60% of white treason trialists were Jewish
“Of the 23 white treason trialists in 1956, fourteen of us were of Jewish origin,” says Ben Turok. Exclusive Interview!
ANC stalwart Ben Turok has disclosed in an exclusive interview with Jewish Report that recent media reports (SEE LINKS BELOW) that he had laid a disciplinary charge against fellow senior ANC member Marius Fransman were incorrect.
“I did not lay a charge in formal terms,” Turok said. He confirmed that he had, indeed, raised the issue of Fransman’s anti-Semitic statements to the Cape Town Press Club. “I wrote to Fransman and said I believe this requires disciplinary treatment and I copied the secretary-general (Gwede Mantashe).”
Turok would not disclose what he had written but did tell Jewish Report that his letter had raised his concern that “the ANC must not get involved in ethnic finger-pointing. It is a very dangerous trend and an undesirable tendency given the huge challenges we still face as a result of our apartheid legacy,” he said.
“I have done a count just this morning of the 1956 treason trialists,” Turok told Jewish Report. Of the 23 who were white, he said, “14 of us were of Jewish origin.”
“More importantly ethnicity on the whole in SA is a problem.”
“Today you talk about Jewish ownership, tomorrow it can be Greek ownership – or any other ethnic group for that matter.”
Turok told Jewish Report that what Fransman said had motivated him to react for two reasons: his personal experience of anti-Semitism in the past on one hand; and a general distaste for any form of ethnic discrimination and labelling of people on the other.
Fransman hit a nerve in Turok
Fransman’s statements hit a nerve in Turok, who has long since given up religion and makes clear that he is not a Zionist. “Primarily it was because I detest anti-Semitism,” Turok said of why he had faced off with Fransman.
“My position is that I certainly have sensibilities to my anti-Semitic past.” Turok said that his parents had fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Ukraine only to find themselves in Latvia (where he and his two older brothers were born) when it became the first became the first fascist country in Europe.
“We were subject to (anti-Semitic) violence in Latvia,” says Turok, and later from Afrikaner nationalists when they came to South Africa.
Benjamin’s parents, Harry and Rachel Turok, came from the Ukraine Belgorod. “They were persecuted in Cossack and ‘Whatnot’ pogroms,” he says and fled to Latvia where his older siblings Hillel and Solomon and he were born.
Soon Latvia, too, was overtaken by violent anti-Semitism and the then-Union of SA was looking to bolster its white population, explains Turok. “South Africa was looking for any white immigration – even Jewish riffraff from Eastern Europe,” he told Jewish Report.
Home language was Yiddish
So it was that Harry arrived in SA in 1930, and managed to bring Rachel and the three boys over in 1934. “Our home language was Yiddish,” explains Turok. The only other language the family spoke was Russian.
Their home was very Jewish but not religious or Zionist, says Turok. His father was a skilled leather craftsman but there was no work for him in his field – so he had started as a barrow-boy, selling oranges in the streets of Cape Town. Later, harry opened a chip shop and subsequently got a job at a leather factory. Before his working life was over, Harry Turok would become the owner of the factory.
“My parents rarely went to Shul, Turok told Jewish Report, adding that he had been a choir boy at the local Shul. None of the family was religious back then, he says. Later, Hillel occasionally attended Shul and “as my parents got older they started to become pro-Zionist and going to Shul.”
Rachel Turok was a very cultured woman, says Ben. She became one of the premiere actresses in Cape Town where Yiddish was a third language. “Our house was a hotbed of Yiddish.” He remembers his childhood home as the centre of communal life – very Yiddish, never Zionist but very much Jewish.
But Ben, the only survivor of the original five Turok’s who settled in cape Town, says that he grew up feeling “rather suffocated” and that he began to distance myself from this background. “I wanted to become a South African,” he says.
But the South Africa of the time was home to Afrikaner nationalism “that had a right wing Nazi sympathies,” which led to the Turok family once again experiencing anti-Semitism in their lives.
