The Marxist Rabbi

An Orthodox Jew Who Worked Tirelessly
To Destroy White South Africa

Rabbi Cyril Harris (Obituary)

September 19, 1936 - September 13, 2005

Rabbi who put South Africa's Jewish community in step with democracy, reconciliation and change

CYRIL HARRIS was Chief Rabbi of the South African Jewish community from 1987 until his retirement at the end of last year. That period covered the most crucial decade in the modern history of South Africa, with the unexpectedly smooth transition from white minority to black majority rule.

Through his unwavering leadership and deep personal relationship with Nelson Mandela, Harris put the country's white Jewish community, never more than 100,000 strong, in step with the black majority at this crucial point.

Given the nervous, and at times distant, relationship most of the Jewish community had with the black population and its political leaders, the African National Congress, it was a stunning achievement. When Harris arrived in South Africa from a fashionable London pulpit, the days of apartheid were already numbered. But Mandela was still a prisoner on Robben Island and the road to majority rule was not mapped out.

Harris, aided by his wife, Ann, a practising solicitor with highly developed political antennae, rapidly made contact with such white liberals as Helen Suzman.

More significantly, he was the first Jewish religious leader to meet regularly with the leading Jewish members of the African National Congress, such as Joe Slovo and Ronnie Kasrils. They were for the most part Marxist and had long ceased to be practising Jews, but Harris did not allow this to put him off. Through them came contact with Mandela, once he was dramatically freed by President F. W. de Klerk after more than 20 years in jail. The two men took to each other instantly and that early liking matured into a deep mutual attachment.

Harris gave an address at Mandela's induction as President in a Soweto stadium. Mandela habitually referred to Harris as “my rabbi”. As such, he invited Harris to give a Hebrew blessing to his marriage, on his 80th birthday, to Graša Michel. At Harris's funeral in Jerusalem, the South African Ambassador was there to speak affectionately of “our rabbi”.

A friendship also developed between Harris and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Harris gave evidence to his Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which he confessed that the Jewish community, long mistrusted by poor blacks, bore a share of responsibility for not consistently opposing apartheid.

The three decades that Harris spent previously in the Anglo-Jewish rabbinate gave little hint of the historic role that lay ahead in South Africa. After training at the Jews' College of London University, Harris served suburban congregations in the London area, in Kenton and Edgware, before moving to the prestige pulpit of St John's Wood in 1979.

For five years, from 1966 to 1971, he also served as Senior Jewish Chaplain to HM Forces. For three years Harris swapped canonicals for jeans and sweater as a full-time student chaplain. Everywhere he attracted attention by his handsome profile and his charismatic, and at times fiery, preaching style.

Harris drew less favourable notice when his short fuse exploded into a major public row with the popular Reform rabbi, Hugo Gryn, in a Radio 4 broadcast. The two men began to trade insults, with Harris held to have been the more offensive. He dismissed Gryn as having little Jewish religious knowledge and accused most of his non-Orthodox colleagues of “not knowing an aleph from a swastika”.

The national storm that followed had blown itself out by the time Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits announced his impending retirement in 1990. Harris, by now in Johannesburg, was considered papabile, and his name was put forward for the succession to Jakobovits in competititon with that of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

However, Sacks appeared to be the preferred candidate, and Harris withdrew his name before the final decision was announced. Given the unique chance to make history that awaited him in South Africa, that move proved providential.

In 2003 Harris was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for services to the Jewish people.

He is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1958, and by their two sons, Michael, the rabbi of Hampstead Synagogue, and Jon, a theatrical producer.

Cyril Harris, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, 1987-2004, was born on September 19, 1936. He died on September 13, 2005, aged 68.

Source: The Times of London (September 19, 2005)

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