Some mornings I walk into work and I think, “How did I get here?!”
I work in the Samson Centre, the hub of Cape Town’s communal Jewish organisations. Louise greets me with her usual cheeriness and I’m reminded of her sitting at reception at the old building in Leeuwen Street that these organisations used to be in, a million years ago.
That was the last time I had this much to do with the organised Jewish community. Up until 1997, having grown up in the Progressive community, I was deeply engaged through my involvement in Netzer. Many an hour was spent in the dank, windowless basement that the youth movements occupied in that building. We loved it. It shaped our personalities, our ideals and our direction in life. Judaism and Zionism expressed through our movements that is, not the basement.
I went on Shnat, Netzer’s gap year programme in Israel where we were taught about and experienced daily existence in Israel. I was instilled with a love for modern day Israel that only a youth movement can create. Soulful, questioning, but committed. Though ‘apolitical’ in ideology, Netzer bred young Diaspora Zionists who studied the past and wanted to work for a respectful, peace-filled future for all people in the region. We believed our values based on Tikkun Olam demanded a state of Israel that was actively engaged in creating peace with its neighbours and the Palestinians.
Fast-forward almost fifteen years. Youth movement days well behind me, I’ve lived, worked and studied in the UK, Australia and most recently Thailand, before returning home to Cape Town, just over a year ago. My youthful Zionism dimmed as I grew less unconditionally supportive of Israel’s policies and generally influenced by global issues. And yet, my wanderings and ‘world view’ have led me right back to where I began. Today, I have the best job! It combines all of my skills, experience and desired areas of growth. I work in design and communications, upgrading the branding and visual communications of my organisation and at the same time I’m tasked with shaping social development programmes and the way in which the Jewish community engages with transforming our country. Sounds pretty good, right? I think so.
Aspects of identity
Socially, many of my friends here aren’t Jewish. I went to Westerford, and because of it many of my peers are now active left-wing, highly educated individuals… many of whom are often quite vocally not so pro-Israel. I was surprised to find that my job in the Jewish community meant it was assumed I was an ardent right-wing Zionist by many of these people. Every time someone asks me what I do, I seem to end up in an intense discussion about Israel and where I stand. An odd position to find myself in, following a decade and a half of being not only outside of South Africa, but outside of the Israel discussion. It also struck me that this was what I was identified as even though my job was about transformation and development in South Africa.
I’ve since learnt how intense and well-funded the Israel-Palestinian debate is here; and how the anti-Israel rhetoric has adopted strategically-associated language to connect Israel with the evils of South Africa’s own political past. I’ve been shocked, enraged, dismayed and confused by a glint of antisemitism I’ve caught sight of in status updates and infographics posted by many people I know and respect. I’ve even had my views on Israel called into question by a romantic interest (yes, I was dating someone ‘out of the faith’ — any reasonable suggestions of an awesome Jewish guy will of course be happily considered). Imagine my surprise when I realised he saw me as too Zionist to date!
What I find most disturbing though is how this situation came to be. How did our voices become so hushed that we lost our rich tradition of open debate and dialogue? Why is it so often the only loud Jewish voices are reactionary and negative, claiming to speak for all? Where are the spaces within our community and in broader South African society in which to safely discuss and engage as Jews and as South Africans?
I feel like we need a ‘take back the struggle’ campaign like the DA’s been running. South African Jews were not silent during apartheid, just as they are not silent or inactive today in creating social change. We are not a homogenous community in our religious practices, our expressions of Judaism or our attitudes on Israel. This makes us neither anti-Zionist nor disloyal to the Jewish state and our people. It makes us Jews! What happened to four Jews, forty opinions!?
I am so happy to have found my place back in South Africa and in the Jewish community. My Jewish and Zionist identity is firm, but not hard- edged and I truly believe it is enabling me to do work of which I am proud. Like this column ‘Safe Spaces’, we are creating, nurturing and holding a space for the principles on which I was brought up on, to thrive. Don’t just watch this space, come inside, join us and make your voice heard!