Debating South African Jewish History (10 week course)

Debating South African Jewish History will be taught by Richard Mendelsohn, the co-author of The Jews in South Africa: an illustrated history.

Introduction: brief survey of South African Jewish history; course roadmap.

Session 1: The immigrant experience  

  • Why did the Jews leave Russia? Pogroms or poverty?
  • Why choose South Africa? Donald Currie or chain migration? 
  • How and why did women’s experience of immigration differ from men’s?

Session 2: Succeeding in South Africa

  • Why did the Jews succeed in South Africa? South African circumstances and/or Jewish skills?

Session 3: South African Antisemitism

  • What were its origins? 
  • When and why did it become virulent? 
  • When did it subside and why has it revived? 
  • How did the Jewish community respond to antisemitism?

Session 4: Jews and Apartheid

  • Why and how did the Jewish community make peace with Apartheid?
  • Why and when did this change?

Session 5: Resisting Apartheid

  • Why were Jews over-represented on the South African left? 
  • What were the roads to radicalism? 

Session 6: South African Judaism

  • Why non-observant Orthodoxy for much of the twentieth century? 
  • Why the religious turn in the late twentieth century and the present?
  • Why did Reform make only limited inroads in South Africa?

Session 7:  South African Zionism and its critics

  • Why was Zionism South African Jewry’s civil religion? 
  • When and why did Israel become a bone of contention within South African Jewry? 

Session 8: Gender and South African Jewry

  • Separate spheres and/or domestic feminism? (Bertha Marks)
  • Respecting difference? (Roza Van Gelderen and Hilda Purwitzky)
  • Leading the way? (Ray Alexander, Bertha Solomon, Helen Susman, Ruth First)
  • Silencing women? The Kol Isha controversy.

Session 9: Building a community

  • What were the origins of the Jewish community’s organisational structures and how did these evolve over time?
  • How did women’s experience of communal organisation/life/governance differ from men’s?

Session 10: South African Jewry, Past, Present and Future

  • Comparing past and present Jewish communal surveys
  • Predicting the future