Opinion piece: ‘Forces of justice’ — being Jewish in South Africa today

In 2002, whilst I was working for Cape Town Tourism, I went to the World Travel Market in London. Settling into my seat on the airplane, the girl next to me introduced herself. Her name was Nalah, she proudly proclaimed, and she was Palestinian. “What’s your background, Sheryl?”

There it was. The question. Who, or what, was I really? She knew I was South African but did she know I was Jewish? This was during the second Palestinian intifada, a time of suicide bombings and army airstrikes, and I’d heard enough shouting matches on Cape Talk to know I didn’t want to be accused of war crimes in the cramped seat of a 737. “My family’s from Eastern Europe,” I told her, and when she prodded for more, I countered with “Poland, Lithuania, who knows, it was a long time ago.” After a few minutes of ducking and weaving she saw I wasn’t going to play the game, and we both turned to the in-flight movie. Thankfully it wasn’t Munich.

Anyway that particular incident and my uncertain response gave rise to me asking myself why I could not say that I was Jewish with pride and in celebration, as I could, at last, say about being South African. I knew that I wanted being a Jewish South African to mean that I could shake the world, change it, improve it.

I realised then that my version of Judaism, was that I was doing Jewish as a South African as opposed to being Jewish. I observed all the high holidays, the life cycle events, the keeping and the observing and the active doing of Jewish. But, surely, I asked myself, these acts alone did not define what being Jewish in South Africa really meant? I didn’t just want to do Jewish, I wanted to be Jewish. I recall writing some of my thoughts down:

1. The be of being Jewish is in the way we actively struggle to make this a better country. We are ‘most Jewish’ when we serve in a soup kitchen in Khayelitsha, or help those who experience xenophobia, or when the Board makes statements on moral issues that then inspire us to participate in transforming this country.
2. How many South African Jews are frightened of really being Jewish in a country where the spectre of antisemitism makes many of us cautious of drawing attention to ourselves? But Shelby Steele has written about the romanticisation of victimhood, and warns against a ‘victim mentality’ in which “being a victim gives you a perverse sort of ‘status.’”

If we Jews are not to enjoy that kind of ‘perverse status’ then Judaism must be an affirmation rather than a negation, and we will need something to replace the centrality of our suffering.

3. The be of being Jewish in South Africa is in having a sense of Jewish purpose — a strong and positive reason to be Jewish. The ‘joy’ of being Jewish, not the ‘oy’ of being Jewish. We have to, or we will be nothing more than an ethnic group of collective kvetchers.

The next generation of Jewish South Africans needs something strong, young, self-assured, hip, horizon-stretching, risky and innovative; positive role models who have the courage to challenge the status quo with all its accepted wisdom. It will take people in our community willing to fund experimental programmes. It will take Jewish organisations willing to broaden their missions and re-evaluate their mandates. It will take partnerships we have not yet begun to imagine. It will take ‘idea people’ who don’t get shot down by naysayers. It will take honest discussions with wider and more diverse audiences, as we move stretch our own horizons.

I’ve already seen the seeds of this ‘Jewish renaissance’ in South Africa in Limmud; in the Jewish Outlook for gay and lesbian Jews; in outreach programmes, and in the egalitarian shul. In my opinion, only a Jewish renaissance in South Africa will give the next generation of Jews a shared sense of Jewish purpose.

4. From the very beginning of Jewish time, there have been insiders and outsiders. The banishment of Abraham’s son, Ishmael, and his mother Hagar, is an example. Another is the Rambam (Maimonides) who challenged the practice of Judaism during his time, and in so doing, forced change.

During Pesach we are taught, ‘Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this has little to do with us being Jewish in South Africa today. Well it is about us. It’s about the lines drawn in the South African Jewish community. It’s about Jews alienated, pushed out, the Hagars amongst us. Judaism can be very insular; it doesn’t happily bring in people who are different. Attempts to challenge the community are small and dispersed and might not be sustainable without a real force behind them. Success is dependent on the community’s willingness to debate its shifting identity, to broaden its boundaries and to create new content that celebrates diversity, inclusivity, tolerance and openness. It is the challenge that we need to face in order to maintain our viability and creativity. I acknowledge that we are starting to see the community becoming more actively involved in wider social issues in South Africa. There is a much greater consciousness and much greater outreach. But why we do not have frank and open discussions with a wider audience? Imagine reflecting on the Jewish experience with respect to poverty alleviation, respecting women, fostering entrepreneurship, assisting to implement more effective governance and the like?

5. We might ask ourselves: In what ways are we Jews forces of justice, not just for Jews but for all South Africans? Jews in South Africa should not be forced to choose between a loyalty to their own people and a loyalty to universal ideals. As Jews, we come from a great humanist tradition of justice and sympathy for the downtrodden. If we understand this heritage and use it to build a better future for all South Africans and people of this world, I believe there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.