There is no place in Judaism for intolerance

As far as being Jewish goes, I am no great role model: I don’t keep  kosher, I don’t observe the Sabbath, I don’t fast on Yom Kippur and I have married outside my religion.

But I consider myself Jewish in my upbringing, cultural connections, appreciation of Jewish food, jokes and more deeply a sense simply of always, no matter what, being a Jew.

Then of course there is just being a decent human being: fair, just, kind, compassionate, empathetic. These too I consider very Jewish values (and ones that I try to uphold), though they are also the values of good and decent Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists.

For me they have always been more important than going to synagogue, observing the high holy days, not mixing milk and meat or wearing a kippah on my head.

Which is why I have always believed so strongly that intolerance has no place in Judaism or Jewish life and why I reacted so strongly when I read a letter, published  recently in the Australian Financial Review, written by a fellow Jew, Michael Burd of Toorak, Melbourne.

Written soon after the Australian government had agreed to take in an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees and amidst the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Burd’s contribution to the debate was not to naturally as a Jew, identify with the persecuted, tortured, and frightened people fleeing genocide, but argue against compassion and call for the protection of the Jewish community in Australia – one of the most privileged minorities in one of the world’s most prosperous countries.

In his letter, Mr Burd wrote of the threats to Jewish schools from Muslim extremists (never mind that the greatest threat to Jewish kids comes from the paedophiles that work in these schools) and other Jewish institutions, ending his indignant letter by saying:

With 12,000 Syrian asylum seekers  coming to Australia our government is playing Russian roulette with Jewish community safety.

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

Jewish refugee children arriving in London from Nazi Germany in 1939

It appalls me that an educated Jewish man, who probably lost relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, and would well know the long history of Jewish flight from persecution to set up new lives as refugees in countries like South Africa and Australia, should hold such intolerant beliefs and paint modern day refugees in such a negative light, particularly given current events in Europe, and around the world.

But it does not surprise me at all.

So many of the memories of my very Jewish upbringing (I had a Bar Mitzvah, attended a Jewish Day School, went to synagogue on the Sabbath) in South Africa are darkened by intolerance.

Here’s a phrase I remember well: ” Shiksas are good for sleeping with, just so long as you don’t marry them.”

A Shiksa, for those who don’t know is a non-Jewish woman.  Another word used constantly for non-Jew was ‘Yok’.

Then there were the constant references to the ‘schvartze‘ – a derogatory Yiddish word referring to a black person.

When I was growing up in South Africa, the schvartze was the black domestic worker toiling silently in the kitchen or the garden ‘boy’ (in fact a grown man) raking up the leaves from the swimming pool.

Words like shiksa and schvartze was said all the time by the very people who should have been my role models: my peers, older relatives and even those observant, ultra-religous Jews with their disapproving judgements of non-religous Jewish life.

Of course there have been many heroic Jews around the world who have fought for human rights and justice, who would be equally appalled at Mr Burd’s letter.

In South Africa, people like anti-apartheid heros Joe Slovo and Albie Sachs  and war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone spring to mind. Indeed, there is my own cousin Henry Brown,  who represented Nelson Mandela as a young lawyer in the 1960s.

But it is the intolerance within the Jewish community that has seen me drift further and further away from my faith.

Instead, i see my Jewishness, purely through cultural references and reminscences: the comedy and witticism of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, the mournful hymns we use to sing in the beautiful old Germiston Synagogue on Saturday mornings, the lavish meals of chopped liver, marrow bones on challah, mock crayfish, matzoh ball soup, roast meats, potato kugel and parve chocolate mousse served for dessert.

The jew at the table: reflections on racism and growing up Jewish in South Africa

“Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition…our chief weapon is…surprise.”

So begins the famous Monty Python sketch heralded by the arrival of evil clergy in red robes.


Well I wasn’t wearing a red robe or any identifying markings at a recent business lunch when as discussion turned to who would pay the bill, someone remarked:

“I’ll be the Jew and leave” – or words to that effect, before they got up to go.

A general snickering followed. Someone remarked flippantly that you should be careful what you say – you never know who may be around – and it was quickly forgotten.

No one knew there was a Jew at the table.


I never said anything, nor did I regard the person who said it with any particular malice. But I was a bit taken aback. It made me feel uncomfortable; I felt inclined to say something but also reluctant to make a fuss.

Others I know would have had no indecision. They would be proclaiming their Jewishness loudly and demanding an apology accompanied by accusations of anti-Semitism.

Did the person who made this remark hold some deeply felt hatred towards the jewish race or religion, or was it just like the time I remarked, flippantly, to an ex-girlfriend of mine who was half Asian that the kitchen of the digs I shared with friends in London “resembled a Chinese laundry”.

(I also recall that she distinctly did not like the South African colloquialism “china” used in the same way Australians say “mate”).

Anyway, as the words came out my mouth, I realised what I’d said, but it was too late. An uncomfortable moment followed as I apologised profusely.

