As the notorious Israel Apartheid Week approaches, South African Jewry has a unique problem in combating the growing attempt to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Proudly Zionist, but predominantly white, the Jews of South Africa are living in a land of paradox, and many are uncertain of their future.
I just returned from a lecture tour of South Africa, sponsored by the Israeli Embassy, and the Zionist Federation of South Africa. The community was warm, proud and welcoming. It was a true pleasure to meet such true friends of Israel. Yet in every lecture hall and in every Israel advocacy training, there was a white (black, colored, Indian) elephant which only a few were willing to discuss.
Before combating BDS and the anti Zionist propaganda which oozes from the popular press, the Jews of South Africa have to decide what their relationship is with the ANC government. The question is not who they are as Jews, but rather who they are as South Africans. Eighteen years after the collapse of apartheid, the community is still understandably split.
To understand their approach, it is useful to divide the community into three: the new guard, the old guard and the off-guard.
Apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994. Today’s 18-year-old South African student has no experience or collective memory of the period. Brought up in an age of anti-colonialism, liberalism and national liberation, many of the new guard find it difficult to reconcile their outlook as new South Africans with an increasingly nationalistic Netanyahu government. Many others just switch off when spoken to about Israel, uninterested or even threated by the subject.
During my visit I met with many inspiring teachers at Herzaliya and King David’s Schools. The new generation of teachers was seeking alternative ways to speak about Israel. They were aware that many of the older generation were failing to build a connection between Israel and the young Jewish South African. Telling an 18-year-old that you should love Israel because you are Jewish is no longer enough.
These younger teachers are definitely recognizing that if there is to be a future for the Jewish community, young Jews need to build a relationship with Israel and not be forced into an arranged marriage.
What was not considered was how to teach the young Jewish student how to be a South African. As one student said in discussion, “I don’t interact with the non-Jewish world.” Isolationism is still held as a means of survival. It is a result not of a fear of assimilation but rather a means of political survival. I understand them, if I was in their place, I’d probably do the same.
The Zionist Youth movements also provide an idealistic and refreshing platform for many young South Africans. Habonim, Bnai Akiva and Netza — all sat around a table arguing about Israel.
Many of the old guard of South African Jewry is caught between a rock and a hard place. Some emigrated, but those who stayed are the community leadership. Their deeply held Zionist views can only be admired. Staunch supporters of Israel mostly feel quite comfortable advocating for all Israeli governments. From the many communities I have met, there are few as Zionist as the Jews of South Africa.
Communication guru Frank Lundz once wrote, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” In South Africa, “It is not what you say, it’s what they see,” is more accurate. Until the Jewish community makes relations with non-Jewish South Africa, their chance of influencing government decision is small. Nobody was willing to rock the boat, even if the boat is that titanic. As I looked at the media team, responsible for responding to the press, all the faces were white, as white as the elephant in the room.
Ironically, it is the Christian friends of Israel who provide the role model for grass root activism. Organizations such as Bridges for Peace and the Christian Embassy are making inroads in black churhes and elsehwere.
I met during my visit others, the off-guard generation, alienated by the mainstream and confident that there was a future for South African Jewry. Their defiance of Jewish Community leadership seemed to deafen them to the reality and tangible threats to the Jewish Community. They were bold and confident of their future as Jewish South Africans.
It is easy to visit South Africa and be critical of the community — that is not my intention. The opposite is true: I respect the Jews of South Africa. Judging is easy; understanding their dilemmas is the true challenge. I feel privileged to have been their guest and feel lucky not to have to make their choices.