As the National Party grew, Ben’s father became active the Cape Town anti-Fascist movement, taking part in demonstrations in Cape Town and Paarl.
And so, when Marius Fransman passed the anti-Semitic comments last week, Ben Turok – party stalwart and keeper-of-the-peace – was personally offended. “I acted in memory to my parents and to my own heritage,” he says. “At a personal level, as one who has myself lived under oppressive regimes, I acted on my heritage.”
Related reads on this website:
ANTI-SEMITISM CAUSES CLASH OF ANC BIG-WIGS
By ANT KATZ published on 15 October, 2013: ANC veteran MP Ben Turok this week lodged a complaint with his party against W/Cape chair for making anti-Semitic comments about the Jewish community
ANC TAKES MORE HEAT ON ANTI-SEMITISM
By ANT KATZ posted on 26 October 2013: DA joins ANC criticism of Marius Fransman’s anti-Semitism which the minister denies in a veiled apology that appeases nobody.
“I oppose any ethnic discrimination and labelling – I joined the struggle (I am one of a substantial band of SA Jews who identified with people fighting against racism in any form) and we identified with the liberation struggle for that reason,” Turok told Jewish Report.
He says that he does not believe that “referring to (any) ethnic characterisations is helpful.”
Yochanan’s gamble: the controversial move that saved Judaism
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, known as the father of rabbinic Judaism, saved Judaism from complete and utter destruction during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, his methods weren’t without controversy. He was crafty, practical, and pragmatic, and history has questioned his behaviour ever since.
Limmud@Home on 22 August 2021 featured Marc Katz, the author and rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in New Jersey, United States, who discussed Ben Zakkai’s controversial gamble that saved Judaism, and the lessons that can be learned from it.
The zealots, a group of religious fanatics in Jerusalem, wanted to fight the Romans. When the sages refused to engage in battle, the zealots burned wheat, deliberately causing starvation to make the people desperate and have no other option but to fight.
“Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it’s possible that through this, there will be some small salvation,” Ben Zakkai told Abba Sikkara, the leader of the zealots.
Heeding Sikkara’s advice, Ben Zakkai pretended to be dead. In a coffin, he could possibly travel outside the city to seek a solution with the Romans.
Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua successfully carried Ben Zakkai past the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, by telling them that they were burying the coffin outside the city.
When Ben Zakkai reached the Roman camp, he spoke to Roman leader Vespasian. Ben Zakkai helped Vespasian cure his swollen feet. Vespasian offered something in return, and Ben Zakkai asked for certain Jewish lives to be spared and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.
Why didn’t he ask the Romans to spare Jerusalem? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there wouldn’t be even this small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request in the hope that he would receive at least that much.
Katz said several lessons could be learned from this story.
He drew a comparison to US President Abraham Lincoln at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, who freed slaves.
“One of the things he’s famous for is that he surrounded himself with people who disagreed with him in order to build the best coalition and understand that he didn’t have all the right views in a time of discord,” said Katz. “So, many of his secretaries – like his treasury secretary, his war secretary – were people who were actually his political rivals but he brought them in because it was really important for him to listen to them. It was pragmatic because he knew the social capital he was going to gain from it. It was also hopeful because he wasn’t so caught in his ways that he couldn’t hear them out or heed their warnings. That is exactly what Ben Zakkai is doing. Not only is he creating this plot of land where he is going to save Judaism, but he is the kind of guy who tends to think about politics in the way he governs.”
Another lesson is to try to seek compromises, just like Ben Zakkai did with Sikkara.
A further lesson is to have love and kindness, not regret and hatred. Katz discussed what happened when Ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem with Yehoshua, and they witnessed the destruction of the Temple. “Don’t be bitter, my son, for we have another form of atonement which is as great, and this is [an] act of love and kindness [gemilut hasadim],” Ben Zakkai told Yehoshua.
An additional lesson is not to be afraid of people. If they kill you, you won’t be dead for eternity as there is life after death. But the supreme king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, lives and endures forever and all-time, and if he kills you, you are dead for eternity.
