My husband is Jewish. I’m married into an extended Jewish family that I love. I have a Jewish stepmother, brother and sister, whom I love dearly too. Since I’m not Jewish, my children are not either, but they are keenly interested in their ancestry. Their father has a large collection of history books about World War 2 and the holocaust. He is ready to answer any of their questions about this dark period of history.
They have read about their father’s great aunt who managed to escape a train to Treblinka, after throwing her baby out of the cattle car. (Both miraculously survived.) We have taken our children to visit holocaust museums in Cape Town, Jerusalem and Washington DC. These experiences are not easy ones, especially for children. But it’s a history they and we must understand and remember.
But that’s not all they must understand and remember.
Both my husband and I grew up in eighties South Africa. We joined anti-apartheid organisations to fight for democracy, and for political, social and economic equality. As a country, we have a long way still to go to achieve equality and reconciliation.
A week in the West Bank
When my children were little, I spent a week in the West Bank. I was working as a journalist and had been invited by the Palestine Liberation Organization to visit Palestine. Along with a photographer, I was based in Ramallah, where we met peacekeepers, politicians and activists.
We also travelled to West Bank cities, visiting holy sites, ancient olive groves, soap factories. We interviewed and spoke with farmers, businesspeople, weavers, artists and mothers. We shared pots of dark coffee and strong mint tea. We ate incredible meals. Neither the photographer nor I are Jewish or Muslim, but we both grew up with Bible stories. It was a remarkable privilege to visit a place of such beauty and historic meaning. We walked through streets wondering who had walked them centuries before us. The experience was bittersweet.
To visit these ancient towns and cities, we drove past illegal Jewish settlements – some as fancy as the multi-million-rand gated communities you see in some of our suburbs – and saw the security setups and separate road networks that run through land occupied in violation of international law.
In one West Bank town, we unknowingly walked into a violent confrontation between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, and had to run for our safety. We also happened to be in Ramallah on Nakba Day, the day that marks the expulsion of most Palestinians from their homes and lands in May 1948. We were in the streets along with protestors, hearing stories of grief and anger.
While on that trip, I was interested in talking to Jewish people about these settlements and how they thought they could be dismantled, so we travelled to West Jerusalem to join a Jewish activist meeting, which required passing through a military checkpoint – one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. A security vehicle slowly followed us after we exited the checkpoint into West Jerusalem. The meeting, however, was not a success. The activists didn’t trust us – we were new faces, and they were frightened of spies – so we were asked to leave.
A few years ago, we celebrated a family bat mitzvah in West Jerusalem, staying in a Catholic convent near an entrance to the Old City. We drank jugs of pomegranate juice, shared in the family’s joy at the Western Wall, went on organised tours of historical Jewish sites, visited Christian churches, and watched the sunset over East Jerusalem.
In Tel Aviv, we joined one of the weekly Friday peace protests, and had a Shabbat meal with Jewish peace activists, cousins of my husband. We took our children into the West Bank to visit the anonymous British artist Banksy’s Walled Off hotel famous for having the “worst view of any hotel in the world”. It is situated against the 9-metre-high concrete wall that cuts through many parts of the land. Although it was a quick, cursory trip into the West Bank, visiting the hotel – also a protest museum and gallery – sparked our children’s interest in the politics of the area and led to interesting and still on-going discussions.
Triggering, carving divisiveness
What is happening right now is triggering for all of us. It continues to carve divisiveness and hatred for people beyond just Jews and Muslims and across the world. Jewish people are reminded of pogroms and the holocaust, and feel vulnerable and threatened by rising, increasingly overt anti-semitism. Millions more experience this unfolding disaster in the context of colonialism, slavery and on-going oppression. In South Africa, people are reminded of the violence of apartheid and persistent structural racism and inequality.
When my children ask me to take them to the protests, we go so that we can walk with our fellow South Africans to listen to their calls for a ceasefire, for peace and for Palestinian freedom. We hear their pain and anger. As a semi-Jewish family, it’s good for us to be there: to listen and to understand.
We are a messy nation. But for those of us sharing land at the tip of Africa, the Rugby World Cup is proof that we are first and foremost South Africans. We collectively watched and celebrated a wonderfully diverse Springbok rugby team win a tough World Cup tournament.
This rugby can teach us that as a nation, we should listen to each other, hear the hurt and fear about what’s happening right now in Gaza. We can collectively appeal for an immediate ceasefire, and for Israelis and Palestinians to listen deeply to each other. Anything else right now is a crime against humanity. Already our children will be suffering the consequences of this brutality for decades, even centuries to come. It must stop. DM