Can a hidden life ever be a happy one?

AS n France 2014 (2)

In August 2014, fighting between Hamas and Israel fueled anti-Semitic outbursts  in Germany and other European countries, especially France, ranging from violent attacks to chants of “Death to the Jews”. Jews kept out of sight, but synagogues were bombed, Jewish groups received hate mail and anti-Semitic slogans were spray-painted on buildings

LAST week, when the leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan condemned ‘Satanic Jews’ in a talk at the Sabina Catholic Church, it threw into relief religious freedom in South Africa. He said Jews dislike him because he exposes their ‘hatred of Jesus in the Talmud’. South Africans experience religious vitriol occasionally, but the society condemns it strongly and publicly, even where there is politics involved. South Africa is a highly religious society; a large proportion of its citizens identify strongly with a religious denomination, whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, traditional African faiths, or others.

The Archdiocese of Chicago distanced itself in a pro-forma way from the Sabina Church’s decision to invite Farrakhan, saying his rhetoric has no place in American society when hate crimes are rising. But there was no country-wide outcry; the news of the day quickly moved on.

Universities are meant to be places of intelligent debate. But in August 2013 at Wits University in Johannesburg, Palestine solidarity activists, including BDS sang a struggle song containing the lyric ‘shoot the boer’, targeting a performance by Israeli musician Daniel Zamir, but transposed the words with ‘shoot the Jew.’ It drew such wide criticism, that BDS South Africa issued a statement condemning racism ‘even if it were to come from within our ranks’, while still attacking Zionism and Israel. Many people questioned their sincerity.

As unsavoury as this incident was, it is small fry compared to Jews’ experiences elsewhere. The walls around houses in Johannesburg are high, but they keep out criminals, not religious zealots.  Jews in America, Canada, and Europe would be pleased to have these high walls rather than the ones they have.

Schools are meant to be safe places. But in public schools in Belgium, for example, the biggest insult a child can pay is calling someone a Jew. Some 39% of Belgian respondents to a survey said they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the last year. The doors of the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, never used to be locked during visiting hours. After May 2014 when a jihadi terrorist killed four people, they were closed with a special lock. Belgium symbolises Europe’s diversity, home to EU institutions and Nato, and made up of three linguistic groups, French, Dutch and German. Facing hostility, parents move their children into Jewish schools. But they are fearful, since schools themselves may be targets.

In a civilized society, you should be able to walk in the street unhindered, whatever religion you follow. But in 2013, surveys found that nearly 40 percent of European Jews feared to openly identify as Jewish, including 60 percent of Swedish Jews, 51 percent of French Jews, and 43 percent of Dutch Jews. Some of them told CNN: ‘A happy life is a hidden life.’ This extends to institutions; synagogues are typically unmarked and encased by draconian security.

Should Jews withdraw behind closed doors? This would be tragic. Rather be a dynamic, living institution, open to engagement and dialogue. This is what the Belgium museum’s director of exhibitions, Bruno Benvindo wants. But it is an idealistic notion: it depends on the threat. Jihadists don’t want dialogue. Nor does someone like Farrakhan.

Nobody knows where South Africa is headed, with its topsy-turvy politics. But for now, you can wear a kippa safely in the streets, welcome and unhindered as a Jew, as opposed to Paris or most other European cities. Even EFF leader Julius Malema’s racist comments about whites have no Jewish element, and would be condemned if he moves in that direction. Amidst all the political chaos, it is something worth remembering.

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

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