By Gwynne Robins
Since the fourth century BCE, the Jews in the Diaspora have found it necessary to have a kehillah, a semi-autonomous organised Jewish community structure, that could intercede with the rulers to protect and promote the interests of the Jewish community. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies is the direct descendent of this.
The Board developed out of a 1903 deputation organised in Cape Town to ask the attorney-general to declare Yiddish a European language so that Jews could immigrate without hindrance. The Transvaal and Natal formed a Board of Deputies a few months later, with Cape Town following suit in September 1904.
Why was the deputation necessary?
The influx of East-European immigrants aroused xenophobic sentiments in many English and Dutch speakers with demands that their arrival should be prohibited as they were in danger of being “swamped by the immigration of the destitute of Continental Europe.” Letters to the editor complained: “Well may he be disgusted when hundreds of these foreign Jews and aliens —for the most part paupers— are allowed to flow into the country each week bringing with them their attendant evils.”
To the Victorian middle classes being poor was not respectable, nor was being in “trade”, and the poor pedlar was a focus for prejudice. Milton Shain has found that as early as 1865 there were antisemitic criticisms of the Jewish smous or boereverneukers. An 1888 Cape Punch satire portrayed a Dutch farmer’s thoughts as “All Jews to be banished. A Jew or boereverneuker may always be known to a farmer by the shape of his nose, by the many rings on his fingers and by his tongue being too large for his mouth.”
An 1893 Commission of Enquiry into Labour in the Cape Colony noted comments like “a pest to the country” and condemned the “introduction of Russian Jews… a most undesirable people… [who had] pushed out many poor shopkeepers and… obtained property intensively.”
The Jews were criticised for being poor and they were criticised for succeeding. Succeeding where honest Dutchmen had failed was particularly abhorrent. Success, if it were Jewish, was neither desirable nor praiseworthy.
In 1902, Colonial Secretary Sir Peter Faure introduced a bill to limit immigration through an educational test and the Immigration Restriction Act was passed in January 1903 with Dr Gregory, Cape Colony Medical Officer of Health, admitting that it was aimed at excluding Asiatics and, perhaps, Russian Jews. You had to be able to sign your name in a European language and Yiddish —spoken in Europe for a thousand years— and Indian languages were not acceptable.
Rev Bender of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, who called himself ‘Head of the Jewish Community’, was not unduly concerned — he had friends in high places who reassured him that it was not meant for Jews.
However, editor David Goldblatt and advocate Morris Alexander did not share his optimism and —despite Bender’s strong opposition— formed a deputation of 13 Hebrew congregations and nine organisations throughout the Cape Colony to visit the Attorney General, who agreed to introduce an amendment allowing Yiddish to be accepted. They arranged to read an article about the Swiss zoologist Agassiz from a Yiddish encyclopaedia to Prof Elffers, a non-Jewish German sworn translator. Elffers understood it, translated it and certified that although written in Hebrew, it was a European language.
Spurred on by this success. Alexander brought together the organisations again on 4 September 1904 and, despite Bender’s disapproval, they met in Cape Town and agreed to form a Jewish Board of Deputies to represent the Jewish community and cater for its needs and challenges.
Bender considered the Board’s existence a danger to the Jewish community as they had no reason to fear any civil or religious disabilities, nor did they have any specific interests to conserve. He refused to recognise the Board, but the Government did. Now, 116 years later, the Board is still going strong and is still representing the Jewish community through all its needs and challenges, including its COVID-19 response. This too shall pass.
(With thanks to Prof Milton Shain)