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  • South Africa's Jewish Complex
  • Oren Baruch Stier (bio)

South Africa's Jewish community is quite small (likely no more than 80,000 people, and less than 0.2 percent of the population),1 but its pioneering spirit, autonomy, and isolation make it a fascinating case for examining Jewish self-definition in the contemporary era. Because of a variety of factors—including the aging and the slow decline of its Jewish population—and in response to a need to define itself against the backdrop of an increasingly multicultural and democratic postapartheid South Africa, a complex of institutions has sprung up along Cape Town's museological axis2 which serves to define Jewish self-identity at the southern tip of Africa. Although this complex was neither designed nor constructed as a totality, it nonetheless stands as a museological package, presenting the public face of South African Jewish identity to visitors.

In this article I analyze this complex and its components as the performative expression of contemporary Jewish identity and self- representation in the postapartheid era. This discussion reveals telling characteristics about how the Jewish community sees itself and its position in South African society. Playing off the classic (and problematic) dichotomy of Jewish power and powerlessness, South Africa's Jewish complex translates that dichotomy into a local idiom with unique and innovative characteristics. In addition, analyzing this highly localized performance of Jewish identity on the frontier may raise important issues of a more general nature. In particular, such an analysis reveals the interaction between Jews' political anxieties and their public personae as alternatively powerful and powerless. Sander Gilman even notes that this dichotomy can be associated with two models within Jewish self-understanding for the nature of "exile": [End Page 123]

The voluntary dispersion of the Jews ("Galut" or "Golah") is articulated as inherently different from the involuntary exile of the Jews ("Diaspora"). These two models exist simultaneously in Jewish history in the image of the uprooted and powerless Jews on the one hand, and rooted and empowered Jews on the other....Indeed, the same person can find his or her existence bounded conceptually by these two models at different times and in different contexts.3

Although Gilman's characterization of voluntary and involuntary versions of exile is questionable, I want to highlight the dynamism of the power/powerlessness dichotomy on which he too relies. Near the southwestern tip of Africa, this dynamic is played out with interesting results.

The architectural complex under discussion consists of an institutional campus constructed in the spaces around the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, or Gardens Synagogue, South Africa's oldest Jewish congregation. On one side of this campus lies the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, Africa's only Holocaust educational institution, a small museum built on the roof of what is still a communal meeting hall and Jewish library. On the other side lies the South African Jewish Museum, a high-tech monument to the country's Jewish experience, mostly the commercial experience (and influence) of the country's Jewish community. Taken as a whole, one can say that these three institutions constitute a complex identifying South African Jews with, respectively, religion, suffering, and capital, thereby condensing the Jewish experience there (and, by analogy, elsewhere) into an almost holy trinity of significations. Linked to the "power/powerlessness" paradigm, these symbolic associations can also represent a psychological complex encompassing a number of the anxieties facing South African Jewry today.


Many of these anxieties are themselves caught up in the "power/powerlessness" paradigm. In her entry for the key textbook on religion in South Africa, Jocelyn Hellig, professor of religious studies and one of the best-known interpreters of South African Judaism, begins her discussion with a long defense of the

particular characteristics of the [global] Jewish experience....Diaspora Jews...are always in a vulnerable situation. For almost two thousand years, from 70 ce until the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, [End Page 124] Jews have lived as a relatively powerless minority in a variety of host countries. Their well-being, or lack of it, has been in direct proportion to the positive or negative attitudes of their host governments. Jews have been...


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pp. 123-142
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