And wouldn’t this person sitting across from me at lunch, who suggested “he be the Jew” have acted similarly had he known I was Jewish.

My gut feel, is yes.

And does he harbour some ill-will towards Jews. Probably…

Would he suddenly dislike me if he found out I was Jewish – probably not.

The truth is everyone has made a remark like this at some point in their lives -and it’s hard to think of anyone I know who does not hold some kind of prejudice or quasi-prejudice against some other race, religion, sexual orientation or political belief system.

At the same time, it strikes me that my Jewish brethren appear the most sensitive of all races, colours and creeds to offensive remarks, no matter how harmless or slip of the tongue they may be.

Years of persecution – the pogroms, the holocaust, indeed the Spanish Inquisition – will often be the explanation for such an acute sensitivity.

My own experience growing up in South Africa is of a deeply racist Jewish community, with the racism passed down through the generations as it is every where else.

Words learnt and bandied around Jewish social gatherings (white people only apart from the black domestics serving food or minding the children) included the horrible sounding “schvarzte” and “shoch” meaning a “black” person and “chatis” for an Afrikaner.

These words were used regularly at dinners, family gatherings, teas and barbeques – often in earshot of the African domestic clearing away plates or bringing food to the table.

Sadly they were often spoken by those who had fled pogroms or persecution or were the children of those who had. We as kids would play cricket in the garden, while the adults (BMW or Mercedes parked down the driveway) would chat away about their privileged lives: trips overseas, new restaurants opening, community gossip. As you got older, you’d join the adults and hear the conversations, where “shochs, schvartzes and chatises” were mentioned all too frequently.

Paradoxically, these same people would often stick their heads into the kitchen to say hi to the African domestic washing the dishes, to ask about their children or their health.

But it was always in the realm of the ‘master and servant relationship’:

“How are you today Sophie?”

“I am well thank-you master.”

“How are your children?”

“They are well thank you master.”

So what’s happened to these people who I remember with their expensive cars, who would sit around discussing the cricket or rugby with the odd racist remark thrown in from time to time?

Many of them have packed up and moved to Australia. They’re living on the best streets of Bondi, Vaucluse, St Ives, Toorak, Caufield, Bentleigh and Dianella. Some – would you believe it – have even brought their domestics along to do the dishes.

Few have dropped their prejudices and most will happily tell you South Africa has “gone to the dogs since the blacks took over”.

It reminds me of something someone very dear to me (but with horribly dated ideas) once said to me a long time ago:

“I don’t believe in apartheid. But really, you can’t put the blacks in charge.”

Does speaking out against Israel by default equate to anti-semitism?

Israeli-flagDoes speaking out against the Israeli government mean you are by default an anti-semite?

I have been asking myself that question for more than two decades since finishing five years at a Jewish high school in 1991 where the idea of Israel’s saintliness was drummed into mine and my classmates’ heads with the force of an animal stun gun.

The question resurfaces every time someone of generally high standing is accused of being anti-semitic.

The latest in the firing line is Sydney University professor, Jake Lynch.

Professor Lynch is director of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, and author of a number of academic works on “peace journalism”.

By his association with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, professor Lynch has been accused of being “against jewish people” by shadow foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop, who has promised that should the Coalition win government, it would cut funding from  the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies.

“Mr Lynch is free to raise funds from non-government sources if he requires money to fund his campaign against the state of Israel and Jewish people,” Julie Bishop told The Australian.

“A Coalition government would seek to withdraw funding to any academic institution that used taxpayer funds for an anti-semitic campaign,” she adds.

Bishop, who is not Jewish, makes the familiar leap from it being “a campaign against “Israel” to “against the Jewish people”.

Now, I for one do not support the boycott being promoted by the BDS campaign.

But it seems highly questionable that professor Lynch is “against the Jews” given his CV, academic credentials, published works and experience.

He has written for the respected independent online journal New Matilda and appeared on the ABC opinion program The Drum.

In addition, three Jewish academics have come out in support of professor Lynch’s and other people’s or organisations’ democratic rights to be critical of Israeli policies and actions without the threat of losing their funding.

“Andrew Benjamin, Michele Grossman and David Goodman variously described the policy outlined last week by Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop as ‘outrageous’, ‘counter-productive’, ‘populist’, and as ‘an anti-democratic gesture par excellence,” reported The Australian.

(For professor Lynch’s own explanation for why he supports the BDS campaign, read his view on New Matilda  – interestingly, the word “Jew” or “Jewish” is not said once).

A look back through the archives reveals other similar examples where left-wing leaning people and organisations have been labelled ‘anti-semitic” for speaking their minds on Israeli politics.

In September 2010, Fairfax journalist and broadcaster Mike Carlton came under fire for an article he had written highly critical of the actions of Israeli forces in Gaza in May 2010.

