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Long history of antisemitism

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This year, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) marks 120 years of serving the South African Jewish community. The history of the Board is therefore also to a great extent the history of South African Jewry, beginning at the time when Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was at its height. It was to facilitate the entry of Jews into the region that would soon become the Union of South Africa rather than fighting antisemitism that the Board was primarily established following the conclusion of the Anglo-Boer War.

The subject of local Jewish history was at the forefront earlier this week with the launch of Milton Shain’s new book Fascists, Fabricators and Fantasists: Antisemitism in South Africa from 1948 to the Present. The book is the third in a trilogy of acclaimed studies by Professor Shain examining the nature and impact of antisemitism in South Africa from the early days of Jewish settlement until our own time. The trilogy constitutes what must surely be the definitive scholarly account of how this particular pathology has manifested in this part of the world, from the in-your-face crudity of the anti-capitalist “Hoggenheimer” era a century ago to the various – in some ways more complex – new forms it takes today. In addition, it constitutes a significant contribution to the study of antisemitism in general, a field in which its author is an acknowledged expert.

The SAJBD has had a long and fruitful association with Shain. His advice and expertise, not only on issues concerning antisemitism, but the broader history of our community, has been invaluable. He has further provided expert witness testimony at several of the most important antisemitism cases the Board has brought over the past two decades. Shain has also frequently written on antisemitism-related issues in the mainstream media, and regularly gives informed comment on the topic to this newspaper.

As with his previous books, Shain made extensive use of the SAJBD archives. This included the comprehensive dossiers on the now forgotten ultra-right-wing extremists of yester year that were meticulously compiled by the SAJBD staff at the time. At the launch, he paid a generous tribute to our professional staff in Johannesburg and Cape Town, who assisted him from his initial research through to the nitty-gritty process of final fact checking and tracking down sources. The Board’s archives comprise the largest collection of documentation relating to South African Jewry past and present. Regularly consulted by local and overseas researchers, they are one of the treasures of our community, and we take our role as custodians very seriously.

In Fascists, Fabricators and Fantasists, Shain reveals the continued presence of antisemitic ideologies and movements in post-war South Africa but characteristically, is careful not to overstate the extent to which this poses a threat to the Jewish community. As he points out, Jews today are “far more integrated in society than they were in the interwar years”, in large part because of the Constitution’s “acknowledgment and celebration of diversity”. This is a fundamental truth about the nature of our society, in spite of its undoubted problems, and the position of our community within it, and is something both my predecessors and I at the SAJBD have always made a point of stressing.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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