exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
Drawing on the concept of 'alienation in language', Bryan Opert argues that to effectively engage with gender-based violence, interventions and rhetoric must reflect the specific challenges faced by the Jewish community
ADDRESSING the “surge” in gender-based violence and femicide since level 3 lockdown began in mid-July, President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced three bills aimed at “help[ing] to restore the confidence of our country’s women that the law is indeed there to protect them”. The 2019/20 crime statistics, which were released on the 31 July, do not include this “surge” as the statistics don’t cover this period. Considering that the crime statistics already indicated a 1.7% increase in both sexual offences and rape, and a 0.6% rise in common assault against women, it is understandable that many would feel that the authorities have been ineffective in protecting victims of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa.
In 2012, in response to “the rising incidence of sexual and other forms of abuse in the Jewish Community”, Koleinu SA – a helpline for victims of abuse in the Jewish community – was established. Wendy Hendler, co-founder and board member of Koleinu SA, explains: “globally, we know that statistics of GBV within Jewish communities reflect those of the country in which the community is located. This, however, excludes South Africa with its horrific GBV statistics”. Hendler goes on, “while Koleinu SA has dealt with sexual assault, rape and date rape cases, the majority of cases from within the Jewish community are comprised of emotional, verbal, financial and religious abuse”.
"... when a young male from our community reads an article about GBV does he believe that it is personally relevant to him, or is it as foreign as world hunger? "
GBV is a societal crisis that every member of South African society is obliged to tackle. We need to be cognisant that South Africa is a fundamentally heterogenous society, however. Different communities in South Africa face very different challenges, including around GBV. As such, the Jewish community faces specific challenges, which may not necessarily be the same as other communities in South Africa. I am not in any way suggesting that GBV as it impacts any person in South Africa should not be universally abhorred and challenged. I am, however, suggesting that one needs to understand the community within which you operate in order to formulate how best to lead the battle against GBV within it.
A GBV programme led by Koleinu SA with high school students from a co-ed South African Jewish day school demonstrates this point. The school would be considered Modern-Orthodox (school A). The same programme was held with students from a non-Jewish boys-only school of a similar socio-economic bracket (school B). What was particularly fascinating was the respective responses from the male students from each school – which were palpably different between the two schools. The students from school B were immediately receptive to the message, reflecting on their own actions. They were contrite and openly discussed actions of their friends or themselves that could be considered GBV. The response of the male students from school A was notably different. The males seemed to come to the programme ready to defend themselves and were even offended by claims made by the female students. The male students from school A appeared unwilling to ‘hear’ the issues and were ready to challenge what the female students said.
As opposed to assuming the males in this school did not recognise the insidiousness of GBV, or refused to take any personal ownership on the issue, I would rather argue that their response illustrates the power – and implications – of alienating language.
But what can account for these very different responses? In the introduction to the Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains that the Jewish tradition, which has become part of the Jewish psyche and way of social and intellectual engagement, follows the Socratic method of learning through asking and answering questions. Everything in Jewish tradition is – or at least should be – questioned and interrogated – not simply accepted at face value. Whether conscious or not, I would argue that the male students from the Jewish day school were not only distrustful of the narrative being presented to them, but the language it was presented in ‘alienated’ them from the issue. Ostensibly, their response was unfortunate and concerning. Rather, I would argue, these students displayed a need to engage with these issues in a more nuanced way that was more relevant to their own community and, dare I say, themselves. As opposed to the declaration of mea culpa, which is arguably an effective defence mechanism of assumed agreement, the male students from school A essentially challenged the prevailing narrative with which they were confronted. Considering rape or femicide as a natural result of “words leading to damaging actions” is a culpability which these boys, I would argue understandably, were not prepared personally to ‘take on’.
