The right to speak out
I recall that when I was growing up, people around me would say that Jews shouldn’t stand up against the government because we were lucky to have a home here. If we made a noise and upset the powers that be, there was fear that the government might kick us out of South Africa.
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps the words you heard weren’t exactly the same but something similar.
And, for the most part, South African Jews didn’t rock the apartheid boat. They went on with doing what they did, but didn’t make too much noise against what the government was doing. Having said that, it so happens that there were a number of Jewish anti-apartheid activists who were well known for their bravery and for being Jewish.
Everybody knew that Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, Arthur Goldreich, Denis Goldberg, Ruth First, and Harold Wolpe, among others, weren’t just anti-apartheid activists, but were Jewish activists. And this made the mainstream community very uncomfortable during the apartheid era. Many chose to ostracise Jewish activists because they disapproved. The truth is, they may not have disapproved of their political beliefs necessarily, but the fact that as Jews, they were standing up against the government.
I know what I’m saying makes many in our community feel uncomfortable. I apologise for that. My saying it isn’t intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, it’s about asking you to consider who we are in South Africa.
I’m Jewish, yes. I’m also 100% South African. My family has been here for generations, and I’m proud of being South African and Jewish. Both are deeply entrenched in my identity. And as much as I love being a part of this unique special community, I revel in being a part of South African society.
As most of you know by now, I don’t believe I have to hide what I believe to be true, and I’m happy to publish my thoughts. I’m even happy to do it if it challenges the government or the powers that be. I believe that if you don’t stand up against something you believe to be wrong, nothing will change. And, your little voice, no matter how faint it is, is a voice that deserves to be heard.
In the same way we go to the polls and choose the leaders we want, we have a right to voice our opinions and our beliefs as long as we don’t hurt anyone in the process.
Last week, the chief rabbi wrote an opinion piece in Business Day clearly pointing out what he believes to be the government’s failure to roll out vaccines timeously.
It’s important to note that our community has been hard hit by COVID-19 in the third wave. We have all felt the devastation of this coronavirus. Seven members of my family – aged between two and 62 – have COVID-19 right now. Had we all been vaccinated, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be in this situation.
So, can I say I’m very sensitive to this right now?
My point is that there are many members of our community who are angry at the chief rabbi for publicly challenging the government. In their criticism of him, I heard the same kind of sentiment that I recalled as a child – “We shouldn’t rock the boat”; “We shouldn’t challenge the government”; “The government is already on our case because we support Israel, we shouldn’t make a fuss about other issues.”
What’s the alternative? That the chief rabbi and the rest of us just keep our mouths shut and not voice our disapproval about not being vaccinated yet? That we simply eat whatever we are dished? That we accept our fate whatever it is, no questions asked?
I don’t believe that’s who we are. I believe we are people with a moral backbone who look out for those less fortunate. We are a questioning people who don’t settle for what isn’t acceptable. As such, I believe that swallowing what we know isn’t right doesn’t sit well with any of us.
Now, I know that Professor Barry Schoub, an internationally renowned virologist and the chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines, wrote an opinion piece in response to the chief rabbi. This man, also a key member of our community who has guided us through this pandemic, pointed out what he believed was wrong with what Rabbi Goldstein had written.
When I read it, I was uncomfortable, and thought that it should have been discussed behind closed doors. Why? My first instinct was that Jews shouldn’t be arguing with Jews so publicly.
But, on consideration, I changed my mind. There’s nothing wrong with Jews or anyone voicing their opinion. It’s our human right.
I would hope that Professor Schoub and Rabbi Goldstein have nothing against each other but felt the need to voice their knowledgeable opinions. And once the pandemic is over, I’m sure they will break bread together.
Coming back to what I call the “visitors’ mentality”, in which we believe we shouldn’t challenge the authorities. We aren’t visitors here, we are fully fledged South Africans with the same rights as everyone else. Nobody is going to throw us out.
We live in a democracy and we have the right to voice our opinions. We have the right to stand up and say our piece, whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or even Pagan. We are all South Africans with rights.
Nobody is going to punish us for having a voice. We have to get past this visitors’ mentality. Look around you and see what our community contributes to our country. We participate fully in our country and, as such, we have rights that nobody can take from us.
We don’t have to hide our light under a bushel. We don’t have to shy away from being heard. We do have to stand for what’s right as opposed to what’s wrong. That last statement isn’t because of the country we live in but because – as Jews – we’re called upon to be a light unto the nations.
And so, we need to stand up for what’s right and against what’s wrong.
I may or may not have agreed with what the chief rabbi and Professor Schoub said, but I defend their right to say it with all my being.