exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
Jacqui Benson reflects on the deep challenges still faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa, and calls on Jewish South Africans to better understand what it means to be 'allies' to the LGBTQIA+ community.
17 May marks International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. On that day this year I stood on Monwabisi Beach in Khayelitsha with approximately 40 others at a memorial organized by Triangle Project. We were there to honour and commemorate ten of our fellow ‘siblings’ of the LGBTQIA+ ‘family’, who, since 12 February 2021, had been violently murdered simply because of their sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity.
Since the 17 May the number of victims, ranging in age from 22 to 48, now stands at 14.
Of the 40 people present, and amongst a handful of other white people, I was one of two Jews.
Why is this relevant?
"In the Jewish community, discrimination shows up as a veil of silence, the things we do not talk about, the ‘unmentionables.’ "
Because of my whiteness, I am amongst the privileged. Women’s-studies academic, Peggy McIntosh describes this type of privilege as "an invisible package of unearned assets". I could get in my car after the event and drive the 11km to my house, where my partner was waiting with dinner and a warm fire. Unlike the majority of my fellow attendees, I did not have to make my way home in a taxi and then walk the streets in the dark. Unlike them, I was not at risk of something happening to me. I was acutely reminded of this when a lovely young man of 26 walked me to my car, and shared how he, who clearly identified as a gay man, felt that now more than ever he was not safe in his own neighbourhood. The threat of violence, even if only emotional abuse and ridicule because he is gay, lurks around every corner. There was an appeal that night for everyone to do their best to walk in groups and stay home.
These moments always get me thinking.
I experienced a deep level of sadness, and even guilt. Whilst it is not easy being someone who identifies as openly queer, even in the Jewish community, my white skin still protects me in a way that others, who live a mere 10km away, are not protected.
"Jewish Pride" at the Cape Town Pride parade in 2019.
In the Jewish community, discrimination shows up as a veil of silence, the things we do not talk about, the ‘unmentionables.’ For many years I felt like I was the only queer person in the community, and this was reflected back to me, when I started speaking at communal events. Countless times people came up to me after an event to either out themselves, or acknowledge some member of their immediate family as being part of the LGBTQIA+ ‘family’. The consequences of this ‘veil of silence’ can be tragic. Two years ago a young man from our community took his own life out of fear that his sexuality would make him stand out.
As progressive as our country’s legislation is -- something we advertise across the world -- there is plenty more that needs to be done to ensure equality for all. The sad reality is that LGBTQIA+ rights are not afforded to most people at ground level. And, whilst the legislation exists, it is not implemented across all sectors of our society. Prejudice and discrimination continue to exist. We have to look no further than the recent incident at DF Malan High School to expose how a government school has failed in its duty to protect its learners from abuse, bullying, and discrimination. Rather, the school told learners who identify as LGBTQIA+ not to bring attention to themselves and proceeded to blame them for the bullying they faced. Victim-shaming of the worst kind.
What compounds the situation is that within our own Jewish community issues such as gender-based violence (GBV) and LGBTQIA+ inclusion are not adequately discussed. Currently, we as a community are doing very little to advocate for all communities and persons that are impacted.
Some progress has been made in our own community. I am the first openly queer identifying Jewish person on the Cape SAJBD. This certainly means something. Along with other faith-community leaders, the Cape SABJD’s chairperson put out a video on social media at the end of April speaking out against GBV. In 2018, as part of their “No Place for Hate” campaign, the Cape SAJBD also put together a booklet: Cultivating understanding and unity with LGBTQIA+ individuals in our community. These are all steps in the right direction, but it is a drop in the ocean against the pandemic of GBV in our country, which includes LGBTQIA+ hate crimes. We should not pat ourselves on the back for these small tokens.
As long as our community continues to see and talk about these issues as if it is “their” problem -- and not an issue for our own community -- we perpetuate the problem.
Although it is encouraging that Rabbi Bryan Opert sought to address the problem of GBV within the Jewish community in an article that appeared on DafkaDotCom (13/10/2020), I fear that if we were to follow the approach offered by Rabbi Opert, we would be doing our community and our community’s youth a great disservice. In his article Opert suggests that the community needs to use “non-alienating language” when speaking about GBV in our community. Essentially, he suggests, that the language we use to speak to young men in our community about GBV needs to be calibrated to address our specific communal concerns, so that the young men can “hear” what is said. Otherwise, Opert suggests, we risk alienating them when engaging around GBV.
"The Jewish community cannot keep expecting others outside of the community to help in the important role of tackling antisemitism whilst continuing to look the other way when the LGBTQIA+ community is under attack ..."
That the male students at a Jewish day school of whom he writes “appeared unwilling to ‘hear’ the issues and were ready to challenge what the female students said” is in fact what I feel is most disturbing. These young men carry privilege. They can stand up and articulate for themselves when they see wrong-doing. Yet, they do not seem to realise that despite being part of a very small and privileged minority, they also hold tremendous power. I would argue that what these young men actually need is to be taught to listen, to recognize their power, and to pay attention to the challenges faced by those who do not possess their privilege. Instead of trying to make them comfortable in engaging on these issues, they need to confront the reasons for their discomfort.
The world is still skewed towards a heteronormative, cis-gendered narrative. Those of us who do not conform, and do not identify in this way, continue to be marginalized and have our voices suppressed. Often the simple fear of being judged is what keeps us silent. But very real fears about our physical safety and security is what will keep us closeted. What then is the solution?
As a community, we have a lot of work to do, both internally and in our interactions with our fellow South Africans. As a community we need to better understand what it means to be an ally to others. The Jewish community cannot keep expecting others outside of the community to help in the important role of tackling antisemitism whilst continuing to look the other way when the LGBTQIA+ community is under attack, be it misgendering, ‘locker room’ talk, or violent hate crimes. Similar to the SAJBD’s call for solidarity with the unjust and irrational treatment of the Chinese community following the outbreak of Covid-19, we as a community must take a stand and speak up and out for the LGBTQIA+ community – many of whom are members of our own community. Communal leadership must commit itself to do the work.
Reflecting on the world views and lived experiences of those who do not look and sound like us is an important part of this, as is creating facilitated spaces where real discussion happens. I would love, for example, to see Rabbi Opert take those same young men to a home for abused women and put their hands and bodies to use in cleaning, painting and upgrading that home in any way that can provide those women with an enhanced place of safety. They would do well to reflect on their experience, and particularly to understand how women end up in circumstances such as that.
It is long overdue for us to take heed of the experiences of other South Africans – and to act and speak up and out.
*Globally, June is known as Pride Month. In the southern hemisphere, Pride celebrations often fall during the summer. Since its first historic Pride parade on 13 October 1990, Joburg Pride takes place in October.
Jacqui Benson (they/them) identifies as a South African, queer Jewish social activist. This month they co-founded Shemah Koleinu, a South African LGBTQIA+ initiative to support the community. They are also co-founder and admin of a Facebook community group called Jewish LGBTQIA+ and Allies and are part of a newly established group of inter-faith community leaders, called the Queer Faith Collective -- a collective who are committed to uniting against discrimination to create safe spaces for all LGBTQIA+ people in South Africa and on the African continent.