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A good day for an argument

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Voices

My parents were married for 55 years, and I’m certain that not one of the 20 075 days that they were together was a day without argument. So intrinsic this was to their relationship, one of the main reasons that my father forced my mother to go for medical tests that would discover that she was ill was the fact that she wasn’t fighting with him nearly as much as she should have been. Agreement with him meant that something was seriously wrong.

Meals in our home were never the candle-lit kind. Discussions were never settled with, “to each their own” and a “please pass the salt”. My father would remain unsettled until he was summoned into the kitchen for a dressing down (that we all could hear), after which he would return, somewhat sheepish, but content nevertheless.

I come from a long tradition of robust debate. As Jews, we all do. We interpret, we argue, we “prove”, and we extrapolate. The Talmud isn’t a law book. It was an attempt to “settle” the Mishna, but in fact has allowed us to continue to wrestle with the concepts that ultimately define who we are. Maimonides, while living in Egypt, wrote and published the Mishneh Torah, which was an attempt to combine religious law and philosophy and serve as a code of laws that teaches as well as prescribes conduct. As magnificent as the work was and is, initially it encountered tremendous backlash, not because of inaccuracy but simply because it had the potential to shut down debate. A sign of terminal illness.

Criticism can be an important, albeit painful, part of growth. The ability to take on board relevant comments while rejecting those which are not is a challenging but ultimately critical factor in our development.

Which is why I’m perplexed by the mounting pressure not to criticise, not to debate, and not to “undermine” when it comes to the government, the handling of the COVID-19 crises, and the vaccine rollout. In the past week, there has been increasing criticism, not of the issues but of criticism itself.

I know the pressure I have come under not to “rock the boat”, to “be grateful”, and not to “undermine” the government’s efforts. I have been labelled as attention seeking and scurrilous, amongst other things, because I have done so. And whereas, given my family background, it takes more than a few barbs to offend me, it nevertheless does perplex me. Comment, criticism, and debate are important. There will be times when I will get it right, sometimes only partially so, and sometimes I will get it wrong. But I won’t stop commenting because it makes anyone uncomfortable.

I’m certain that I’m not the only one facing pressure to be silent. And I’m certain that buckling to this pressure won’t serve us. Not as a country, community, or personally.

Social media might have confused argument with insult. And whereas there’s very little justification for disrespect, there’s almost no argument for silence and blanket acquiescence.

That’s our legacy. And it’s one worth defending.

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Voices

To a sweet, unsticky, New Year

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I hate honey. I might be a blasphemer of note for even thinking such a thing, but “living my truth” means being honest. And honestly, I hate honey. Seriously hate honey. I hate the stickiness, the sweetness, and the fact that I’m judged for not wanting to douse every consumable, edible item in sweet syrupiness.

And if that makes me the Grinch of Rosh Hashanah, then so be it. But with the unburdening comes the immense relief that at last, I’m no longer obliged to pretend.

I remember that back in the day, we simply ate apples dipped in honey on both the first and second nights of Rosh Hashanah. Those were simple times. It was measured and sensible, and it was contained.

Back in my day, honey knew its place. It belonged on apples and maybe in a “tzimmes” dish that my grandmother would make and that my mother would burn in error year after year after year after year.

There was nothing sweet about the argument that followed, especially when my mother raised the defence that it happened only because my grandmother insisted on using “cheap pots”.

It was safe back then. But then whilst I was busy growing up and not paying attention, the honey custom found its way to the challah as well.

What began with apples quickly spread (as honey does) to challah until before we knew it, we were lathering it over everything all the way until the end of Sukkoth. I’m genuinely perplexed.

However, by that time (the end of Sukkot), we will have repented. We will have fasted. We will have endured hours and countless sermons along with empty WhatsApp messages and the uncertainty about responding to them. Surely, we have suffered enough without needing to shower every time we sit down to a meal.

I have even heard stories of young couples who substitute honey for salt for the entire first year of marriage. Because nothing screams love and devotion like growing obese together – or injecting each other with insulin.

I’m concerned that we might have lost the plot. We live in an age of excess, and one where measure and restraint isn’t easy. If we have money, we want more, if we have social media followers, we need more. We need more time, more attention, more food, and more everything.

And it now appears that when it comes to symbols, we’re no different. Symbolism is good. And powerful. And meaningful. Until we take it so far, it makes us nauseous.

Perhaps the need to make everything stupidly sweet is more a reflection of our anxiety. We live in a world and at a time where the future is scary and worrisome. There’s very little that we know for sure. And maybe at some deeper level, we think that the little bit of honey and sweetness that we add to something might be the very thing that makes all the difference. Perhaps it will. I’m just not convinced.

I’m not a heretic. Or at least I don’t think I’m one. And of course, I want a sweet year. I just don’t necessarily want a sticky one. Shana tova!

