South Africa: Dark clouds over a Diaspora dream

If the Jews do one thing well, it’s to imprint their mark on new lands. And if their imprint describes one pattern, it would be some black punishment on the heels of great Jewish impact; as invariably as dark night follows day, this has been the experience of exile. Spain before the expulsion scaled a pinnacle of Jewish life and achievement. Germany, many felt, was the Promised Land, Vilna the New Jerusalem. It would be hard for third or fourth generation Jews not to have similar feelings about the country their grandparents adopted – about South Africa, warts and all.      

If Jews were too late on the scene to shape the development of the American West, they arrived in time to remake a primitive South Africa. “We built this country with heart and soul,” the slogan for the 2015 annual Jewish Achiever Awards, was no trumpet blast. Offstage from the glittering event the die had been cast and a dark shadow was a-creeping. The summit of Jewish pride was actually scaled 21 years before the Achievers of 2015 bathed in the limelight.        

Perhaps South African Jews were too occupied making their mark to get involved in national government because, unlike American Jewry, they never mixed business with politics. For all that, Jews have clustered around local government like bees around the hive. Jewish mayors and councilors abounded, and the biggest city, Johannesburg, had 22 Jewish mayors between 1886 and 1993.

The Apartheid era brought political activists out in droves, but more as communists than as Jews. Lay and rabbinic leaders, with the rare exception, kept their heads down while non-whites suffered the indignity of third class treatment in their own land. When majority rule came in 1994, the Jewish Board of Deputies went to inordinate lengths to make amends for the silence it kept during Apartheid. The transition was better than many had been right to fear, for by that time Jews in large numbers had left for greener pastures: England, America, Australia and Canada made them welcome, and some even went to Israel. Only the timing was bad. The émigrés skipped too early, and missed a golden age. Under South Africa’s black President, Nelson Mandela, Jews could enjoy their old privileged life, only now with a clear conscience.

The Chief Rabbi was the late Cyril Harris, a bonny Scotsman who became Mandela’s bosom buddy. He stood on the inauguration podium next to the first black President, and delivered ringing words from Isaiah. Here was the moment when communal pride and achievement peaked.

A decade later a threatening cloud gathers over the community. Jewish business clout can’t seem to buy any lobbying power. Muslim interests are all over the government and Jews perforce have to fall back on the path of least resistance. Two dictums have been the Jewish Board’s rule of thumb: (1) Do and say nothing that might close government doors. (2) Avoid offending the nation by offending its favorite son, Archbishop Tutu. It was soon made obvious that both the government and Tutu felt free to treat the Jewish community with disdain.

In quick succession the ruling party hosted and feted a terrible trio: Leila Khalid the old matriarch of terror; Mahmoud Abbas, inciter and diplomatic thorn in Israel’s body; but most horrendous of all, the political head of Hamas. With an invitation to Khaled Meshaal, South Africa became the first country outside the Muslim world to give the Jihadist red carpet treatment.

If the ruling party must be appeased, the nation’s icon, Desmond Tutu, must be worshipped. The wily cleric can tie the Jewish community in knots, winning contests by grinning while the Jews tear into one another over him. In 2011 a handful of Jews campaigned to get Tutu removed as Trustee of the Holocaust Centre, which was a quirky honor to bestow on a man given to blatant anti-Jewish sentiments. The hue and cry against the instigators was louder within the community than anywhere. The petition went nowhere.

The online edition of Jewish Report ran an article that likened the cleric to Hitler and Stalin. The writer referred to him as “the latest self-appointed midget of history who wants to destroy the Jewish people.

Either the writer or Editor had touched up Tutu’s lip with a Hitler moustache, and superimposed his head onto the Fuehrer’s uniformed torso. The anti-Semitic local weekly Mail & Guardian was on to it in a flash. Everything blew together. “It largely speaks to a Jewish audience,” bewailed the Jewish Report Editor, waiting for the axe to fall. ”We try not to censor viewpoints. We were asked by a member of the Jewish board to remove the picture from the site.” The offending article was removed with it.

Then there are the openly anti-Zionist Jews. Zapiro, the Jewish anti-Israel cartoonist, uses libelous cartoons to compare Israel to Nazis, claiming that South African Jews have been brainwashed by Zionism.

