The Treason Trialists
The list of prominent SACP members with Jewish links to Eastern Europe is extensive. It includes an overwhelming number of first- or second-generation Jewish immigrants, who gained publicity for their conspicuous involvement in high-profile events such as the Treason Trial.
The Treason Trial was a legal case against 156 anti-apartheid activists, charging them with the capital offence of high treason. Of the accused, 23 were white — 13 of whom were Jewish. All of the Jewish defendants had Eastern European roots, and almost all had been involved with the SACP.
Photograph of accused in the Treason Trial, 1956. (Eli Weinberg, Mayibuye Archives)
One of Joe’s daughters, Shawn, traced the thread of this ethnic influence through her father’s life, acknowledging that “Jewishness” went beyond religion, in the way it permeated their lives.
The photograph above, which depicts the defendants, was taken by Eli Weinberg, a Latvian immigrant who credited his Jewish history and identity for informing his opposition to the systematic racism he encountered in South Africa. Writing for The Rand Daily Mail in 1961, Weinberg declared that,
“As one of the many Jews whose families were exterminated in the name of race superiority, I must refuse to a pledge committing me to be loyal to a Republic blatantly based on racial domination.”
Drawing of Eli Weinberg in the Fort Prison by Paul Trewhela, October 1964. (SAHO)
Eli Weinberg was born in Latvia, and left for South Africa in 1929 to escape the political turmoil in Eastern Europe. He joined the CPSA in 1932, and participated in trade union activity all over the country. He was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950, and in 1964, was arrested and detained for his involvement with the SACP and MK.
The backgrounds of some of the other Treason Trial defendants illuminate important patterns in how radical activists found their place in the liberation struggle. Explore their brief biographies by hovering over their tinted faces in the photograph.
Jaqueline Arenstein was born in 1921. She was a member of the SACP from the age of 21, and was a defendant in the 1956 Treason Trial. She married the activist and struggle attorney Rowley Arenstein in 1944, and is related (through her mother) to Ronnie Kasrils. Kasrils was himself the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Lithuania, who fled from pogroms at the end of the 19th century. Growing up in a Jewish family in Yeoville, Johannesburg in the 1900s, he was radicalized by Apartheid, and joined the SACP in 1961.
“…I had a vague connection with the SACP through my mother’s cousin, Jackie Arenstein, and I went to visit her and her husband, Rowley. They were lifelong communists, and I began to assist them in their work.”
At the height of the anti-Apartheid struggle in 1983, he was a key figure in Umkhonto weSizwe, as a member of its High Command.
Hymie Barsel was born in 1920 in Johannesburg, to Faiga and Moishe Barsel, who were both of Lithuanian heritage. Growing up, he was treated for epilepsy by Dr. Max Joffe, who taught him about the importance of concepts like equality for all of humanity, and the eradication of racial prejudice. He carried this philosophy over into a life fighting in the liberation movement. In 1945, he married Esther Levin, and together, they worked to organise the Congress of the People in 1955, as well as the Women’s March in Pretoria on 9 August 1956, where 20,000 women marched against the Apartheid Pass Laws. Hymie was charged in the 1956 Treason Trial.
Sonia Bunting (née Isaacman) was born in Johannesburg in 1922 to Dora and David Isaacman, two Jewish exiles who had fled from Eastern Europe to escape anti-Semitic pogroms. After her matriculation, Sonia enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand to study Medicine, but after joining the CPSA in 1942, she ultimately gave up her university studies to do full-time political work. Sonia went to work in the SACP offices, where she met Brian Bunting, a young World War II veteran and fellow communist. They married in 1946, and relocated to Cape Town. After the banning of the CPSA in 1950, Sonia joined the staff of the Guardian newspaper, and in 1955, she was one of the platform speakers at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted. She was arrested and charged with high treason in 1956. After a stint in Pretoria Central Prison in 1960, she went into exile in 1963, where she continued her work for the Communist Party and liberation movement.
Leon Levy was born in Johannesburg in 1929, to Mary and Mark Levy, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. Along with his twin brother, Norman, Leon became politically active at the age of 16 as a trade unionist. He joined the SACP in 1946, and in the decade that followed, played an influential role in the formation of South Africa’s first non-racial trade union federation, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). He served as the president of SACTU for 9 years, fighting not only for better working conditions, but for the wider liberation struggle as well. As a result of his opposition to the Apartheid government he was repeatedly placed under banning orders, and ultimately charged with high treason in 1956.
Norman Levy was born in Johannesburg in 1929, to Mary and Mark Levy, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. Along with his twin brother, Leon (who later became a founding member, and the National President of the South African Congress of Trade Unions), Norman became politically active in his early teens, joining and participating in the Young Communist League, and later, the CPSA. He was involved in several ANC campaigns against the unjust apartheid laws, and the introduction of Bantu Education. He was also prominent in the campaign for the Congress of the People in 1955. Because of his involvement in the struggle, Norman’s flat was raided by the police, and in December 1956, Norman and his twin brother, Leon, were arrested and detained with 154 others, prior to being charged in the Treason Trial. He was acquitted, but continued to work in the movement.
Ben Turok was born in Latvia in 1927, and fled with his family from Eastern Europe to Cape Town in 1934. The community they entered into included a number of other Jewish refugees from Latvia, amongst whom Turok remembers,
“…the discussion was always about Jewish culture and the history of the Jewish people. So I imbibed a certain liberalism on racial issues.”
Turok became a central figure in the South African trade unions and was one of the accused in the Treason Trial.