exploring the concerns of the south african Jewish community
In this article Benji Shulman argues that a paradigm shift is occurring in how the Jewish community conceives of and engages around 'outreach' and social responsibility. He examines the strengths as well as challenges of the existing models, and proposes that the emergence of a third model, which he terms Darkhei Shalom, can be used to address the current limitations of Jewish philanthropy within the South African context.
Our master taught: For the sake, the poor of the heathens should be supported as we support the poor of Israel, the sick of the heathens should be visited as we visit the sick of Israel, and the dead of the heathens should be buried as we bury the dead of Israel - The Talmud
EARLY one November morning a group of young people is preparing to take part in one of Johannesburg’s major cycle races. They hail from Vosloorus, a township in Gauteng, and train regularly to ensure that they are fit enough to race. They are part of a development programme, and as such their kit and bikes are sponsored. At first glance this might resemble any other youth development initiative for aspiring sportspeople from a disadvantaged area. But it is, in fact, much more than that. The riders are Christian Zionist activists from the Hope of Glory Tabernacle (a local church) and members of the pro-Israel group DEISI (Defend, Embrace, Invest-In and Support Israel).
"Jewry in post-apartheid South Africa have largely organised philanthropy around two different conceptual approaches; what I have termed Hessed and Tikkun Olam... programmes like Ride4Africa-Israel ...suggest the emergence of a third concept ... ."
They are part of the team Ride4Africa-Israel and are riding with members of the Jewish community. They race side-by-side flying both the South African and Israeli flags proudly displaying their affiliation to the passing crowds. The money raised through the race is donated to an initiative that provides water and agriculture technologies from Israel to projects in their own community and others around Johannesburg.
Jewry in post-apartheid South Africa have largely organised philanthropy around two different conceptual approaches; what I have termed Hessed and Tikkun Olam. I believe that programmes like Ride4Africa-Israel, and a host of others emerging in the arenas of music, healthcare, sport, environment and rural development, suggest the emergence of a third concept which I call Darkhei Shalom, or the Ways of Peace. This article will examine the strengths as well as challenges and limitations of the two existing paradigms, and then describe how the concept of the Darkhei Shalom can be used to address these limitations within the South African context.
The word Hessed is usually translated as ‘acts of loving-kindness’. For the purpose of this article I use the term Hessed to describe a wide-range of organised charitable efforts aimed specifically at securing the well-being of the South African Jewish community. The ‘mini welfare state’ has been a feature of organised Jewish existence since the time of the bible. The South Africa community is no exception and boasts a wide array of programmes aimed at alleviating poverty within the community, providing interest-free loans, facilitating education, caring for the elderly and disabled, assisting members of the community with finding and securing employment, organising security and medical services, and much more.
The benefits from this social safety net are enormous, and include the creation of conditions for a stable and sustainable community, increased cross-communal solidarity and a reduction of risk for individuals. Perhaps most importantly in the South African context, it aids vulnerable community members otherwise dependent on a capricious public sector. In short, it creates the space for the community to act autonomously in an unstable economic and political environment. The institutions that South African Jewry have built are remarkable even by global standards. The success of the communal welfare sector is testimony to the work of those involved in Hessed – a sector which needs to be both innovative and systematic in its approaches to the community’s welfare.
"Given South Africa’s history it is not hard to see how the community could be seen as an aloof and elitist minority, a dangerous position in a populist atmosphere."
Despite all this effort, in a South African context, a Hessed approach to philanthropy does have limits. The everyday political discourse of the country is peppered with phrases like “post-apartheid”, “white privilege”, and “radical economic transformation”. A strategy based solely on Hessed risks being complicit in not contributing to the legitimate needs of the surrounding society. Given South Africa’s history it is not hard to see how the community could be seen as an aloof and elitist minority, a dangerous position in a populist atmosphere. In order to avoid this situation, something more is needed in how we engage with and understand philanthropy.