In a follow up column a week later, he wrote of  the hundreds of angry emails he had received in response from the Jewish lobby, which he called a “ferocious beast”.

“Write just one sentence even mildly critical of Israel and it lunges from its lair, fangs bared, ” said Carlton.

Emails received apparently included:

‘How dare you insult Israel you over priviledged [sic] racist white moron, f— you and your stupid article. I wish I could smash your dumb face in.”

Carlton wrote in his follow up article a week later:

“I replied to Robert Goot (president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry) ,that I am perfectly content with the existence of Israel as an independent Jewish homeland, and that I have no more regard for Hamas than I had for the psychopaths of my own ethnic background, the IRA.

“But nor, I said, would I be silenced about Israel’s cruel and unconscionable oppression of the people of Gaza. Enough. Shalom.”

A complaint of anti-semitism made against Carlton was dismissed by the Australian Press Council.

Last year Nobel prize-winning author Gunter Grass was labelled an anti-semite for a poem he wrote arguing against Germany delivering nuclear submarines to Israel.

For someone who grew up being told not to buy German cars or German appliances (though every parent of every kid I new at school drove a BMW or Mercedes), the ironies are too huge to even try to put in words.

And also last year, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry sought to halt promotion and DVD sales of the SBS series ‘The Promise’ about a young British woman retracing the footsteps of her grandfather, a soldier in the final years of the British Mandate in Palestine, labelling it Nazi propaganda and anti-semitic.

The truth, it seems, is that criticism of Israeli government policies inevitably leads to the cries that there is an underlying anti-Jewish agenda.

And it doesn’t even matter if you’re a Jew.

If you’re a Jew and you criticise Israel, then you are a “Jew-hating Jew”.

The most high-profile example of this was South African Judge Richard Goldstone,  who chaired the Goldstone Commission in The Hague prosecuting war crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda and released the controversial Goldstone Report.

He felt the full wrath of the small, but highly influential South African Jewish community, when the Goldstone report into the Gaza war of December 2008 and January 2009 was published, accusing the Israeli government, but also Hamas, of deliberately targeting civilians.

The backlash in South Africa was brutal and vindictive, aimed at inflicting maximum personal hurt and pain.

Leading the charge was the South African Zionist Federation, who threatened to picket the synagogue if Goldstone attended his own grandson’s bar mitzvah in Johannesburg.

As someone who remembers the importance of his own bar mitzvah (when you symbolically enter adulthood at age 13), it was the cruellest of threats.

In April 2011, Richard Goldstone wrote in the Washington Post that subsequent findings were that the Israeli government had not intentionally targeted civilians but also that “the purpose of the Goldstone Report was never to prove a foregone conclusion against Israel”.

To any sane individual, Richard Goldstone is not anti-semite.

But not to the South African Zionist lobby – a lobby I might point out is content to live outside of Israel – rather than join in those who actually live there day in and day out.

I can understand though where such views germinate from.

I spent five years at a Jewish day school in South Africa where the idea of Israel’s importance was heavily and relentlessly drummed into our heads, while at the same time no mention was made of our own privileged positions as white school kids in a private school in apartheid South Africa.

We had one particular history teacher, a very severe woman, who instructed us to learn to draw the Israeli map from memory.

I am not joking – Heaven forbid you could not manage the task!

Later, in adult life, I have found myself at dinner parties and where I have been told that institutions like the BBC and The Guardian newspaper – among the most respected media organisations in the world – are anti-semitic.

Instead, I was told to watch CNN for an unbiased (read: pro-Israeli) point of view.

So am I suggesting the BDS campaign is an entirely kosher operation with no bad elements tagged on to it.

Certainly not, that would be naive.

But equally, is it fair to tar anyone who forms a negative view on Israeli government policies as an anti-semite?

Like every government, the Israeli government is far from perfect.

Anyone who has followed the story of Mossad’s use of fake Australian and British passports to carry out a Hamas hit in January 2010 will know that there are some very sinister elements operating within the darker recesses of the Israeli government.

As there are in every government.

The funny thing is that within Israel, Jews protest openly against Israeli policies such as when 250,000 Israelis joined rallies against their government’s economic policies in September 2011 – and no one accuses them of being jew-hating jews.

As Stephen Pollard, editor of The Jewish Chronicle wrote in The Sunday Age a couple of years ago: “It shouldn’t need saying that protesting against the actions of the Israeli government is not the same as being anti-semitic.”

Surely the time has come to separate legitimate criticism of Israel with claims of anti-semitism.

Yes there are many anti-semitic agendas behind Israeli protests and anti-Israeli comments and these should be pointed out when the evidence overwhelmingly says so.

But jumping up hysterically  and shouting “anti-semite” every time a word is uttered in anger serves no purpose but to give more ammunition to the real bigots and jew-haters.

Israel holds itself up as an example of a democracy surrounding by states that are not.

Surely it’s time its defenders in the diaspora became a little more tolerant of free speech.