Cape Town, Tavern of the Seas, has a long history of religious diversity, and a proud history of interfaith acceptance. It was not always so. In the days of the Dutch East India Company one had to be baptised to work here, like the formerly Jewish shepherd Samuel Jacobson or David Heilbron, stationed on Robben Island in 1669. Or brought in chains, like the first Muslims who arrived in 1657 and were prohibited from public worship on pain of death. In 1797 permission was given to erect a mosque and freedom of worship was granted to all in 1804, during the rule of the Batavian Republic, and was guaranteed when the British took over two years later.
This year represents the 175th year since the establishment of a Jewish community in Cape Town. Organised Jewish worship was initiated by English Jews who arrived with the 1820 settlers. The leader of one party, Mr Wilson, absconded in Simons Town with the group’s money. The British Government would not pay the full minister’s salary to his successor, Rev Boardman, as his party had included Jews and Methodists.
These settlers soon established themselves in their new country. Benjamin Norden explored the interior trading with the Xhosa people and brought a letter from Governor Benjamin D’Urban to Zulu chief, Dingaan, about a new settlement to be called Durban. When Norden retired to Cape Town, he arranged the first Jewish religious service in his Hof Street house on the Day of Atonement, 26th September 1841. The following week the worshippers met again and established what was to become the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. The next year they bought land for a cemetery in Albert Road, Woodstock.
As there was neither synagogue nor rabbi, the first Jewish marriage took place in the St George’s Church in 1844 under Senior Colonial Chaplain, Rev Hough, in a ceremony in which – with the permission of the Attorney-General – all allusions to the Trinity had been removed.
In 1849 a house was bought on the corner of Bouquet and St John’s Street to serve as a synagogue. A plaque marks the site today. The first purpose-built synagogue on the sub-continent was built in 1863 and now forms the entrance to the South African Jewish Museum.
From 1881 when the gates from Eastern Europe were opened, a steadily increasing trickle of persecuted Jewish immigrants entered the country. The new immigrants settled mainly in District Six, Woodstock and areas close to the city while others found it easier to find work in the small country towns and farming areas which were economically undeveloped.
The increase in the Jewish population with the steady influx of immigrants concerned the Government and various attempts were made to stop their admission; from the 1902 Cape Immigration Restriction Act of 1902, to the 1912 Immigrants Restriction Bill until the 1930 Immigration Quota Act stopped the flow of Eastern European Jews. The immigration of Jews from Hitler’s Germany was prevented by the 1937 Aliens Bill thus at the period of their greatest need to escape, the South African doors remained tightly closed. Even after the War very few Jews received permission to immigrate, as a result few Holocaust survivors could find refuge here.
These new immigrants with their skills were to have considerable impact on the South African economy at a time where it was a poorly developed colony relying on Great Britain for most of its merchandise and over the years Jewish citizens have made a great contribution to the development of textiles, fashion, food processing, cinema, furniture, glass, chain stores and food chains including contributing thirteen Jewish mayors to Cape Town who have graced this City Hall which was opened by Mayor Hyman Liberman in 1904. He also opened the new Cape Town Hebrew Congregation Synagogue which became known as the Gardens Shul.
In the first two decades of the century nearly every little town had its Jewish community, its Jewish hoteliers and shopkeepers, its synagogue and its cemetery. Starting in the mid-thirties as the immigrants’ children began to grow up, families began to translocate to the cities. The trend to urbanisation snowballed and the rapid shrinkage of the rural communities resulted in the closure of many of the synagogues and their conversion into museums, clinics, auction halls or furniture showrooms.
When the Apartheid era enforced a social stratification based on colour, Cape Town was affected severely, particularly by the Group Areas Act. Cape Town was known to be more liberal than the rest of the country and the Jewish community in Cape Town was known to be more liberal than the other communities. From 1961 to 1974 Helen Suzman stood alone in the political wilderness, the only voice in Parliament opposing the iniquitous race policies and a significant percentage of her supporters and of other liberal candidates was Jewish. The only member of the Communist Party to hold a seat in Parliament was Sam Kahn, who fought hard for racial tolerance from 1949 until 1952 when his party was banned. Anti-Semitic voices regularly complained about the number of Jews arrested for anti-Apartheid activities. Politicians and Afrikaans newspapers were quick to point out that 23 of the 156 accused in the 1957 treason trial were white, of whom 15 were Jews and that all five whites arrested at Rivonia in 1963 were Jewish. Nelson Mandela wrote that he found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics.
The Jewish community remains committed to a South Africa where everyone will enjoy freedom from the evils of prejudice, intolerance and discrimination and it encourages active citizenship and harmonious relations between the Jewish Community and all sections of the population.
At the present there are 16 000 Jews in Cape Town who, while maintaining their own schools, synagogues and welfare organisations, are well integrated into the society as proud Jewish South Africans. At the same time they try to preserve their legacy of traditional Jewish values likeTikkun Olam – making the world a better place – by developing projects to advance social justice, inclusion and harmony. This commitment to social change and upliftment remains part of the Jewish community’s investment in the future of South Africa.
Today our constitution grants all South Africans freedom of religion, belief and opinions and all faiths are now free to enjoy and contribute to the development of our beautiful city.