SA Jews have a lot of freedom to celebrate

  • persecution
From ancient to modern history, being Jewish has far too frequently become a matter of life and death. Throughout the crusades, pogroms, the Holocaust, and contemporary terrorist attacks, Jews have experienced being shunned, exiled, forced to practise in secret – or, at the very least, encouraged not to stand out.
by MIRAH LANGER | Sep 06, 2018

As such, there is surely much to celebrate about the current freedom South African Jews have to practise their religion and assert their identity.

As Tali Nates, the Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, reminds us, there have been many other “darker times, times when anti-Semitism was policy”.

In the Holocaust, this policy eventually became genocidal, forcing Jews to shift their previous response to oppression.

“In previous generations, the choice was to die for Kiddush Hashem, to say, ‘I will not convert; I will not escape; I will die and sanctify the name of Hashem.’”

However, during the Holocaust, this no longer worked because it would have delivered the Nazis exactly what they wanted.

So, “the rabbis in the Warsaw Ghetto said that they needed to turn it into Kiddush HaChaim – the sanctification of life. It was the notion that you have to live, outlive, try to live, survive”.

While contemporary life certainly has its challenges, in places like South Africa, the Jewish community has been allowed not just to survive, but in many ways, to thrive.

This sentiment is shared by Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, who asserts that, “One of the great blessings of South Africa is that it is a free society with a strong Constitution and strong democratic institutions.

“We [the Jewish community], together with every South African, have the right to freedom of belief, of conscience and religious practice. It is something that is really noteworthy.”

Wendy Kahn, the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), also believes that the “effort made to accommodate diversity” is one of which South Africa can be proud.

Associate Professor Adam Mendelsohn, who serves as the University of Cape Town’s Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, points out the benefit of a multicultural South African society.

“It is good for Jews to live in societies that are diverse, because – in terms of difference and acceptance of difference – the assumption then is that [religious rights are] something that a progressive society should protect.”

After all, although it never reached the deadly extremes of Europe, Jews in South Africa did not have a smooth journey to belonging.

For example, says Mendelsohn, when the Dutch colonised the Cape, Jews were banned from settling purely on the basis of religion.

It was only during the brief Batavian period and the arrival of the British thereafter near the start of the 19th century, that Jews could settle while being open about their religious affiliation.

Even then, the British approach to the Jews was a “hands-off, laissez-faire, liberal approach” rather than one explicitly concerned with the promotion of multicultural rights.

Later, there was plenty of “anti-immigrant feeling” directed specifically at Jews to keep them out of the country.

While the apartheid government did not suppress the practice of Judaism, it nevertheless did promote a Christian national agenda rather than a recognition of the country’s cosmopolitanism.

In fact, it is the shift to explicit engagement with difference within democratic South Africa that has allowed the Board to ensure that the rights of the community are well protected.

For example, Kahn recalls how in 2009, the country’s general election were initially scheduled over Pesach.

“At the time, we met President Kgalema Motlanthe, and the election date was moved. This is not the case in other countries.”

Kahn points out that, having met counterparts from, for example, Denmark – where there is a drive to ban circumcision – we are comparatively better off.

Another example of freedom of religion in South Africa, is the assistance given to observant students whom have university exams scheduled on a Shabbat or during the chaggim.

Beyachad has even been registered as an official Unisa examination centre.

A key challenge to Jewish burials arose a few years ago when the home affairs department changed the legislation, mandating that burials could take place only after a death certificate was issued. If a person died over Shabbat and with home affairs closed on a Sunday, the halachic principle of when a burial must take place would be broken.

“It was a really serious issue,” says Kahn.

Yet, when the Board along with the Chevrah Kadisha met Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Home Affairs Minister at the time, “it was resolved quite quickly when it was made clear it would have an impact on religious observance”.

In this context, while “one incident of anti-Semitism is one incident too many”, the chief rabbi emphasises that the South African community, nevertheless, “can appreciate the fact that we live in a country that is welcoming of the Jewish community”.

Nates points out that what is even more remarkable about the current South African landscape is that beyond the ability to practice Judaism, “we are allowed to express our identity as Jewish South Africans in many, many ways.”

She gives examples of how Jewish life, thought and culture are celebrated in South Africa through school curricula and university courses, as well as conferences, festivals, and concerts.

Both Kahn and Nates say that educating other South Africans about Jewish practices is beneficial.

Kahn says that she encourages Jewish people who experience workplace issues related to religion to educate colleagues of other faiths about their needs.

After all, people of other religions often, “don’t understand that our holy day is not the same as theirs: we cannot drive, or write, or talk on the phone. Often, we find that when people do understand the logistics, they are far more understanding.”

Nates suggests that we share our sense of freedom with others in a meaningful way. This could be done by inviting non-Jews for Shabbat dinners or festivals “just to explain and break the myth of what it means to be a Jew”.

Chief Rabbi Goldstein comments on how rights come with responsibilities.

“We have the responsibility to be contributing, productive, law-abiding citizens who make a difference, who reach out with humanitarian efforts to the underprivileged, and people who are in situations of great human suffering. That is part of the moral responsibility of living in the new South Africa.”


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