The unbearable whiteness of being Jewish

  • Limmud4
“Being fully South African is [about] throwing in your lot, and making every effort to be a part of the country by integrating, not semigrating,” said Lael Bethlehem, the moderator of one of the most controversial panel discussions at Limmud in Johannesburg this past weekend.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Aug 10, 2018

The question under debate was, “Is it still possible for white people to occupy this space? Can they still contribute like they did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and can we see ourselves as true South Africans?

“This is a topic which involves us all, as we try to make sense of what it means to be white and Jewish, and how we can make a positive contribution to our country,” Bethlehem said.

Responding to her questions were Richard Poplak, author and journalist at Daily Maverick; Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, South African lawyer, public speaker, author, and advocate; and Marc Pozniak, the Chairperson of the Gauteng Jewish Board of Deputies.

“I see myself as an Orange Grove Jew,” said Poplak. “My entire experience as a human being is built on this identity. That specificity doesn’t apply just to me, but all Jews in South Africa relate to it in some way. So many of our problems come from fact that we have difficulty putting into conversation our narrow identities, and our government. This conversation has broken down. We feel we have no place, aren’t listened to, and are disenfranchised. It has boiled down to ‘government bad, me good’.

Poplak called on South African Jews to come to terms with how we became white, saying, “When did Jews become white? Ninety years ago, we weren’t considered [as] ‘white’ as others. Something happened, and white became part of our identity. Jews arrived mainly from one small part of the world, had to negotiate an identity for themselves, and had to give something up in order for this to happen. We negotiated our safety with very bad people, and rose up to become part of an elite. We got material and physical safety at the expense of the majority in South Africa. We watched for the most part as the regime split the country, and were mostly silent.”

We need to understand how we came to be where we are, and find out how we can contribute. “This needs to be done using our whole identity, not by fragmenting it,” Poplak said. “We think, ‘I can be Jewish and separate it from my Orange Grove identity’. It doesn’t work – believe me.”

Quoting the late Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, Ngcukaitobi said that Jews in South Africa did not known what it was to be disenfranchised. “Chaskalson gave a speech saying that while we as Jews were persecuted in Europe, we grew up as white with all its privileges in South Africa. It was not religion that defined South Africa’s framework, but race.

“When Africans look at Jews, they see the white elite. Their nuances, their past oppression, and history have no resonance with us. We see whiteness, and white privilege includes you, like it or not. In the same way, we see no distinction between the great-grandchildren of Bram Fisher and those of FW de Klerk, as they are the same in being white.”

While black people were no longer discriminated against legally in 1994, they were not given space in social, cultural, or economic realms, he claims.

“White people have not come to terms with their cultural dominance. They always remind society that they are a minority, but the institutions from which they operate are dominated by white, Eurocentric norms. African institutions teach in English. Whiteness remains a pervasive cultural norm, and we black people feel excluded and need to negotiate our belonging.”

The time has come to talk seriously about race. “You need to give up whiteness,” he says. “You don’t want to. You want the feeling of belonging, while retaining all that which you gained under apartheid. Yet, you think we can be non-racial in context while this happens.

“We all say we need to transform, but no one is willing to give anything up. You need to ask what you can contribute not as whites or Jewish, but as a person in Africa. It is impossible to think about belonging without thinking about giving up something.”

Adding his voice, Pozniak stressed that though we are confronted with levels of discomfort as Jews, the country has been a Garden of Eden for us. “We are free to walk to shul, wear a kippa, keep kosher, and can be Jewish. Even today, it remains one of the best places to be a Jew. Yes, we feel discomfort over ANC politics regard Israel, and the rise in anti-Semitism.

“However, this is a result of change globally. Trump took the lid off political correctness, unashamedly, and without consequences. In our country, the discourse has changed. We can talk about ‘white monopoly capital’. The ability to name and shame the other is open to us now.”

Jews feel this acutely, he said, pointing out that we know that it’s a short jump from general rhetoric to statements like, “Hitler should have done a better job”. But Pozniak believes this is not a cause for fear. Instead, it says something about where we are today globally.

“We want to find meaning and relevance here,” he says. “But we involve ourselves in certain spaces only, like Jewish schools and Jewish social spaces. We need to take ownership of our place here, and not sit on the sidelines and engage only when we are concerned. What that looks like remains to be defined, but without engaging on relevant bases, we will forever be bystanders bleating from the sidelines.”

Pozniak also fears that we ill-equip our children to be South African and to contribute, as we do not dwell enough on matters beyond those immediately relevant to us as Jews. “We are quick to respond to anti-Semitism, but are we playing a role in understating race relations?” he asks. “An educational initiative needs to be undertaken. We need to understand what it means to be South African, rather than just Jewish.”

Bethlehem concluded by suggesting that while we need to recognise that we benefited from apartheid, to reflect on our lives, and get involved, we also need to demand the right to belong in return. “It is becoming an impossibility for a white or even an Indian person to be seen as South African,” she says.

“Yes, we need to give something up, but as white South Africans, if we are going to commit ourselves, we must demand that the country culture doesn’t ask, ‘How do we get rid of white farmers’, but ‘How do we get them to be more involved?’ How do we ask more of white people, not alienate them from the national project?

“I worry that the idea of white people giving something or being part of the project is being lost. We must not encourage white people to emigrate or give up, but to jump in, and be acknowledged as people who can contribute.”


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