The Making of an Eastern European Jewish Legacy in Contemporary South Africa

Article excerpt

This paper was written in 2004 on the tenth anniversary of the end of Apartheid. It responds to the disproportionately large amounts of writing by Jews around that time, reflecting back on the role of Jews during the struggle to end Apartheid. The paper explores the assumption (widely held in that literature) that an Eastern European Jewish heritage lends itself to a concern with justice and asks questions about the function that asserting that particular lineage served for Jewish South Africans living within the borders of South Africa in 1994. Against this homogenizing of identity, the paper calls for a history of South African Jews that includes occlusions and ellipses, as well as a diversity of South African Jewish voices.

I wanted to write a paper about the legacy of the man second from the left in this postcard. I sought with this biography to render visible the traces of Jewish Eastern Europe buried in the rural South African landscape. The choice of the postcard medium was integral to this project, because unlike a family snapshot, which may be discarded, hidden, forgotten, the family snapshot which is selected to become a postcard signals a representative intent, the intent of the person pictured to communicate this view of himself to others. In other words, it suggests the participation of the individual in shaping his own representation, as opposed to an anthropological view from the outside. Yet despite having the image in front of me, despite having this evidence, all I found was that some histories are already lost while others are being rapidly put forward.

My task was interrupted not only by the paucity of information in this card, but also by another alleged history. This was the history of the Eastern European urban intellectual Jew, which is enjoying so much attention in post-apartheid South Africa. A vast literature is emerging in South Africa from prominent radicals, intellectuals, novelists, curators and poets, who seek to repossess Eastern Europe, particularly Lithuania, as a source of radicalism, ethical behavior, and intellect. In light of this literature, which amounts to "a lionization of the pantheon of Jewish resisters after the demise of the apartheid regime," to use Gideon Shimoni's words, it began to seem anomalous, if not provocative, to assert the legacy of a non-intellectual, non-radical, unsuccessful rural Jewish life.1

It is my charge that this contemporary South African Jewish reimagining of Eastern Europe exceeds the parameters of the obvious explanation that an open democratic society allows for the reclaiming of all ethnicities. Such an argument suggests that ethnicity was previously fixed by the state, or on the radical left, downplayed by a universalist, socialist politics. Claudia Braude asserts that the conditions of the uniquely South African post-apartheid trajectory specifically enabled the reclamation of ethnicity. For her, the space created by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed for "South African society to reengage with memory and identity formed and promoted before and during the apartheid years (1948-94)."2 My claim is that the literature redeploying Eastern European Jewish heritage as a source of intellect and radicalism requires further explanation in spite of the relative truths of the above statements. David Saks has commented, for example, that a

curious feature of Jewish veterans of the liberation struggle has been their eagerness to get their stories on record. During the last decade, a quite astounding proportion of biographies and autobiographies that have appeared in South Africa have been about Jews, at least one-third and perhaps as much as half of the total. This is despite Jews now being at most a quarter of one percent of the South African population.3

The thicker and more copious the history of the urban Jew, the more impenetrable are the signs of the Jew on the rural landscape or, for that matter, other possible South African Jewish identities. …

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