Quo Vadis: Whither South Africa’s religious freedom?

SOUTH AFRICA has a troubled history of religious freedom going back to the Protestant Reformation and the plight of Huguenot refugees fleeing religious persecution under Catholic France. ‘God Is Not a Christian’ claimed the late Desmond Tutu, who also said: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray. ‘ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”

It was thus colonialism which brought religion to the continent, and for the better part of the 20th Century, the struggle was between theocrats in Pretoria — those who believed the Afrikaners were Africa’s equivalent of “God’s Chosen People”, armed with a Covenant literally signed in blood (at Blood river) — and those who believed in a more inclusive, secular national identity, one based upon the universal declaration of Human Rights, as illustrated by our Freedom Charter.

My own family history which spans the Huguenots, the Scottish Celts, and Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia (and even Basotho who fled Zulu militarism), struggled with these conflicts, based as they are on competing theologies, traditions, beliefs and practices. For the most part, the Latviks and Litvaks of Eastern Europe were socialists who practiced their religion in the face of the Enlightenment and Haskalah.

Persons such as Eli Weinberg, Esther & Hymie Barsel, Yetta Barenblatt and Baruch Hirson, were acknowledged for their contribution to the anti-apartheid movement on 1st March 2011, with a series of stamps released by members the African Union — the postal services of Liberia, Gambia and Sierra Leone

Zionism for these individuals had appeared wholly unnecessary until the events of the Holocaust and Farhud, the forced dispossession of Jews from MENA which preceded it. The trend of Medieval persecution and Czarist & Ottoman-Arab pogroms, resulting in wholesale slaughter, only got worse, effectively negating the emancipation of the Jews of Europe which had occurred under Napoleon.

In 1917 a mass expulsion of the Jews of Jerusalem was ordered by Djemal Pasha, though the outcome was narrowly averted due to the influence of the Prussian government, the eight thousand Jews of Jaffa nevertheless suffered deportation, and their property was seized as the region’s Jewish population was affected by the events of WW1, which included the Armenian Genocide. A report by a United States consul describing the Jaffa deportation was published in the June 3, 1917 edition of The New York Times.

A series of laws introduced by then Minister of the Interior D F Malan under the Smuts government during the 1930s was aimed at preventing Jewish immigration to our country, and introduction of the Nuremberg Laws created pseudo-scientific, racial and legal distinctions between Jews and Germans of ‘pure blood’ in Nazi Germany.

South Africa under the Nationalist government whose membership cards carried the Swastika, was soon to follow with its own system of race classification. (You can read my earlier writing on the subject here and here). Having gained the franchise, denied them under the Boer Republics, South African Jews were in danger of having their citizenship revoked by the Nationalists, as Malan’s brown shirts met boatloads of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in Table Bay Harbour with force.

Celebrated Weekly Mail editor Irwin Manoim in his book ‘Mavericks Inside the Tent, a history of the Progressive Jewish movement in South Africa and its impact on the wider community’ outlines many of the predicaments faced by South Africa’s Jewish community during the tragic period of apartheid: “Jews were disproportionately strongly represented among anti-apartheid activists, a point frequently made by hostile authorities,” he writes. “But the most outspoken, committed and courageous of the Jewish anti-apartheid activists were largely secular, operating outside the organised Jewish community.”

Manoim narrates the role played by Jewish clerics such as Rabbi Andre Ungar (deported by Min TE Donges) and Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris in opposing the regime. Donge’s order read: “I have to inform you that … you are hereby ordered to leave the Union of South Africa not later than the 15th of January 1957 … If you fail to comply with this notice, you will be guilty of an offense and liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding £100, or in default of payment of the fine, to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months.”

Both individuals are air-brushed out of history by the likes of Naledi Pandor, whose followers on social media enjoy raising the issue of Percy Yutar the chief prosecutor at the Rivonia Trial. It is important to note that Mandela, a bipartisan on the Israel/Palestine issue, was arraigned alongside fellow Zionist Arthur Goldreich, and that Denis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein, Robert Hepple, Harold Wolpe and James Kantor were all Jews.

It was thus that the issue of the Star of David became a point of order in the Johannesburg City Council this week. EFF councilors objected to city councilor Daniel Schay wearing a ‘Star of David’ on his tie.

“If they have issues with Jewish religious symbols they must come out and say it,” responded Schay.

“Freedom of religion is protected by the constitution. It is the first time in this Council’s chambers that somebody’s religion and expression of their religion is being questioned…This is unacceptable,” charged another councilor.