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Op-eds

The answer to Jewish anxiety? Better leadership

  • Howard Feldman 2018
We grew up insecure. I recall so clearly the conversations that my parents had when we were children. Their interactions were coded so that we wouldn’t understand what it was they were talking about. But we did understand, and we knew that many of their friends were leaving and that we had chosen to stay.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jun 07, 2018

Our present and our grandparents’ past mixed dangerously, and I am uncertain if, “Your education is the only thing that you can take with you,” referred to their history or our future. But it added yet another layer to the anxiety that is embedded into the DNA of each Jew and into the community itself.

“I don’t know.” Is the inadequate answer that I give to the question I am asked more than once each day. Whether there is a future for South African Jews, given the current anti-Israel sentiment, is not an answer that I am able to provide. What I do know is that the frequency with which I am asked for an opinion on this issue reflects a community in crises.

The ANC’s uneven and obsessive focus on Israel is disconcerting to say the least. Add its apparent willingness to embrace blatantly false information with regard to the situation in the Middle East, and one becomes only more concerned.

Threat of an embassy downgrade, hyperbolic and emotionally peppered language and photos of politicians embracing anything Palestinian all create the sense of isolation and alienation that results in tremendous anxiety for South African Jews.

Because Jews know what begins as being anti-Israel, ends with anti-Semitism.

Sadly, it seems that we are way past that. The ANC government has taken sides. And we are not on it.

I don’t blame South Africans. Anyone who is not aware of the facts on the ground in Israel, and who receives one repeated narrative that equates Zionism with racism will reach the same conclusion: Jews are racists. Any decent person who is told over and over again that Israel is murdering babies and carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide would understandably feel hatred for those who perpetrate this.

Anyone who is shown photos of Hector Pieterson participating in the Soweto uprising alongside a photo of a Palestinian youth at the so-called Great March of Return will identify with the struggle of the Palestinians and not with Israelis who face an existential threat.

Social media is where most of the battle takes place. And supporters of Israel are not winning. To the contrary. The numbers are imbalanced – as it is with voters. And supporters of Israel are under constant attack. It is as relentless as it is evil. And the attackers are not curtailed by fact.

The anxiety of the community is not only political. The increased cost of living and resultant financial strain is not to be underestimated. Tuition, kosher food, and lifestyle all compound the feeling of panic. So too does the insecurity of the community about the Beth Din and Kashrut bodies. South African Jews used to feel pride in these institutions. Now there is only ambiguity and uncertainty. Even some anger.

It doesn’t take an expert to understand that vulnerable people seek guidance and reassurance. They seek meaning and they seek spirituality. This is the time for religious community leaders to step forward (or up) and to provide that which is needed. It is in fact incumbent on them to do so.

The “this week’s Parsha” sermon in shul on a Friday night is acceptable when we can focus on it, but when anxiety about our future and the future of our children is overwhelming, they can be assured that no one is listening. Not unless it is a segue to something relevant.

The community requires spiritual guidance.

I don’t know if there is a future for Jews in South Africa. I do know that Jews are as entitled to one as any other South African. I do know that South Africans are good people, and I don’t believe that the majority of the country is anti-Semitic. I know that Jews in South Africa have so much to contribute for the betterment of the country. I know that we need to focus on our spiritual growth, and that if we lose sight of that which makes us Jews, we don’t stand a chance. I know that we need our leadership to remind us of that.

I also know that we have just sold our house and bought another, and feel blessed to live in the community and the country that we do. I also know that we are not planning on going anywhere. But I have no idea if that answers the question.

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