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The legacy of immigration

Exploring the legacy of the political ideologies and organisations that Jewish immigrants brought with them from Eastern Europe

“It was very interesting that Eastern European Jews who had arrived in South Africa understood Marxism and Communism and the politics of race in European terms. In Europe, they were excluded from the society, and lived in ghettos set aside in practice for them. In SA, they were part of the dominant society.


"But they saw things in terms of Europe, not in terms of the national oppression of all South Africans who were not white. The impact, despite the differences, was that they [immigrant Jewish activists] understood a lot and their natural sympathy was to organise amongst African people.”

Denis Goldberg

Jews made up a disproportionate percentage of white South Africans who identified unreservedly with the national liberation struggle, and in doing so, played a vital role in ultimately overthrowing the Apartheid regime. These Jewish radicals did not act as representatives of the Jewish community, but were nevertheless connected by a set of cultural practices, personal connections, and historical memories that shaped their ideological foundations.


During the early 20th century, Jewish communities across the Russian Empire experienced virulent anti-Semitism, discrimination, social isolation, economic hardship and harassment. In this milieu, socialism gained traction with some members of the Eastern European Jewish community as a mechanism to achieve political and social equality. This ethnic political connection, conceived in the struggle against Tsarist tyranny, was the catalyst for many Jews in Eastern Europe to join trade unions, and to identify with socialism.


Jews immigrated to South Africa in significant numbers from the 1870s, to escape grinding poverty and racially-fueled violence in their home countries in Eastern Europe. [numbers of immigrants and origins] Some brought this heritage of socialist politics — and communal values of respect and kindness — with them, and settled in South Africa with an openness to radical positions, and a historically-informed capacity for empathy with the oppressed.


Though Jews who immigrated to South Africa ultimately came to be regarded as white, some transplanted traditions of radicalism to their new homeland. New arrivals and offspring could imbibe these values from their social environment, and from Jewish ethnic institutions through which consciousness and community was expressed, such as book clubs, boarding houses, synagogues, schools, youth movements, trade unions, etc.

Growing up in one of South Africa’s Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods — in Johannesburg’s working class areas of Doornfontein, Yeoville, or Hillbrow, for instance — Jews were frequently exposed to socialist beliefs and to communist tendencies inspired by their own, or their parents’ experiences in Eastern Europe. In many cases, this exposure later transitioned to radicalism.


Drawing of the Lion’s Shul in 1907, from O. Norwich’s ‘A Johannesburg Album’. (source)

Photograph with Doornfontein in the background, Johannesburg Saga. (source)

These processes characterized the journeys into radical activism of a number of prominent activists in the SACP, many of whom were involved in the Treason Trial of 1956.

Similar trajectories were followed by a number of other prominent activists:

Clockwise from top left: 
Portrait of Hilda Bernstein. (source)

Close-up of Pauline Podbrey, from a photograph of her and her husband, the SACP activist H.A. Naidoo, in Budapest. (from her autobiography, White Girl in Search of the Party)

Close-up of Ray Alexander, from a photograph of Food and Canning Workers Union officials taken by Eli Weinberg in the 1940s. (SAHA Archive for Justice)

Photograph of Rowley Israel Arenstein. (SAHA Archive for Justice)

For all these individuals, the political memories of their (or their parents’) experiences in Eastern Europe — and the ideological climate that flowed from those memories in the immigrant communities they created — exposed them to political tools and values that prepared them for, if not lead them onto, pathways into radical activism.

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