Do we have different standards for ‘others’?
On 24 February, an article appeared in The Times of Israel claiming that 11 ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) had tested positive for COVID-19 on landing in Israel.
More concerning was the fact that a passenger on board had claimed to have overheard some of the young men “boasting” that they had not taken a COVID-19 test but had simply managed to get a negative result. The passenger reported this to the authorities, who are investigating the claim.
After recounting the story on my morning show, I was challenged by a friend who questioned why I had chosen to use the identity of the group. Would I have used a group description to describe the passengers if they were modern Orthodox, Reform, or simply irreligious Jews? Would I have dared, he asked, to use the term Muslim (if they were) or any other description that he knew I wouldn’t use if it wasn’t relevant to the story.
He’s right of course. The identity isn’t at all important in this case.
Earlier in the week, I had also spoken about two incidents of antisemitism on NBC television in the United States. Listeners agreed that the episode of Saturday Night Live where the host suggested that Israel was providing a vaccine only to Jews was antisemitic. They also agreed that a scene from a show called Nurses, where it was implied that Jews wouldn’t accept a transplant from an Arab or a woman was also problematic. But that scene showcased Haredim, and some listeners felt that “they” had brought this type of thing on themselves as a result of their behaviour.
To me, it was no different to suggesting that a rape victim was “asking for it” or was to blame, but so entrenched was the thinking, I was unable to get my point across.
It was clearly acceptable to entertain bias against the ultra-Orthodox.
I’m concerned that my own reference in the case of the travellers, as well as my listeners’ reaction to the episode of Nurses reflect an internalised bias. One that cannot be ignored.
I believe very strongly that observant Jews should themselves demand to be held to a higher standard. And while there is no doubt that there has been problematic and outright reprehensible behaviour in some communities within the ultra-Orthodox fold, I’m deeply troubled that we are moving fast towards a hatred of “others” within our own community. And that we don’t even realise it.
We need to check our own behaviour.
Are we as outraged by the shenanigans at the Rage Festival that triggered the new variant and the second wave as we are by a shul that stayed open when it should have closed?
Are we as infuriated by secular Jews flying home from holiday with COVID-19 as we are by a wedding that shouldn’t have taken place? Are we quick to shake our heads when Haredim attend funerals in Jerusalem but justify gatherings in Tel Aviv because the right to protest is sacrosanct?
It begins with a recognition that there is bias. It begins with the acceptance that we are quicker to condemn an identifiable group. And it begins with treating our own with the respect that we would undoubtedly give to others.
It begins with me.
Yom Hashoah 2021 shows our ability to adapt
When the country went into lockdown in March last year, it was obvious that the traditional, countrywide Yom Hashoah ceremonies couldn’t be held, and that the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) would have to come up with an alternative way of marking this very important day on the communal calendar. It was decided to organise a single national online ceremony in which all regions would participate. The Holocaust centres in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg were an essential part of the whole process, and here, we had the advantage that our national president, Mary Kluk, who headed up the national planning committee, was also the director of the Durban Holocaust Centre.
Far from being a stop-gap, second-best alternative to the traditional in-person gatherings, the first-ever united Virtual Yom Hashoah ceremony was a great success. More than 17 000 people (many overseas) participated, and the feedback was extremely positive. I’m happy to report that this year’s online ceremony was even more successful, with 40 414 people viewing the presentation to date. We have received fulsome praise from across the board for an event variously described as moving, profound, dignified, and forward-looking, as well as very well put together. Once again, all praise is due to Mary and her committee, to our professional staff, and perhaps above all to the survivors, around whose testimonies and messages for the future the entire event was organised.
Another positive lesson we can take from all this is how well our community has been able to adapt to the extraordinary circumstances it has found itself in over the past year and more. Taking full advantage of the many opportunities offered by the online communications revolution, we have been able to ensure not only the continuation of normal communal activities, but if anything, an improvement in their quality and reach. It bodes well for our ability to meet and overcome whatever future challenges our community will face.
More underhanded malice from BDS
At a time when South Africans perhaps more than ever need to work together in addressing the many urgent issues confronting our society, certain fringe groups continue to push radical ideological agendas at the expense of the country as a whole. They include the various BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions)-oriented groups, which never lose an opportunity to sow conflict and division in order to spread hatred against Israel and its supporters. This week, we saw yet another instance of this when the South African BDS Coalition came out with a demand that a Jewish candidate for appointment to the Constitutional Court be rejected because of his association with the SAJBD. As the Board is the elected representative of South African Jewry, and since the vast majority of Jews roundly reject the rabidly anti-Israel BDS ideology, this is tantamount to calling for Jews to be excluded from public office in South Africa.
In our response, we criticised this self-evidently bigoted, discriminatory, and totalitarian initiative. We are nevertheless confident that all those genuinely committed to our country’s democratic, non-racial values will reject with contempt this latest attempt by BDS to sow division and hatred in our society.
- Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM every Friday, from 12:00 to 13:00.
