exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article Marlene Silbert looks at the importance of interfaith spaces for the South African Jewish community. She focuses on an Interfaith-Intercultural Youth Programme, aimed at grade 10 & 11 learners from schools across the Cape Metropole, which she initiated under the auspices of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative. She further discusses the potential that interfaith collaboration can hold for the South African Jewish community.
The Interfaith-Intercultural Youth Programme helps us understand and respect differences and make friends with one another. I have learnt not to react badly when people offend me unintentionally because they make uniformed statements. As ambassadors of the Interfaith Programme we should respectfully engage such people and help them to become informed and change their mind-set (Grade 11 learner, Herzlia High School).
RECENT estimates suggest that nearly ninety percent of all Jewish children in South Africa attend Jewish community day schools. Many also attend Jewish youth movements. De facto, this means that the vast majority of our children have very little, if any, meaningful engagement with the full diversity of broader South African society. And, of course, the converse holds true: there is very little opportunity for broader South African society to engage with and learn about Jews and the Jewish community, particularly at a younger age.
"Prejudice towards Jewish South Africans can derive from not having any engagement or meaningful dialogue with members of the South African Jewish community."
This is not just an issue facing the Jewish community in South Africa. It is, however, this social and cultural chasm within South African society that interfaith programmes try to address, some with greater success than others.
Until recently most communities in South Africa lived in relative isolation from each other and had very little opportunity for meaningful contact and interaction with people from different races, faiths and cultures. However, in post-apartheid South Africa we are beginning to live closer together than ever before. We now live in the conscious presence of ‘difference’, within schools, workplaces – even within our own community. Our lives have become interwoven, yet our ‘differences’ still seem to drive us apart, resulting in ongoing ‘othering’ and an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ way of engaging with each other. The issue we as a society should explore with urgency is whether diversity can contribute to conciliation, rather than being a source of division and conflict. This, of course, will depend on how people from different faiths, beliefs, races, cultures, or sexual orientations make space for ‘the other -- the one who is not like us’.
Prejudice towards Jewish South Africans can derive from not having any engagement or meaningful dialogue with members of the South African Jewish community. Most South Africans, as per the results of the Kaplan Centre’s attitudinal survey of Black South Africans towards Jewish South Africans , know very little, if anything, about Jews and therefore are more open to negative stereotyping.
The establishment of interfaith/ inter-cultural initiatives can have a positive and meaningful impact on the South African Jewish community through achieving the following objectives:
-- To develop greater understanding between our community and broader South African society. -- To challenge negative perceptions and stereotyping of South African Jewry. -- To combat all forms of antisemitism. -- To equip the younger members of our community with the necessary skills to have meaningful and respectful conversations and negotiate situations they might be confronted with post their schooling careers. -- To work towards the creation of a just society in which we can live together peaceably.
It is thus vitally important to create opportunities for young people from our community to engage in meaningful interactions and dialogue with youth from broader South African society, and be part of a space where people listen, speak, and learn from those perceived to be the ‘different other’.
In an effort to achieve these objectives, I initiated an Interfaith Intercultural Youth Programme in 2011 under the auspices of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative. The Programme extends over a two-year period and involves four Grade 10 and Grade 11 pupils from nine schools situated in different geographic locations within the Cape Metropole. Prior to their involvement in the Programme few, if any, of the pupils had any contact with peers from different races, faiths, or ethnic backgrounds. Thus far, over three hundred pupils, from fifteen different schools (including Herzlia High), have participated in this Programme.
The stated aims and objectives of the Programme are as follows:
-- To provide an opportunity for our youth to engage in meaningful dialogue and interaction. -- To create a greater understanding of self and others. -- To forge meaningful relationships. -- To respect the dignity of difference, develop an appreciation of the value of diversity and understand that the values inherent in all religions are very similar. -- To promote empathy, respect for human rights and human dignity, and to create an understanding of responsibility and social activism. -- To combat all forms of prejudice and injustice. To enhance self-esteem and self-development, and empower young people to work actively towards transformation. -- To develop leadership skills.
