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Helen Suzman, memorialised here on a South African stamp, was MP for a constituency at the heart of Progressive Jewish Johannesburg.

Jewish political attitudes

Jewish voters tended to be more liberal than their white English peers, but the reasons may have had more to do with education and social class than religion.



ow did the Jewish South African majority differ in their political attitudes from their white peers? The more educated and urban were more inclined to be liberal than white English speakers, and the less educated and rural were inclined to share the politics of Afrikaners.

The University of Witwatersrand sociologist Henry Lever researched white attitudes towards politics and race over long periods of the apartheid era. In 1959, he and a group of students studied the prejudices of white high school children who were asked their opinions of nine ethnic groups. They concluded that the Jewish youth tended to be “consistently more tolerant than any other groups in their attitudes to non-Whites”. The Jewish historian Gideon Shimoni, describing the Lever study some four decades later, pointed out that a better description of the results might be that the Jewish students proved less intolerant[i].

In 1979, Lever, now at Ben Gurion University in Israel, wrote a paper on Jewish voters, based on research done during the elections of November 1977.[ii] He noted firstly that there were an unprecedented number of Jews standing for the ruling National Party, suggesting a marked shift in attitudes from the nineteen forties and fifties, when Jews would rarely associate themselves with the National Party.  In some cases, Jews were standing against Jews, resulting in such ferocious public rows that the Jewish Board of Deputies was obliged to issue one of its frequent statements that Jews were not a single voting constituency and individuals held a variety of positions.

Lever did not do his own polling, but based his findings on three surveys done at intervals in the run-up to the 1977 elections by a research company commissioned by the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport. Lever chose this survey firstly because it proved accurate in predicting the elections results, and secondly because it segmented white voters into handy ethnic components, one of them the Jews. As Lever pointed out, across the three surveys, there was a close correlation between the voting preferences of English-speaking South Africans in general, and the Jewish population. 

The survey group were asked first how they voted in the previous, 1974 elections. Less than 10% of the English (9.6%) and 12.5% of the Jews voted for the National Party. Over half the Jews (51.7%) voted for the Progressive Party, and 35.7% for the United Party. Among the English majority, 61.5% voted for the United Party against 26.9% for the Progressive Party. The Jews had evidently abandoned the moribund, centre-right United Party more quickly than their English peers.

The table below shows the survey’s findings on voting intentions prior to the 1977 elections:




With the benefit of hindsight not available to Lever, we can say that the 1977 elections represented a significant shift of white English opinion to the National Party. One reason would be the implosion of English-speaking South Africa’s safe choice, the United Party. Another would be post-June 1976 panic among white South Africans - security fears are inclined to drive voters to the right. The trend towards the National Party would continue through the eighties, due to PW Botha’s ostensibly reformist agendas and his overtures to English capital.

Somewhere between 24% and 31% of Jews were voting for the apartheid government in 1977, double the number three years earlier. But what is also apparent is that the Jews were consistently more likely to vote for the liberal end of the spectrum. The vote for the Progressive Federal Party was never less than half, and came close to 60%. The Jews showed far less inclination to vote for the smaller parties, the New Republic Party and the South Africa Party, both of which flanked the National Party and would soon be absorbed by it. And not one of the sample’s Jews voted for the far-right Herstigte Nasionale Party, although in each case a few English voters did so.

Lever’s argument was that Jewish voting patterns could be explained not by any unique religious or cultural conditioning, but by such tried and tested factors as urban vs rural, social class, income and education. The Jews voted in the same way, for the same reasons, as the dominant English-speaking cluster. What then, explained the liberal tilt? To Lever, the answer was that by the late seventies, the Jewish population was less likely to live in small towns than the general English population, more likely to live in the suburbs of major cities, more likely to have tertiary education, and more likely to be in the highly-paid professions or at executive levels in business. He was able to extract these statistics from the survey:[iv]


The firmest of these indicators seemed to be education. Jews who were university educated, voted Progressive Federal Party by an overwhelming 87.2%. Jews who had less than a matric voted National Party by a substantial 72.2%. But what could explain the anomaly that the wealthiest sector were less likely to vote Progressive Federal Party and more likely to vote National Party than the middle income sector? The wealthiest tended to be business leaders, and business is a generally conservative environment. They also tended to be older (the youngest group were the most liberal). They were not necessarily highly educated – income and education do not correlate neatly, and those with advanced degrees might also have gravitated towards lower-paying occupations like academia, social work, creative occupations or teaching.

