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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Criticism of Israel: Whose right is it, anyway?

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 To criticize or praise Israel? When South African Jews filled a Johannesburg park in August 2014 to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, other Jews from a group called Jewish Voice For A Just Peace gathered across the road to protest Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian territories 

IT is not unusual for elder South African politicians to use their anti-apartheid struggle credentials as political capital, as if their views are superior to others.

The issue found a reverse echo in Israel last week, when Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely – an ardent right-winger and settlement supporter – contemptuously criticised American Jews who “never send their children to fight for their country (America)… most of them are having quite convenient lives.” And they don’t really care about the kotel, she added. She, on the other hand, lives in Israel and serves in the IDF, as if that makes her views superior to Jews who don’t – which means most American Jews. Her comments outraged sections of American Jewry. A response in Israeli media from a high-ranking US military officer listed Jews who fought with the US army in World War Two, and hold high military positions today.

Hotovely also disparages Diaspora Jews who criticise Israel’s weakening of liberal values, and the occupation. Sadly, many American Jews – the world’s second largest Jewish community after Israel – who are overwhelmingly liberal, do not see Israel as part of their identity, but a problem evoking antagonism from other people because of the occupation. US Jews dislike racism and religious extremism. Despite being only 2 percent of America’s population, they played a huge part in the civil rights movement, and continue to do so in culture, the arts, politics and the economy.

Their relationship with Israel has weakened as the country has moved towards right-wing extremism and nationalism. If they have a Reform or Conservative religious identity – as the majority of American Jews do – they accuse Israel of acting arrogantly as if it held a copyright on Judaism. They perceive Israel’s Orthodox establishment as being contemptuous of other streams.

Israel was created as a worldwide Jewish project to be a moral, democratic state for all inhabitants, with the intention of being intimately connected to the Diaspora. Do Israeli public officials have the right to criticise Diaspora communities. Could Hotovely’s attack on US Jews also be applied to South African Jewry?

And should South African Jews criticise Israel, against the accusation that they don’t live there, face Middle East dangers, serve in the IDF, and so on?

South African Jewish institutions are loath to criticise Israel, believing it gives ammunition to anti-Israel groups such as BDS. The recent controversy provoked by a Johannesburg Reform shul inviting people with BDS connections to its sukkah, highlighted the issue. At Israeli-oriented events such as Yom Ha’atzmaut in Johannesburg, left-wing Jews demonstrate against Israeli actions, and promote the Palestinian cause, evoking anger among mainstream Jewry. Even moderate Jewish groups who support Israel passionately, but demand an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories are often branded, without any evidence, as belonging to BDS in order to silence them. They are accused of being traitors.

The SA political environment is receptive to attacks on Israel. The Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress, Jesse Duarte, for example, published an article in the Daily Maverick this week in anticipation of the ANC leadership conference later this month, saying: “Israel has continued to violate international law, occupation continues and the brutality of the Israeli system of oppression has, rightly, been likened to apartheid … As the ANC therefore prepares for its National Conference, South Africa’s future relations with Israel hangs in the balance and rightly so.”

For SA Jews who support Israel but oppose the occupation, it is a difficult line to tread. But it must not stifle meaningful debate about Israel, including praise and criticism where necessary. Like South African struggle veterans’ critiques of the ANC and South Africa, this kind of engagement is crucial.

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