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Recognising Roald Dahl – warts and all

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A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth, a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts, they will shine out of your face like sunbeams, and you will always look lovely.

This is according to Roald Dahl, who I imagine would suggest that the corollary is also true in that no matter how beautiful you seem on the outside, if there is ugliness in your thoughts, you will look hideous.

Roald Dahl was ugly.

Earlier in the week, Dahl’s family apologised for the antisemitic views and statements expressed during his lifetime. It’s hard to imagine that the man who brought so much joy into the world was at the same time a vocal and virulent antisemite.

“The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl Story Company deeply apologise for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us, and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations. We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”

And what words they were. In a famous interview with the New Statesman in 1983 soon after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, he was recorded as saying, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

In essence, Dahl was suggesting that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust because we are annoying. Why else would a “stinker” like Hitler pick on us? Even the use of the word “stinker” reduces Hitler to the level of an unruly and naughty child, rather than the mass murderer that he was. Clearly the magnitude of the genocide wasn’t something that Dahl was too bothered by.

In the age of “cancel culture”, Dahl’s comments and prejudice should be simply handled. By all accounts of the 2020 view of history, Dahl himself should be cancelled, and his books removed or banned. What makes this approach problematic is that his writing is so darn good and engaging that we have chosen to ignore his racism so that we can continue to enjoy his work.

But we don’t need to do that. Rather, we can acknowledge that his views are abhorrent and we can condemn his prejudice in the most vocal terms. We can do so while acknowledging that he is a genius, and that his writing is a gift. All this can be true at the same time.

It’s commendable that the Dahl family has addressed his antisemitism in a public manner, and that it has taken ownership of his behaviour. It’s important that it has not ignored it, but has acknowledged the failings of a man in whose shadow it now lives. It’s important that we do the same. Perhaps, somewhat ironically, we could look to Dahl himself, heed his words when he says, “I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m gonna ignore your advice.”

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Join us for Yom Hashoah

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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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Time for Israelis to pray for South Africa

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For as long as I’m able to remember, we have always added a number of prayers into our Shabbat morning service. Aside from what was prescribed by the rabbis of yesteryear, we have continued to add and add, but somehow never seem to remove any.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if in 70 years’ time, the Shabbat morning service has so many additions that it becomes a full day affair. In this sense, I’m grateful that I won’t be around to have to endure that.

Somewhere during the service, “the congregation will now rise” for a prayer for the sick, for the South African government, for the welfare of the state of Israel, and for missing soldiers. There might even be more.

I believe it’s time to revisit this. Whereas there’s no doubt that the sick could do with our prayers, as could missing soldiers, I’m wondering if we should still be intoning a prayer for the state of Israel. Especially considering that it is in a much better place than we are. So much so, that I believe that they should be praying for us and not the other way around.

Ahead of Yom Ha’atzmaut, it might be the perfect time to reconsider. Given the state of the state of South Africa, I recommend instead that communities in Israel start adding a prayer for us in this country sometimes during their Shabbat services.

We have certainly done our praying bit, and I believe that it’s well time they returned the favour. This isn’t to say that we aren’t concerned for the welfare of both the Jewish state and her people, but I genuinely think that we have significantly more to worry about than they do.

The United Nations supports my contention. In its World Happiness Report of 2021, it offers unequivocal support for my motion. According to said index, South Africa is listed as the 103rd most happy out of the index’s total of 149 nations, whereas Israel came in at 12th place. That’s an improvement of two spots, in spite of the survey being conducted before the country went to its fourth election in a matter of two years. And yet, we pray for them?

Consider the vaccine roll-out. At the time of writing, according to the New York Times vaccination index, 0.5 out of every 100 South Africans received the vaccine compared with 114 for every 100 in Israel (the Pfizer vaccine requires more than one dose). Or to put it more simply, 269 000 South Africans have been jabbed against the virus versus more than 10 million doses in Israel. It’s us who need their prayers, not the other way around.

And the economy and unemployment? Indeed, it might be true that property is expensive in Israel and there are certain demographics who suffer the ills of poverty. However, compare the booming start-up nation with our struggling economy, and it’s clear who should be praying for whom.

And that’s without Eskom.

I concede that my motivation is perhaps more about time in synagogue than it is about the principle. But even given my disingenuous agenda, it’s worth considering just how much prayers for South Africa are needed.

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Israel Apartheid Week turned into Israel awareness week

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At the beginning of each year, Jewish university students are confronted with the challenge of responding to Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), a malicious and mendacious anti-Israel propaganda campaign run by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and its fellow travellers.

We have just come to the end of the latest round of IAW activities, along with the counter-campaign run by the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) with the support of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation, Israeli student activists from the organisation Stand With Us, and our Christian allies.

This year’s SAUJS campaign was again thoughtful, innovative, and exceptionally well run. It revolved around the theme of people claiming back their narrative, as encapsulated by the hashtag #OwnYourTruth/#OwnOurTruth, showing the diversity of what Zionism means to different people. SAUJS also turned the standard BDS “Zionism = racism” canard on its head by running a #unitedagainstracism initiative. This generated a large number of tweets showing the reality of Israel’s diverse, multifaith, racial, and ethnic society.

IAW isn’t about fostering education and debate, but rather demonising and defaming the Jewish state. It also seeks to silence, sideline, and discredit anyone attempting to put forward a different perspective. SAUJS hasn’t engaged in such smear tactics in response. Instead, it has developed a campaign which emphasises dialogue and education over boycotts and intimidation, the aim of which isn’t to delegitimise other points of view but to understand the realities of the situation and discuss possible ways forward. This has proven to be strikingly effective, and such was the case this year. Clearly the average student is more responsive to an approach based on nuanced, informed discussion as against one portraying one side as being so irredeemably evil as to make any debate unnecessary. This receptiveness was also evident in the positive response to the SAJBD’s recent webinar on the United Arab Emirates-Israel Abraham Accords. Because of all these efforts, IAW this year was again largely a non-event, for which SAUJS and everyone else involved can be warmly commended.

Timeless lessons from the Haggadah

While the biblical story of Exodus focuses on the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery and their birth as an independent nation, its underlying themes are universal and have specific resonance for South Africa. In 2014, the SAJBD Gauteng Council held a special Freedom Seder, bringing political and religious leaders, members of the media, and civil society together to celebrate 20 years of South African democracy in the context of the Pesach narrative. Since then, a number of such events have been held countrywide, providing a distinctively Jewish vehicle through which we join fellow South Africans in celebrating the attainment of freedom in our country. At the time of writing, preparations were being finalised for a national, virtual Freedom Seder to take place on Wednesday evening, 24 March.

I take this opportunity to wish you all a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach. May we all enjoy being with family and friends at a time when we rejoice in our heritage and pass those traditions on to the next generation.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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