by Josh Hovsha
The great Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote: “There is no present or future-only the past, happening over and over again-now.”
Jewish life shares this obsession with listening to the past. Its loud roars and its still silences. It is about hearing the demands of others, the triumphant cheers and also the pangs of those left silent by systemic exclusion.
We need to think seriously about whose narratives we celebrate and whose narratives we leave out. In many ways, these questions are at the heart of movements such as #RhodesMustFall. We need to think about the difference between history and a shared heritage which can be supported by all.
We need to think about Charlottesville, Virginia where white supremacists carrying Nazi and Confederate flags clashed with counter-demonstrators, and a car drove into the crowd of anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. We must not forget that this event centred on the decision of a town to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee. A decision reflecting the complexities of history and whose accounts of it we privilege. There are many statues of Southern generals in the US South, but very few commemorating the lives of the slaves who they were fighting to keep in captivity.
In her account of citizen participation, Sherry Arnstein (1969: 215) draws a crucial distinction between empty models of “ritual” participation and the actual ability to affect decisions. We take these differences seriously when redressing the absence of voices in all of our structures.
Representing is more than the mere casting of votes, this is all the more true for us as a community. The Jewish community is not a geographic entity with defined borders. This reality complicates the way in which we define our voices and represent one another. Whether I like it or not I live in Cape Town and Patricia de Lille is my mayor, Whether I like it or not I live in South Africa and Jacob Zuma is my president. But in the community, we define our boundaries through listening to and respecting one another.
Recently we hosted a panel on ‘Advancing Leadership: Women within the community’ to mark the end of Women’s Month. Back in June, when our team decided on this path we thought of the poet Margaret Atwood’s line: “We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.”
This reality is simply not good enough, and that’s before we look at race, privilege and class opportunity. If justice is to have a place in our worlds, we are the ones who have to fight for it.
The arch of history is long let us hope that it bends towards justice.