Youth movements

One ethnic link that pops up in the biographies of several Jewish radicals, is involvement in (or exposure to) a Zionist youth movement — in most cases, either to Hashomer Hatza’ir, or Habonim.


Joining a youth movement was a typical part of the adolescent experience for Jews who grew up in Johannesburg. The movements were typicially Zionist in orientation, ostensibly formed and run with the purpose of preparing Jewish youth for making Aliyah, and thus for life on a kibbutz in Israel. They engaged in long hikes and folk-singing, and had several camps and seminars. Critically, though, in the avowedly Marxist Hashomer Hatza’ir and the socialist-inclined Habonim, the programs emphasised the values of universal human dignity, of equality, and of self-labour. In doing so, participants read the canonical works of great socialists, and sang African songs as well.

Photographs of Habonim camp-goers and madrichim, 1961-62, courtesy of Veronica Belling.

Clockwise from top left:

Photograph of Amy Thornton, by Tracey Derrick. (source)

Photograph of Harold Wolpe, (source)

Photograph of Lionel Forman.

Close-up of Anton Harber, from a photograph with Irwin Manoim [with whom he co-founded the Mail & Guardian], and Nelson Mandela. (source)

Photograph of Esther Barsel. (source)

Photograph of Arthur Goldreich taken by the police during the raid on Liliesleaf Farm in July 1963. (WITS Historical Papers)

“We didn’t join it because it was left, we joined because we wanted to go to camp. But I held them responsible for my political and cultural education because we read poetry and we listened to music and we studied Marxism.”

Amy Thornton

Hashomer Hatza’ir and Habonim served, therefore, as a kind of “political kindergarten” for some young Jewish South Africans, by stimulating them to a degree of social awareness that, in some cases, lead to radical activism against South Africa’s racist society.


Joe Slovo, Ruth Gosschalk, and Ronnie Kasrils credited their involvement in the Zionist youth movements, to some degree, with the political ideologies and values that informed their radical activities and decisions.

“The number of people who left Hashomer Hatza’ir to join the political left (as it was then conceived) indicates that Hashomer Hatza’ir was a crucible of political development.”

Baruch Hirson

Ethnic Radicals, Kaplan Centre, UCT