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From Jewish South African to South African Jew

By Martine Schaffer

The question of my South African identity was first raised when I went to Israel after school to study for a year at Hebrew University. I had been educated at Carmel College in Durban and brought up in an environment where my character was very much formed around being Jewish. In Israel, I met Jews from around the world and it was here where I was challenged on being South African for the first time. I classified myself explicitly, as a Jewish, South African.

The journey continued when I went to live in London in the late 1980s. I found myself starting to question what I had not registered while living in South Africa: I did not have a national identity. I didn’t know what it meant to be a South African. I didn’t identify with the hard-line Afrikaans government, or with the repressed black, Indian and coloured communities. I arrived in London where I was constantly expected to justify the politics of South Africa, and I felt embarrassed to be South African. When asked about South African music, food and culture, I was unable to give an unequivocal answer, apart from a reference to Jonny Clegg or going to watch Zulu dancing on a Sunday afternoon.

However, I could tell you what music my white, Jewish circle of friends listened to, what books we read and what food we ate. But we were approximately100 000 people out of a population of approximately 40 million. I also justified my position by always talking about how we had educated my maid’s daughter — as my father used to say — she was the only daughter that went to university. But deep down I can’t say I understood the politics, or the privileges associated in growing up in an apartheid society.

While living in England I became acutely aware of the differences between the Jewish communities of SA and the UK. English Jews engaged in activities, not from a religious perspective, but from a countrywide one, they went to see the Christmas lights being switched on, they did Christmas shopping, and attended Christmas parties. They supported their national team in international sporting events, bought into the whole wave of Cool Britannia and proudly sang the national anthem. It was a great thing to be proud of one’s country.

Initially, my relationships were with other South African Jews living in London. It felt comfortable to be with people that understood and identified with my history. This is still evident with South Africans in the diaspora today, who try very hard to recreate what South Africa was, and actively seek out fellow South Africans in their new countries. (We would get together and lament the lack of biltong, peppermint crisps and Ouma rusks, and of course our beautiful South African sunshine. We would yearn for our relaxed way of life and our friendly citizens. Not to mention our spacious homes, park-sized gardens and affordable lifestyles.)

I found it difficult to be accepted into English society, and through all my years in the UK, I never really connected with or felt I belonged to the Jewish community there. They were different — in fact — they were more dissimilar to me than other South Africans to whom I believed I had no connection.

Then South Africa was released from the shackles of apartheid, and I gradually became aware how all of these aspects of my country had combined to form part of who I am, and in so doing made me question my South African identity.

Over the years, it made me reassess what was important to me, and while being Jewish was definitely important, being South African was too. No matter how far I travelled or how long I was away for, I would always be a South African and if this was the case, what was my contribution?

So with this in mind, I chose to return home with a clear mandate to myself, to have input to the country of my birth. And in doing this I have come to understand who I am and where I fit in.

Our Jewish existence in South Africa is not random or coincidental. Our destiny is embroiled in the destiny of South Africa. Deuteronomy: “G-d will scatter you among the people and you will be few in numbers.” Despite all the persecution we have not only survived but we have thrived, small in numbers but have influenced the world in unbelievable ways.

Shortly after returning home I was approached to head up the newly created Homecoming Revolution. An organisation established to change the mindset of South Africans living abroad and to unashamedly bring the skills back home. It completely resonated with me. It has allowed me to influence thinking not only nationally, but internationally. There was no shortage of bad news, however through our website, our international events, and other people’s stories we could start to share a different South Africa, and people could start to engage with “their home” positively and objectively. We were a conduit for change. Although our success has never been measurable in numbers, we have impacted in a way that has changed the landscape. Through changing thought processes. Through shared stories. And most importantly, through people that have identified with what home means to them, and acknowledged their South African heritage, or ultimately returned.

My role was often uncomfortable, but, more than anything, it allowed me to play a very unique part in the future of this country. Because we could dare to do something different, and we could stand up and have our voice heard. And most importantly, I was living it.

So I share with you my perspective gained through my experience, and through meeting and engaging with a diversity of people I could never have dreamed of encountering. I have been inspired and frustrated. I am grateful every day for the courage I had in choosing to come home, and choosing to live rather than to exist.

