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SAFE SPACES – THE FINAL FRONTIER

by Jewish Report | Nov 19, 2013

A recent article by journalist Rebecca Davis in the Daily Maverick reports that Jon Qwelane, South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda, is currently launching a challenge to the Equality Act in the South Gauteng High Court. Qwelane was found guilty of hate speech for his article “Call me names, gay's not okay" – published in the Sunday Sun in July 2008.

Qwelane’s lawyer intends to argue that the Equality Act’s definition of hate speech has to match the one in the Bill of Rights, where South Africans’ freedom of expression is protected, but not when it amounts to “propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence, or advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.  Davis notes that “Much will come down to that last bit: whether Qwelane’s words can be said to have really constituted “incitement to cause harm”.

At our Censor/Tivity Conference last year, the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies dealt precisely with the tension between freedom of expression and hate speech. There is, however, a vast, cosmological difference between what the law allows and what a commitment to preserving human dignity should require. Our “Safe Spaces” theme of our recent Conference held in October this year explored the latter.

We are told reliably that the universe is constantly expanding. Concomitant with that physical reality, we also live in a world where human vision is expanding at an exponential rate. Ideas grow. Imaginations soar. Possibilities proliferate. That should be the rhythm of the human spirit and often it is.

However, as our reach and influence increases externally, via the infinitely expanding web of social media and the tensile tentacles of technology, so to some extent, our minds ironically (and perhaps necessarily) shrink back from the infinite, like a sea anemone that is touched.

The more the mind knows, and the more the eye sees, so the more one has to fear. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge, they felt naked and exposed. That is the undeniable insecurity of the modern reality. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. The global village has, to some extent, raised a generation of human beings who feel naked and exposed. A generation of alienation. A generation of disconnection. A generation of confusion. The consequences of this has been a reversal of the metaphysical, magical and musical cadence of life. There has been a tendency towards contraction,  self-protection and insulation.

This insecurity in the limitlessness of our world has sadly led to a natural desire to lash out at ‘the other’. There is an increasing inability to accept difference, or rather a fear that such difference will lead to the destruction and dissolution of the values we hold dear.

South Africa is no stranger to this unfortunate primal rhythm of fear and neither is the Jewish community.

And yet, our Jewish tradition is replete with difference.  From the disagreements within Talmudic hashkafot (world views), to the deep division of opinion amongst Jewish philosophers in the period of the Rishonim, to the gap between rationalists and Kabbalists and between Hassidism and Mitnagdim – all of that has contributed to the diversity of thought which exists within our tradition and has always existed. So although modernity has thrown up new challenges, dealing with difference in thinking and how to deal with those who think differently should be nothing new.

The following blog posting from Crown Heights Info (an online forum for members of that very religious, largely Chassidic community) speaks so powerfully to this concept.

“The first century rabbis who typify the Talmud’s rich culture of debate are Hillel and Shammai, two opposing schools of Jewish thought. These schools of thought debate everything from ethics to interpretations of ritual practice. The dispute that typifies the example of resorting to violent demagoguery is the biblical story of Korach who contested Moses’s leadership but did so not for the sake of seeking the truth and engaging in meaningful dialogue but for the sake of attaining power and control over the people of Israel. For this reason the Talmud explains that the debates of Hillel and Shammai’s schools of thought will endure but the debates of Korach and his faction will not endure.

Through encouraging different opinions, the Haredi will go much further in preserving their way of life and enhancing their communities — and start to live consistent with Judaism’s rich culture of debate.”

The issue facing us as the South African Jewish community is not agreement, or tolerance, or even this buzz word of diversity. It is about learning how we can create the the space in which we can engage with our differences and with each other. Safety is the oxygen that will allow us to speak our truth, acknowledge our prejudices and to expand our vision.

And this has nothing to do with the value of pluralism, which is not necessarily one we all share. The following extract from an article by an Orthodox Rabbi from Maryland appeared in The New York Jewish Week in February this year and exemplifies what I think we should be trying to create.

“However, while religious pluralism may sound good in theory, as is the case with most such popular slogans it is shallow, poorly reasoned idea and most importantly, a destructive force in the Jewish community.

Notwithstanding the provocative opinion that I have shared here, nothing that I have stated above should take away from my healthy respect and love for all of my fellow Jews, however they identify themselves and as wrong (or right) as they may be. Such an attitude is indeed the imperative of our shared history and core values.”   

It is not about pluralism. It is purely about acknowledging the dignity of the other.

What did it take for Nelson Mandela to sit in the same room as his jailers? Or for Rabin to shake hands with Arafat? These are some of the themes that we explored at our ‘Safe Spaces’ Conference.

We live in the I generation. And in protecting the I, the WE can get lost.

Ubuntu is not about the law, I would suggest to Mr Qwelane. It is about the flaw. The flaw in the human condition that leads us to want to vilify others in order to justify ourselves.

Our community needs to work harder to create the atmosphere in which ideas proliferate but personal character assassinations cease. The idealist in me says that it must be possible to create a space that feels safe for disparate groups of people, without making the fringes the dominant narrative or allowing the majority view to drown out those on the margins who have something to say.

 

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