Relearning how to be neighbourly

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By Glen Heneck

Take any serious moral or political quandary, and think about it for a minute or two.

Do it alone and try your best to be as rational, thorough and dispassionate as possible. Maybe write down the arguments for and against — the pros and cons, the costs and benefits — attempting, in so doing, to honour truth and honesty above loyalty and prejudice.

The place you end up will, inevitably, be shaped by your presuppositions, your habits of thought, your view of the world — but here’s the challenge: Are you willing to allow that the matter is complicated? Are you able to accept, on the basis of your assessment, that there are respectable counter-arguments and that it would be easily understandable were another person with a different vantage point to reach the opposite conclusion to yours?

Now it goes without saying that some choices really are ‘beyond the pale’ and that virtually every thinking person would recoil from going along with them. Hence the addition of the word ‘serious’ as a qualifier. What is so extraordinary about the current moment, however, and so frightening, is how pervasive the divisions are, and how extreme. There have always been zealots, and always will be, but it feels as though the greater majority of pundits, internationally, are now in that category. Which doesn’t augur well for any of us.

Politicians have never been renowned for high levels of thoughtfulness and common decency, but what is different today is that the supposed guardians of the public good have also fallen prey to hyperbole and hysteria.

Objectivity and fair-mindedness are no longer hallmarks of either the media industry or, more disconcertingly, of academia. Partisanship appears to be the order of the day – ethnic and religious on the right and ideological on the left — and the situation is greatly exacerbated by the rise in (entirely unconstrained) social media.

This is the milieu in which we are all living, and it’s unsurprising that what goes in the macrocosm applies also in the microcosm that is our community. There are only 14 000 Jews in Cape Town (and maybe 15 000 in the Western Cape) but we are divided by:
• religious affiliation
• class (in the Marxist sense)
• political opinions (notably regarding Israeli politics)
• socio-cultural preferences

There is no obvious reason why we shouldn’t be able to discuss all these issues respectfully and “for the sake of heaven”. As things stand though, there is a far greater likelihood that we’ll end up in debates that are intemperate and acrimonious, and that produces a lot more heat than light (as the saying goes). Everyone acknowledges the importance of tolerance, in our globalised but much-fractured world — but when it comes to real-life situations, we too readily betray this commitment and get on our (various) high horses.

We call what we’re doing “defence of principle” or “holding the moral line” or some variation on that theme, but all too often what we’re really doing is simple solidarity signalling. “I’m with Israel,” “I’m for the poor,” “I’m against Trump,” etc.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with taking sides. Our genes predispose us to do so, and so do our circumstances, often. What we need to learn to do though, or maybe re-learn, is how to express this reflex in a neighbourly way. How to practice Ubuntu. How to be a mensch. Just that. We’re all entitled to our beliefs, and preferences, but what we’ve got to stop doing is expressing contempt, or hostility, towards those who don’t share them.

The Board will be hosting public debates on a range of important topics over the course of 2021. Israel, homelessness, minority rights, taxation policy; we’ll find the best advocates and encourage them to air their views as robustly and expertly as they can.

Our frame of reference though — and no, this is not a fig-leaf for defending the status quo — is that these sessions should be pursued in a way that is conducive to increased understanding, tolerance and thoughtful compromise.

As for how one gets to move from supporter to crusader, from partial to fervent, from considered adherent to blind fanatic, that’s a matter for another day.

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website: www.capesajbd.org, Instagram, and Facebook page.

Published in the print edition of the December 2020/January 2021 issue.
Download the Dec/Jan issue PDF here.

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