Erich Fromm, in his 1961 exposition on Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, suggests that the most frequent form of alienation, is “alienation in language”. Fromm explains:
If a feeling is expressed with a word, e.g. "I love you," the word is meant to be an indication of the reality which exists within them. But as soon as it is spoken it tends to assume a life of its own. One may be under the illusion that the saying of the word is the equivalent of the experience. Language is one of the most precious human achievements; to avoid alienation by not speaking would be foolish -- yet one must always be aware of the danger of the spoken word, that it threatens to substitute itself for the living experience.
I would argue that “alienation in language” dominates much of the discourse and thinking around GBV, impacting how many engage around (or, rather, disengage from) the issue.
Firstly, as Fromm points out, a statement, no matter how vociferously declared, does not become a reality simply because it has been spoken. As statistics on GBV in South Africa tragically underscore, telling people to do something has no connection to the reality of something actually being done. In its 2018/2019 survey, STATS SA pointed out that despite the millions spent in funding GBV interventions, since 2014 there has been a meagre 2% decrease in sexual assault. I realise that it would be silly to suggest that programmes and campaigns that have helped effect a 2% drop, have no value. I would, however, argue that these are akin to the ‘billboard effect’. One drives past a billboard and sees it for a couple of seconds. It’s real value, however, is keeping the brand in mind, not necessarily selling a product. Or, according to Fromm, the statement is not the reality -- the reality still needs to be created.
Secondly, if I may be permitted to borrow further from Marx, the entire message may also be alienating to many of its intended ‘target audience’. From cat-calling to rape, GBV has become the catch-all phrase for abuse against women. In reference to cat-calling, Gadeeja Abbas of Sonke Gender Justice argues: “those kinds of microaggressions add to the bigger problem. It gives the person that is perpetrating this, the consent or the audacity to continue this kind of behaviour and we don’t know how these things will progress, because words lead to actions”.
"Toxic masculinity, for example, might be an important and useful concept in the social sciences, but I would argue that when such terms are used more as sloganeering, they can be potentially ‘alienating’ to how many males from our community engage around the issue of GBV".
Cat-calling, however, is not rape and “rating girls looks” is not femicide. Cat-calling is arguably part of what some would term ‘rape culture’. Rape, on the other hand, is a serious crime. The former is considered repugnant by our community, the latter horrific. The former, arguably, might be widespread, the latter anomalous. A parent called into a principal’s office to discuss their son’s cat-calling will be in a very different meeting than if their son had raped someone; that meeting should take place at a police station. Conflating these acts into a singular overarching concept, not only threatens to convey little or no nuance, but threatens to alienate many, particularly young males in our community, from a discussion that they need to not only be a part of, but ‘to own’ personally. It moves the discussion from something they can relate to, reflect on and possibly alter their behaviour around (cat-calling), to something they find abhorrent, foreign and alienating (rape).
The alienation I am specifically concerned about is when a young male from our community reads an article about GBV. Does he believe that it is personally relevant to him, or is it as foreign as world hunger? When he sees the word rape or GBV, does he become alienated from the entire article and see it as no longer personally relevant? I am in no way suggesting that there are no rapists in the Jewish community. Tragically, there are. I am suggesting that the far majority of our community are not rapists, but they still need to engage deeply and meaningfully around GBV. Toxic masculinity, for example, might be an important and useful concept in the social sciences, but I would argue that when such terms are used more as sloganeering, they can be potentially ‘alienating’ to how many males from our community engage around the issue of GBV.
In order to effectively engage with GBV in our community, the language needs to become relevant and resonant. As soon as it becomes alienating, very often caused by post-modernist jargon, it becomes impossible to encourage valuable and meaningful engagement. The language we use in GBV interventions and programmes needs to cohere with the experiences and realities of those addressed. Our language needs to be focused, clear, resonant and relevant. GBV is a problem we all need to tackle. But first we need to believe it is our fight.
Bryan Opert holds an Honours degree in Coaching and Education and is completing his Masters in Religious Philosophy at UCT. He is involved in Adult Education and Leadership/Team training in the NGO sector and disadvantaged communities.