The foundations of antisemitism in South Africa : images of the Jew c.1870-1930

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Historians of South African Jewry have depicted antisemitism in the 1930s and early 1940s as essentially an alien phenomenon, a product of Nazi propaganda at a time of great social and economic trauma. This thesis argues that antisemitism was an important element in South African society long before 1930 and that the roots of anti-Jewish outbursts in the 1930s and early 1940s are to be found in a widely-shared negative stereotype of the Jew that had developed out of an ambivalent image dating back to the 1880s. By then two embryonic but nevertheless distinctive images of the Jew had evolved: the gentleman - characterised by sobriety, enterprise and loyalty - and the knave, characterised by dishonesty and cunning. The influx of eastern European 'Peruvians' in the 1890s and the emergence of the cosmopolitan financier at the turn of the century further contributed towards the evolution of an anti-Jewish stereotype. By 1914, favourable perceptions of the Jew, associated mainly with the acculturated Anglo-German pioneer Jews, had eroded substantially and the eastern European Jew by and large defined the essence and nature of 'Jewishness'. Even those who separated the acculturated and urbane Jew from the eastern European newcomer exaggerated Jewish power and influence. Herein lay the convergence between the philosemitic and the antisemitic view. War-time accusations of avoiding military service, followed by the association of Jews with Bolshevism, consolidated the anti-Jewish stereotype. In the context of the post-war economic depression and burgeoning black radicalism, the eastern European Jew emerged as the archetypical subversive. Thus the Rand Rebellion of 1922 could be construed as a Bolshevik revolt. As eugenist and nativist arguments penetrated South African discourse, eastern European immigrants were increasingly perceived as a threat to the 'Nordic' character of South African society as well as a challenge to the hegemony of the English mercantile establishment. Nevertheless antisemitism in the crude and programmatic sense was rejected. The 1930 Quota Act ushered in a change and heralded the transformation of 'private' antisemitism into 'public' antisemitism. While this transformation was clearly related to specific contingencies of the 1930s, this thesis argues that there is a connection and a continuity between anti-Jewish sentiment, as manifested in the image of the Jew prior to 1930, and anti-Jewish outbursts and programmes of the 1930s and early 1940s. In short, anti-Jewish rhetoric at this time resonated precisely because a negative Jewish stereotype had been elaborated and diffused for decades.

Bibliography: pages 366-388.