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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.

The Apartheid regime was designed to dehumanise people of colour, and to make people believe that this was the natural order of things. In Hashomer Hatza’ir and Habonim, however, Jewish youths were slowly brought to understand that people of all races should live and interact as equals. For most of the participants, their journey into the youth movements started for social purposes — it was, after all, one of the few places where boys and girls could interact together.


However, for many, it grew to mean much more than that: the Zionist ideology that was fostered by Hashomer Hatza’ir and Habonim was suffused with values totally incompatible with racial discrimination and social injustice, and so, from a young age, the participants were taught to be critical of the indignities suffered by people of colour in South Africa

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

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