Vaccination needs reality infusion
I’m generally enthusiastic about whatever it is that I do. I’m either putting on weight or losing it. I’m never maintaining it. I’m either building up in order to run 10km or I’m at risk of suffering from bed sores. I either read two books a week, or I finish Netflix. A balanced, measured, healthy approach might be an aspiration, in theory.
But I’m as unlikely to achieve balance as I am to become an astronaut.
Which makes my current approach to events in South Africa challenging for me. I’m inherently positive. I prefer to live surrounded by joy and humour, and actively remove negativity from my universe. So much so, that I wrote a book called Smile Dammit!, which is a personal exploration into learned optimism.
And yet, repeatedly over the past few weeks, I have been accused of being “too negative” and “unhelpful” as a result of my predictions regarding the COVID-19 vaccine roll out.
In early February, I wrote an article, “Doomed to failure”, in which I explained why the strategy was unlikely to succeed. In essence, my concern was:
- Few trust the process or the government. We tried to trust. When COVID-19 hit South Africa, we believed the president when he said that there would be no stealing and looting of funds. Because he looked sincere and tired, it meant that he meant it. Only he didn’t. We bought into it for a while. But not anymore.
- Lack of successful examples. Try as we might, it’s impossible to find an example to use. Eskom, South African Airways, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the post office, are some failures. Try as they might, it’s virtually impossible to find an African National Congress success story.
- Simply too big a job. It’s not all about the money. It’s a massive job that requires significant planning, logistics, and buy in.
The answer, I suggested, was simple. Get everyone involved. Open up negotiation and acquisition of the vaccines to those who know the business. The private hospital groups, the pharmacies, doctors, and medical aids. Share the load, ease the burden, and let South Africans receive the vaccine through whichever channel they can get it. Regulate it, and demand a one-for-one or even one-for-two rule, in which for each vaccine gained by the private sector, one or two are required for the more vulnerable.
Since I wrote that article, less than 300 000 people have received the jab.
It’s not that I’m attracted to negativity. On the contrary, I believe in seeing the positive in a situation. I believe in the joy of the moment, of the magnificence in minutiae. Of the celebration of each day that brings with the dawn infinite possibility and opportunity.
But delusion optimism can be dangerous if it means not holding government to account and pretending that its version of events is acceptable.
Less than 300 000 South Africans vaccinated is nothing to be proud of. And we cannot pretend that it is.
I haven’t turned towards negativity. I haven’t embraced pessimism. Not by any means. But I also cannot pretend that the vaccine vial is half full when there isn’t one.
Join us for Yom Hashoah
This Friday at 12:00, our community comes together to observe Yom Hashoah, which once again will take the form of a single, united ceremony for the entire country. If you read this in time, join us on this solemn day of remembrance, click on the relevant link on the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ (SAJBD’s) Facebook site.
Three quarters of a century later, only a handful of survivors remain in South Africa, making their testimony even more important. Accordingly, the emphasis this year will be on passing the torch of remembrance to the next generation. We are privileged to be able to present addresses by six survivors from South Africa, Poland, Canada, and Mauritius. Each presentation will focus on a particular theme of the Shoah. Their message will be directed specifically at our youth with a view to strengthening the sacred duty of perpetuating remembrance and education about the Shoah into the future. The ceremony will also include traditional Yom Hashoah events such as reading the names of Holocaust victims (commencing just before the main event at 11:50), the lighting of the memorial candles, and the singing of the Partisan’s Song and Ani Ma’amin.
Much planning has gone into ensuring that this year’s single national ceremony is as inclusive as possible. Participants will include representatives from Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, East London, and Port Elizabeth, as well as Mauritius. I thank all those involved in putting this event together, in particular our national president, Mary Kluk; Tali Nates; and Heather Blumenthal, and the three Holocaust & Genocide Centres in Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town.
Lessons for South Africa from Freedom Seder
We have had a gratifyingly enthusiastic response to our virtual Passover Freedom Seder, held on 24 March, the Wednesday evening just before Pesach. Our guests from government, political parties, diplomats, university leadership, and media were given a “Pesach box” beforehand, including a Haggadah specially adapted for the occasion. For our keynote speaker, we were honoured to have former cabinet minister and provincial leader Mathews Phosa, who spoke about life under apartheid, his time in exile, and campaigning for human rights and non-racism. Afterwards, Investec Chief Executive Fani Titi reflected on 27 years of democracy in South Africa, while other participants comprising SAJBD leaders from the three main regions spoke about basic themes of the seder, charity, education, diversity, and the importance of learning from the past.
The event concluded with Rabbi Dovid Hazdan reflecting on lessons of human rights from the Pesach story. Just prior to the event, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn spoke at the World Jewish Congress Model Seder, sharing the concept of the South African Freedom Seder with it.
I commend Wendy and her team for putting together this very successful evening in spite of the short notice. It was an inspiring example of how our Jewish heritage can be used to share important lessons with our fellow South Africans and values relevant to our time and conditions.
- Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.
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