Some of the younger generation seem to agree. Josh Broomberg, a debating champion at a Jewish day school in Johannesburg, donned a Palestinian scarf at a debating contest as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians. The image went viral. The South African Jewish community, tightly knit after a 12,000 strong rally, awoke to a public scandal. Broomberg apologized. The apology, like the keffiyeh, was a trademark posture, borrowing the wild claims and self-contradictions of all Jewish ‘critics of Israel’ who say “I am a Zionist. We stand with the thousands of civilians who have lost their lives in the conflict. We stand with a people who do not yet have a state to protect themselves. We stand for two states. We stand for Palestine. We do not stand against Israel…”  Rather than pull the boy’s statement apart, many Jews fired off vitriolic attacks, aimed at Broomberg, his family and school.

Israel-haters were quick to capitalize. Five hundred Jews found it in their conscience to sign a letter in support of the boy. The ruling ANC, which votes at the UN with Iran and other “beacons of freedom”, lionized their “hero Jew of the day.” The ANC issued a statement. “The actions of Josh Broomberg to symbolically support the Palestinian people by wearing a Palestinian scarf, is an embodiment of the principles that many South Africans and peoples of the world died for. The African National Congress applauds the principled stance on the injustice of the Israeli aggression against the defenseless people of Palestine.” What could Jewish educators do that would not fan the flames? The Board of Education issued their statement. “This has been a learning opportunity for the 17-year-old pupil concerned and he has both explained his stance in a later posting and genuinely apologized for the hurt it produced. His apology has been accepted.”

Today it is difficult for a Jew not to feel the weight of being a South African. Part of the problem is that President Jacob Zuma and his cronies act like Ali Baba and his forty thieves, so that all social and economic indicators are heading to hell in a basket. One development weighs above all: The Jew among nations is a proven device for diverting anger or catching votes and Israel is the new catchall. Zuma’s counting and reading may be at the level of junior school, but he keeps a finger on the angry pulse of society. The millennial Jewish problem remains a handy antidote for the ills that the ruling party has created.

To prove how accommodating and moderate Zionists can be, Jewish communal leaders keep coaxing the ruling party to play a constructive role in the Israeli-Palestinian “Peace Process”. For its part the ruling party keeps mouthing support for the “Two-State solution.” No peace process to play a role in, and the two-state solution long dead and buried, matters not one iota: both sides feel they have to pay lip service. Meanwhile the ruling party has put members under a travel ban. Go to Israel and lose your party membership. So a ruling elite that lives off the fat of the land without doing an honest day’s work, stays home, keeps the blinkers on, and knocks away at the Jews and Israel for their "Apartheid state."  

Brazen BDS tactics are another given. If life for Jews on campus is not dangerous, it’s not comfortable either. Jewish events have been rudely disrupted and even vandalized in Brown Shirt manner. BDS hooligans barged into a campus recital featuring an Israeli-born pianist, blew hooligan horns and forced the artist to flee. To his credit, the university’s Vice Chancellor, a Muslim, had the students disciplined and facilitated another musical event with Israeli artists.

The pig head placed in a supermarket’s kosher counter (it turned out to be the Halaal counter) marked another anti-Semitic low by BDS activists.

Jews nonetheless are kept on the right side of pessimism by three bright spots. One is that, except for a long ago fire bomb lobbed at a shul in Cape Town, terrorism has never struck the community.  This is all the more remarkable considering the open secret that Al Qaeda and Hezbollah operate training camps in the vast empty spaces of the north-eastern Cape and that the ruling party has invited Hamas to open a local branch. One may view South Africa’s welcome mat to Islamists as a blessing in disguise, for messing on your own doorstep never made sense.

The second bright spot is that from out of South Africa comes innovation in Torah observance. The Chief Rabbi, Warren Goldstein, launched two initiatives that have taken the Jewish world by storm. One is Generation Sinai, a parent-and-child Torah learning program that takes place before every Jewish festival in hundreds of schools worldwide. The other is the Shabbos Project.  What began as a local “unity initiative” to encourage local Jews of all persuasions to observe a full, halachic Shabbat together, became a global grassroots movement. This year it will reach a million Jews in 464 cities and 65 countries.

Third, South Africa has the world’s only full baal teshuva community. It’s the one example where a whole swathe of the community – in Johannesburg perhaps one Jew out of every two – spontaneously became observant. This may mark a precedent in the annals of the stiff-necked people.


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