Alana Pugh-Jones holds a BA Honours Degree in Political Science and History from the University of KwaZulu Natal and an MPhil in Justice and Transformation from the University of Cape Town. She currently holds the post of Diplomatic Liaison in the national office of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies. This paper is drawn from her Masters thesis, entitled Justice and Identity: The ‘Non-Jewish Jew’, Cosmopolitanism and Anti-Apartheid Activism in Twentieth Century South Africa, which was completed under Professor Milton Shain at the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre at UCT. The writer wishes to thank Prof. Shain for his extensive assistance and knowledge on this subject.
Stretching back into history from the moment Moses raised his hand against the oppressive Egyptian overseer and led his people from slavery into freedom; to the instant that Abraham smashed the morally bankrupt idols of his day and opened his home to the stranger; through the modern revolutionary ideas of Marx and Freud and beyond, Jewish radicalism has emerged as a profoundly powerful force that has weaved itself through the epochs. By drawing on the great humanist and cosmopolitan notions of identity and justice within Judaism, a radical Jewish ideology and worldview has formed a tradition within a tradition. Profoundly motivated by the historical memory of the suffering of their own people throughout the ages, Jewish radicals have eternally sought to overturn the corrupt status quo of the day and transform humankind’s structures of thought.
One such target for reform was the apartheid regime, which oppressed millions of black people based solely on their race and ensured a configuration of power that safeguarded the privileges of a small white minority. Although the community at large enjoyed the fruits of an apartheid economy, a disproportionate number of Jews played a role, either within the system as members of parliament and civil society or illegally through banned organisations, in fighting for a more just South Africa.1 In particular, many Jewish radicals stood up against discrimination and injustice, and dedicated their lives to the fight for an equal nation.
Historiography Employing Isaac Deutscher’s notion of the ‘non-Jewish Jew’ who transcends Jewry, the objective of this paper will be to attempt to trace and identify the changing intellectual patterns and paradigms operating among South African Jewish radicals in the anti-apartheid struggle, focusing in particular on activists’ notions of their own political identity and influences operating on their activism. By employing the use of primary sources as well as a variety of secondary material, especially memoir literature and interviews, an attempt will be made to explore the influence of ‘Jewishness’ and Jewish notions of justice upon the lives of these radicals.
The historiography of radical Jews in South Africa is not the historiography of white settlers, nor is it the history of the oppressed peoples of the country. Yet, in many ways it overlaps with both, and therefore it slips through the cracks. Recently, collections of interviews have been published as the number of those in the immigrant generation of radical politics begins to decline. Immanuel Suttner, in his “collection of portraits” Cutting Through the Mountain, and others have attempted to ‘recanonise’ those Jews whose contribution have gone unnoticed and whose life stories were censored by the state and their own community.2 Personal testimony is indeed a channel through which history may be recovered, and occupies an integral part of South Africa’s healing process, embodied in initiatives such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Today, our traditions of historiography have shifted from those of totalising histories to that of a personalized history, one that was often marginalised in the past.3
In order to assess the role of Jewish identity and notions of justice on radicalism, one must delve into the realm of social history in which individuals, studied in a particular context, are used as a means of exploring a broad range of historical issues.4 South African historians have a role in creating a unified yet multicultural historical memory utilising ‘history from below’. This paper is a humble attempt to contribute to the writing of radical Jewish South African history.
Justice in Judaism There can be little doubt that the teachings of Judaism place great emphasis on justice. Judaism incorporates a set of values which purports to defend the human spirit, its freedom and creativity, and create a system of order which fosters a harmonious society.5 The writings of the prophets of Jewish history hold all members of society accountable for the injustices perpetrated against the stranger; widow; and orphan, all of whom symbolise the powerless in society. The mitzvoth or commandments of the Torah exhort one, in the words of Isaiah, to “‘Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justice to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow’”.6 The call to uphold and implement justice is the uppermost moral virtue echoed throughout Jewish religious texts.
A hallmark of the Jewish tradition from its origins has been the ceaseless struggle for justice.7 There are two distinct pillars to the essential notion of justice in Judaism: tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). The philosophy surrounding these concepts is unique in their universal relevance and forms the basis of a humanist tradition within Judaism that breeds sympathy for the underdog. These concepts are explored here for their power and lasting influence over Jewish thought and action throughout the ages into the modern realm.
The Hebrew word tzedakah has the word tzedek as its root, meaning justice or righteousness.8In Judaism, charity and righteousness are not merely above and beyond the call of duty; they are indeed fulfilling the demands of justice. The call for justice in Judaism is stated most explicitly in the Torah portion Shoftim (Judges).“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you” Shoftim, 20: 16.9
The Jewish ideal of social action and social justice is also expressed in the Hebrew word Tikkun Olam, or ‘repairing the world’. The principle of tikkun olam has been seen throughout history as integral to Jewish programmes of social action. The kabbalistic idea of tikkun represents the idea that the world is profoundly broken and can be fixed only by human activity.10 Judaism is an experiential religion, and places merit not in dogma or ideas, but in actions.
