Jew-ish is a notion I stole from actress Chantal Stanfield when we were working on From Koesistes to Kneidlach (coming to Cape Town in December, save the date, at the Baxter). She was talking about her husband, who is Jewish, and Jew-ish, in the lapsed kind of way that I am. We are not religious (I am an atheist), we are not kosher, we are not Zionists, and we are as critical of the problems inherent in Judaism as we are prepared to acknowledge the good in it.
I have had struggles with my Jewish identity for all my life. It is confusing and unsettling and sometimes even achingly painful. I won’t even go into detail. How I have emerged, at the age of 52, is as a much more committed human, South African, vegan, than Jewish person. I am deeply opposed to the Israeli government and its Apartheid crimes against the Palestinians. I am deeply opposed to any human rights abuses, including anti-Semitism, and I am constantly shocked at any group’s ability to be selectively moral, or morally outraged. Crimes against humanity must all be condemned with the same force. Nobody gets to pick and choose, and none can be worse than another because of who is doing it, or who it is being done to.
So, at a funny birthday party on Sunday I got into a dangerous conversation with a man I did not know, a Jewish man of my age group or slightly older, a man with good hair, teeth, clothes and definitely a house and car and servants and trips overseas, who described the increasingly shrinking jewish community of South Africa as ’embattled’. He gave reasons for this condition on the growing Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment in South Africa, and the government’s anti Israel stance. And I was blown away. Embattled? A community that lives in the best areas of Cape Town (and Joburg), that is seen as one of the wealthiest segments of South African society, with the best schools, big businesses, and high profiles, is ’embattled’? A community that isn’t driven out and forced into the sea to become refugees if they survive. A community that isn’t locked in and shut out, and water rationed and policed. A community that is not at war. On the contrary, the Jewish community is far more able and capable of serving other genuinely embattled communities.
The Jewish community that I know has always fed on this sentiment, this idea, this feeling of being embattled. It is probably in our genetic make-up. And even I agree that it is understandable. Israel is built on that foundation; that Jews are only safe in their homeland. But there is this completely skewed notion that Jews are struggling and under threat here. A notion shared by many whites. And it is such a dangerous notion because it separates out from the truth, totally minimises those who are actually embattled, like the poor, and ends up justifying ‘survivalist’ behaviour.
While there were many prominent Jews or Jew-ish people in this country’s struggle for liberation, there have been much fewer involved in meaningful transformation. Unfortunately, the sentiment of the SA Jewish community as a whole has aligned itself more strongly to a conservative, religious and Zionist-at-all-cost way of thinking. And because of this Jews have become easier targets. The sale of Tafelberg, here on our doorstep, is a fantastic example. So few (300 or so) Jews actively campaigned against the sale to the Phyllis Jowel Remedial School, yet allowed Helen Zille jump onto the anti-Semitic bandwagon when there was such deep resistance to the sale by pro-social housing campaigners. I can’t help but feel that the Jewish community is its own worst enemy here.
I write this with a yortzeit candle burning its last. I am commemorating the death of my mother a year ago. I lit the candle for connection, for ritual, for her really. And there is a part of me that longs for a true, deep and meaningful connection with something Jewish; not religion, not even culture, but something else wrapped up in identity and belonging. But I am still the black sheep, and the South African Jewish community (on the whole) shames me.