Not all young Jews want to leave South Africa

By Ricky Stoch (This article was first published by DafkaDotCom 22 March 2021)

There is nothing quite like a pandemic in London to remind you how good our lives are in South Africa. I moved to London in 2018 to study and now, while starting my business and getting British citizenship, I commute between South Africa and the UK. When I settle down, I hope to do it in South Africa.

According to the 2019 Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA) most respondents (74%) had either a strong or quite a strong sense of belonging to South Africa. However, the survey noted that “feelings of belonging are weakest among respondents aged 25 and younger.” In a recent DafkaDotCom article (24/02/2021), Deena Katzen alludes to this pattern when she writes, “I believe that many young Jewish South Africans will opt for the opportunity that offers them the best quality of life. For most this is no longer South Africa.”

​Like most surveys, the JCSSA is not entirely representative. I was 25 when the survey took place and I found the results surprising as my social circle has a very strong sense of belonging to South Africa. In fact, of those who have left South Africa many hope to return. When I asked my friends about the survey none of them were even aware that it had taken place.

Obviously, my friendship circle is not a significant enough sample size to alter the statistics. We are left-leaning, secular Jews in our twenties and thirties, we are too old for youth movements/SAUJS and don’t have children, so haven’t ‘re-entered’ traditional communal spaces. But I would argue, that in the statistics our voices, and voices like ours, aren’t being heard. We make up a small contingent, but a contingent nonetheless. A group that has the potential to make an impact not only on the Jewish community but South African society as a whole.

When people hear that I want to come back to settle in South Africa I am usually met with disbelief, a raised brow and, “well, that’s refreshing”. Then, with narrowed eyes, I’m asked, “is it because of the weather?”

The reality is that, in the UK, things like the weather, the tedious bureaucracy, the comparatively lower standard of living to which relatively privileged South Africans are accustomed, and everything in between, are just details. They aren’t great but they certainly aren’t the main reasons I want to leave the UK and return home.

I have an ongoing back and forth with a friend, who also lives overseas, about what makes South Africa so special. It took us many hours of complaining about other people’s frivolous “first world complaints” (the irony is not lost on us) and lack of perspective to give a name to what we felt was missing. We call it the impetus for change. By this we mean not only the desire to make a difference but the opportunity and ability to make a tangible impact in the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves.

​Our circle might not be reflective of our contemporaries in the broader Jewish community. That said, I don’t know many people who aren’t, in a professional or personal capacity, contributing meaningfully to broader South African society. I don’t think my friends are necessarily typical, even the one in finance works for a nonprofit and is pursuing a career in development. The others work in the arena of human rights, public health, food security, or are doctors in the public health system. The handful that work in the corporate sector, do charity work and volunteer. At the very least, they donate to local charities when and where they can.
The impetus for change is not unique to the Jewish community but, Jewish or not, I can’t say the same for the majority of my contemporaries in London. Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam are integral to Judaism but South African Jewry is distinct in that our outreach extends beyond our own community.

The JCSSA reports that 74% of respondents agreed that the “organised Jewish community goes to great lengths to help the underprivileged majority in South Africa.” Organisations like Afrika Tikkun, or Mensch, are not only motivated by Jewish values, but, as Mensch describes itself, is specifically dedicated to “support and develop social change-makers, facilitate volunteering, and build bridges between people, to bring about positive transformation in South Africa.”

​When I settle and have a family I want to do so in a place where contributing to society, to something bigger than oneself, is the expected and not the exceptional.

Another factor that informs my desire to settle in South Africa is the rise of antisemitism in Europe. The key finding of the Experiences and Perceptions of Antisemitism Second Survey on Discrimination and Hate Crimes Against Jews in the EU (2018) is “that antisemitism pervades the public sphere, reproducing and ingraining negative stereotypes about Jews. Simply being Jewish increases people’s likelihood of being faced with a sustained stream of abuse expressed in different forms.” The survey also notes that respondents perceive antisemitism to be rising significantly across the region.

​I am not religious but I am traditional and proudly Jewish. I know that antisemitism exists in South Africa. That said, in South Africa, I have never second-guessed whether or not to say that I am Jewish. In England the opposite is true. I won’t wear a magen david or any other Jewish signifier in public. I am not alone. In January, The Guardian published an article, stating that 44% of British Jews avoid “visible displays of Judaism in public.”

Like most things in England, antisemitism isn’t overt. Rather, it lies below the surface. The comments are just innocuous enough to make you think you are being over-sensitive. One friend hasn’t told her colleagues she is Jewish in case she asks for a raise and is met with the stereotypical tropes we all know too well. I recently read an email from a prominent consultancy on International Holocaust Memorial Day saying broadly that discrimination was bad. However, despite being about International Holocaust Memorial Day, the email made no reference to the systematic persecution of Jews in Europe in World War II.

This January, The Independent published an article detailing the results of a poll on antisemitism conducted by YouGov and Kings College. The article noted that 45% of British adults agreed, among other antisemitic tropes, that Jews “control the media,” or “talk about the Holocaust just to further their political agenda.”

The 2018 EU survey on antisemitism, mentioned earlier, estimates that across the twelve countries canvassed, 39% of respondents had experienced antisemitism in the 12 months prior to the study. In comparison, the JCSSA reports only 8.8% of respondents experiencing verbal insults or harassment.

The South African Jewish community is complex and full of contradictions. We like to kvetch but in truth we are incredibly lucky to belong to such a small, organised and involved community. I’ve never experienced anything like it anywhere else in the world.
The JCSSA reports that “overall, Jewish identity in South Africa appears to be stronger, and more religious, than in either Australia or the UK.” To me, it is more telling that the survey found “South Africa’s Jewish population is highly active in Jewish communal life, with over three quarters of respondents (78%) having attended at least one communal event in the previous twelve months.”
But it isn’t just the impetus for change, comparatively low levels of antisemitism or strong community that continue to draw me back to South Africa. It is also the opportunities, especially for young people, that come with living here.

If you are entrepreneurial, starting a business here can be significantly easier. This is mainly due to our being a developing country, which naturally means there are opportunities to build products and offer services that don’t already exist. If you are seeking employment, you are a big fish in a small pond. This is especially so in the Jewish community, which prioritises investing in education. In cities like London, New York, Toronto or Sydney you are a guppy in an ocean where everyone is Ivy League (or the local equivalent) educated. Moreover, at the risk of perpetuating the stereotype, the reality is that being part of our Jewish community opens doors.

For better or for worse I love and hate the South African Jewish community. A community that I hate to love and love to hate. A complicated community to which I believe it is a privilege to belong, because at the end of the day I know they will catch me if I fall.

​In my life I have lived in six cities, three countries and have had the privilege of travelling extensively. I am privileged to have options, backups as well as a plan B and C. I have also learned the hard way that the grass isn’t greener anywhere, it just has different thorns.

Ricky Stoch is the founder of Studio Fundi, a design consultancy and product development firm, based in London and Johannesburg, which uses the power of visuals to solve problems, change behaviour, democratise information and communicate ‘big ideas’. For the past two years she has focused on developing a cheap solution to increase treatment adherence to antiretrovirals and other chronic medication. Ricky holds BA and Honours degrees from the University of Cape Town and a Masters in Visual Communication from the Royal College of Art in London.

• Published in the PDF edition of the July 2021 issue – Download here.

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