Jewish law and its related social ethics are often drawn from events in Jewish history. It is arguable that this historical memory has a long history of influencing the Jewish notion of justice, which is inextricably linked to the history of Jewish social activism. With the arrival of modernity, the vestigial impact of universal and humanist ideas of tzedakah and tikkun olam, so fundamental to a Jewish conception of justice, persisted, albeit transformed into a secular guise. Justice in the Jewish tradition therefore continued to inform the radical activism of secular Jewish thinkers.
Modernity and Radicalism
From Biblical times, the Jewish tradition has encompassed within its ranks the history of a small but disproportionately influential number of revolutionaries and radicals who employed the cosmopolitan Jewish values of justice as a base upon which they built a worldview that challenged the status quo.11 As we move towards modernity in the 18th Century, religious teaching gradually eroded at the expense of secular currents of thought. The latter increasingly informed Jewish intellectual life as emancipated Jewry began to bask in the sunlight of reason. During this period, Jewish radicals rebelled not just against the unsympathetic gentile world which resentfully gave them citizenship rights or no rights at all, but also from the stifling grip of ghetto life.12 Many Jewish thinkers shed the outward symbols of Judaism and embraced a radical, universal worldview through which they could navigate modernity and secure a position within the wider gentile society.
Even though they were divorced from the foundations of the Jewish tradition, it will be argued that their ‘historical memory’ came to form part of a lasting Jewish impact on these figures. This was evident through their recollections of the Yiddish spoken by their parents; or the networks of Ashkenazi relatives that diffused the particular ancient Jewish fears and interpersonal relationships of that community and its culture.13 Suttner argues that this was internalised in their “questioning and in their analytical ability, in their drivenness, in their desire to programmatically implement basic institutions about justice, in the food, music and humour they liked, in their professional aspirations and family dynamics”.14 These radicals therefore were very much a part of the Jewish tradition. As Jews emerged from the seclusion of the ghettos into the wider communities, many took up a transformative role as cultural and political revolutionaries and overturned existing monopolies of thought.15 By spanning various worlds, the Jewish radical was able to break free from the shackles of the ghetto mentality and appropriate the language of the modern world to continue the Jewish tradition into the post-Enlightenment era.16
In this way, the utopian views of these Jewish radicals were a secularization of the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam. Marxism, it has been argued, is a secularized form of messianism.17 It’s concerns with social justice and the struggle of the oppressed is rooted firmly in the Jewish notions of justice and repairing the world. “In the Jewish demand for action as the benchmark by which the individual is measured can be found the direct predecessor of the Marxist formulation that: ‘The purpose of philosophy is not to interpret the world but to change it’”.18 A disproportionate number of Jews are drawn to radical movements in their search for a modern manifestation of the ancient Jewish longing for the messianic utopia. Marxism is therefore the secularization of the Jewish humanist tradition, a universalized religious position where all enjoy the same inalienable rights – attached to the Jewish belief in the sanctity and value of human life but extending these ideas beyond Jewish particularism.19
Historical awareness of dehumanisation is another aspect of the Jewish tradition which may be the fertile soil in which the conviction that prejudices should be challenged was bred. “[And] their knowledge of themselves as the heirs to a messy, painful and ongoing history of being the devalued ‘other’”, Suttner argues, “made the new dichotomies of communism, like working class and owning class, seem full of hope and possibility”.20 Racism, especially with the rise of ‘scientific racism’ in the late 19th Century that located race in inherently biological factors, could then be escaped if it was placed in light of something that could be overturned, such as economic greed. Socialist ideologies held the promise of a better future, and offered an escape from ‘Jewishness’ into a universalistic paradigm without the disloyalty of conversion. By freeing themselves from communal dogmas, and seeking out a modern, rational basis of human continuity and identity, Jewish activists became bound to a radicalism that secularized Jewish notions of tzedakah and tikkun olam. This view has been explored by many authors and holds much sway in the historiography of Jewish radicals.21
A different form of secularization of Jewish values is also evident in the secularization of interpretations of Jewish history in the 20th Century. Modernity brought with it the effects of economic redistribution, acculturation, and religious and educational reforms.22 Through this process a new historical consciousness began to emerge and exert an important influence in the creation of a modern Jewish identity. The stories and figures of justice in the Torah were appropriated and secularized as figures of morality and justice in the modern world. Jewish intellectuals in the last century wrote of the ‘prophetic tradition’ as influencing Jewish political work, which they identified with their own conception of their role as intellectuals. These radical Jews drew on the historical role of Jews as champions of universal justice, even though these concepts of justice were acknowledged to be the common assets of all mankind in modern times.23
