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Take the trouble to learn his language



Geoff Sifrin

Taking Issue

Black writers had been victims of his operations and their family members had been killed; they were visibly upset. He was asked to leave, and did so. One writer, Palesa Morudu, the sister of slain Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier Moss Morudu, who died at the regime’s hands, said: “I saw a broken man and felt pity for him.”

Jews know this dilemma well: how to relate to people – former Nazis, their descendants or relatives – who were part of a system which perpetrated the Holocaust, and wanted to atone and form relationships with Jews.

Many believe forgiveness is not possible in Judaism, except by the victim, Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize-winner and Nazi concentration camp survivor, said in a famous statement when Oprah Winfrey asked him if he could forgive Nazis who murdered Jewish children, that he had no right to do so. It would be “arrogant”, because only those children could forgive their killers.

However, other things are possible. The humble, moving speech by the Germany’s ambassador at the Yom Hashoah commemoration in Johannesburg this month, illustrated how history can be partially overcome.

The Germans are today among Israel’s and the Jewish people’s best friends and have tried to atone for the past. Although disagreements exist about the Palestinian issue and other matters, they are discussed behind closed doors; as a matter of policy, Germany supports Israel because of the Holocaust.

Stepping into our own context: What can ordinary white South Africans do to heal the decades of black subjugation – although apartheid, evil as it was, was not a Holocaust?

This is not as extreme as the murderer De Kock’s case, but whites as a group were responsible, whether they supported apartheid intellectually or not.

Remember the black maid in the kitchen serving the Pesach meal as Jews recounted their struggle for freedom, as if she didn’t exist?

There is an uncomfortableness among most whites when trying to cross the racial divide and form a relationship with a black person: they generally don’t speak the black person’s home language, can’t pronounce his indigenous name properly, know scant details about his life, and possess privilege and power from being white.

Although former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris formally apologised at the Truth and Reconciliation Committee for white Jewish South Africans’ silence during apartheid, it didn’t‎ create personal relationships with blacks.

That sort of reconciliation is a long way off. Whites complain about “reverse racism” against them and get irritated and insulted when President Jacob Zuma makes a side comment in Zulu during a speech in English in Parliament. For all most whites know, he could be laughing at them.

What can the ordinary white person – and Jew – do? One thing: learn the others’ language. Can you imagine the difference if they could respond to Zuma in Zulu?

Why can’t Jews lead the way? Schools – including Jewish ones – do offer a black language to learners, but few take it seriously. For adults, most don’t care, since blacks also speak either English or Afrikaans, because those were always the masters’ languages.

We expect them to know our tongue; why shouldn’t we know theirs? Of course, it would require Jewish leadership – sorely lacking at this point. But if Jewish South Africans say they want to feel part of South Africa, and are not just trying to be politically correct, speaking black languages is necessary.


Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog

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  1. nat cheiman

    May 26, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    ‘English is a universal language and any business transacted in any country will generally be done in english, albeit with an interpreter.

    It behoves a decent education system to teach english as a main ( first) language’

  2. Jessica

    May 30, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    ‘Pity that this well intentioned article is spoiled by the Holocaust association trick that, even if the writer in this case admits that apartheid was no Holocaust, nevertheless succeeds in creating the perception that the two somehow merit mentioning in the same breath. 

    They don’t.  Apartheid was a walk in the park compared to the Holocaust.  Let’s not lose our sense of proportion in such profoundly important discussions.     ‘

  3. Choni

    Jun 1, 2016 at 7:56 am

    ‘Sifrin, You are contemptable. You rightly villify Eugene de Kock, while at the same time are open to releasing the murderer of Jews Marwan Barghouti.’

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