“Yochanan doesn’t know if he is going to heaven or hell,” said Katz. “I truly believe that’s because he doesn’t know whether he made the right call or not – he doesn’t know if the pragmatic decision he made was better than going for broke and asking for Jerusalem to be saved.”
The dispersal of the Bukharian Jews
The story of the Bukharian Jews, a community with deep roots in Central Asia, is sadly coming to an end, but the community’s legacy lives on in the United States and Israel, where most of the remaining Bukharian Jews now live.
Uzbekistan-born Bukharian Jew, Ruben Shimonov, told of this little known Jewish group which emanates mostly from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, countries in the heart of the Asian continent.
Speaking to a virtual audience via Zoom at Limmud@Home last Sunday, 22 August, Shimonov said the different layers of culture, cuisine, music, and language in the region were an amalgamation of all the different cultures of Central Asia, and were also reflected in the small but deeply-rooted community of Bukharian Jews.
The Bukharian Jewish story begins with the Babylonian conquest of the ancient land of Israel, Judea, and subsequent exile of Jews east of the land of Israel to other regions of the Babylonian Empire, namely present-day Iraq and Iran.
The Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. “Under the Achaemenid Empire, the king was a more benevolent king and he allowed Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash,” said Shimonov. “But many Jews stayed as they now felt safe and secure under this new reign and moved even farther east of this new large Achaemenid Empire. This, folks, was Central Asia.”
Shimonov believes that the Bukharian Jews were more integrated with the local non-Jewish communities in Central Asia than, for example, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
“Even though Bukharian Jews for a large part of their history lived in quarters [maḥalla], there was constant interaction with the dominant societies amongst which they lived,” said Shimonov. “For example, the shashmaqam musical tradition is influenced by Sufi Islam, but many Bukharian Jews became the gatekeepers of this tradition.”
According to Shimonov, there are 250 000 Bukharian Jews in the world. Most of them now live in Israel or the United States, primarily in the New York City borough of Queens.
“In Uzbekistan, there are fewer than a thousand Bukharian Jews left – mainly elderly folk who are staying behind because it’s harder for them to emigrate,” said Shimonov. “Jews in Uzbekistan are highly protected; their safety is preserved. And Jews do go and visit Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, where there is one kosher restaurant and a couple of synagogues. But our story is quickly coming to an end in our place of origin.”
In the Tajikistan city of Khujand, where Bukharian Jews once enjoyed a rich communal life, the last remaining Jew, Jura Abaev, died in January this year. Zablon Simintov, a carpet trader who is the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, is reportedly safe as the country comes under the control of the Taliban.
Shimonov, who emigrated from Uzbekistan three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said the main reason for the low numbers today was the struggle of the Bukharian Jews living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“State-sanctioned antisemitism and dispossession or marginalisation of Jews was part of that story even though there were more ups than downs. And then, the subsequent new instability of the newly formed independent republics – whenever new countries are formed after the colonial past there is more often than not a lot of political, social, and economic instability,” he said.
“As a democratic minority, we felt that even more. So, the urgency to leave was clear and present. In the decade of the late eighties to mid-nineties, we went from having the majority of our community living in this place where we had lived for centuries to the majority of our community living in a new diaspora. In Uzbekistan, the real impetus to leave was more about everything I mentioned than antisemitism coming from our Muslim neighbours.”
“Our Muslim neighbours were our friends, and we baked bread with them,” Shimonov said. “This is different to Jews coming from the Arab world, where Arab nationalism and Zionism came to a head in a way that the Jews were sadly caught in the crossfire.”
In contemporary times, Uzbekistan-born billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev and Israeli Dorrit Moussaieff are two of the Bukharian Jews who have made an impact. Known as the “king of diamonds”, Leviev annually sent large quantities of Passover food to Chabad emissaries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to distribute to Jews in these communities. Moussaieff, the former First Lady of Iceland, promoted Icelandic culture and artistic productions in the international arena.
Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi
More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.
Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.
Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.
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