South Africa: Dark Clouds of Diaspora Dreams
If the Jews do one thing well, it’s to imprint their mark on new lands. And if that imprint describes one pattern, it would be some black punishment for their trouble. As dark night follows bright day, this has been the law of exile. Only to deceive, many domiciles appeared to be the land of God’s promise. It would be hard for third or fourth generation Jews in South Africa not to have that kind of feeling about the country their grandparents adopted, warts and all.
“We built this country with heart and soul.” This slogan from South Africa’s 2015 “Annual Jewish Achiever Awards” was not mere trumpet blowing; there are records to support the blare. From the early mining magnates until today, South African businesses and the sciences have been led by Jews. But our community, far from shaping today’s events, finds itself the target.
Perhaps South African Jews were too occupied making their mark to get their hands dirty with government because, unlike American Jewry, they never cared to mix politics with business. The Apartheid era did bring activists out in droves, but more as communist ideologues than as Jews. When majority rule came in 1994, the transition was better than many had been right to fear — for by that time Jews in large numbers had skipped to greener pastures. Only their timing was bad. They skipped too early, and lost out on a golden age. Under the first black President, Nelson Mandela, a Jew could enjoy the old privileged life, now with a clear conscience.
The chief rabbi was the late Cyril Harris, a bonny Scotsman and Mandela’s bosom buddy. The Rabbi stood on the inauguration podium next to his president, and the world saw and heard his ringing words from Isaiah. Here was the moment when communal pride and the sense of belonging peaked. But under the law of exile, there would soon be a price to pay.
In fearing the worst, the émigrés may have been prescient. A decade later, a threatening cloud gathers over the Jewish community in South Africa. Jews fret that a heavyweight business clout can’t seem to buy any lobbying power. Muslim interests on the other hand are all over the government, like a rash. Jews perforce have had to fall back on the path of least resistance. Two feeble dictums have been the Jewish Board’s rule of thumb: 1) Do and say nothing that might close government doors on dialogue, and 2) Avoid offending the nation by offending its favorite son, Archbishop Tutu. It was soon made obvious that both sacred cows 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, grand kleptomaniac, inciter, and diplomatic thorn in Israel’s body; but most horrendous of all, the political head of the terror group Hamas.
If the ruling party must be appeased, the nation’s icon, Desmond Tutu, must be worshiped. Without lifting a finger, the wily cleric can tie the Jewish community in knots. Tutu wins contests by grinning, while the Jews tear into one another over him. In 2011, a brave (or foolhardy) handful campaigned to get Tutu removed as Trustee of the Holocaust Centre, a quirky honor to bestow on a man given to naked anti-Jewish remarks. After a hue and cry, the petitioners ducked from sight, and their trial balloon popped before it could be truly floated. By standing off and grinning, Tutu has won every tussle with the community — and there have been many.
Further conflict in the Jewish community arose over another issue. There is nothing a liberal Jew likes more than to posture. Josh Broomberg, head of the debating team at King David school in Johannesburg, donned the Palestinian scarf at an inter-school debate. The image went viral. The community, tightly knit after a 12,000 strong pro-Israel rally, grappled with a national scandal. The boy apologized. The apology, like the keffiyeh, was a trademark posture, borrowing the wild claims and self-contradictions of Jews who are ashamed of Israel. Rather than tear the boy’s statement to pieces, parts of the community tore the boy, his family, and the school to pieces.
Israel-haters were quick to capitalize. Five hundred Jews found it in their capricious conscience to sign a letter in support of the boy. The ruling ANC party, which votes at the UN with Iran and other beacons of freedom, lionized the hero Jew of the day: “…We applaud the principled stance on the injustice of the Israeli aggression against the defenseless people of Palestine.” What could education heads do or say that would not inflame the big Jew-bash, other than issue a textbook statement.
Today it is difficult for a Jew not to feel the weight of living in South Africa. The problem is partly that President Jacob Zuma and his cronies act like Ali Baba and his 40 thieves. And economic and social indicators are heading to hell in a basket. But one development weighs above all: that old bogeyman has come back to haunt a Diaspora community. Baiting and banging away at the Jew among nations is a proven device for diverting anger or catching votes. Zuma — a clinger to power — is savvy: he knows to monitor the angry pulse of the electorate.
Meanwhile, his party members are under a travel ban. Those who want to go to Israel to see and judge for themselves, go at the cost of their party card. It’s a penalty not to be taken lightly; ANC members can live off the fat of the land without doing an honest day’s work. So comrades keep blinkers on, while knocking away at Zionists and that “illegal Apartheid state, Israel.”
Brazen BDS tactics are another poke in the community abdomen. If life for Jews on campus is not dangerous, it’s not comfortable either. Jewish events have been rudely disrupted by vandals. Physical attacks are bad enough. Token assaults on rules and values that Jews hold dear, have an equal power to shock. When activists contrived to snuck a pig’s head onto a kosher counter at a supermarket, the image cut deep to Jewish nerve roots. Though the culprits mistook the Halaal counter for the kosher one, the comedy was not so funny at a time of multi-pronged assaults on the normality of Jewish life. To make life still hotter, BDS has formed a triumvirate with the media. The development was inevitable after the premier newspaper group in the land was bought by a Muslim affiliated with the ruling party.
Melodrama upon melodrama: Jewish life on the tip of Africa taking on the flavors of a Bollywood production. If you look for a silver lining in the dark cloud, it peeks out tenderly and intermittently, as if not to give the Jews in exile, not even at the bottom of Africa, false hope.
Steve Apfel is Director of the School of Management Accounting in Johannesburg. He also directs The Writing Artists’ Room, offering creative ideas and content to corporate clients. His first book, Hadrian’s Echo: the whys and wherefores of Israel’s critics, was received with critical acclaim. His latest book, Enemies of Zion, is due out in 2016. His articles appear in several international journals.