Whiteness and Jewishness smoulder in South Africa and France

haffajee book cover

The cover of Ferial Haffajee’s provocative new book on race and whiteness in South Africa asks penetrating questions about the country’s future

Raw nerves for Jewish South Africans will be touched by two new books published in France and South Africa, highlighting their uneasy identities as both Jews and whites. They are indicative of the confusing, scary times in which we live.

In France, popular Jewish author Eliette Abecassis’ novel “Alyah” probes the struggle of her wounded country still reeling from terrorist attacks, to protect her as a Jew. She asks: In the light of the growing anti-Semitism in France, can one still be both French and Jewish?

In the story, based on the author’s experiences, a Jewish teacher of French literature enters her classroom in a secular Paris school where most students are second- and third-generation North African immigrants. Abecassis’ parents also emigrated from Morocco in the late 1950s. A 15-year-old student immediately confronts her: “Teacher, are you a Jew-girl?… If you are a Jew-girl, does that mean you are a Zionist?”

She is shocked, as other students chime in aggressively: “She’s a Zionist! We will eliminate her!”; “And the Jews”; “There’s no difference!”; “It’s true, they are killing our brothers the Palestinians!”; “We’ll get rid of them all!”

French Jews have long viewed France as home. But the second intifada in Israel in 2000 caused a rift between the Muslim and Jewish communities of migrants from North Africa, who once had a cordial relationship. The former sided with the Palestinians, the latter with Israel. Ethnic antagonism multiplied and Jews were attacked.

Alyah

Eliette Abecassis’ book asks whether it is still possible to be both French and Jewish

Through fear, Abecassis removed all external signs of her Jewishness in public places. She felt France betrayed her: “Until a few years ago, I did not understand that I was actually an exile in my country. France was my country, my culture, the definition of who I am and how I think. I thought our leaders would insure our security… The phrase ‘Jew and French’ was still possible. It almost exuded pride.”

Anti-Semitism is pushing Jews to leave France. Abecassis would like to continue writing in French and teaching French literature, and consider France her homeland. But she tells an intimate friend: “In 10 years, I will not be in France”.

He replies: “Then in 10 years, it will no longer be France.”

In South Africa, a book by Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, probes the sensitive race issue and “whiteness” in the country today, particularly white privilege, through stories from mostly black, middle class contributors. It is titled provocatively: “What If There Were No Whites in South Africa?”

One contributor, Milisuthando Bongela, a Rhodes alumnus who runs a feminist stokvel, tells of eavesdropping on a meeting in a Johannesburg cafe of “Jewish business people” who were discussing the production of teacups.

“Pure green jealousy settled inside me at the thought that these grown white men had the luxury of convening a business action about crockery,” he said. “And that they were probably going to make a lot of money from it. I tried to check the jealousy in me to understand why it was so buoyant, so relentless… The difference between them and me is that they inherited the peace of mind to craft and contemplate teacups on a Wednesday afternoon. I inherited the responsibility of discovering, addressing and solving a race, gender and class disparity I did not create.”

Non-racialism is a complicated, elusive South African ideal. Haffajee said in an interview: “When I grew up, that was what we staked our identity on, a non-racial future, which meant that… the eventual outcome of where I see you goes beyond the amount of melanin that you have in you. I see you for what you are as a human being.”

But things are in many ways going in the opposite direction. Negative racial stereotyping is growing. Recognising the racial problems of South Africa, the inequality and staggering unemployment among blacks, she notes ominously: “There is a substantial narrative, and it is largely but not only white, that is waiting for South Africa to fail.”

The subtext, obviously, is the notion some whites hold that blacks cannot run a country. The next five years, she says, “will separate out those with a pessimistic take and those of us who want our country to succeed.”

As we approach 2016, the bogeymen of racial and ethnic animosity are taking on more openly expressed forms than they have for a long time. For this country, the question begs itself: If there were no whites, would South Africa still be South Africa? The road ahead differs depending on one’s answer.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on December 9, 2015)

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