Loosely translated as ‘to repair the world’, Tikkun Olam was originally conceived of as a spiritual endeavour to bring about the messianic age. In contemporary times the term has come to mean ‘social action’ or ‘social justice’, mainly aimed towards non-Jewish groups and individuals. The concept is one of the potential responses to the challenges and limitations posed by Hessed as it currently operates in the South Africa context. It is also the other major pole around which South African Jewish philanthropy is currently organised. Some years ago the South African Jewish Board of Deputies put together a book, Jubuntu, detailing around thirty such initiatives. For Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday a network of Tikkun Olam activists and organisations, known as Mensch, claimed an impact on 7,000 people in South Africa with more than fourteen projects and two hundred participants. These initiatives are often supported by Jewish foundations and communal bodies, philanthropists and money from CSI (Corporate Social Investment) initiatives with ties to the community. The extent of Tikkun Olam-type initiatives being undertaken by the South African Jewish community is remarkable and shows a genuine commitment to social justice and to achieving an equitable South Africa
Despite the impressive achievements, the Tikkun Olam model also has its limitations. Proponents of Tikkun Olam tend to see such work as an end in itself, with the ultimate goal being the creation of an entirely just and equitable society. Whilst there might be a Jewish motivation for such work, in general a Jewish interest is incidental, and not part of the conceptual framework. Jews are seen to benefit tangentially from Tikkun Olam activism because they too would benefit from a more just society in the long term. However, a more equitable society does not automatically translate into greater inclusion for the South African Jewish community into broader South African society. Whilst economics can clearly inflame anti-Jewish prejudice, recent events in Western Europe suggest it is by no means the only factor contributing towards a rise in antisemitism. Nor does the work of Tikkun Olam activists necessarily improve the standing of Jews in the eyes of the rest of society, especially if it is done without some explicit Jewish connection.
"Some of the most active civil society groups and organisations in South Africa have at various times come into conflict with the Jewish community, particularly around Israel and Zionism."
It is worth noting that a recent survey by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, University of Cape Town, found that black South Africans generally do not identify Jews as contributing in any distinct way to the socio-economic upliftment of South Africa. In addition, the ‘Social Justice Uber Alles’ ethic of Tikkun Olam organisations can also sometimes pose a problem. Some of the most active civil society groups and organisations in South Africa have at various times come into conflict with the Jewish community, particularly around Israel and Zionism. This creates a dilemma as to how far Tikkun Olam initiatives can go in working with certain sectors of South African society in this area.
From time to time proponents of both Hessed and Tikkun Olam approaches have butted heads in communal debates. It is not my purpose to argue for decreasing the role of either, only to note that both approaches have limitations and operate in a resources scarce environment. It is also to contextualise these two pre-existing models and perhaps explain why a third way of approaching social responsibility has emerged.
‘The ways of Peace’ are set of mishniac axioms developed in the Babylonian post-exile period. In effect they suggest ways in which Jews can reach out and support their non-Jewish neighbours. The suggestions of the ancient sages included visiting the sick, supporting the poor and burying the dead. In other words to take an interest in the material, every-day problems facing other communities. On the face of it these kinds of activities are no different to anything that one might find in a standard Tikkun Olam to-do list. But while the actions might be similar, the goals of Darkhei Shalom and Tikkun Olam are quite different. Tikkun Olam initiatives tend to focus on long-term universal justice. The goal of Darkhei Shalom, on the other hand, is to create ‘peace’ between Jews and their neighbours. This has practical effects on how one thinks about creating outreach programmes.
It means, for instance, that programmes and activities are explicitly connected to the Jewish community. This might mean that they are publicly ‘branded’ as being an initiative of the Jewish community or are carried out with a communal objective in mind, such as opportunities for youth engagement or to improve relations with a particular organisation. It also means that projects have explicit Jewish interests which are prioritised over overarching ideas of social justice. An example of this would be if a project rejected additional funding from certain sources because it might put its ‘Jewish branding’ at risk. Rabbi Jonathan Saks argues that the Talmud uses the word “heathen” in its description, because it shows that even communities that the Jewish community might have nothing in common with can be supported in the ‘pursuit of peace’. As such, it might mean that an initiative could involve communities or groups who hold different world-views to that of the South African Jewish community.
