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The Jewish Report Editorial

Being Jewish is a constitutional right

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In this country, we are fortunate enough to have religious freedom. It’s enshrined in an incredible Constitution. This is a big deal for us, and it ensures our right to freedom of religion, belief, and opinion.

This means that as Jews, Muslims, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, or Baha’i, we’re all entitled to follow our own religious beliefs, and those around us must enable us to do this freely. That is, as long as it doesn’t infringe on or harm others’ rights.

But when university students are scheduled to take important tests or assessments on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, our two holiest of holy days in the Jewish calendar, it’s undoubtedly incumbent on the university to give them the option of another day to write. Surely, the students shouldn’t have to just accept and deal with it or work around it. They certainly shouldn’t have to decide whether or not to observe their holy day because of an academic issue.

Surely, in respect for their religion, when they have specifically requested that alternative arrangements be made, they shouldn’t have to decide whether to write on Yom Kippur or simply lose the marks.

We may well be a minority religion in South Africa, but the Constitution gives us the right to practice our religion. And that means fasting and praying on Yom Kippur. Nobody should force us into a situation where we have to choose whether or not to fast or write an important test on Yom Kippur.

Our right to practice our religion is enshrined, but somehow Stellenbosch University didn’t think these rights were important enough, causing consternation among young Jewish students.

Somehow, those in authority over these tests simply didn’t believe it was important enough to make other plans for Jewish students.

Now, I have no idea if Stellenbosch University would make alternative plans for Muslim or Buddhist students, but I would hope that it would do so. I’m certainly not saying that it should make alternative arrangements only for Jewish students, that would be wrong.

I’m saying that it should accommodate all students’ religious beliefs because it’s a national right of every one of us to practice our religion, whatever that may be.

I’m not about to call this antisemitism because I don’t actually believe this to be the case, but it’s still unacceptable that a university – where young minds learn what’s right and wrong, and so much else – denies clear constitutional rights.

I know of a case recently at the University of the Witwatersrand, where a young observant Jewish student was scheduled to write a test on Friday afternoon. She was going away for the weekend and asked to be able to write earlier so she could get to where she was going before Shabbat began.

It was allowed, as long as she wasn’t able to speak to her classmates between them starting to write and her finishing. It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t made into something it wasn’t. It was simple, and enabled her to get to her destination before Shabbat.

However, those who were meant to write on the high holy days at Stellenbosch weren’t given any leniency in terms of writing on that day.

I do understand that those outside of our community may not understand why we cannot write anything on Yom Kippur and the high holy days. They may not know anything about our religion, and I am certainly not expecting them to study it. But when it’s clearly important to us and we can justify making these requests, it’s not too much to ask. We certainly can expect people to make allowances for us.

Considering that so many people around us don’t know much about Judaism and Jewish people, there’s certainly a lot of misinformation about us. While some see us as religious zealots or strange people who wear odd clothes and have seemingly bizarre rituals, others find their way to believing that whatever we do is bad.

Before you think that I’m paranoid or have developed a victim mentality over the high holidays, that isn’t what I mean. I just think that sometimes people make assumptions about us and our organisations without checking their facts. Or they listen to what ignorant people say about us and accept it as truth.

Could this be the case with Judge David Unterhalter and the second Judicial Services Commission grilling for Constitutional Court positions? I guess that’s being kind and lenient in terms of some of the questions aimed at him regarding the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

To be honest, from my scant knowledge of what went on, I’m not sure that Unterhalter wasn’t selected because he is Jewish. However, the kinds of questions put to him about his religious affiliations and working with the SAJBD show a total lack of knowledge about us.

It doesn’t bother me that people don’t know much about us – they don’t have to – but then don’t make ugly assumptions about what we stand for.

I don’t know much about a lot of religious groups, but I wouldn’t presume to believe any nonsense about them just because they are different. I would expect that others would treat us in the same way.

It’s the new year for us, however, and this means new beginnings. I’m hoping that from now on, the sun will shine on us.

Looking around, colourful flowers are blooming and the weather is glorious. Somehow, this makes me feel really hopeful for this new year.

I have a sense that in spite of everything that has happened and the situation we are in with COVID-19 and all that it has meant for us, things are going to get better.

I wish that for you, me, our community, and all we care about!

Shana Tova to you all and Shabbat Shalom!

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