Radical Jews, however universal and opposed to nationalism in their Marxist views, were therefore still in some way Jewish in various aspects of their lives. The dislocation of Jews in society, the historical memory of prejudice against the Jewish people and their sympathy for the underdog as rooted in Jewish values of justice, propelled many such radical intellectuals to seek groundbreaking and ‘universalising’ theories. These Marxian ideas echoed many of the values within Judaism to create an ideology of equality which stressed a shared humanity, such as tikkun olam, gemilut chasadim and tzedakah.24 Transforming the values and virtues of the Jewish tradition into a modern key, and fostered by the history of Jews as ‘outsiders’ to Western civilization, the ideologies created from the impact of Emancipation sought a humanized, universal and utopian world.25
The disproportionate involvement of Jews in leftist and communist ideologies was expressed as a deep universalism and cosmopolitanism. It has been argued that radical Jews felt an overwhelming sense of dislocation, which grew increasingly unbearable and resulted in a fierce contempt for racial loyalties. Born in an historical and political world that appeared corrupt and contained the seeds of its own destruction, these revolutionaries sought to smash and rebuild the established society, in the spirit of Abraham and the Jewish Prophets. Ferdinand Mount outlines how industrialization, with its imperatives of modernity, sought to maintain itself through the division of labour; the rational organisation of time; the separation of work and play; and the division between home and workplace.26 The subsequent cultural dislocation of these processes united revolutionary minds and instilled within them a utopian longing not for a new world but for one which was lost – a utopianism which is arguably the cosmopolitanism of Jewish messianic values and a longing for the world of Jewish culture and value.
The history of the Jewish left raises one of the most basic questions of Jewish history, namely the question of the origins of Jewish radicalism.27 This question debates whether the source of Jewish radicalism is uniquely Jewish or based on external influences. From one perspective, the Jews attraction to socialism derived from an authentic and deeply rooted Jewish tradition of social justice, as articulated by the Biblical prophets. The revolutionary Jewish thinkers of Marxism and Socialism are in this light the true heirs of the Prophets, in spite of their radical secularism and contempt for religion, including Judaism. Ezra Mendelsohn questions whether the conspicuous presence of Jews in communist parties and regimes may be attributed to the traditional Jewish concern of social justice, or the erroneous belief by some Jews that communism could shield them from the antisemitism of ‘nationalism’.28 The ‘Non-Jewish Jew’
Jewish radicals therefore appear to be the bearers of historical memory of the tradition of justice, humanism, cosmopolitanism and empathy with the oppressed within Judaism. These secular and modern Jews appear to be influenced by something Jewish, however tenuous. Here it seems that Deutscher’s notion of the ‘non-Jewish Jew’ is most useful. For Deutscher, the Jewish heretic who moves beyond Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.29 Throughout history, many Jews have found Jewry too narrow and constraining, and have therefore searched for ideas beyond Judaism. These Jews possessed the key ingredients of Jewish experience and intellect, and emerged on the cusp of great epochs. Dwelling on the borders of great civilisations, they came to represent much of the greatness of “profound upheavals in modern thought” and were influenced by diverse cultures and ideologies. “Each of them”, wrote Deutscher “was in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future”.30 These are the ‘non-Jewish Jews’. With the conditions within which they lived not allowing them to resolve themselves with nationally or religiously limited ideas, ‘non-Jewish Jews’ were thus stirred to work for the universal view of life; humanity; and the world.
Deutscher falls into the tradition of Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud, each a ‘non-Jewish Jew’ who, he argues, “was formed amid historic cross-currents”.31 These revolutionaries studied societies from the sidelines and came to grasp the basic regularities of life whilst still conceiving the flux of reality. In this way, the common historical experience of Jewry of being the devalued ‘other’, as well as the fundamental essence of Jewish values with their emphasis on learning and justice, was embedded within the ‘non-Jewish Jew’. The common link between the ‘non-Jewish Jew’ and their inherent ‘Jewishness’ as they expanded from the particular to the universal, was the notion of justice – from the justice of the Jewish tradition to the justice of radical philosophies.
At a deeper level the Jewish identity of radical Jews, rather than being negated by their mission, was in fact brought to a higher level of fulfilment. Deutscher asks what makes a Jew. “Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I, therefore, a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated. I am a Jew because I feel the Jewish tragedy as my own tragedy; because I feel the pulse of Jewish history”.32 This is the framework within which Jewish radicals in have cast themselves. We will see many of these ideas played out in the lives of the South African Jewish radicals.
