Your way, my way: The tightrope of being Jewish ‘enough’ in this world

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SA Jews – a different future? Jewish South African politician Jack Bloom in a shanty town near Johannesburg where he spent time after a devastating fire. He chronicled his experiences in his 2015 book, “30 Nights in a Shack.” In an interview, he says the experience prodded him to return to his Jewish roots. He was inspired by legendary Jewish anti-Apartheid politician Helen Suzman (photo Times of Israel)

WARNINGS of alarming schisms threatening the Jewish people’s future have come in the last two months from two international Jewish heavyweights: Ronald Lauder, right-wing billionaire, Donald Trump supporter, and president of the World Jewish Congress; and Naomi Chazan, left-wing professor of politics at the Hebrew University and former speaker of the Knesset. Their views also challenge South African Jewry.

Lauder’s article in the New York Times last week described rising rifts between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, America and Israel. Young Americans compare Israel’s ethos on human rights and similar issues to theirs, and are becoming alienated. This is exacerbated by domination of Israel’s government by ultra-Orthodox parties, and PM Netanyahu’s apparent disregard of how his policies are perceived by Diaspora Jewry.

Examples of the past year include the government withdrawing from an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, proposing a strict conversion law impinging on non-Orthodox Jews’ rights, and a law denying equal rights to same-sex couples.

Lauder says the vast majority of the world’s Jews are not Orthodox, but traditional, secular, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated. Orthodoxy should be respected, “but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.”

Chazan’s equally sombre warning in July in a Times of Israel blog said two Jewish worlds are being created: A progressive, open, liberal and pluralistic mindset among most American Jews; and a conservative, particularistic, introspective and much less tolerant worldview in contemporary Israel.

She quotes American Jewish Committee polls: 73 per cent of American Jews support a mixed-gender prayer area near the Kotel, but only 42 per cent of Israeli Jews; 80 per cent of American Jews favor allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to perform marriages, divorces and conversions, but only 49 per cent of Israeli Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows similar divisions: 85 per cent of Israelis applauded Trump’s decision to relocate America’s embassy to Jerusalem, but only 46 per cent of American Jews.

Does South African Jewry fit this American-Israeli split? South African Jews have extensive links to both America and Israel, but contrary to America, this tiny community of 70,000 is largely Orthodox-dominated – the Reform component is tiny, and many Jews have chosen to be unaffiliated. South African Jewry at large has a reputation of being conservative on Judaism and Israel, and the violence-ridden South African society also creates a tendency to be inward-looking, although with some notable exceptions of people who engage deeply with the society in political and social activism.

There are indications of a different trend, however, even in the mainstream of the community, towards a more open attitude along the lines of the American Jewish mindset, exemplified by the phenomenal growth of the annual Jewish liberal conference, Limmud, a concept which is hosted worldwide. When it was launched in South Africa in August 2007, senior Orthodox rabbis would not participate – as was the case almost everywhere in Jewish communities worldwide, even though Limmud does not oppose the principles of Orthodoxy.

On 25 October 2013, the SA Jewish Report reported: ‘In 2008, the Southern African Rabbinical Association discouraged members from participating, referring in a resolution to its “existing policy toward the upcoming Limmud learning programme, which is that no (Orthodox) rabbi will accept an invitation to participate”.’

This policy is still largely in place but it has not dented Limmud’s growth, and relationships between the Orthodox establishment and other streams are generally characterised by goodwill and tolerance. This month’s hugely successful Limmud was packed to the rafters with Jews of every stripe.

But still, reported the Jewish Report in the same issue of 2013, among South African Jewry, the issue regretfully sits like the proverbial “elephant in the room” particularly in the light of “the stunning success of recent projects emanating from the Orthodox establishment, such as Sinai Indaba and the Shabbos Project.”

Taking a cue from Chazan: Will South African Jewry develop in the future according to the open, liberal and pluralistic American Jewish ethos, or the Israeli model of a conservative, particularistic, introspective, less tolerant worldview?

It will be neither. It exists in a very different environment to both. This corruption-ridden, unstable South Africa, with its ethnic and racial pressures and hostility towards Israel, influences how the community defines itself in a different way to both America and Israel. And the needs of SA society will make radically different demands on it in political and other ways. In whatever manner things develop in the relationship between Orthodoxy and other streams of Judaism, there are a multitude of other tough issues South African Jewry will have to deal with, and its resources will have to work together and evolve to be unique to the situation here – a challenge as great anything else.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

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White guilt: Why calling a spade, a spade is scary

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Is this white or black land? White dispossession of black people’s land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through colonial expansion was resisted by black lawyers who used the law as an instrument, but lost the fight. People such as advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi tell the story in his book The Land is Ours: Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism in South Africa, launched in Cape Town in May. Land and white privilege continues to haunt the country today

“DON’T YOU dare say I don’t belong here!” That’s what a group of mostly middle-aged Jews who lived through apartheid seemed, privately, to want to say to black advocate and author of the book “The Land is Ours”, Tembeka Ngcukatoibi,  last Sunday in Johannesburg. They were at a panel discussion that grappled with how whites and Jews make meaning of their lives in South Africa today. But what these people in the audience actually conveyed, pleadingly, was: “I beg of you, please tell me I belong.”

Ngcukatoibi insisted that to really belong, they needed to shed their ‘whiteness’. The aim, he said, was to create an ‘African’ identity. White and black must be transcended. But what about their ‘Jewishness’?

This is the anguished conversation playing itself out in a myriad ways in South Africa, 2018 and, in this case, at Limmud, a two-day conference with a range of workshops and talks on topics of relevance to South African Jews.

Ngcukatoibi was on a panel that included journalist Richard Poplak and SA Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng chair Marc Pozniak, and facilitator Lael Bethlehem.

