Afrikaner Jewry in South Africa

Pieter Dirk Uys is an important public figure, who identifies himself as an Afrikaner Jew.

The identity of the Afrikaner Jew - what personifies the Boerejood?

A Boerejood (‘farmer Jew’) or Boerejode (plural) is the term used to identify South African Jews who have acculturated themselves to the Afrikaner language and culture [i]. The identity group differentiates itself from South African English Jews in a number of ways; their geographical locale is usually either on the periphery or in rural areas, and their education and extramural activities are conducted in Afrikaans. Afrikaner Jews have successfully learned to amalgamate the Jewish and Afrikaner identity in a way that enriches both interest groups.    

Arrival

The South African Jewish population underwent a significant increase in numbers due to the epoch known as the gold rush [ii]. The majority of these immigrants hailed from Eastern Europe, more specifically from Lithuania and Russia, in areas such as Minsk, Vitebsck and Mogilev [iii]. According to the figures obtained, the population increased from a mere 4000 in 1880, to a sizeable 38 101 in 1904 - this meant that the Jewish population of South Africa at the time constituted 3,7 percent of the overall white population in South Africa [iv]. The reason behind immigrants opting for South Africa as their new home continues to be a severely neglected field of study [v]. One can only speculate that the immigrants acted in response to proclamations made by fellow countrymen, having already established themselves in South Africa. Furthermore, European and American newspaper reports at the time rendered South Africa as a land with a great deal of affluence [vi] in an attempt at populating colonies.

Settling

Eastern European Jews favoured settling in the countryside of South Africa as urban areas were breeding grounds for Anti-Semitism [vii]. Eastern European Jews who found a base in the rural parts of South Africa tended to possess a strong sense of social responsibility and community, characteristics which were perfectly suited to the South African rural lifestyle [viii]. The adoption of Afrikaans by Eastern European Jews is often cited to be due to their amicable relations [ix]. Less can be said about the relations between the Jewish and the English-speaking White population. Whereas the Boers welcomed the Jews onto their farms, relations between the English and Jews was limited to the urban setting [x].

Assimilation

A potential explanation for the Jewish adoption of Afrikaner culture and language could perhaps be traced to the notable support showed by the Russian Empire towards Afrikaners during the South African War (1899-1902) [xi]. War sentiments often prevail long after the ending of the war, although, as this article finds, it would be reductionist to rationalise certain Jews’ preference for Afrikaans solely on the position assumed by the Russian Empire.

Samuel Zetler, a descendent of Jewish Russian immigrants, was once completely candid in an interview and stated that he favoured Afrikaans-speaking individuals over English-speaking individuals [xii]. The Zetler family is a wealthy agricultural family based on the outskirts of Stellenbosch. The family has firmly acculturated themselves to the Afrikaner language and culture. According to Mendelsohn and Shain (2008), these Boerejode have not necessarily assimilated, but have rather acculturated themselves to the Afrikaner language and culture, as Boerejode are more likely to be found in rural areas where they naturally adapt to the cultural setting of their town [xiii]. Often, these rural towns only had Afrikaans schools, and thus Jews had no choice but to adapt. Despite their change in language, these Afrikaner Jews remained faithful to Judaism. In all essence, Boerejode are Jewish by religion and Afrikaans by culture and language.  

Another well-renowned farmer was Israel Lazarus, more prominently known as the Mealie King [xiv]. Lazarus was a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant who had arrived in South Africa just before the South African War [xv]. Lazarus’s maize (‘mealie’) farms of Middelburg, Eastern Transvaal were of such importance during the Second World War that the South African government asked him to delay retirement [xvi]. He is said to have had a major influence on the production of maize, and is also said to have been adored by many Afrikaner farmers [xvii].

The South African Jewish population is an economically wealthy group, despite their small numbers. They have successfully embedded themselves in the South African economy, largely in white-collar fields of occupation (services, office work, etcetera).

The adoption of the Afrikaans language by Jewish immigrants who chose to reside in the rural areas of South Africa reflects the sheer measure of influence these immigrants had in integrating themselves into South African society [xviii]. Some of the most celebrated South African public figures personify the Jewish adoption and relative assimilation to the Afrikaans language and cultures, including the likes of Pieter-Dirk Uys, Olga Kirsch and David Kramer, all three renowned for their contribution to Afrikaans literature.

Endnotes

[i] Mendelsohn & Shain, (2008:215)

[ii] Arkin, (1984:3)

[iii] ibid.

[iv] ibid.

[v] Shain & Mendelsohn, (2000:102)

[vi] ibid.

[vii] Burden & Weil, (2002:94)

[viii] ibid. p.99

[ix] Shain, (1983:4)

[x] ibid.

[xi] ibid.

[xii] Burden & Weil, (2002: 103)

[xiii] Mendelsohn & Shain, (2008:215)

[xiv] Berger, (1976: 115)

[xv] ibid. p.117

[xvi] ibid.

[xvii] ibid. p.118

[xviii] Segall, (2008: 13)


References:
• Arkin, M. 1984. South African Jewry: a contemporary survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Berger, N. 1976. Jewish trails through Southern Africa: a documentary. Johannesburg: Kayor.
• Burden, M. & Weil, T. 2002. Die interaksie tussen Jood en Afrikaansprekende op die Suid-Afrikaanse platteland, 1880-1950. S.A. Tydskrif vir Kultuurgeskiedenis, 16(2): p. 94-109.
• Cuthbertson, G. C. 1981. Jewish immigration as an issue in South African politics. Historia, 26(2): p. 119-133.
• Mendelsohn, R. & Shain, M. 2008. The Jews in South Africa: an illustrated history. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers.
• Shain, M. & Mendelsohn, R. 2000. Memories, Realities and Dreams: Aspects of the South African Jewish Experience. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers.
• Segall, B. (ed.).2008. It’s not all Black and White: the South African Jewish Story. Southern African Jewish Genealogy Special Interest Group Newsletter, 9(2): p. 1-22.
• Shain, M. 1983. Jewry and Cape Society: the origins and activities of the Jewish Board of Deputies for the Cape Colony. Cape Town: Historical Publication Society.

Last updated : 24-Feb-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2016