Community stalwart Mervyn Smith shares his thoughts on the past, present and future of the South African Jewish community and beyond.
“It was the best of times” says Mervyn Smith on his time as South African Jewish Board of Deputies chairman in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Heading up the organisation during the dying days of apartheid and the transition to democracy was a fascinating era, with both challenging and powerful moments and interactions.
It was also in this period that South Africa became the focus of world Jewry, who saw the situation as ‘cataclysmic’ and looked to ‘save’ South African Jewry from impending catastrophe. This “misunderstood” perspective of South Africa meant that as SAJBD chairman, Mervyn interacted with a wide variety of local and international personalities. As the peaceful transition took place, there were many ‘wonderful times’ — and meetings with Mandela on a number of occasions!
Although much has changed since then, Mervyn emphasises that the Jewish community is very secure in the new South Africa, and that “there is no reason to feel fear [in South Africa] because we are Jewish. Antisemitism is very low, and there is no threat to a Jewish future in South Africa.”
In terms of the community’s relationship with Israel, Mervyn says that it has always been a deep and committed one, which won’t and shouldn’t change. The community should use this relationship strategically, and it certainly has a role to play in resolving Israel’s situation. What is his hope for Israel’s future? “A solution based on human rights that finds some accommodation for the Palestinians.”
Mervyn strongly supports open debate in the South African Jewish community, whether it be voices from the left, right, Orthodox, Reform and everything in between. “Debate being suppressed in any way is anathema. Jewish newspapers and communal institutions must facilitate open discussion, and it is unacceptable to prevent anyone from expressing a viewpoint that is in opposition to the government of Israel or the Rabbinate. This is why Limmud must be praised to the skies for what it is doing — being a forum for South African Jews to speak, discuss and not be labelled for their viewpoints,” he says.
“We have to fight for this. Just as I will fight against the delegitimisation of Israel, so will I fight to prevent the deligitimisation of individuals in the South African Jewish community who espouse what some people find to be unpopular causes. ‘Human rights’ in my dictionary is not a dirty word. I believed it in the apartheid years and I still believe it.”
Looking to the future
In a different arena, Mervyn started the African Jewish Congress (AJC) in 1993, and remains president of the organisation. The AJC represents all Jewish communities in sub-Saharan Africa, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Mauritius and even Kenya. “We started the AJC firstly to bring a continuity of yiddishkeit to small communities; and secondly because many of the communities are very influential with their governments, which helps create support for Israel in those countries. Essentially, we have succeeded in both. The Jewish communities are held in high respect, and we often meet presidents and prime ministers on our visits there.”
In Zimbabwe, the AJC provides both medical and material assistance (both for daily living and the chaggim), which are received with endless thanks and gratitude. Mervyn explains that those who have not left Zimbabwe up until now will probably remain there, and that they live like other Zimbabweans. The numbers are a few hundred Jews from several thousand in the 1970s, but Jewish communities remain active in Harare and Bulawayo.
Looking to South Africa, Mervyn says that there are serious problems — especially crime and corruption — but adds that “we have the constitutional framework and infrastructure for them to be overcome. We need strong leadership and an open, transparent society. I certainly have faith.” What is his advice to current and future leaders of the community? “Have a South African, Jewish vision based on the centrality of Israel and tzedek, tzedek tirdof — justice, justice, you shall pursue it.”