The Jewish Report Editorial

Counting and recording ourselves

  • Vanessa
"I am frequently asked the question, how many Jews live in South Africa. I have also been told with a surprising certainty by a non-Jew that there must be at least a million living here," writes SAJR Editor Vanessa Valkin in her leader this week. "They were shocked when I told them our community had a mere 60 000. At the time, in the late ‘90s, that seemed to be an accepted figure. People assumed there were 120 000 in the heyday and that the figure had halved." REad on...
by VANESSA VALKIN | Mar 04, 2015

When I returned from almost two decades abroad, I heard I was wrong. A slightly higher figure of between 70 000 and 80 000 was bandied about. The estimate made sense because, as global economic issues impacted business centres like New York and London, job markets had changed and young Jewish singles and families seemed to be returning from overseas.

But I was wrong then too.

“When it comes to people coming back,” says Professor Milton Shain, director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at UCT, “the numbers get inflated. You hear of someone coming back and I hear of the same person coming back and suddenly two people are coming back.”

Actually, the experts say, the numbers are not increasing or decreasing but are staying even. David Saks, deputy director and senior researcher at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says: “Even though religious Jews are having more kids, there are still people immigrating and older people dying, so it evens it out.”


Census efforts in South Africa

In 1996, the post-apartheid South African government conducted its very first population census, collecting, analysing and publishing demographic, economic and social data of South Africans. The 2001 census counted a white Jewish population of 61 675. Factoring in people who did not respond, it was re-estimated by Saks and other demographers at about 75 000.

In the next census, 10 years later, Stats SA decided to drop the question on religion as it was considered a low priority. Members of the community were none too pleased with the decision and people like Professor Shain were furious about it.

The Kaplan Centre did its own detailed survey of the Jewish community in 1998 and a follow-up survey in 2005, asking a range of interesting questions: from allegiance to Israel, perceptions of anti-Semitism, optimism about the future of the country, degree of religiosity and plans to immigrate.

Professor Shain gives the figure at between 72 000 and 85 000. The high end of this figure is higher than previous estimates. It also tries to account for a group no-one is quite sure of - the estimated 15 000 Israeli Jews that come and go.

The Kaplan Centre has not done a follow-up survey since. They estimate it would cost as much as R1 million to conduct.

The number of Jews in the United States has been a cause for debate too. In 2012, Professor Ira Sheskin and Professor Arnold Dashefsky came to a figure of 6,72 million based on surveys and US census data, but voiced concern over double counting and suggested the real figure might be closer to 6 and at most 6,4 million.

The Steinhardt Social Research Institute estimated about 6,8 million Jews in 2013, while famous Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola put the number at 5,43 million in 2012, which would mean the US Jewish population was smaller than that of Israel, thought to be 6,18 million. Then comes France, followed by Canada and then the UK.

The 2011 National Household Survey in Canada has sparked little debate (very little sparks debate in Canada!) and is considered accurate. It showed that roughly 329 500 people identified themselves as Jewish, 1 per cent of the population.  

Attempts for a community database

Estimates and census issues aside, we would do well to try to keep a record of ourselves. The Cape Town community has been very diligent with its community register and we can commend them. It has the names and contact information of almost 15 000 of the 16 000 believed to live in the city.

SAJBD efforts to compile a similar data base of the estimated 50 000 or so Jewish residents in Johannesburg, have not worked. Stringent opposition arose from certain quarters who worried the information could be used against the community, should an anti-Semitic government get into power, or perhaps they did not want to be contacted for fundraising purposes .

But our community should rethink this, even if it means we get the occasional call to contribute to a good cause. Having a communal database allows us to plan effectively for our future.

We will then know how many new classrooms, schools, synagogues, old aged homes, and community centres we should be building or not building; which areas and when. In a context where we don’t know when we might next lose electricity or if our government will always be motivated to protect our interests, we should at least support our own leaders’ noble efforts to be efficient and plan well for our collective future.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Judith Yacov 06 Mar
    Of course, you are right about the importance of having a reliable database.  But, for many, the 'devil is in the details'.  I am referring to Jewish suspiciousness of the evil eye and the tendency to keep things vague and inaccurate in order to confuse it by not offering too much information.
    I remember a visit at the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.  Someone asked how come the Nazis kept so much detailed and self-incriminating information of their slaughter of  Jews, Gypsies, and gays.  The answer was that the Germans were planning on exhibiting all the details in a 'Museum of Extinct Species' in the belief that, in the future, the world would laud them for their efforts. Chilling thought from this moment in time, isn't it?


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