Panelists drenched the audience in guilt for not fitting into the new South Africa. The discomfort was obvious, while not expressed openly. However, a quiet voice inside them seemed to say: “Do I actually want be part of this new South Africa, with its ghastly corruption, politics and violent crime? As a white, I am sidelined. When I apply for a job, I am told it is for blacks only. I have relatives in Australia; why should I stay?”

Hard questions. The panel was arguably one of the conference’s most relevant, and despite it being the last on a full schedule, the hall was packed. But while the topic should have ignited passionate arguments, there were instead polite platitudes and tip-toeing around deep feelings. Is there a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, the politically incorrect? South African politics today is a minefield of racial and other accusations, whether justified or not.

All panelists were on the moderate left. What was missing was someone from the right to provoke, to say unapologetically, as some whites do: “I am a white South African who didn’t ask to be born into apartheid, but worked incredibly hard my whole life for my living and my kids. I will not be made guilty, and will fight if you try to take it from me! Or I’ll leave the country with my skills and money.”

Disappointment in how South Africa has turned out is widespread among whites – you hear it everywhere in the Jewish community and other communities. The enthusiasm of Mandela’s era has been replaced by fear.

People who 25 years ago decided to stay and rebuild the country, are rethinking. Many audience members had always opposed apartheid in one way or another, even if they didn’t go underground. Bethlehem asked: “Can you be white and ‘progressive’ today, as in the past, by running an NGO and giving blankets, or is that space closed? Can Jews be part of the national project?”

Poplak issued a challenge: “When did Jews become white? They came to South Africa and negotiated their ‘whiteness’, sometimes with bad people, at the majority’s expense. But the gigantic gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation in 1994 has not worked out and we’re at the giving-back stage, way past charity and sewing blankets. You have to give up something to belong.”

Ngcukatoibi expresses blacks’ feelings eloquently: The cultural domination of whites suffocates black people, forcing them to negotiate inclusion into the cultural space determined by whites – the language, the institutions. ‘Whiteness’ remains the overriding cultural norm, in an overwhelmingly black country; whites must give up their supremacy.

Is giving up ‘whiteness’ even possible for South African Jews to consider? It might include giving up things like holiday homes and 4x4s. Is this community too comfortable in its affluence to rethink itself? The same questions apply to other communities. These questions need to be on the table even if there are no simple answers.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

The Likud selfie: drawings that shout louder than words

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What’s in a pen? Drawings of political cartoonists are often the first thing people read in a paper, lampooning some essential quality about people and events, often delighting, and equally often outraging the subjects of their drawings. Zapiro, (above) has long been an iconic commentator on South African affairs

WHO WOULD have thought a shocking picture of a woman being raped by then president Jacob Zuma would appear on the oped pages of a major South African newspaper? Not a photograph, but a drawing. What about an image in an Israeli paper showing Israeli leaders as pigs? That’s what political cartoonists like Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – and Avi Katz do in South Africa and Israel: stab at peoples’ most sensitive impulses, to make a point. They have outraged people for years – and delighted many. And Katz was fired last Tuesday from his position at the Jerusalem Report magazine for his ‘pigs’ cartoon, reported Ynet.

For Zapiro, rape has been a potent image to depict South Africa’s ‘rape’ under Zuma, based initially on accusations in 2005 that he raped a friend’s daughter, known as ‘Khwezi’.

In 2008 a Zapiro cartoon in the Sunday Times depicted Zuma preparing to rape ‘Lady Justice’ who was held down by major politicians, with one saying, “Go for it, boss!” And in 2011 a cartoon in the Mail and Guardian showed Zuma zipping up his pants, lasciviously, as an ANC politician held down a woman, with the words “free speech” draped over her body and Lady Justice looking on saying “Fight, sister. Fight!”  Then in 2017 a cartoon in the Daily Maverick depicted the Gupta brothers robbing the country with corruption – again, Zuma was shown zipping up his pants gleefully as one brother prepared to rape a woman draped in the South African flag, held down by political figures. The caption read: “She’s all Yours, Boss!”

South African Jews find Zapiro’s unashamed anti-Israel depictions highly offensive – he has gone so far as to draw analogies between contemporary Israel and Nazism. In April 2002 he depicted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as similar to a Nazi leader, when the IDF bombarded the West Bank town of Jenin after a wave of suicide bombings.

Rape for one, pigs for another: In Israel, veteran cartoonist Avi Katz rendered an image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers as the pig characters in George Orwell’s iconic book “Animal Farm.” The unflattering image derived from a photograph which appeared in Israeli papers of the Knesset members taking a congratulatory selfie to celebrate the passage of the controversial nation state bill. The cartoon’s homage to “Animal Farm” included the widely known quote “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

In response, hundreds of outraged comments were posted on Katz’ Facebook page deploring his swine imagery – pigs are considered unclean in Judaism. Some compared his cartoon to anti-Semitic caricatures.

The cartoon was shared more than 2,800 times. “Crazy anti-Semite, filled with self-loathing…” wrote one commenter. Another wrote that within a few months, the brouhaha about the nation state bill will recede, but Katz’s cartoon will remain forever and become a new anti-Semitic Shylock image, like that from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, to be exploited by Jew-haters. It will be uncontrollable and enable hatred “of orthodox, of fat, of men, of Jews in general…”

Are Katz’s critics correct? In a statement, the Union of Journalists in Israel voiced support for him, saying: “Causing harm to a journalist because he expressed an opinion, let alone when it was approved by his editors, is a dangerous step that must not be accepted.”

We are living in dangerously deceptive times, where the internet makes it easy to tar the cartoonist as the ultimate enemy. Love them or hate them, the job of a political cartoonist is to confront and make people think, and they will do that even by resorting to the most inflammatory images conceivable. It’s their job.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za