IT is ironic that the provocative play ‘Bad Jews’ – a brilliant romp through the minefield of Jewish ideals and neuroses – is performing to packed houses in Johannesburg at the same time as the saga of Israeli Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who fled Israel because of sexual harassment charges and is wanted by Interpol, is playing itself out in a neighbourhood just north of the city. They both impact on the Jewish community’s sense of their belonging in South Africa, and who should take responsibility for Jewish behaviour, whether good or bad.
This echoes another minority group’s struggle in the post-apartheid country – the Afrikaners, who not that long ago ruled the country. Their anxieties are equally sharp, epitomised by a current exhibition in a Parkwood gallery entitled ‘Ik ben een Afrikander’, and by the political activism of the Afrikaners’ advocacy organisation Afriforum, demanding that their language and culture remain respected and relevant.
Bad Jews is on at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Written by US Jewish playwright Josh Harmon, it explores the myriad quirks embedded into Jewish identity, expertly portrayed in the past by show-biz figures like Woody Allen. But this show updates them to the 21st millennium, throwing in everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘politically correct’ Jewish intellectuals who scorn their Jewish heritage but are fascinated by other cultures, the Holocaust’s significance – or lack of it – for young Jews, women’s religious roles as rabbis, and overprotective mothers. And, of course, the eternal biggie: marrying out, and the alarm in a Jewish man’s family when he falls for a blonde, blue-eyed gentile woman and proposes marriage.
While Bad Jews was written in New York about American Jews, South African Jews carry the same baggage, with the added huge challenge of trying to find their secure place in a rapidly changing, confused South African society ridden by racial tensions and roller-coaster politics.
Rabbi Berland is a charismatic leader of a fundamentalist Jewish sect who has resided for several months in a hotel north of Johannesburg with hundreds of his followers. The SA police have tried, unsuccessfully, to arrest him for extradition to Israel. He always manages to slip away, allegedly because of tipoffs from shady sources.
What has this got to do with the SA Jewish community? Mainstream SA Jewish organisations, secular and religious, have collectively demanded that Berland return to Israel to face the law. In contrast, if an individual Christian were to break the law, it is unlikely the churches would feel it necessary to issue a statement distancing themselves from him. They would simply let the law take its course.
Given their history, Jews are inherently insecure and feel the need to protect their image among non-Jewish South Africans. After all, anti-Semites are always looking for ammunition. Being a white minority group in today’s confused South Africa adds another toxic layer to the problem. Who knows when a populist politician – such as Julius Malema – might accuse Jewish ‘capitalists’ of being responsible for the country’s malaise?
The Afrikaners’ crisis of identity has other threads. The exhibition in Parkwood explores their sense of Africanness not from the point of view of insecurity, but resentment. Legend has it that the first person to have identified himself as an Afrikaner, Hendrik Biebouw, in 1707, proclaimed “Ik ben een Afrikander” when threatened with expulsion from the Cape. He did not want to leave South Africa. The exhibition contains works of five white artists and a black one, who were born prior to 1994 – the year of democratic elections – and whose formative years coincide with the transition to democracy.
One main work is a triptych of three huge colour photographs showing an Afrikaans man who looks like a farmer sitting in an open field with a flag draped over his knees. The first picture is a flag of a pre-1910 Boer republic, morphing in the second picture into the old apartheid-era South African flag with its embedded Union Jack and the flags of the Boer republics. The third picture shows him dismantling and reconstructing that flag it as it morphs into the new South African flag. There is an intense, conflicted expression on his face.
Afrikaners feel their language and culture being threatened. For example Stellenbosch University, one of the most prestigious Afrikaans institutions during apartheid, last year bowed to public pressure and decided the main language of instruction would in future be English. Afriforum insists on an Afrikaner’s right to continue being taught in his ‘mother tongue’ and intends approaching the courts to ensure Afrikaans remains a language of instruction in universities. Afriforum Youth spokesman Ian Cameron said: “There is absolutely no reason why we, as an Afrikaans group, don’t deserve the same treatment as any other group in the country. We are here to build a nation and to make sure that everyone – all groups – deserve and get equal recognition right across the country.”
So who and what is a South African and where do Afrikaners and Jews fit? Their plight is not completely separate from the struggle of the majority of black South Africans, who are asking the question about themselves. The piercing American play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, which opened last Friday at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre to a capacity house, kept the overwhelmingly black, middle class audience spellbound. Timed to coincide with Black History Month, it portrays the search of black Americans for ethnic pride against whites, and the struggle of young blacks to rise from poverty after the previous generation had fought for civil rights under leaders like Martin Luther King.
The question of South Africanness will not be settled in this generation. Maybe not even the next. In the meantime, it’s a fascinating terrain, although scary at times.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)