None of this tells us anything about whether Reform Jews tended to be more liberal than their Orthodox counterparts. Indeed, extrapolating from Lever’s argument, Reform and Orthodox Jews of the same social class, age and education levels ought to vote in much the same way.

But Lever’s method does point us to some clues as to Reform voting habits. A triangle drawn between the three Johannesburg Reform synagogues, Temple Israel, Temple Shalom and Temple Emanuel, fits within the most liberal of the white electoral constituencies, Houghton, seat of Helen Suzman, the lone Progressive Party MP for thirteen years from 1961 to 1974.[v] The home addresses provided by people attending AGMs of the temples or of the Sisterhood, show that many lived in the area bounded by Louis Botha Avenue to the south and east, and by Oxford Road in the west, which put them inside the Suzman constituency. Others tended to live in the adjacent suburbs of Parktown, Forest Town, Saxonwold and Parkwood (which elected the Progressive Federal Party’s René de Villiers to join Suzman in 1974). In 1980, according to the demographer Allie Dubb, 5,260 Jews lived in the Houghton-Killarney-Saxonwold-Rosebank area, eight percent of the total Johannesburg Jewish population. In the adjacent Orange Grove area, the eastern side of Suzman’s constituency, consisting of Bagelyston, Cheltondale, Fellside and Gardens, lived 5,172 Jews, or 7.9% of the Johannesburg Jewish population.

The Cape Town equivalent would have been the Atlantic sea board, home of Temple Israel in Greenpoint. Dubb’s Atlantic boundaries stretched from Greenpoint and Mouille Point through Seapoint and Clifton to Camps Bay, where he reported 12,489 Jews in 1980, or 46.3% of Cape Town’s Jewish population. In 1974, the Seapoint constituency elected the Progressive Federal Party leader, Colin Eglin; neighbouring Greenpoint followed three years later.

The Jews, then, were concentrated in large numbers in those areas which split early with the default English loyalty to the United Party, instead electing Progressive Federal Party MPs. And if a majority of Reform Jews lived in those areas, as shown by the location of their temples and by their home addresses, one could extrapolate further to say that the core political values of a typical Reform Jew were likely to match the core political values of a Progressive Federal Party voter.

The political values of the Progressive Federal Party were not by any means radical. As Shimoni points out, Jewish candidates for the Liberal Party, which had a black membership and called for a universal franchise, were roundly defeated in the nineteen fifties in both Houghton and Seapoint.[vi] The Progressive Federal Party stood for a qualified franchise whose meritocratic requirements would have ensured a white voting majority for at least a while. But if the politics of the Progressive Federal Party seem timid with hindsight, that did not stop the government, and conservative whites in general, from treating the party as radical, and as a soft proxy for more militant  groups such as the banned South African Communist Party and African National Congress.

Also, as Lever pointed out, there was always a significant minority who either did support apartheid, or did not support protest against it. The tensions between the mildly liberal and the avowedly conservative, would play out as the milieu in which Jewish Reform politics operated.



[i] Community and Conscience, David Philip, 2003.

[ii] The Jewish Voter in South Africa, in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, October 1979.

[iii] These tables represent a simplified version of the originals, eliminating minor parties and “don’t knows”.

[iv] A population survey by Allie Dubb, published 15 years after Lever’s paper, confirmed many of his claims about Jewish demographics. In 1980, 28.7% of Jews were professionals, compared to 19.8% of whites, and 17.2% were in managerial positions, compared to 7.3% of other whites. In 1918, 34.2% of Jews lived in Johannesburg; by 1980 the percentage was 55.8%, which would rise above 60% by the early nineties. Cape Town was home to 22.2% in 1980 and Durban 5%. All other areas had three percent or less. (The Jewish Population of South Africa. The 1991 Sociodemographic Survey. Allie A Dubb. Kaplan Centre, University of Cape Town, 1994.)

[v] And the MP for Houghton for 36 years from 1953 until 1989, as well as the only woman MP for many years. The Progressive Party was formed by a faction of MPs who broke away from the United Party in 1959.

[vi] Shimoni, Community and Conscience, op cit.

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