In my opinion, since my return from the UK eight years ago, and since 1994, I feel that the Jewish community has become more insular. We have become more religious and more inwardly focused on our own communities. We have built walls, and barriers, physically, and emotionally. Our primary commitment seems to be to ourselves, and not the wider requirements of integrating and building a South African community, where Jews can play an active role. We have a responsibility to look after ourselves, but we also have a responsibility to be active citizens in the country in which we live. However simultaneously, our entrepreneurial businesses have created thousands of jobs, our community initiatives have made safer communities, and individuals continue to work tirelessly to make lives better for those less fortunate. But as a wider community, I believe that we have lost the voice that earned us respect, as a group of people who believed in fighting for justice.

I was at a leadership discussion with a journalist a couple of weeks ago. A young black university student commented that the Jews are all rich and wealthy and they look after their own people. Whether this is entirely true is part of the broader discussion, but this perception is something that we are possibly entrenching, rather than changing.

We are extremely quick to criticise the South Africa that we live in today. We have high expectations and short memories. We are opinionated on many issues, and have every right to be critical, but I don’t believe that we are engaging enough in being part of the solution. Most recently, we relished in the success of the World Cup, but once over, we have returned to the same ways and habits without really embracing many of the valuable lessons created through the experience. We rarely extend ourselves to venture out of our comfort zones, do things that make us feel awkward and uncomfortable, and get closer to some of our countries pressing challenges.

While not neglecting the needs of our own community, it is vital to have a greater consciousness and integration of the broader society we live in.

Many Jews have lived in South Africa with a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach. Always planning escape routes to Sydney, London or Toronto — unfortunately not enough consider Israel! This harbours a lack of commitment to being in South Africa, not being involved or feeling a sense of responsibility for the direction of the country, because you won’t be here forever. But this country needs us. It needs the teachers, engineers, doctors, programmers, nurses, journalists and business leaders who are emigrating or threatening to emigrate. We need the media, the business community and society in general to stand up and keep standing, and not buckle under the pressure or run away from the challenges we face as a country.

As a community we have always encouraged our children to leave, and there is nothing wrong with becoming a global citizen, but what we are now starting to see is a younger generation who identify with being South African and who want to stay and make a difference.

This week I met a woman from the UK in her early 30s. I could tell by her name that she was Jewish. Through the conversation I learnt that her parents had left SA before she was born, but she had always identified herself as South African and cannot understand why her parents won’t come visit. She has in fact been trying for two years to get a South African passport so she can come live and work here. And we try to get rid of it!

Homecomers will tell you that when making their decision to return it’s for all the emotional reasons. To be with family and friends. An incomparable lifestyle (particularly in Cape Town). The sense of belonging that one doesn’t get as a foreigner in a strange country. Once an African always an African.

We haven’t seen Jews return in big numbers. There is a huge amount of pride involved in saying it didn’t work. For sticking it out, however challenging. As a Jewish family who came back from Australia said to me — 50% of their friends were envious and the other 50% were jealous.

Right now, our democracy is strong and we have a robust political system. South Africa has a lot going for it, and if our continued response is to run away and emigrate when situations threaten (and we have lived through many), who will be left to hold those in power accountable? Those with the means to emigrate are also those with the means to make a difference right here at home, and yet it often takes leaving to understand what is important. To help shape your own identity. For me, this journey has made me realise more than anything that I am a proudly South African Jew. Who I am, and my culture is intrinsically established in being South African, and knowing that here, I am able to make a contribution. I could not do this, with the same passion, impact or relevance anywhere else in the world.

I would like to end with a quote from Joanne Fedler’s book When Hungry, Eat. Joanne, who emigrated to Australia in early 2000, writes: “South Africa is a place of spirit-distorting paradox, a land with a bipolar disorder that swings you from joy to despair in the space of a heartbeat. It twists your arm behind your back and ties your sanity in a knot. It bullies you until you’ve forged your opinion on politics, crime, Aids, the state of the roads, the economy or the politicians. It’s not for the wishy-washy or the fence-sitters. It demands you know who you are and what you stand for. It keeps you fit, on your toes and looking over your shoulder. It steals your purse and holds your soul ransom. As much as I was, at times, on the edge of sanity living there, I was also stimulated, driven and felt bungy-jumpingly alive. The shades of happiness and fear mottled. I knew that leaving, like chemotherapy, would kill off the best things in my life as well as the worst.”

So my message to the community is find a way to engage, be committed and make a difference. It helps to ground you and appreciate living here. There is a huge spiritual thirst in the world, searching to reconnect to the source. The challenges we face today are grave but being here is a huge opportunity to stand up and be counted. Leaving is so much harder than staying.

Martine Schaffer is the former director of Homecoming Revolution.

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