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From top to bottom, left to right. Rabbi ES Rabinowitz's book, Ascend the Mountain; Rabbi David Rosen; Rabbi Selwyn Franklin & Rabbi Jack Steinhorn.

Outspoken Rabbis: Speaking Truth to Power in Apartheid South Africa

Written for and originally published on DafkaDotCom on 5 August 2020 as part of the ‘Communal Matters: Exploring the Concerns of the South African Jewish Community’ series. Click for original.


by Gwynne Robins

In this article, Gwynne Robins looks at one particular Cape Town congregation, the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation, where, between 1959 and 1988, four Orthodox rabbis took a stand against Apartheid.

Irwin Manoim’s DafkaDotCom article (10 May 2020) on Rabbi Andre Ungar pays tribute to a former leader of the Reform community who not only spoke out against apartheid but was expelled from the country for his efforts.

In 1999, the former Chief Rabbi, the late Rabbi Cyril Harris, testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on behalf of the South African Jewish community. Rabbi Harris not only apologised for the collective failure of the South African Jewish community to protest apartheid, but acknowledged how the community had benefited from this system of racial oppression. As Rabbi Harris’ testimony attests, for the most part, communal silence was the norm, both from the pulpit and from communal boardrooms. Context, of course, is crucial. Caution was justified when dealing with a government with a history of antisemitism.

That said, a handful of rabbis, both Orthodox and Reform, publicly condemned apartheid and took part in protests. This article will look at one particular congregation, the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation (Marais Road Shul) in Cape Town, where, between 1959 and 1988, four Orthodox rabbis took a stand against apartheid: Rabbi ES Rabinowitz, Rabbi David Rosen, Rabbi Dr Elihu Jack Steinhorn, and Rabbi Selwyn Franklin.

Despite massive state repression, tough security laws, house arrests, banning and detention without trial for up to 180 days, the Congregation employed and supported rabbis who were prepared to take outspoken positions. This is not to imagine that their work was uncontentious. Ultimately, one of the rabbis resigned, the government refused to renew the work visas of the next two, and the Congregation did not renew the contract of the fourth.

The first to provoke congregational criticism and censure was Rabbi ES Rabinowitz, a graduate from Mir Yeshiva and the brother of Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of Johannesburg and the Federation of Synagogues of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (Rabinowitz was openly critical of Apartheid, unlike his successor, Rabbi Casper.) Appointed in 1959, Rabbi ES Rabinowitz started to produce weekly congregational newsletters. The contents raised alarm. He was asked by the synagogue committee to confine his newsletter to religion and congregational matters, to exercise discretion in order to avoid any possible litigation, and to deal more judiciously with controversial matters. By December 1963 the committee decided to meet the rabbi fortnightly to discuss what topics he would be covering in the newsletter. But the newsletters continued –and so did the complaints from his committee and members of the congregation. When the president of the shul decided to stop the newsletter, the rabbi said he would leave. The committee asked him to reconsider. He agreed. Then the local, general press published comments made by Rabinowitz in one of these newsletters and the Board of Deputies became concerned. The committee decided to stop all future issues. Rabbi Rabinowitz resigned.

​As the newsletters have not survived, the question remains: what was in them that could have resulted in litigation? Why was he told to confine himself to religion and congregational matters only? It was a politically contentious time. 1963 saw the passing of the General Law Amendment Act (90 Day Detention Law). In 1963 Israel had also informed the UN Special Committee on Apartheid that it would be complying with the military boycott of South Africa. We can only surmise that the newsletters were critical of apartheid policies. Perhaps he spoke out against the Rivonia arrests in 1963, where all five white people arrested were Jewish? The committee, understandably, would have been scared of the potential fallout.

When the Board of Deputies and the SAZF honoured Prime Minister Vorster on his return from a visit to Israel in 1976, Rabbi Rosen refused to attend — and said so from his pulpit”.

The next rabbi who stoked controversy was less circumspect. Rabbi David Rosen grew up in England, where his father was a prominent Orthodox rabbi. He also received his smichah at the Mir Yeshiva. Rabbi Rosen was inducted in 1975 and became active in interfaith work because he saw it as a way to bridge racial schisms in apartheid South Africa. Rabbi Rosen remembers the tension caused by his determination to speak challengingly at a shul service to mark Republic Day. City Councillors, Parliamentarians, Provincial Councillors and leaders of Jewish organisations in the city were in the audience. The press reported on his address, stating that religious leaders, particularly Jewish religious leaders, failed in their duty to separate politics and religion.

​When the Board of Deputies and the SAZF honoured Prime Minister Vorster on his return from a visit to Israel in 1976, Rabbi Rosen refused to attend — and said so from his pulpit. On another occasion he was quoted as saying the only way to remain in this society as a Jew was to stand up for principle and integrity and against injustice. All of this occurred in a context of open revolt in the townships and increased state repression.

