesburg: J. Ball, 2002.

    Based on an international colloquium, this collection of original essays reflects on Jewish cultural life, anti-Semitism, identity, and politics. See also Jews, Politics, Apartheid, and the New South Africa.

  • Shimoni, Gideon. Jews and Zionism: The South African Experience 1910–1967. Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1980.

    Based on a PhD dissertation at the Hebrew University, this scholarly and deeply researched account examines South African Jewish communal politics, the ascendancy of Zionism, and political interactions with the wider (in the main) white society from the early 20th century to 1967. See also Communal Organizations; Jews, Politics, Apartheid, and the New South Africa; Anti-Semitism; and Zionism.

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