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Can't We All Get Along?

April 6, 2011 By:
Elyse Glickman
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South African charm and beauty are manifested by Table Mountain

Last summer, we were glued to our televisions during the World Cup in South Africa in ways that transcended the action on the soccer field.

With media attention that followed, including the array of travel stories on sites along the Vanda Waterfront and Table Mountain, people got an extensive look at how the legendary Nelson Mandela's vision of coexistence is now very much a reality.

Many Jewish history buffs also know that Mandela credits a Jewish law firm for offering him one of his first pivotal post-graduate jobs, and that many Jews were instrumental in the anti-apartheid struggle.

In his biography, Long Walk to Freedom, he affirmed: "I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice."

The efforts of Jewish South Africans who championed the anti-apartheid cause are well-documented at Cape Town's Jewish Museum www. sajewishmuseum.co.za, alongside less-well known and more sobering realities, such as efforts made by South Africa's government to curb Jewish immigration (mainly from Lithuania) over the years.

Along with faithful reproductions of early South African Jewish businesses and a Lithuanian shtetl, there are powerful multimedia displays that chronicle Helen Suzman's decades-long leadership in South Africa's Progressive Party and activities of lawyers, journalists and activists such as Albie Sachs and Sydney Kentridge, who put their lives and livelihoods at risk.

In order to appreciate the still new South Africa in earnest, one has to acknowledge many apartheid scars are still visible. Townships and poverty still skirt the perimeters of cities. If you pay attention, you will notice some white citizens expressing views that register as out-of-date.

The docents of Robben Island Prison/UNESCO Heritage site are mostly former inmates. Among them are fascinating characters like Sedeeq Levy, who is half-Jewish, half-Muslim and mixed race ("colored"). Levy's involvement with apartheid-era activism originated with the fact that his cultural identity made him a foreigner in his own country, down to the paperwork he was forced to carry at all times when apartheid became law.

Though the personable Levy points out the island's required landmarks, the strength of his discourse stems from his mix of satirical repartee, blunt commentary about prison life, and the docents' shared goal of representing Robben Island as an entity bearing the legacy of peace and love, as well as the hate that put them there.

Museums and tourist destinations aside, the Jewish South African story is best told through people who continue to live the experience. According to Ben Zion Surdut, lawyer and just retired member of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper's editorial board, Cape Town's Jewish community today has different challenges than it did in the past.

"Did you notice that you won't find any Mogen David icons or Jewish names visibly placed on building signage?" Surdut quizzes as we drive around Cape Town's central business district.

"There are 400,000 Muslims in Cape Town, and they are not all friendly, so this is an essential security measure. Pay close attention to street addresses. No donor of the building will be openly placed in wide view, even though most of our community's administration, newspaper and services offices are in one area not far from the Jewish historic campus."

Surdut, who arrived in Cape Town from Zambia at age 16 to attend school, explains with some melancholy how some younger South African Jews (including three of his four adult children) have left and set down roots in other countries.

The changes in political climate and population shift, however, have not dampened his enthusiasm about the existing Cape Town community's endurance. He describes it as a social network that would even impress Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Fiona Sacks, director of the Young Adult Division of the United Jewish Campaign, shares Surdut's belief that the Cape Town Jewish community's cohesiveness makes it one of the most impressive in the world. She hopes those interested in seeing Jewish community service in action will try to visit the ASTRA Center www.giftime.org.za or www.jsec.org.za, a workshop providing meaningful opportunities for mentally disabled adults.

"I am most proud of the fact that our community is very caring," says Sacks over a lemonade granita at the kosher cafe adjoining the Jewish Museum and Holocaust Museum.

Sacks is a big fan of the quirky Grand Daddy Hotel www.granddaddy.co.za , known for its Airstream trailer-outfitted rooftop), as well as sushi at Willoughby & Company at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront (the "V&A"); and the organic food market in the Woodstock neighborhood. To learn more, see: www.southafrica.net .

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