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How Did Zionism Start in Cape Town?

By Gwynne Robins

The first Zionist society in Cape Town was the short-lived Bnei Zion Society which had been established on 27 November 1897 by Reb Yehuda Leib Schrire, the writer’s great-grandfather, at the Masonic Hall in St John’s Street. He gave an impassioned speech on Jewish suffering and the hopes for national regeneration. A committee was elected with him as chairman. Seven months later, Hamelitz reported that “the heat of their ardour (had) been quenched for the moment”, and that was the end of the Bnei Zion Society.

On Sunday afternoons, greeners would gather in each other’s rooms to read the latest Hebrew newspapers. One day early in 1899, Peretz Jochelson was hosting his friends and they read reports about the second Zionist Congress. Isaac Schach and Jacob Ginnes suggested that they should also form a Zionist society. They rushed next door to Zelig’s butcher shop where the domino-players had gathered. The only player interested was Solomon Shapiro, who joined Schach in going door to door, and by midnight they had collected 20 members.

On 3 September 1899, the Dorshei Zion Association (DZA) held its first meeting. Few came as there were no funds to announce it, so Schach and Shapiro left the meeting and went and collected people, herded them in and elected a committee, which included Idel Schwartz, who became secretary, Schach and Shapiro.

The DZA then rented two rooms at 12 Roeland Street, which became a meeting place where poor and lonely immigrants could gather and socialise. Marcia Gitlin, whose father, Jacob Gitlin, was to be its secretary for many years, described these as “a haven for the immigrant Jew, a place where he could meet others as solitary as himself, where his spirit chilled by the hurts and rebuffs of the day could thaw in the warmth of friendly human contact, a place where he could read or play chess, or just talk —and talk freely in Yiddish— with none to look askance as he waved his arms.”

They also started a library and Shapiro, who acted as a librarian, did an extensive trade buying secondhand books and selling them at a profit. They organised fundraising concerts and sold Pesach wine. When the South African War began, over 25,000 refugees from the hinterland poured into Cape Town, including the executive of the South African Zionist Federation, and much Zionist enthusiasm was raised.

However, it was not plain sailing. The more established English Jews thought a Zionist movement would be regarded as indicating disloyalty to the British crown. When in 1901 the Dorshei Zion Association was sufficiently established to buy the Forester’s Hall in Hope Street, which could seat about 200 people, they invited the anti-Zionist Rev A P Bender of the Gardens Shul to open the Zionist Hall officially, as a peace offering. Bender accepted the invitation but not the olive branch, referring to the building in his speech as ‘a library’ not as a Zionist Hall.

Equally threatening to Bender was the establishment of a Zionist synagogue, the New Hebrew Congregation, in Roeland Street after a meeting in September 1900. The Shul opened in 1902 without a rabbi and with Zionist Morris Alexander, who founded the Cape SAJBD, giving the sermons. The Schrires were founders.

Advertisements to DZA meetings stated, “All Zionists and Friends are cordially invited”. Women could not have fitted either category, because they were not allowed to attend its public meetings.

Then the youth felt the DZA did not give them sufficient opportunities so they established their organisation, Zeire Zion Association (ZZA), the Young Men’s Zionist Association. One of its leaders was Jacob Gitlin.

So deep was the bitterness felt by the DZA to these young upstarts that it refused to allow the ZZA to hold its meetings in the Zionist Hall. So, in September 1903, the ZZA opened its own Zionist Hall and library on the corner of Canterbury and Caledon Street. With an eye on publicity, the youth invited Lionel Goldsmid, the editor of the South African Jewish Chronicle, to open their hall.

There were about 250 ladies and gentlemen present at the opening, which, of course, received excellent press coverage in the Chronicle and reported Goldsmid’s speech at length which ended, to their dismay, with “they should say ‘Thank you’ to Great Britain to whom they owed so much and if possible transport some of their unhappy people to Uganda from Eastern Europe.” It was a lengthy evening.

“Many other speeches followed (Goldsmid’s address) both in Hebrew and in the jargon, amongst the most eloquent and most important being those of Schrire and Genusov.”

As attendances at the ZZA’s Zionist Hall increased, so attendances at the DZA’s Zionist Hall diminished. It was only in 1907 that wise heads prevailed and the DZA combined with the ZZA, and, in 1943, that the Western Province Zionist Council was formed.

Mathilde Myburgh

As a Communications Specialist, Mathilde brings seven years of experience in print and digital media, research and communication to the team, bridging the gaps between relevant content, community reach and growth, and public relations.

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