A Brief History of Jewish Immigration to Ontario from Southern Africa
Very little has been written about Jewish immigration to Ontario from southern African. What follows is based on the small amount of literature that does exist on the subject and the information the OJA gathered through the course of its Southern African Legacy Project.
Early Jewish Immigration to Southern Africa
Jewish immigration to southern Africa began in earnest in the late nineteenth century. While there had been a small number of Jews living in the region prior to then, the 1880s saw the first major wave of Jewish immigration to the southernmost part of the continent. Spurred in part by the pogroms in eastern Europe, Ashkenazi Jews, many of them Lithuanian, began arriving in significant numbers in South Africa between 1880 and 1914. In Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), Jewish settlers followed on the heels of the British South Africa Company, which obtained a British mandate to colonize the territory in 1889. (The first synagogue was formed in Bulawayo five years later.)
Early Jewish Immigration to Ontario from Southern Africa: 1900-1960
Between 1900 and 1960, Jewish immigration to Ontario from southern Africa was very small. The earliest immigrant story the OJA uncovered is that of Elias “Eli” Bloch. Eli arrived in Ontario in 1907. Born in 1872 in Chişinău, Moldova, he immigrated to South Africa in the 1890s. After fighting for the Dutch in the Boer War, Eli worked for an import-export business owned by his brother-in-law. In 1907, his brother-in-law sent him to various cities around the world to sell ostrich feathers, which were a popular fashion accessory at the time. While in Toronto he met his future wife and chose to remain in Ontario and abandon the rest of his travels.
Another early South African immigrant to Ontario is Percy Skuy, a pharmacist who ended up in Toronto by chance in 1957. He had run short on money while travelling through the United States and needed to earn enough to pay for his fare back to Africa. Unable to work in the United States, he headed to Toronto to find work, accepting a sales position that came with a car. As he explained years later, “I took it really for the car . . . and never left. I fell in love with Toronto.”
Apartheid-Era South Africa
In 1948, the all-white National Party came to power in South Africa and began enforcing racial segregation laws under a system called apartheid. Anti-apartheid groups initially attempted to resist apartheid through peaceful demonstrations; however, some turned to armed struggle after South African police fired on a large crowd of unarmed protesters in Sharpeville in 1960, killing or wounding 250 black South Africans. Protests, strikes and riots erupted the following week.
After the massacre, large numbers of Jewish South Africans began immigrating to Ontario. Although most of the immigrants from this era who participated in the OJA’s project left South Africa due to the apartheid politics, there are those who initially left to travel or pursue education in other countries and never returned. For instance, Ivor Simmons explains his reason for leaving in 1961 this way: “I began to feel uncomfortable with the situation in South Africa . . . [but] I didn’t leave South Africa with the idea that I would not come back . . . I left mainly to travel.”
During the 1970s, the situation in South Africa became increasingly unstable. In 1976, a riot erupted in the black township of Soweto. The response of South Africa’s police and army left hundreds dead, which only triggered further protest and repression. The Soweto uprising sparked a large wave of Jewish emigration out of South Africa, which continued throughout the 1980s. Between 1970 and 1991 nearly thirty-nine thousand Jews left South Africa, of which 4,100 came to Canada.
The majority of participants in the OJA’s project arrived in Ontario during this period and nearly all of them cite fear of violence and/or opposition to apartheid politics as their main motivations for leaving. Those with families explained they did not want to raise their children under the apartheid system nor did they want their sons to serve in South Africa’s army. (Military service became compulsory for white South Africans in 1967.) It is in this vein that Adele Farber explains her and her husband’s reasons for leaving South Africa:
We felt there wasn’t a good future in South Africa . . . Apartheid was a terrible, frightening regime to live under and we really didn’t think that it was sustainable—nor ethical or moral—and we didn’t want to live there and bring up our children there.
Hilton Silberg describes his and his wife’s decision to leave in similar terms: “[Apartheid] was obscene, immoral and no way to live . . . We made a concerted decision not to have children there . . . [because] I didn’t want my children to ever have to say ‘I was born in South Africa’.”
Canada was never the primary destination for Jews leaving South Africa. Professor Allie A. Dubb of Tel Aviv University estimates that Israel was the primary destination of Jewish emigrants in the 1970s. This changed in the following decades with immigration to English-speaking countries increasing: The 1980s, for example, saw 26.9 percent of South Africa’s Jews immigrate to the United States, 22.7 percent to Australia, 22.6 percent to Israel, 13.5 percent to Britain, and 12.6 percent to Canada. Immigrants to Canada settled in a number of locations in Ontario including Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Ottawa, and Toronto.
Those Jewish southern Africans who came to Canada did so for a variety reasons. Some chose Canada because they saw it as a stepping stone to the United States, others because of business and/or family connections, and still others because of perceived cultural similarities between South Africa and Canada. One important milestone in the organization of the diaspora was the founding of the Southern African Jewish Association of Canada (SAJAC) in 1976 by Alan Sandler, Hilly Cohen and Ronnie Roth. In addition to serving as a networking resource for South African and Zimbabwean expatriates, SAJAC produces a magazine, SAJAC News, which it distributes for free and sends out for Rosh Hashana and Pesach. In 2016, the association celebrated its fortieth anniversary.
On the 2011 National Household Survey, 4,725 Jews from Toronto indicated they were born in South Africa. Although relatively few in number, Project Chair Stephen Pincus explains, “Immigrants from southern Africa have had a significant impact on Canada in a broad range of fields. We hope that the legacy project will document many of the fascinating stories comprising this remarkable immigration.”
As more individual stories come into the archives, the larger community story is beginning to emerge: why Jews left South Africa and Zimbabwe, why they chose Canada, what their initial impressions of Canada were, what challenges they faced integrating into Canadian life, what differences and similarities existed in Jewish traditions, and what role they have gone on to play in Ontario’s Jewish community as well as the larger society.
Dubb, Allie A. The Jewish Population of South Africa: The 1991 Sociodemographic Survey. Cape Town: Kaplan Centre Jewish Studies & Research, University of Cape Town, 1994.
Krut, Riva. “The Jews of Southern Africa.” The Journal of African History 25, no. 4 (1984): 484-486.
Schoenfeld, Stuart, Joan Schoenfeld, and Gail McCabe. “From Diaspora to Diaspora: The Immigration of Jews from South Africa to Canada.” Canadian Jewish Studies 15 (2007): 99-128.
Shahar, Charles. 2011 National Household Survey: The Jewish Population of Canada. Toronto: Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA, 2015.
“Sharpeville Massacre.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed November 17, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/event/Sharpeville-massacre
Shimoni, Gideon. “South African Jews and the Apartheid Crisis.” In American Jewish Yearbook 1988, edited by David Singer, 3-32. New York: American Jewish Committee, 1988.
“Zimbabwe profile – Timeline.” BBC. Accessed November 17, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14113618
“Zimbabwe Virtual Jewish History Tour.” Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed November 17, 2017. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/zimbabwe-virtual-jewish-history-tour