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Op-eds

Let’s not lose sight of who we are and what we bring

  • Howard Feldman 2018
A few years ago, my son Zac was elected chairperson of SAUJS (the South African Union of Jewish Students) at Wits University. He had just returned from a year in a yeshiva in Israel, and was determined to change the world for the good. Beginning with Wits campus.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jun 28, 2018

He was ambitious and passionate (in the wonderful way that 19-year-olds are), and I recall so clearly trying to moderate his plans so that he could achieve some of his goals.

He needed to tackle them one by one with the final picture in mind. Whereas I don’t remember all the details, I do know they included the creation of a Jewish student learning centre (open to all religions), shiurim (lectures), and prayer services.

He wanted to improve the quality of kosher food on campus, and make Jewish students proud of their identity.

As an Orthodox and committed Jew, Zac is a Zionist. But his love for Israel is not what drives him.

And yet, he spent the year defending Israel, negotiating so-called Israel Apartheid Week with the university leadership, and trying to make sure that Jewish students were not hounded off campus.

There was little time for anything else. He defended Israel successfully that year, and I was proud of him. But he didn’t achieve what he wanted in other areas.

Zac’s story is the story of the Jewish community in South Africa.

Somewhere along the way, South African Jews have been narrowed into a very limited band of what it means to be a Jew. We could have been focussing on the incredible depth and magnificence of a rich tradition. We also could have been celebrating what it is that Jews have to offer South Africa and, indeed, the world. However, instead of being allowed to engage and debate national key points, Jews have been reduced to being defenders of Israel, victims of anti-Semitism, and social media warriors.

And it is our fault for allowing this to happen.

It is not necessarily an easy dynamic to change. It would be simple to suggest that the Israeli Embassy and Zionist Federation take on and own the responsibility of defending Israel. We could suggest that the Chief Rabbi’s office focus on Jewish life in South Africa, and that each community organisation fulfil the mandate it was created to fulfil.

But it is more complicated than that, and the reality is that with the level of hatred and anti-Semitism prevalent on social media, that might be a luxury we can ill afford.

What we can do is make sure that we don’t lose sight of what it means to be a Jew. That means that we need to remember what Jews have contributed to South Africa, and what we are able to contribute.

It means appreciating our own faith in all its magnificence, and what it has to offer. And, to remember that no matter how many times we are told that we are all racists, that we don’t care about South Africa, and that we all supported apartheid – it’s not true. The truth is that indeed, like any other group, there are those Jews who supported apartheid, there are those who didn’t contribute to the struggle, and there are those who remain racist.

But there are also those who fought and gave their lives to achieve democracy. There are those who recoil against racism, and who each day assist in the fight against poverty and the social ills of the country.

It is imperative that, unlike Zac at 19, we aren’t distracted by those who constantly attack us. Our mission is to elevate ourselves and our environment, and to carry out the task of Tikkun Olam – making the world a better place.

I believe it is imperative that as Jewish South Africans, we don’t allow ourselves to be reduced to the one-dimensional image we are told we are. As difficult as that might be.

 

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