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Do we have different standards for ‘others’?

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Voices

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.

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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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