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Jonathan Ball

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“The So-called Jewish Question” – Milton Shain Launches A Perfect Storm with Tony Leon

Milton Shain

A Perfect StormMilton Shain recently launched his new book A Perfect Storm: Antisemitism in South Africa 1930 – 1948 at the South African Jewish Museum with Tony Leon.

Friends, family and loyal readers of Shain’s previous books filled the museum shop to a jovial capacity. The evening began with drinks and chatting in the museum’s sunny courtyard.

Tony Leon with Miton ShainShain is Emeritus Professor in the History of South African Jewry and Antisemitism and Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research. He has written a number of books on historical experience of Jewish people in South Africa, and many were keen to find out what new information and insight his latest offering presents.

Once they had their fill of wine and good food, guests settled down to enjoy the evening’s formal proceedings began. Leon gave a thorough review and introduction to The Perfect Storm, saying that he always considers it a privilege to launch Shain’s books.

“The Jew was an unwelcome challenge”

Leon began his speech by referring to Marilynne Robinson’s essay, published in The New York Review of Books, in which she describes “ignorance, intolerance and belligerent nationalism” as a “noxious cocktail” that fuels populist prejudice and hate. He says that in the period Shain writes about, “The Jew was an unwelcome challenge and a disturbing addition to society.” He suggested that the sentiment towards Jewish people then can be understood in contemporary South Africa by substituting “Zimbabwean” or “Malawian” with Jew: “You can immediately see how very strong the xenophobic threat remains.” The boon of Shain’s book, Leon says, “is not simply the meticulous research and careful chronicling of a now almost forgotten era” the book is also “a very important and enduring reminder” of the importance and lasting impact of “proper research”.

“Naked racism and nativist impulses”

One of the features that Leon found striking in this book is the way it revisits the “sturm und drang” of the “naked racism and nativist impulses” that characterised South African politics between 1930 and 1948, and how this was brought to bear on the “small, even marginal” Jewish community. “Professor Shain has unearthed, from multiple archives, a treasure trove of documents, speeches and articles which spotlight the dangerous bigotry around events over 70 years ago.” The author illustrates the exploitation that plagued Jews, and vividly represents some of the villains and political opportunists of the time. Malicious “fear of the other” was not confined to white racism towards black people; this book shows how Jewish members of white communities were also stigmatised in the 20th century.

“Awesome and nefarious power”

Leon said that many of the leading antisemites discussed in Shain’s book earnestly believed that dealing with “the so-called ‘Jewish Question’” was essential in order to benefit the poor white population in South Africa. By 1932, Shain reveals, poor and very poor whites made up 56 percent of the white population. From this he concluded: “Jew hatred was not a marginal factor in South African public life during those troubled years.” Despite the fact that they made up only 4,5 percent of the white population, “awesome and nefarious power was conferred” on the Jewish community. In the author’s view, and in reality, Jews posed no threat power or claim to shared resources.

“A five-star opportunist”

Of all the people and publications that expressed antisemitic sentiments in the 1930s and ’40s, in Leon’s view, “by far the most interesting and certainly the most powerful political figure depicted in The Perfect Storm is the leader of Afrikaner nationalism and the HMP of the time: Dr DF Malan”. Malan is shown in the book as “both a crafty politician” who rides the wave of anti-Semitism and as “a five-star opportunist”. As a leader of the opposition party, Malan fanned flames of Jew hatred in parliament, but “dropped anti-Semitism entirely from his political repertoire” when he achieved power. He was the first South African president to visit Israel, and when so far as to cast the Jewish community as “a model of Afrikaans survival”.

“The past is never dead”

Leon went on to discuss a number of the subtly racist attitudes and blatant prejudices towards Jews in this country. “The past is never dead,” he said, quoting William Faulkner, “it is not even past.” For this reason, Leon says The Perfect Storm has “direct application to the politics of South Africa and the wider world today”.

Milton ShainThanks

After listening to Leon’s enlightening talk, and Shain’s humble and heartfelt thanks to the people who helped to make his wonderful book a reality, guests lined up to get their newly bought copies of The Perfect Storm signed. The evening came to an end after some a great deal more good conversation and a little more to eat and drink.

Business Day published an edited version of Leon’s speech at the event:

This book is also a reminder that not all of 20th century politics was concerned with antiblack prejudices and practices by the ruling white minority. Many of the leading anti-Semites described in the book were “sincere” in their Jew-hatred and regarded the resolution of the “Jewish Question” as part of resolving the economic deprivation of the “poor white” population; in 1932, “poor” and “very poor” whites constituted about 56% of the total white population.

Another distinctly modern feel of this retelling of events from more than 70 years ago is how the thread of anticapitalism resonated back then just as strongly as it does with certain left voices in the current debate.

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Erin Devenish (@ErinDevenish811) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:


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