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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Homeless III

Galilee Diary #377, February 17, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


I shall now put the question in the briefest possible form: shouldn’t we “get out” at once, and if so, whither?
Or, may we remain, and if so, how long?
Let us first settle the point of remaining. Can we hope for better days, can we possess our souls in patience…?
-Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State, 1896

I visited South Africa again last week. As the airline clerk was processing my check-in for an internal flight, she looked up from my passport and said: "So, you flew in from Israel. How is it there?" Now there's a question that allows a range of interpretations. "Just now it's really cold and rainy," I said (in Johannesburg it was 85 and sunny), and the conversation ended there. I suspect she was looking for something more political than meteorological, that her question stemmed from her perception of Israel as a trouble spot.

A day earlier, I had sat in on a tenth grade Jewish history class in a Jewish day school. The teacher read aloud the text above without giving the source. He asked the students what they thought it was about. They thought it was a contemporary text, referring to their situation in South Africa. “So,” he asked them, “what’s the answer?” A few said that "this is our country, this is our place, we believe in its future and we can't imagine going anywhere else." A few said they would emigrate to Israel. Most indicated a plan to emigrate to Australia, England, or North America.

It seems that the miracle rainbow democracy of South Africa is going through a difficult period. The optimists point to the strength of democracy, the rapid economic growth and the growth of the middle class, to the new construction, public and private, one sees all over the cities. The pessimists worry about the possible rise of tribalism in politics, about corruption and incompetence in government, about the frustratingly inadequate growth of infrastructure – and especially about the rampant crime. Just before our visit a leader in the Jewish community was murdered for his cell phone, and this was not seen as a rare or extreme occurrence.

It was just over a century ago that most of South Africa's Jews arrived, seeking a better life than what they were experiencing in Lithuania. The colonial “paradise” to which they came has been through a rough century – for years, especially during Apartheid – and in the present uncertainty (see, for example, Kenya…) – it looks to an outsider like they have had plenty of good reasons to leave. Many have done so. But many have not. Echoes of Germany in the 30s. And yet, it is possible to admire and respect the commitment and dedication of those who want to see this dream through, willing to take risks along the way.

A Zionist perspective would see these people as nuts, sitting on a volcano about to erupt. Why don’t they see the handwriting on the wall and make aliyah to their own homeland? Herzl would know what to tell them. But then again, what would Herzl say about the hundreds of thousands of former Israelis living in Los Angeles, Toronto, Amsterdam, and Berlin(!)? How would he respond to the threat of an atomic bomb aimed at the one place in which he envisioned that all the Jews would settle for their own safety and freedom from persecution?

Where do we truly belong? Where are we truly safe? Where does attachment to place fit in our hierarchy of values? Where is home?

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