Are We Sounding the ‘Oy Vey’ Alarm Unnecessarily?

By David Jacobson

The incredible outpouring of sentiment, argument and anguish around the ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign in Cape Town, South Africa (a campaign started by black students at the University of Cape Town asking for the statue of arch-colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes to be removed) and the Jewish community mobilisation from our own ‘Kippahs Against Hate’ campaign (a campaign of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies started after three religious Jewish students were verbally and physically assaulted) got me to thinking. How do we balance the memory of a traumatic past or a harrowing event with the need to always reflect the hope and light that is legacy of our creator? There is something spiritually powerful about holding up examples of positive achievement, of success and triumph, as vehicles for propelling an individual and a society forward. We are more likely to want to do better, to be better, if we are surrounded by people and images and indeed memories that reflect this optimistic reality. Simply put: positivity breeds positivity.

It is far more inspirational to turn to the sports pages of the paper to be greeted by the triumph of the human spirit than sink in the stories of crime and corruption that populate the front pages. Immersing ourselves solely in ‘good news stories’, however, could create a false sense of complacency and fill our brains with warm and woolly thoughts. This could then could preclude us from averting real danger and facing a harsh but necessary reality.

That is a dilemma facing us as a Jewish community in Cape Town and the same dilemma faced by Jewish communities around the globe. Do we paint a picture of a community under threat, holding up examples of racism and hate, or we do shine the light on the incredible lives that most Jews continue to enjoy in our respective countries of birth?

We have just finished celebrating Pesach. Perhaps more than any other Jewish festival, Pesach is very much about that delicate balance between past trauma and present possibilities. At the Seder we look backwards, acknowledging the pain of slavery, the cruelty of Pharaoh, while at the same time celebrating the freedom that accompanied this dark period and the nation that was formed by our departure from Egypt. And we look forward to ‘next year in Jerusalem’ – a constant reminder that we carry our values forward with hope and do not let the baggage of our painful past slow us down. If we only ever bemoaned the trauma of our Jewish past, we would not have been able to contribute so powerfully to the present and the future.

It is this balancing act that Jewish leaders must get right. If we focus too much on incidents of hate and anger, we run the risk of creating a picture that will paralyse any possibility of moving forward. There is necessary vigilance and then there is unhealthy hysteria.

Our core responsibility has to be to enable our communal future by inspiring our community with the light that shines from so many of our Jewish individuals and Jewish organisations. That is without doubt our best protection against the forces of darkness.

David Jacobson is the executive director of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies.