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My bruising encounter with the PC brigade

Every now and again, as a columnist for the SA Jewish Report, I drop a proverbial brick in a hornet’s nest and end up diving for cover. Thus it was a couple of weeks ago, when a column I wrote poking fun at a newly established Jewish women’s lobby group generated far less amusement and a great deal more outrage than I’d anticipated.

Angry feminists are not a protected species, and must be prepared, like everyone else, to have their views challenged occasionally. However, as I discovered to my cost there’s a right way and a wrong way of disagreeing with something, especially when you work for an organisation whose mandate is to manage communal controversies, not enflame them.

The issue itself revolved around a current spat over perceived extensions of the Orthodox religious ban on women singing in public being extended to include non-religious communal events. Specifically, there was much outrage over such a stricture initially being placed on the Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day) celebrations in Johannesburg. This particular issue was subsequently resolved, but before that a local group calling itself Sacred (South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity) had put out a DVD roundly protesting against the decision.

While personally not having especially strong views either way on the matter, the tone and content of the presentation got under my skin, and I joyously waded against it. Specifically, I wrote:

“There will have been a range of reactions to the DVD. Mine was largely one of amusement, since for all the tight-lipped earnestness on display (or, indeed, because of it) the overall effect is unintentionally comic. The humourless self-importance of the speakers combined with how obviously overblown is the actual issue over what they are complaining has a distinctly deflating effect. We are not, after all, talking here about imminent genital mutilation or honour killings. From the portentous tone of the presenters, one would think that at the very least the black hatters are bent on trussing up every female they can find in burkhas and niqabs and administering public floggings whenever a shapely ankle is exposed.”

In his subsequent response, Jeremy Gordin rightly chided me for my overly flippant and smart-ass references to the very real persecution of women that occurs under other faith systems, but that was not the sum total of my sins. Metaphorically giggling at my own cleverness, I had then written:

“So far as Yom Ha’atzma’ut goes, I am happy for my own part simply to be tipped off in advance, so that when the yentas do start their yodelling I am well positioned to make for the nearest exit, hands clamped piously over my tender flappers.”

A Yenta, as I should really have recalled, is a disparaging term for a particularly loud, shrewish and nagging type of Jewish woman. I had fallen into the habit simply of using it in reference to Jewish women in general, including religiously observant ones, but of course no one knew that.

I went on to suggest that what was really bothering the protestors was the fact that the targets of their indignation were quite happily getting along without them:

” … the galling truth of the matter is that seriously Orthodox Jews really couldn’t care what theories of Judaism are doing the rounds in liberal, secular, feminist or cultural Jewish circles. There is nothing the latter would relish more than having the frummes [religiously observant] wade in against what they have to say, even (or, in view of the well-known penchant of Leftists to cast themselves in a martyr’s role, perhaps especially) when this becomes overtly abusive. What is really hard to stomach, however, is being simply ignored.”

The next week’s issue of the newspaper did not make pleasant reading, with Judge Dennis Davis even accusing me of “hate speech”.

I had to climb down, of course, but I was determined not to grovel. Fortunately, I avoided the temptation of starting off with the statement, “In a free and open forum, there can be no SACRED cows (no pun intended) … “, which really would have cooked my goose irrevocably.

Instead, I made various rueful acknowledgments of my tendency to go overboard and jam one or both feet in my mouth and intimated that a plea of insanity might to some extent be in order as I was admittedly “slightly meshugah”. I also basically stuck to my guns, however, deploring inter alia “the bristling antagonism” one so often found against religious Jews, the false depiction of the religious leadership as narrow-minded, bullying fanatics and the smug and insulting tendency to “glibly dismiss them as intellectually challenged medieval morons”.

In retrospect, I was playing a dangerous game, since others who have defied the PC consensus have lost their jobs for less. Not just politicians, but academics and journalists – that is, those who operate in a context where questioning and challenging the conventional wisdom should theoretically be taken for granted – have paid a heavy professional price for speaking their minds. In the political realm, former UK Labour minister Harriet Harman – or “Harm Man” as some dubbed her – for many epitomises the vengeful feminist who, having acquired some power, proceeds not so much to level the gender playing field as to push for overtly discriminatory anti-male measures.

To an extent, it has caused a backlash. As expressed by Who Stole Feminism? author Christina Hoff Sommers, “The orthodox feminists are so carried away with victimology, with a rhetoric of male-bashing that it’s full of female chauvinists, if you will. Also, women are quite eager to censor, to silence.” Such dissenting voices, unfortunately, remain rare, not least because they are systematically stigmatised and sidelined. The consequences of driving moderate dissent underground further fosters radicalism from the other side. Now we are confronted with a growing movement called anti-misandry, which aims at confronting anti-male prejudice and discrimination (notably in the area of single-parent child rearing). Frequently, the arguments put forward from this lobby are as emotion-charged, accusatory and generally divisive as the hardline feminist one.

An abiding irony of our Western democratic society is that fundamentalist liberals whose political correct tootsies have been trodden on can be as implacably intolerant, and unforgiving, as the very purveyors of fascist ideologies they purport to denounce. Into this fraught, angry mix, it is advisable to tread carefully, lest one end up being denounced, condemned, labeled and thereafter condemned to the equivalent of intellectual outer darkness. It matters less in my case since I am already noted for being a politically incorrect maverick, but even I will probably be adopting a somewhat more cautious line in future.


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.