We shall overcome

Julian Resnick writes from Israel

For the first fifteen years of my life, I slept in the same bed in my childhood home at 1 Lourens Street, Somerset West. 

I remember my childhood bedroom, especially the curtains — a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry which describes the Norman invasion of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror. (In 2018 I traveled to Bayeux for the first time to prepare for a group I was taking to Normandy after a week in Berlin and saw the tapestry in Bayeux about 100 metres from my hotel called the Churchill, by the way. Go and see the tapestry. It is a joy to behold). I slept well in that bed. I do not recall any nightmares. There might have been, but none that leap out at me today. 

The fact that so many people around me were living a nightmare was just not something I was aware of during those first fifteen years. I slept well during apartheid. Neither in Hottentots Holland High School (just pause for a moment and consider the name of the school!!) nor in Paul Roos Gymnasium (my first two high schools) did apartheid feature as an evil we needed to confront. 

Even though the Group Areas Act had been passed in 1950, four years before I began sleeping in that bed, a few hundred meters down Lourens Street, just past the Catholic Church where Father Swan ministered to his flock, lived some of those people for whom life was a nightmare irrespective of which curtains they might have had in their bedrooms. 

Truth be told (as uncomfortable as it is to tell the truth sometimes), in our back yard, just metres from my bedroom with the copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, lived Katie and Piet and their three children, Martin, Elizabeth and Hendriena; Danie on his own, and Magdalene on her own. The ‘staff’.

We moved when I was fifteen and it was farewell to the Bayeux Tapestry and those childhood years, and things began to change in my life. Crucially, as I have written before, Habonim Dror came into my life; and with Habonim came songs which invited me into a new understanding of where I was growing up. One which neither Hottentots Holland nor Paul Roos offered me. I remember singing them, and slowly the nightmare I was a part of seeped into my mind.

There were many songs which I sang and loved. We sang Swing low, Sweet ChariotMichael Row the Boat AshoreThis Land is My LandWhere have all the Flowers GoneIf you miss me at the back of the bus… The list goes on and on. We listened to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Simon and Garfunkel and of course, Bob Dylan.

And of course, we sang the following words with intense feeling,

We Shall Overcome

We Shall Overcome

We shall overcome some day,

Because deep in my heart

I do believe,

We shall overcome some day.

On and on we sang, and then with great fervour at the top of our voices, our favourite verse:

Black and White together

Black and White together

Black and White together today.

Because deep in my heart

I do believe,

We shall overcome some day.

I moved to Cape Town at the beginning of 1971, joined National Youth Action in my matric year, was on the slopes of Table Mountain preparing a protest in the days leading up to the 10th anniversary of the Republic when the jets of the SAAF crashed into the mountainside, handed a petition demanding an inquiry into the death of Ahmed Timol to Koot Vorster (brother of John Vorster) outside a meeting of the Dutch Reformed Church Synod in the area of the Gardens in Cape Town, and took part in demonstrations outside St George’s Cathedral at the top of Adderley Street, which got me a free night in jail in a cell without any curtains, let alone a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Fast forward to 2023, just before Pesach, our Freedom Festival when Bobby Dylan, if he had ever gone to a Pesach Seder way back when in Duluth or in Hibbing Minnesota, might have developed his strong feelings about freedoms, both personal and societal, from this our Liberation Festival, our great Freedom Narrative, the time which more than any other in our ancient history helped define our ongoing commitments as a People to Liberty and Human Dignity. The Chag, which together with the inspirations of our ancient prophets inspired us to ‘Seek Justice and Pursue it’, which inspired Abraham Joshua Heschel to march with
Dr Martin Luther King (remember what he wrote describing the March from Selma to Montgomery: “Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”)

I write this in mid-March 2023 in Israel, my home for the past close-to-47-years. A different bedroom (still no Bayeux Tapestry curtains. In fact just shutters as we generally have in Israel).

For the past ten weeks I have been out on the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Bet Shemesh (I live near Bet Shemesh), protesting the proposed changes in the laws of my beloved Israel (I had to add in that line, because you need to know that this is my beloved home — do not believe for one single moment the lie that the protesters are anarchists, extreme left-wingers (not that being on the left should be an insult, but it has been used as an insult in recent times) or terrorists. 

Today, Israeli jets attacked targets in Syria destroying missiles being stored for potential attacks on us (apparently). I wondered whether the jets had been piloted by those members of the Likud party who have recently hurled insults at the pilots of the IAF suggesting that they should go to hell and that we can function without them. Just wondered…

I have been protesting, not as much as I should nor as I did back in the day in Cape Town in 1971, but truth be told, I was 17 then and am just short of 69 now, and that does make a bit of a difference.

I was protesting then as I saw the nightmare around me that deprived my fellow South Africans of their basic civil and human rights; and I am protesting now as I see a new regime in Israel preparing to do the same. Preparing to turn Israel into a country which will limit freedoms — which will turn gay people and women into second class citizens; which might limit access to parliamentary representation to those who are Zionists (as a fervent Zionist I still believe that those who do not accept my vision for Israel have a right to express their opinions, and have a right to the representation of those opinions in the Knesset);  which will turn us into something approximating a theocracy where the plurality of Jewish Identities will be limited.

As Haim Topol playing Tevye would have said, “Oy Vey!” (a great sign at last night’s protest in Bet Shemesh said ‘Undzer Shtetl Brent’).

Something ‘funny’ from the world I am a part of right now, before I wish you all Chag Sameach. I was shopping in the Kibbutz grocery store and came across a member who was once one of the teenagers I worked with back in the 1990s. She is now a mother of three children. She and her husband are Ashkenazim (‘Nu?’ you say). She told me that her son of around ten years old had a terrible argument with his friend from the kibbutz. Also around ten years old and the son of two other Ashkenazi parents (‘Nu?’ you say). The argument became really heated and insults began to fly back and forth. When his friend got really angry he hurled at him the most intense insult he could, living in Israel in March 2023 with this intense debate all around us. 

“You…. Ashkenazi!!!!,” he screamed at his friend. 

The two boys, aged ten years old, in Israel in 2023, both grandsons of people who came here from Poland, Germany and Lithuania.

Chag Sameach, and please remember that the crucial thing about Pesach is not checking for Chametz, but rather the values this great story of our People passed down to us.

Julian Resnick was born in Somerset West and grew up in Habonim Dror. He studied at UCT, and made Aliyah to 1976. He’s conducted numerous shlichuyot and educational missions on behalf of Israel, to Jewish communities in England and the USA. He works as a guide in Israel and around the world (wherever there is a Jewish story). He’s married to Orly, and they have three children and seven grandchildren and is a member of Kibbutz Tzora.

• Published in the April 2023 Edition – Click here to start reading.

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