​Although some members of the shul disapproved of his stand, the great majority supported him, as did the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies and Rabbi Duschinsky, head of the Beth Din. Rabbi Rosen received anonymous death threats, and the security police started tapping his phone. The government refused to renew his work permit and he left South Africa in 1980.

​He was replaced by Rabbi Dr Elihu Jack Steinhorn, who held a PhD in philosophy from New York University. Like Rosen, Steinhorn was charismatic, open-minded and had a strong commitment to social justice. When the shul celebrated its 1983 Golden Jubilee with a dinner attended by State President, Marais Viljoen, Rabbi Steinhorn attended, but reminded the diners that although they swore allegiance to the Republic, they were exhorted to keep alive the vision of the prophets and the cause of social justice and universal brotherhood. Although the president and executive of the shul supported him, he clashed with some shul committee members over a number of issues. These included his participation in Reform community functions, his work with communities outside of the Jewish community, such as domestic workers and the homeless, and his criticism of the shul and non-co-operative committee members. Although Rabbi Steinhorn was on a four-year contract, he resigned sooner. His resignation coincided with the government’s withdrawal of his work permit. Clearly, his outspoken criticism of the government’s apartheid policies was not welcomed.

Rabbi Franklin was openly critical of what he termed an “iniquitous” society and shared platforms with the United Democratic Front”.

He was followed by Rabbi Selwyn Franklin, who, like Rabbis Rosen and Steinhorn, participated in interfaith services dedicated to peace and justice. The Cape Times quoted Rabbi Franklin as saying, “together with other leaders of major religious denominations I call for consultation and negotiation with the legitimate leaders of the black community so that peace, tranquillity and justice will prevail.”

​Rabbi Franklin was openly critical of what he termed an “iniquitous” society and shared platforms with the United Democratic Front. In 1984 he was involved in starting Jews for Justice. In 1985, as part of the End Conscription Campaign’s ‘Troops out of the Township campaign’, he was one of the first people to join Dr Ivan Toms in a 24-hour solidarity fast. Detention without trial, influx control and forced eviction of people, he said, were an anathema to the Jewish faith. Rabbi Franklin formed the Jewish Relief Committee in 1986 to assist the 60,000 left homeless by factional fighting and police violence in the Crossroads squatter camps.

​Franklin faced no opposition from the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies, but the shul committee was concerned. A state of emergency had been declared. There was increased confrontation between the state and political organisations fighting for liberation, with armed actions by Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas. The shul had introduced security arrangements. When Rabbi Franklin started to speak about Gugulethu, a congregant recalled, people would mutter, “Here he goes again”.[i] The committee refused him leave to attend an interfaith conference in Nairobi and finally advised him that a majority were dissatisfied with his activities.

He later told Tzippi Hoffman and Alan Fischer[ii] that

The division between politics and religion is not a Jewish one. What is happening in South Africa is not just political, but a question of morality and therefore we should be involved. A lot of my community are very afraid of change because change of essence carries with it a degree of uncertainty. A lot of them are senior citizens, who have lived their lives and played according to these rules of apartheid. A lot are concerned that if there is a black administration in this country, it would mean a degeneration of their privileged position.

His contract was not renewed and he immigrated to Israel in 1988.[iii]

Four brave rabbis at the Marais Road Shul, all prepared to speak truth to power.

Postscript: From Cape Town, Rabbi Rabinowitz went to England to be close to his children. He published a book on Torah for teenagers, Ascend the mountain. Rabbi Rosen became the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, “which is not a job you can do well if you’re not involved in interfaith relations”, he said. At present he serves as the International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, the International President of the World Conference of Religion for Peace, the Honorary President of the International Council of Christians and Jews and as an Executive member of the World Council of Religious Leaders. Rabbi Steinhorn became Faculty Director of Teacher Training at Jews College, London and head of Yeshivat haKotel in Jerusalem. (After the unbanning of the ANC, Rabbi Steinhorn was offered the position again in 1991. The South African rabbinate put pressure on the synagogue to retire him as a rabbi emeritus in 2004, however). Rabbi Franklin went to Israel and then to Sydney, Australia. He has served as a rabbi in New York and as a professor at Moriah College in Sydney, Australia.


[i] Joe and Esther Sapire, personal interview, 4.12.2017

[ii] Hoffman Tzippi and Fischer, Alan. The Jews of South Africa: What future? Southern Books, Johannesburg, 1988, 336

[iii] Sifrin, Geoff, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris: How Humanity, morality and humour helped lead a community, The Chief Rabbi CK Harris Memorial Foundation, Sandringham, Johannesburg, 45.

Correction: This article was corrected at 12:38 pm on 07/08/2020. It had previously incorrectly stated that Rabbi ES Rabinowitz was the son of Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz. Rabbi ES Rabinowitz was the brother of Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz.


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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