On Friday 20 March 2020, refugee groups from all over Johannesburg will be meeting to enjoy the first-ever International Refugee Shabbat dinner in South Africa. It’s being organised under the auspices – and inspired by the work 0f – the US-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), set up in 1881 to help Jews flee the pogroms in Eastern Europe.
The dinner will be held at Hillbrow’s iconic Temple Israel, a meeting place in the melting pot of the financial capital of the continent where people can come together to discuss inter-faith matters and indeed issues of humanity. Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is an important time in the Jewish week, allowing us not just time to pray and observe our faith but to come together as families and as a community to break bread and discuss things that are close to our hearts, things that need to be resolved.
It’s an auspicious time; the eve of South Africa’s own Human Rights Day commemorating one of the most appalling betrayals of those very rights in Sharpeville 60 years ago this year. It’s an opportune moment to remind us all of our common humanity through speakers of the calibre of Rwandan refugee Gabriel Hertis, who will give first-hand testimony of life as a refugee in South Africa, and Bishop Henry De Nett from Ramaphosa informal settlement near Ekurhuleni’s Reiger Park, where Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave was infamously burnt to death in 2008.
As Jews, refugees have a particular resonance with us far more than the biblical injunction to welcome strangers into our homes; for much of our history we have been refugees ourselves. We know all too well the pain of people searching for safety, especially in places they would consider their homes yet find themselves being victimised, made to be the “other”. There have been many occasions when Jews have been refugees; since the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem all the way through to the Holocaust itself.
Today we have become witness to one of the largest humanitarian crises in human history, with more than 70 million people who have been forced to flee their homes because of persecution and violence – and yet the world remains largely blind to their plight and deaf to their pleas. South Africa’s Jewish community has a past generation who have first-hand knowledge of what it is like to leave the comfort of what they think is their home, only to find themselves in a foreign environment searching for safety.
Here in South Africa, we are all too aware of refugees who have fled political violence or food insecurity in the countries to our north. Cape Town has been the site of an ongoing and still unresolved protest by refugees since last October, traversing from the UNHCR to the CBD itself. The bitter irony for refugees to this country is that they could be forgiven for thinking that given our country’s own tortured history that they would have been met with empathy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the horrific outbreaks of xenophobia have all too clearly demonstrated, overlaid by the callousness and often downright indifference of officialdom.
There are many civil society groups doing a great job to provide physical aid to these refugees, from legal advice to food kitchens and shelter, but what we want to achieve through this dinner is to convey to South Africans the importance of the manner of how we treat refugees and, in an era of increasingly strident identity politics, how we treat each other.
I am already involved in this work wearing my other hat as the founder and director of the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre. I firmly believe that the outbreak of violence and trajectory to genocide begins with how we speak to, and about, one another. South Africans need to be sensitised as to what can happen when bigoted rhetoric is left unchecked, when it becomes normalised for some human beings to be regarded as less and others as more. We shouldn’t have to in view of our own past where so many of us middle-aged and older South Africans were indoctrinated to understand that skin colour reflects our capacity as human beings, but sadly we do.
The good news is that there has been a change in the way people speak in this country thanks to the successful prosecution of some of the most hateful utterances on social media. People are starting to think before they speak which is a very pleasing evolution, because they have been made aware of the toxic effect of their utterances the hard way – through criminal sanction; fines and even jail terms.
Much more work still needs to be done; there has to be a limit to the concept of the right to freedom of expression when it comes to spewing evil and whipping up racial hatred. We have to be eternally vigilant, especially of social media platforms which extremists use for their own ends to propagate their bile and even live-stream their atrocities as we saw in the shootings in a New Zealand mosque and in a German synagogue last year – when a terrorist even opted to vlog in English to ensure his message would have a wider audience, even though he himself was a native German speaker.
The only way to fight discrimination and prejudice is through dialogue and solidarity, through which we re-affirm our common humanity. On 20 March, we do this as South Africans, Africans and as human beings, confirming our commitment to one another. The situation in our country is already incredibly tough; from political rhetoric to economic recession, how much more so must it be for people who regard South Africa as their haven – but don’t feel welcome, or safe? DM
"Revolution will free society of its afflictions while science will free the individual of his." ~ Mario Vargas Llosa
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