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War in Middle East sparks battle in workplace



It’s normal for sociopolitical issues to spill into our environment, but the tension caused by strongly held opposing beliefs over the war between Israel and Hamas is fracturing once cohesive teams.

Though some organisations are trying to figure out how to address “the elephant in the boardroom”, others are unsure whether they should. But a healthy and productive workforce depends on willingness to invite a free exchange of ideas and engage opposing perspectives. Ignoring it won’t make it disappear.

Jodi (43), a name used to protect her anonymity, is a therapist who has worked at a children’s hospital in Cape Town for 18 years.

“Since 7 October, it’s been hard to be at work. Although no-one is allowed to discuss their personal views, simply being there is enough to make you feel as though you’re at a Palestinian support rally,” she says.

“My days spent at work are full of a subtle yet widespread pro-Palestinian undertone. Cars parked in staff bays with ‘Free Palestine’ bumper stickers is one thing, but colleagues who carry hospital card lanyards and cellphone covers and computers embellished in Palestinian colours in our shared therapy space just feels too much. There’s a lack of sensitivity.”

When the department head arrived daily wearing a badge on his shirt reflecting his personal alliance, Jodi’s gnawing discomfort grew. “My colleagues came to work wearing watermelon earrings, which initially struck me as fun. When it dawned on me that the watermelon was a symbol of support of Hamas terrorists, I felt physically ill.”

Jodi has no problem with people expressing their personal views in a private capacity.

“Everyone is free to have their say. At home, in social settings, at protests, and support rallies, but it feels grossly inappropriate to bring it into our small, shared work environment. There just seems to be no real understanding – or any consideration – of how their symbols of support could be received by someone like me.”

Her non-Jewish colleagues, mostly neutral in their views, have commented that the bumper stickers and decorative flags are nothing more than a “silly trend”.

“While they remain unaffected, I feel extremely triggered,” says Jodi.

During a recent discussion with a senior staff member at the hospital, Jodi was asked to give specific examples of anything she may have personally experienced that could be considered antisemitic.

“I couldn’t give specific examples. No-one has spat at me or uttered any sort of Jew-hating slander, so I had to explain my sensitivity to what feels like a passive-aggressive attack.”

Jodi has always worn her Magen David to work. She recently felt brave enough to wear her yellow “Bring Them Home” badge in support of the hostages.

“It’s the country’s tone at large that makes me think I’d better not be too overt,” she says.

Though her family have encouraged her to consider quitting her job, Jodi has decided she’s unwilling to leave the job she loves simply because she’s Jewish.

“I’ve had to ask myself if it’s better just to keep my head down, or whether my silence is part of the growing problem.”

For many Jewish South Africans, the country’s political stance has left them feeling isolated and often terrified to speak up. But silence is unsustainable, and ignorance is unacceptable at this particularly personal and deeply divisive time in history.

Mark Oppenheimer, an advocate on the Johannesburg Bar with a special interest in the boundary between freedom of expression and genuine hate speech, says, “It’s undoubtedly the case that since 7 October, we’ve had a huge escalation in antisemitism in South Africa.”

He says the onus is on businesses and organisations to establish a constructive framework in which to engage employees in courageous conversation.

“It’s often the case that a small vocal minority hold a strong anti-Israel view, but most reasonable South Africans have a pro-Israel view because they recognise that terrorism is wrong, that deliberately killing women and children is wrong, that rape is wrong, and the war against Hamas is justified,” Oppenheimer says.

If you can agree that rape is wrong, it’s a good starting point from which to engage two opposing standpoints. But, he advises, “Being a good listener is key to having a productive conversation, especially over an emotionally charged subject. Listening empowers you to ask the right questions. Simply waiting for your turn to put your views across will probably result in an emotional eruption.

“It’s hard to persuade someone about a different set of values to the ones they hold, so eliciting the other person’s values is key,” says Oppenheimer. “People like to be heard, so ask questions and offer understanding. This will probably serve you well in opening a constructive dialogue.”

“You won’t always get a reasonable person,” he warns, “but in finding out what the conversation climate looks like, you’ll soon know whether you’re in for a reasonable discussion.”

Oppenheimer says it’s important for isolated individuals in the workspace who find it challenging to speak up to recognise civil society organisations who have taken a pro-Israel stance and to support them in having their voices recognised and heard.

Are we at a change-point in South Africa due to the recent election results?

“The African National Congress seems to have less practical reasons to maintain its strong position of the past, so we may find a wholesale abandonment of the Palestinian cause. This doesn’t mean it’s not a threat that can re-emerge,” Oppenheimer warns.

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  1. Gary

    June 28, 2024 at 2:02 pm

    Dont bow to evil! We not going to let the Muslims do today what the Nazis did to us during the Shoah by being silent Stand up to these Satanic jihadis!

  2. Audrey Smith

    July 1, 2024 at 5:05 pm

    I’m of neither religion; in fact of no religion, but the argument had entered into my own home. It leaves a bitter taste. If justice was true then I’d say leave it to the courts, but it’s not. Making anyone feel uncomfortable is bulling and should not be tolerated. My vote is by secret ballot, but the fact I am fair skinned places the finger of judgement on me. We voted for a non separatist country; may we please believe in that before we past judgement on others.🙏🏼

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