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Recognising Roald Dahl – warts and all

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Voices

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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Voices

Second waves and second chances

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The closing weeks of 2020 brought with them the long-anticipated onset of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa. Over the December period, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) continued to co-ordinate meetings between the communal leadership and medical experts to assess the situation and plan and advise the community accordingly.

We have since participated in several national initiatives aimed at co-ordinating the efforts of civil society and faith communities in responding to the serious challenges of the day. Last week, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn participated in an African National Congress civil society engagement with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and other cabinet members titled “COVID-19 response and vaccines: the role of progressive civil society”. On Sunday, together with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Kahn, and SAJBD National President Mary Kluk, I attended a meeting with Ramaphosa to discuss how the religious leadership can assist government, particularly in terms of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

It hardly needs to be emphasised that all members of our community need to continue to do their part in minimising risk to themselves and anyone they come into contact with. Once again, I urge people to make full use of the guidelines and regular updates by Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and other medical experts on the SAJBD Facebook page and website to ascertain how best to conduct themselves in terms of vigilance and safety practices.

Restorative justice

Last month, we were able to resolve a long-standing hate-speech case between ourselves and former student leader Mcebo Dlamini for remarks he made at the University of the Witwatersrand, on PowerFM, and social media in 2015. Successful mediation was facilitated by the SA Human Rights Commission at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. We are satisfied with the outcome of this matter. As SAJBD National Vice-President Zev Krengel put it, Dlamini’s recognition that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive, together with his genuine apology, enables us to heal from the hurt he caused.

It should never be forgotten that South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian, bitterly divided, and conflict-ridden country to the robust multiracial democracy we have today was accomplished because South Africans, without forgetting the injustices of the past, were prepared to work together in building a better future. Expressing regret for one’s previous conduct, sincerely apologising for it, and undertaking to mend one’s ways going forward has thus assumed a great deal of importance in our society, and this is particularly true when it comes to racist behaviour. Once said, offensive words cannot be unsaid, but a heartfelt apology goes a long way towards removing their sting, and makes reconciliation possible.

Our Gauteng Council chairperson, Professor Karen Milner, stressed the importance of taking a restorative approach to justice wherever possible whereby the offender acknowledges what he or she has done wrong and expresses genuine remorse. Dlamini met these criteria, and was a successful example of what’s possible with this approach.

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

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Voices

The holiday that couldn’t happen

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I was fortunate to go to Umhlanga in the last week of November on a celebratory holiday after finishing matric. For the few days I was there, I walked on the promenade, saw friends, and spent time relaxing after weeks of hard work. Admittedly, my friends and I felt invincible although still quite shocked at the amount of people walking on the beaches without masks. Even so, our numbers were dropping, we felt safe, and things finally seemed a bit normal.

However, the week after I came home, things began to change. Following the general complacency that overcome our country, case numbers began rising. My friends contracted the virus, holidays were cancelled, and a lockdown was imminent. Our desired invincibility proved false. It was, for lack of a better word, a disaster.

It’s not natural for us South Africans who haunt the Cape Town and Umhlanga promenades for weeks every December to stay home. We are used to holidays filled with parties, dates with friends, chills on the beach, and a general social jaunt that goes on into early January.

Those plans were put on hold when the president broke down on television, announcing new lockdown regulations and begging South Africans to act responsibly in these life-threatening times. We were forced off the beaches and into bed by 21:00, with no alcohol or late-night takeaways to keep us going.

Those fortunate enough to experience a bit of a holiday before the implementation of the lockdown rules should consider themselves lucky to have been able to visit a beach or sit at a bar for sundowners.

Those who didn’t get to escape their homes remain bored, scared, and honestly, a bit jealous. And who wouldn’t be? We’ve had a hard year, the least we deserve is a bit of a getaway.

Unfortunately, our desire to escape reality for a bit left us in a desperate situation. Instead of hotel pools and lunch dates with friends, we have Netflix shows and FaceTime calls. Instead of walks on the promenade and braais with family, we have socially distant teas and early nights. New Year’s Eve was spent in our homes, many of us barely staying awake before the clock struck 12 to ring in what is hopefully a better year (it wouldn’t take much, really).

To ensure that 2021 is better, it’s imperative to act responsibly. As young people, it’s often in our nature to do what we want, regardless of the repercussions. We search for the next bit of fun, and are determined to get it, no matter what gets in our way. We can’t act that way now.

We must act responsibly to ensure that in December 2021, we can have a happy holiday.

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But he is good for Israel

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The happenings at the Capitol building left most sane people winded. And whereas many were quick to blame 2021 for letting us down so spectacularly and so early into the year, it clearly had little to do with the calendar and everything to do with the former president of the United States, Donald Trump.

Instead of accepting his loss with a hint of dignity and a smattering of grace, Trump chose to cry “Foul!” In doing so, he set off a chain reaction that would not only result in the death of four people but would give his detractors the perfect opportunity to say, “I told you so.” Which they wasted no time at all in doing. And who could blame them, given that they had spent the past five years screaming that this was going to happen.

And happen it did.

Soon after the events, I found myself in a public argument with journalist Richard Poplak, who tweeted, “Yes, but he’s good for Israel”, referring to Trump. I responded with, “You have to be pretty obsessed to try and turn the focus towards Israel. Besides, I’m pretty sure that those white males dressed as Vikings aren’t Zionists.” Whereas I loved the smartness of my answer, the point that he was making was a valid one.

He knew that too, which is why after a series of tweets he wrote, “My tweet points out a prevailing moral failure of many in our community during the Trump era. If this is a time for reflection, no one is better poised to lead it than you.”

I’m uncertain that “no one is better poised to lead” than me, but I will nevertheless give it a try. Because maybe some introspection is required. Although I wasn’t a Trump supporter and publicly stated that I wanted both Biden and Trump to lose, I still hoped that Trump would lose less badly (in other words, to win). It might have been more to do with my thoughts on Biden, but it would nevertheless be disingenuous not to own it. Whereas I have also mentioned numerous times that I abhor many aspects of Trump’s personality and a lot of what he stands for, indeed, he was good for Israel as well as the Middle East (in my view).

I respected how he tried to engage with North Korea as well as his stand against Iran. Although he might not have succeeded in terms of China, I do think his effort was a decent one.

What I liked most about Trump was that I didn’t. Like him. To me, he represented a rare opportunity for nuance and complexity, something that’s largely absent in the world of politics.

Over the last while, we have distilled our view of politicians. We either love them or hate them. We either see no good or we see only bad. Trump awarded us the opportunity to see both in one politician. Through his behaviour, however, he has robbed us of even that.

Whereas I don’t agree with some of Poplak’s views on Israel, he nevertheless raises a point that we should consider. Did Trump’s support for Israel indeed blind us to the reality of what he always was? And if this is the case, what does it say about us and how do we treat the next one that comes along? Whereas I have no clear answer, I know that it is worth thinking about.

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