Choosing Difference: South African Jewish Writers

Article excerpt

JEWISH IMMIGRATION INTO SOUTH AFRICA ON ANY CONSIDERABLE scale began relatively late: there were a few Jewish families amongst the wave of English-speaking colonists who arrived in 1820, but they do not seem to have had the time, the impulse, or perhaps the confidence to record their lives in journals or to write poetry or fiction. English literature began in South Africa during the First British Occupation of the Cape (1795-1803), when the travel memoirs, letters and diaries which generally constitute the beginning of a colonial literature were written. But interesting though the works of visitors to the Cape like Lady Anne Barnard, John Barrow, and their fellows are, it is arguable that they form part of the literature of the metropolis rather than the colony, at least in their ideologies and their envisaged readership. None of these colonist-visitors to Africa were Jewish, though Jewish settlement had already begun, even at this early stage: Lady Anne writes of a Jew who wanted to buy a house at Newlands i n the Cape (Barnard 1999). The history of South African writing in English is therefore a short one; though South African Jewish writers loom large in it at the present day, they are comparatively late arrivals on the scene.

Imaginative writing in English is generally considered to have begun in 1883

with Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm. It is clear that this work was an important influence on South African Jewish writers: Dan Jacobson, in 1970, wrote an introduction to the work which is still one of the best pieces of commentary on it, and which forms an inspiring introduction to postcolonialism in general. Large scale Jewish immigration from eastern Europe, however, and especially from Lithuania, homeland of the majority of South African Jews, was only getting underway in the 1880s.

Marcia Leveson's critical work People of the Book: Images of the Jew in South African English Fiction 1880-1992 offers, at much greater length and in far more considered form, a different and complementary view. She gives an account of Jewish immigration into South Africa (or rather into the territories which were consolidated in 1910 into South Africa). By 1858, she says, there were sixty Jewish families in the Cape Colony, mostly from Britain and Germany. After the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1860s, immigration of all kinds of people from Europe speeded up. The pogroms following the assassination of the Czar Alexander II in 1881, together with other less extreme but punitive measures against Jews in Russian-ruled territories, caused a large influx of Jews, from Lithuania especially. Leveson writes "In 1880 there were about 4,000 Jews in the country: in 1891 Jews numbered 10,000; and by 1899 there were about 24,000 Jews in a total white population estimated at 850 000" (1996: 16).

The great days of immigration, of course, were by no means over at the turn of the century, but let no one imagine that all immigrants were offered an equal welcome, then or later, by the authorities. The anxiety of the colonial British to maintain their position of power caused them to resent the growing presence of white but non-English people. And the Gape Dutch (later known as Afrikaners) began in the 1890s the long process of urbanization which culminated in the legislation of the era of Apartheid (1948-1990) when many urban occupations in the modern sector were defined as "whites only" (Davenport 1984: 298). Early in this long trek to the cities, which, significantly, speeded up in the 1930s, when European antisemitism was infecting South African white attitudes, they encountered as rivals the Jews. Leveson gives an account of the attitudes generated by this encounter: "many farmers, suffering from the distress of the Anglo-Boer war, from drought and cattle disease, went bankrupt and were forced to sel l their land. Some land was indeed bought up by jews, who were considered exploiters of the less fortunate. …