A catalog sold at the front desk of the museum made clear that the Jews who opposed apartheid weren’t a majority by any means. “While most Jews accommodated themselves to segregation and apartheid, a significant number challenged the inequities of life in South Africa and sought a more humane and just society,” according to the catalog, which is authored by Marian Robertson. “Some were motivated by traditional Jewish teachings, others by secular ideals including liberalism, socialism and Marxism.”
The historical attention to Jewish opposition to and support of apartheid, the investigation of Jewish involvement in the ostrich feather and diamond trades, and the Lithuanian heritage of Jewish South Africans are certainly worthy of reflection. It’s also fascinating to note, as Richard Mendelsohn and Milton Shain do in their 2008 illustrated history, The Jews in South Africa, that Jews were initially banned from Cape Town by the Dutch East India Company, although they enjoyed a good deal of freedoms in Holland. And it’s diverting to think of Table Mountain as the iconic visual equivalent of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty for the Jewish immigrants who subsequently came to Cape Town.
But one cannot help but wish that the South African Jewish Museum also focused on South African Jewish art. People who pay attention to Jewish art are likely to have heard of William Kentridge, but there are surely other Jewish artists from South Africa who have grappled with their religious and cultural identities. In this regard, the museum missed a great opportunity, and that’s very disappointing.