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Voices

Make Us Count 2021

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After several weeks of uncertainty, it has been confirmed that this year’s municipal elections will be going ahead on the slightly later date of 1 November. The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is now hard at work putting together its flagship “Make Us Count” (MUC) pre-election education and engagement campaign, something we have been running since the 2009 national and provincial elections.

As with previous campaigns, MUC kicked off with a voter-registration drive. We have publicised details about the upcoming voter-registration weekend on 18 to 19 October, as well as online registration. I urge everyone, particularly first-time voters, to check that they are on the roll and that their details are correct. In addition to first-time voters, those already on the roll whose details might have changed also need to visit the relevant IEC (Independent Electoral Commission) registration station to ensure that their information is up to date come polling day. For more details, see our website: https://www.sajbd.org/.

A highlight of previous MUC initiatives has been putting together an interfaith election-observer team to monitor proceedings at polling stations throughout the country. In addition to observing the voting to ensure that everything is fair and above board, the team assists the IEC to, among others, supervise the delivery of ballot boxes and open the polls, helping to resolve problems at polling stations and ensuring that counting begins on time. MUC has applied to the IEC for accreditation to once again run this highly successful project, which apart from the practical assistance it provides to election officials is an inspiring bridge-building experience in which South Africans of widely differing backgrounds come together to contribute to our country’s democratic process. For more information and to register to be part of this unique community initiative, sign up at https://t.co/bglH3yNJaA or contact makeuscountsa@gmail.com.

Another important plank of MUC is to make our community more aware of the nitty-gritty issues that the various political parties are dealing with, and their policies in regard to them. One of the ways we do this is by hosting “Great Debates” between representatives of the main competing parties. Gauteng’s Great Debate will take place on 6 October, and I’m pleased to report that well-known journalist and author Mandy Wiener, who did such a superb job on previous occasions, will again be moderating. The Cape Board will host its debate on ENCA on 10 October, while KwaZulu-Natal was finalising the date for its event at the time of writing.

On 12 October, the SAJBD will also be hosting a “Navigating the Elections” webinar to better inform people what the elections are about, how they are likely to unfold, and their significance for the country as a whole. It will feature a panel of top political analysts hosted by eminent political commentator Stephen Grootes and comprising Wayne Sussman, Ralph Mathekga, and Nompumelelo Runji. We hope you will join us for what promises to be an interesting and stimulating discussion as well as for the other MUC that will be taking place.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00

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Voices

Fortune spent on anti-Israel adverts, but no money for salaries

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It’s worth pondering how unpaid African National Congress (ANC) employees feel about the organisation allocating resources to massive billboards decrying Israel. ANC policy aside, it must be frustrating to see both the effort and cost that the organisation has invested while unable to pay its staff. Grand gestures are all good and well, but it can’t taste good on an empty stomach.

Over the weekend, the ANC resorted to a crowdfunding initiative to assist it in the payment of employees who haven’t yet received their salaries. In doing so, it shared a poster on a number of social-media platforms with banking details, asking ordinary members of the public and ANC supporters to make contributions to a Nedbank account.

It went swimmingly, apparently, with one of the organisers saying, “The public response was very positive, the masses have responded positively.” I can confirm that my response was also more positive than anything else. Positively gobsmacked. Positively outraged. Positively tickled. And positively horrified. I was also positive that this couldn’t be real, and that the ANC or someone with a fantastic flair for creative finance was pulling our proverbial leg.

Only, the situation is hardly funny. The ANC, South Africa’s ruling party, is unable to pay its staff. Unable to meet the most basic commitment that it has made to the people it employs. That isn’t a laughing matter. People who have worked have every right to be paid. The fact that it’s unable to do so speaks volumes not only about its lack of responsibility and care, but also about its financial incompetence. It’s also no surprise, given the state of the nation, the state of ANC municipalities, and the economy under its watch.

What seems to drive the ANC is grandstanding and its desire to showcase itself as some sort of moral bastion even though its reputation today is more synonymous with corruption than anything else.

“End Israeli Apartheid” screams the ANC billboard that probably costs a number of salaries per month. There are, as a matter of interest, two ANC anti-billboards. One in Jabulani and one on the East Rand. That the “apartheid” label has unfairly been used is neither here nor there. Nor is it here or there that women in Afghanistan are living in fear of their lives, that Christians are persecuted across the Middle East, or that Iran is hanging gay people. It also matters not at all to the ANC that Muslims are being herded into concentration camps in China, and that its friends, the Cubans, have systematically deprived their people of rights.

What matters to the ANC is popularism and point scoring. Even if it comes at the expense of its own employees, and at the expense of its own people – Jews and Christians alike – who are supportive of Israel.

The fact that the ANC had to turn to crowdfunding to raise money to pay salaries is embarrassing. But more so is the fact that there are those who throw good money after bad, and supported it.

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