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Could South Africa go the French route?

by GEOFF SIFRIN | Feb 19, 2015
One effect of the cringe-worthy circus Parliament became last week during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, was to revive the whinge-sessions many whites - Jews and others - frequently indulge in. “How terrible it is here! The crime, corruption, Eskom switching off the lights, potholes in the roads which never get fixed, Nkandla...”
The well-known script usually ends like this: “The country is going down the tubes! If only we had left for Australia, the UK, Israel or other places as our relatives and friends did years ago!”
Zuma’s gleeful face as EFF parliamentarians were physically thrown out of the Chamber didn‎’t help. He seemed contemptuous of the effect this spectacle had on citizens.
In stark contrast, European Jews’ desire to leave countries like France, is not about whether they are well-run, but fear for their safety. European countries are experiencing their worst levels of anti-Semitism in decades, including killings, desecration of Jewish graves - some 300 in France reported this week - and rabid hate speech on social media.
In the UK, an all-party Parliamentary inquiry into anti-Semitism, is suggesting that on social media like Twitter and Facebook, prevention orders like those restricting sex offenders' access, could be used to ban users spreading racial hatred.
People who carry out hate crimes could be prevented from using social media, increasingly a hotbed for anti-Semitism and other bigotry. The report said the terms "Hitler" and "Holocaust" were among the top 35 phrases relating to Jews during last year’s Gaza conflict. The hashtags "Hitler" and "genocide" featured with "high frequency". The "Hitler Was Right" hashtag spread worldwide in July 2014.
In a bizarre reaction to the fear European Jews live in, in the wake of the recent Paris and other killings, an Israeli salon is producing a hair-based kippah as a camouflage for Jews who don't want to stand out in public - they could wear this “kosher” kippah, but outsiders would see only hair.
South Africa is not Europe, but we live in dangerous times. The vigour which South African Jews spend whining about the country would be better spent getting involved in improving things. The need is enormous.
There is so much anger under the surface due to poverty, unemployment and racism, that it doesn’t take much to ignite a xenophobic rampage like we saw in 2008 against foreigners perceived to be stealing jobs from South Africans. A Malema-like populist could channel the rage into sinister directions to suit his own agenda - including fostering hate against Jews or others.
Nurturing interfaith links is crucial to counter this. They must be strong, so when trouble comes there is something to lean on.
An intriguing example of interfaith co-operation happened recently in Bradford in the UK, where for the first time a Muslim was co-opted onto the governing council of the Bradford Reform Synagogue. Established in 1880, it is the oldest Reform shul outside London, located in the heart of the Muslim community, who has helped look after it.
Jani Rashid, a Muslim, raised funds last year to repair the roof of the historic building when subscriptions from the 45-strong Jewish congregation were insufficient. He will help make decisions about the building’s day-to-day running, though not the religious aspects. The incident reflects a pocket of unusually close links between Jews and Muslims there, in stark contrast to what is happening in Europe generally.  
Rudi Leavor, the synagogue’s 87-year-old chairman, said: “We want to show the two religions and communities can and will stick together.”
Could this sort of thing happen in South Africa? Could a historic synagogue in Cape Town or Johannesburg have a Muslim on its board? Or could a historic mosque be assisted by a Jewish benefactor? Interfaith co-operation has a proud history here, and through all the recent bad times, relations between Muslims and Jews have remained relatively good.
But in these times, complacency is dangerous, particularly with the appalling standard of our national leaders, as we witnessed in Parliament. We need to keep thinking out of the box to ensure South Africa never goes the route of France.
Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity.

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