During the first year of the programme the participants meet one afternoon a month – each session is hosted by a different school. The focus is on identity (Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?). The sessions also explore issues such as prejudice, racism, discrimination, marginalisation, cyber-bullying, xenophobia, homophobia, the role and responsibility of citizens in a democracy, and the value of diversity. During the course of the Programme the participants discuss the Charter for a Compassionate School, which I constructed and to which all learners who take part in the Programme commit. The Charter for a Compassionate School has been enthusiastically endorsed by school principals and senior educators in the Western Cape Department of Education who are investigating the possibility of including it in the national school curriculum. During the mid-year Programme the learners visit different places of worship where they are addressed by the faith leaders. They also spend a morning at the Holocaust Centre, and visit Robben Island and the District Six Museum. During the second year of the Programme, when the participants are in Grade 11, they tutor disadvantaged learners from Bonteheuwel one afternoon each week throughout the academic year. This component is organised in partnership with the Amy Foundation.
"Due to the divided society in which we still live in South Africa, it is not always easy for young people to meet peers from different communities and get to know them".
Although not without its challenges, the Programme has been most successful. The following evaluation extracts by two of the Programme’s participants attest to the way in which deeply entrenched negative attitudes and stereotypes, which many young people have not only about Jews but people they perceive to be different from themselves, have been shifted:
What an incredible experience we have had. I have been at a Muslim school all my life and only had Muslim friends. This programme has broadened my vision, given me the opportunity to make new and wonderful friends from different religions and backgrounds – friendships which I will forever treasure (Learner, Islamia College)
The activities we had made such a difference to me and they have given me the confidence to speak out and share my thought. [The programme] taught me not to pre-judge people and make assumptions about them. I have changed the way I used to think and talk about Muslims and any other people I thought were different from me. You took me out of my shell and comfort zone and encouraged me to interact and learn more about other cultures and religions. You have truly made me a better person. (Learner, Zola Business School, Khayelitsha)
People so often seem to be consumed by prejudice, a dislike – or hatred of others. This type of hatred is frequently driven by a national or political ideology. A very pertinent example is anti-Zionism, which can often become an expression for antisemitism. All Jews are collectively held responsible for actions of the State of Israel which is demonised, rather than criticised. People have turned a blind eye to antisemitic incitement and hate-speech. Antisemitism seems of limited concern. Most people see racism everywhere but antisemitism nowhere. At a time when we have witnessed the resurgence of antisemitism – most recently the devastating massacre of 11 Jewish worshipers in Pittsburgh, USA – it is important to be aware that while we do have enemies, we also have friends and opportunities to help shift negative perceptions that people might hold of Jews. Programmes like the Interfaith Intercultural Youth initiative have gone an important way in shifting people’s attitudes.
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of creating an interfaith/intercultural space for the Jewish community in South Africa can be the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Programme recognises that the Israeli-Palestinian issue can be an endless and divisive issue and this often becomes a stumbling block in other interfaith initiatives. We are also cognisant of the very poor level of knowledge that Grade 10 and 11 students may have on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Therefore, our Programme purposefully does not delve into the Middle East issue. Some might argue that not talking about something that has become so prominent in the broader South African discourse could preclude the possibility of any meaningful dialogue. However, as the quote below attests, the Programme has found the opposite to be true.
This was the first time I met Jewish people and it broke down all the stereotypes I had about Jews. I am ashamed of the attitudes I had towards them when I didn’t even know any Jews. I have become a new and better person. This journey has truly been inspirational... I am so grateful for this opportunity to grow from immaturity to maturity (Muslim learner from South Peninsula High School).
Due to the divided society in which we still live in South Africa, it is not always easy for young people to meet peers from different communities and get to know them. It is also disturbing to hear how Jews continue to be stereotyped and scapegoated by people – both young and old, people who have never had any significant contact with Jewish people. We therefore have a responsibility as a community to help create spaces that work towards fostering meaningful engagement between Jewish South Africans and broader South African society. Meaningful dialogue will contribute to the prevention and resolution of conflict by enhancing understanding, cooperation, countering prejudice, building a cohesive society and healing wounds of conflict.
Marlene Silbert is the Former Deputy Principal of Herzlia High School and Founding Education Director of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre. She is the Director of the Interfaith Intercultural Youth programme.