Jewish Radicals in South Africa33
The secularization of Jewish values into universal ideologies in the modern world, as well as the failure of the promises of Emancipation, impacted greatly on the Jewish radicals in South Africa. Before moving into an analysis of the immigrant generation of Jewish radicals, it is necessary to briefly explore the broader political context, and the history of Jewish socialist movements, which influenced and shaped the world of the immigrant ‘non-Jewish Jew’.
The 19th and 20th Centuries witnessed an explosion of radical protest movements. These were based on the essential principle that, “economic exploitation of one class by another is evil”. Mendelsohn describes the way in which Jewish socialism was born in the Russian Pale of Settlement prior to the First World War.34 It was here that the two main factors necessary for the emergence of Jewish socialism existed, “a large, mostly Yiddish-speaking Jewish working class, labouring under extremely oppressive economic conditions, and an acculturated but not necessarily assimilated Jewish intelligentsia influenced by both Russian socialist and Jewish nationalist doctrines”.35 In the 1870s and 1880s the first attempts at formulating Jewish socialist ideologies was made, and the earliest organisations were formed. In this period, the founders of Jewish radicalism were faced with the dilemma of reconciling broad socialist principles with a connection and sensitivity to the unique requirements of the Jewish community. The defining aspect of Jewish socialism from its inception was its international character.36
The first Jewish socialist party, established in 1897 in the Jewish religious and cultural centre of Vilna, was the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, popularly known as the Bund.37 Mendelsohn describes it as “first and foremost a revolutionary organisation, Marxist in orientation and committed to the doctrine of class struggle. It saw itself as the ‘sole representative’ of the Russian-Jewish working class, whose historical task was to lead the revolutionary struggle within the Jewish community and, hand in hand with the working classes of other nations, topple tsarist despotism and replace it with a classless society”.38 Internationalist in outlook, this organisation was also specifically ‘Jewish’ in orientation, and soon came to establish its own form of Jewish nationalism. With the principle at its core of doikeyt, a Yiddish word referring to Jews staying in their place of residence and fighting for their rights in Eastern Europe, the Bund was fiercely anti-Zionist.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, a variety of Jewish groups began to propose a synthesis of socialism and Zionism which would seek to build a national Jewish home in Palestine, and simultaneously establish in the new and old motherland a socialist society based on a Jewish agricultural working class.39 The radical immigrant generation in South Africa, however, was also moulded by processes and influences unique to their specific location and experiences, and these must be addressed for a greater insight into their world. In the early decades of the last Century, most Jewish immigrants to South Africa were working class and many had previously been exposed to socialist ideas in their country of origin, often by the Bund.
Milton Shain and Richard Mendelsohn grapple with the importance of migration on the ‘South African Jewish Experience’. They state that, “As a community built essentially upon the great wave of Jewish migration from Lithuania in the four decades prior to the First World War, that experience, including the cultural baggage brought by the newcomers, cannot be ignored in the shaping of their new identity and their behaviour in the new country”.40 James Campbell introduces the role of “changing Jewish settlement patterns, class formation, experiences of work and leisure, and perhaps most importantly, about immigrant family life”.41 He underlines the impact of migration, its consequent disruption and alienation, by stating that “South Africa’s celebrated Jewish radicalism”, may be, “a function of historically specific processes of dislocation and conflict”.42 Gideon Shimoni understands Jewish radical activism in the immigrant generation as primarily a sociological factor of, “marginality or outsider status in relation to established elites and interests of white South African society compounded by alienation from Jewish religion and the normative life of the Jewish community”.43
Glenn Frankel writes that the radical activists of South Africa were schooled in dialectical materialism and sought Marxist principles – classic ‘non-Jewish Jews’; they did not deny their ethnic origins but treated them as irrelevant in contrast to the principles of universalism and socialist utopia.44 Far from examples of self-hatred, these activists were, according to Frankel, immersed in a tradition with a long Jewish history, in which the universal subsumed particularism and religion was seen as an atavistic nationalism.45 The radical ‘non-Jewish Jews’ of South Africa thus had a sense of ‘Jewishness’ and a conception of justice that was deeply rooted in the Eastern European Jewish immigrant milieu. As Iris Berger writes, this band of Jewish radicals, “tended to express their Jewish identity less in religious observance than through their secular commitment to ‘repairing the world’ through struggles for social justice”.46 Their ‘Jewishness’, in this light, is therefore connected to the extensive Jewish tradition of humanism, empathy for the oppressed and cosmopolitanism. These radicals secularised and universalised the Jewish values of social justice, tikkun olam and tzedakah, and brought them into modernity within the context of a racially divided and prejudiced South Africa.
The radicals briefly explored in the pages that follow were chosen for their lasting influence on South African political history, their role in the anti-apartheid struggle and their international reputation as protectors of justice. Their lives have many discontinuities, but there are also fundamental continuities that link their identities and actions.