This Jews first came to South Africa from Britain during the nineteenth century. The first synagogue congregation was founded in 1841. By 1880, 4,000 Jews were integrated into English colonial society. The Jewish population increased dramatically with the onset of a large wave of Yiddish-speaking immigration, mainly from the Litvak (Lithuanian) region of Eastern Europe. Most were motivated to leave their native land by the harshly repressive economic and political conditions of Jewish life in the Czarist Russian Empire. Thus, a striking feature of South African Jewry has always been the prominent role of Zionism in the life of the community. Zionism and support for the establishment of a Jewish state became, and remains, the dominant political ideology among South African Jews.
Rising rapidly from poor beginnings to high levels of increasingly middle-class prosperity, Jews also experienced considerable anti-Semitism. This became especially virulent between the world wars, when the white Afrikaner nationalist movement showed sympathy for German Nazism and local Nazi organizations labeled Jews as racially “unassimilable.” Laws aimed, though not explicitly, at suppressing Jewish immigration were passed in 1930 and again in 1937.
By 1946 there were some 100,000 Jews in South Africa, constituting 4.4 percent of the white population. The Jewish population reached a peak of 120,000 in the early 1970s but declined rapidly thereafter because of emigration in the years preceding and following the end of the apartheid regime in 1994. It is estimated that there are 76,000 Jews in South Africa today.
During the apartheid years Jews in South Africa were in a morally ambiguous situation. Because they were white, they shared in the status of the privileged in a society based upon a system of legalized racial discrimination. Solicitous of the safety and welfare of the Jewish community, Jewish leadership adopted a policy of “noninvolvement in politics” and refrained from criticizing and opposing the apartheid regime. However, Jews also became disproportionately involved in the anti-apartheid movement, in many cases at great risk to their lives. Joe Slovo, born in Lithuania, became a leading figure in the anti-apartheid African National Congress in exile, and his wife, Ruth First, was sent a parcel bomb, which killed her. Of the 156 activists tried in the Treason Trial (1956–61), twenty-three were white, of which fourteen were Jews. All the white codefendants at the Rivonia Trial that sentenced Nelson Mandela to Robben Island in 1964 were Jewish. (Notably, the state prosecutor at the trial was Jewish as well.) On the whole, Jews conformed to white South African norms, but tended to be rather more liberal and opposed to apartheid than most other whites.