"A Darkhei Shalom approach asks us to consider what giving might mean in terms of specifically creating peace between the Jewish community and broader South African society."
Lastly, it means thinking about the recipients of community largesse. A Tikkun Olam approach would view any indigent person or community as a potential recipient of community support. A Darkhei Shalom approach asks us to consider what giving might mean in terms of specifically creating peace between the Jewish community and broader South African society. For example, one of the issues that ‘disturbs the peace’ of the South African Jewish community is the problem of anti-Israel activism. There are, however, many in South Africa that are supportive of the Jewish community or are pro-Israel who suffer from the same poverty as the rest of the country. A Darkhei Shalom approach suggests that we think carefully about how communal resources are allocated. Essentially, this approach considers both the needs and interests of the Jewish community as well as that of the community being assisted.
What would this look like in practice?
Over the last few years a number of new initiatives have emerged that could fall under the Darkhei Shalom model. A few examples include the Mensch Network, mentioned earlier, which helps bring Jewish ethics and support to social justice organistions; Sounds of Celebration, where Sydenham Shul runs a yearly Jewish led, multi-faith youth music festival that supports Marimba band training for underprivileged children; Project Ten, run by the Zionist Federation and Jewish Agency, which brings Israeli and Jewish volunteers from around the world to do community work with social action organisations in Durban; and the Makhekwane: Your Neighbour Project run by Habomin Shaliach, Danny Abede, where Jewish youth travel to Soweto to tutor young children.
There is much opportunity for expansion on these initiatives. I will offer but three examples. First, rural development is a particularly important cause given that some of the poorest and most destitute South Africans live in rural areas. Israeli technologies are uniquely placed to help alleviate some of the hardships these communities face. This includes innovations in agriculture, water, health and energy. The South African Friends of Israel (SAFI), for example, has built strong relations with the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini. Israeli medical expertise and Jewish medical experts, as well as financial resources from Jewish foundations and Jewishly-connected CSI initiatives, have been used to assist the King’s community. The King specifically mentioned this assistance when he addressed the ANC’s ‘top six’, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, earlier in the year. In his address he spoke out against the ANC’s 2017 policy decision to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel to a liaison office. Leveraging the Jewish community’s medical resources with groups like Cadena in the area of disaster relief and humanitarian aid would be another obvious contribution that could be made under ‘a Jewish brand’.
'...thinking strategically about philanthropy can simultaneously benefit South Africa and the Jewish community. '
Second, would be in the area of education, which is a crucial means for South Africans hoping to escape poverty, and which is also one of the foremost issues facing South African campuses. Jewish philanthropists and initiatives give enormous amounts to assisting Jewish and non-Jewish students at universities but don’t do it under any explicit Jewish umbrella. The support is already budgeted for in various organisations so simply coming together to lead the conversation in this area would already be an easy and effective strategy. Nor is there much assistance given to non-Jewish students who are helpful to the Jewish community in assisting with the fraught political context of South African campuses. Universities could be a source of significant goodwill to the Jewish community instead of being one of considerable animus.
Lastly, another obvious area is the business sector. The South African Jewish community is well known for its success in this area and already has networks and organisations that represent business interests. There is an emerging middle-class in South Africa that is interested in building assets and networks. With focused outreach there are real opportunities for the development of partnerships. A great place to start would be to use some of the excellent entrepreneurial work being done by groups such as ORT and the community could create a ‘Brand Jewish’ business development available for the wider South African public.
These are just but a few brief examples that demonstrate that thinking strategically about philanthropy can simultaneously benefit South Africa and the Jewish community. In a society with no end of need, we already make difficult choices about were to allocate our charitable resources. All we need to do is add an additional dimension to our thinking about giving.
Benji Shulman hails from Johannesburg, South Africa. He has an Msc in Geography from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and is currently the executive director of the South Africa-Israel Forum (SAIF). He is a former chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) and an environmental educator for the Jewish National Fund (JNF). In the last decade he has helped pioneer efforts to create grassroot support for Israel in broader South African society. He hosts a weekly current affairs show on 101.9 ChaiFM and is a regular Limmud volunteer.