Print Change text to normal font sizeChange text to bigger font size

It's Not All Black and White: The South African Jewish Story


Ilan-Buchman-Christmas-Postcard“I'm very proud of my South African connections. As an environmentalist, if I can use the tree as an analogy, I will tell you that for me, like most Jews, the roots of my tree are in our eternal homeland, Israel. The trunk of my tree is my formative years in South Africa, which helped to make me what I am, and my branches have taken me to Australia. Every part of that tree is important.” Robert Schneider, 1998 émigré

This exhibition gives a glimpse into South African Jewish life from its beginnings around the 1840s through the development and success of the community and onto the events that led to waves of migration over the past few decades. The voices of former South Africans, now living in Sydney, give expression to a range of views and experiences. Jewish life in South Africa was characterised by a strong sense of community and an enduring connection with Israel. Jewish responses to apartheid are revealed as multifaceted, and motivations for emigration are seen to be similarly diverse. Most have integrated into Australian society with relative ease and many have made a meaningful contribution.


Under the rule of the Dutch East India Company (1625 -1795) non-Protestants were not allowed to settle in South Africa. Jews only began to arrive in any significant number well after British colonisation in 1806. The earliest Jewish settlers were British and in 1841 they formed South Africa’s first congregation in Cape Town.

The majority of Jewish migrants to South Africa came later from Eastern Europe, and especially Lithuania. Between 1880 and 1910, over 40,000 Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) sought to escape the difficulties of life under a Czarist regime and headed for South Africa.


For those who lived in South Africa, a lifetime of images, sounds and smells are etched deep into memory: the colour and hue of winter sunsets and Highveld grass; magical Ndebele decorations on huts and kraals (small African villages); slow drives along dusty game park roads; children’s noses pressed to car windows to glimpse the majestic animals peering from the long grass; foamy white cloud pouring over Table Mountain; Cape Dutch houses set in rolling vineyards; exotic Indian fabrics and pungent spices; the sheer exuberance of street life, laughter and loud chattering; blaring radios and the distinctive pennywhistle; beggars weaving in and out between the cars; proud nannies with babies on their backs.


South Africans have been migrating to Australia since the late 1940s, when the Nationalist Party came to power. Subsequent migration occurred in waves triggered by cataclysmic events such as the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the 1976 Soweto Uprising. For some, the fear of living under a Black government following the first democratic elections in 1994 precipitated migration. More recently, many have emigrated to escape the increasing crime and violence.

It is estimated that between the late 1970s and 2006, almost a million Whites left South Africa. Of those, 47,000 were Jews, amounting to around 40% of the country’s Jewish community. The 2006 census enumerated 104,000 persons who were born in South Africa now live in Australia, of whom approximately 15,000 are Jewish. This figure is increasing every year.


For South Africans, the similar lifestyle, climate and language make Australia a destination of choice. South African Jews have mostly left voluntarily, free of traditional coercive factors such as religious or political persecution, and have largely not needed assisted passage or state welfare services.

Many came on a ‘look-see’ visit, established their foundations in advance, returned to South Africa, and then moved here at a leisurely pace. The Jewish community network has assisted them in finding appropriate housing, schools, doctors, dentists, legal and financial advisers, car dealers, sports clubs and synagogues.

Calendar of Events


Program and festival dates - everything you need to know to make your visit to the Sydney Jewish Museum a success. Find out more

Gift Shop


We now have all your special gifts for barmitzvah, batmitzvah, weddings, engagements, birthdays and other simchas. Call (02)9360 7999 or email

Exhibition Lecture