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In ‘NYT’ profile of Jewish leader, apartheid was long ago and far away and resisted by brave South African Jews

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In the New York Times, Samuel G. Freedman has a profile of Sara Hurwitz, 36, a New York spiritual leader who broke the gender barrier inside Orthodox institutions to head a yeshiva.

The story involves the fact that Hurwitz was raised in South Africa and inspired by Nelson Mandela. There is a lot of Sunday morning sermonizing:

For Ms. Hurwitz, born and raised in South Africa during the turbulent years of apartheid, Mr. Mandela had long served as the inspiration for her journey to breaking the gender barrier in the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate.

“I looked at this person as someone who could have been so angry and so disappointed at the land that incarcerated him for so many years for civil disobedience,” Rabba Hurwitz, 36, said in a recent interview. “And he walked out of prison and formed a peaceful government. He could have focused on the injustice of it all, the time he had lost. But instead he saw this newfound freedom as a chance to make change and do what was right…”

Freedman, religion columnist and professor of journalism at Columbia University, goes on to the broader issue of the “Jewish experience in South Africa” and the political contradictions involved.

Jews, including the politician Helen Suzman, the underground activist Lionel Bernstein and the Communist Party leader Joe Slovo, constituted a significant share of white leaders in the anti-apartheid movement. Yet Israel maintained a lucrative arms trade and an unofficial alliance with the South African government, despite its historic strains of anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathies. In addition, the African National Congress allied itself with Palestinian guerrillas waging armed struggle against Israel.

Underlying these opposing trends was the precarious situation of the Jewish minority in a nation built on rigid racial categories. Not unlike their brethren in the American South during segregation, South African Jews understood that they were viewed by the white power structure as racially ambiguous and politically suspect. Standing up for freedom invited retaliation.

Oh those Palestinian guerrillas. Reminiscent of Ho Chi Minh and Central Americans. As if it’s a surprise that the ANC would be allied with a movement to resist ethnic cleansing and colonialism. And a friend points out: “Mandela founded the ANC’s armed wing Spear of the Nation. He believed armed resistance was at times necessary.” 

The story is an “On Religion” column, but Freedman never pursues the obvious moral questions: He never asks Hurwitz about apartheid in Palestine. No, this is a feel-good moral parable about breaking gender bonds among the Orthodox, a narrow band of American Jewish life.

And so: Apartheid is over and done with. The leading spiritual question for Jews in our time– we are implicated in Israel’s discriminatory actions– ignored.


P.S. How representative were Slovo and Lionel Bernstein of the South African Jewish community? Ilene Cohen tells me about a friend who recommended Joseph Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White (1986).  He wrote:

I hope you enjoy it. I read it a couple of years before I went into exile. It didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t know, but I found it an evocative account of apartheid at its apogee. There were so many white South Africans of my generation who chose to turn a blind eye to the brutality of the regime, and I thought this an excellent book to “introduce” them to their country. I have since recommended it to many friends to give them a clearer insight as to how the system worked and affected people in their day-to-day lives. Let me know what you make of it.

Ilene’s response: “The question of ‘turning a blind eye’ could not be more pertinent today, with Israeli apartheid at its apogee.”

P.P.S. Freedman’s worthy thoughts on the Jewish experience in South Africa reminds me of Judge Richard Goldstone being excommunicated by his tightknit religious community over the Goldstone report, to the point that he recanted charges against Israel. Also I thought of my post on Doris Lessing and Jewish identity in Southern Rhodesia (a Jewish community that was co-extensive with South Africa’s). Lessing is more sociological than Freedman, which is to say, she dealt frankly with issues of privilege and capitalism. Her Children of Violence series is electrified by the character of Thomas Stern, the Jewish Communist Zionist Polish emigre who has lost his entire family in the Holocaust and then discovers in Rhodesia that– he is a capitalist.

“I’m learning that it’s terrifyingly easy to make money.”

[Martha] laughed…

“I don’t want you to laugh about money. I’ve got to outwit it. I’ve got to find a way of not becoming Thomas Stern, rich merchant of this city.”

Stern outwits that fate at the cost of his life.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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18 Responses

  1. just on July 28, 2013, 11:04 am

    Well done, Phil. Through the looking glass, indeed.

    Sara & Sam: Apartheid is alive and thriving as finessed by Israel. Are you feeling proud NOW?

    And calling the Palestinians “guerillas” really is beyond the pale. I thank the ANC for what it did to help the indigenous Palestinians stand up to the naked aggression and ethnic cleansing of the Israelis.

    • hophmi on July 28, 2013, 5:37 pm

      “Sara & Sam: Apartheid is alive and thriving as finessed by Israel. Are you feeling proud NOW?”

      Dear Sam: Next time you write an on-religion piece about a Muslim, please ask the following questions, regardless of whether they have anything to do with the piece.

      1. How do you feel about the subjugation of women in your religion?
      2. How do you feel about honor killings in your religion?
      3. How do you feel about the utter paucity of liberal intellectuals in your religion?
      4. Have you ever condemned terrorism from your pulpit, since some of your coreligionists practice it?
      5. Have you ever condemned the subjugation of women from your pulpit, since some of your co-religionists practice it?
      6. Have you condemned the Taliban, which imprisons the women in Afghanistan?
      7. Did you do it in Arabic, or just English?
      8. Do you feel responsible for everything other Muslims do?
      9. Do you think you should be held accountable for everything other Muslims do?
      10. How do you feel about the murder of Israeli children?
      11. How about Pakistani children?
      12. Afghani children?
      13. Sudanese children?
      14. Somali children?
      15. What about Saudi Arabia girls, like those teenagers that were left to burn to death?
      16. What is your position on the persecution of Iraqi Christians?
      17. What have you personally done to address the abject slaughter in Syria?
      18. Is it fair to say that since you haven’t formally condemned the murder of children specifically in each of these countries, that you’re an ostrich who doesn’t care?

      Islamophobic? Sure. So why do you favor the same thing if Sam interviews a Jewish leader?

      • Xpat on July 31, 2013, 12:11 am

        How many American rabbis will address from the pulpit hese High Holydays:
        1. The culture of suicide in West Bank settler communities such as Yizhar and Hebron?
        2. The major role of American Jewish organizations in funding and politically enabling the subjugation of the Palestinians and the colonization of the West Bank?
        3. The reactionary anti-union greed of American Jewish plutocrats?
        4. The delegitimization and silencing of detractors of said plutocrats by wielding their wealth as “philanthropists”?

        You might also ask Jewish leaders:
        1. Have you ever condemned the State of Israel for its anti-Palestinian discrimination?
        2. Have you ever condemned the Jewish profiteers and slumlords who helped destroy whole swathes of American cities during the 1960s, the repercussions of which are felt to this day?

        And so on.

  2. Sin Nombre on July 28, 2013, 11:39 am

    Phil Weiss wrote:

    “Freedman never pursues the obvious moral questions. He never asks Hurwitz about apartheid in Palestine.”

    Because … for Freedman and Hurwitz there *are* no moral questions there?

    I mean, isn’t this the story over and over now in the Diaspora community—in chronic alleged disgust if not rage over what their adopted countries are doing, while being blithely supportive of Israel doing even worse—so absolutely common, long-standing and clear now that the explanation for same can’t possibly lie in the mere vagaries of individuals or coincidences and must be part of a very widely shared and distinct world-view? A world view with a simply huge, blatant double standard? That the equation is that … Israel remains morally immaculate while doing precisely what renders everyone else not just inferior but repulsive and sub-human?

    How, after all, can “Israel” act without someone’s human volition being behind same? So how to even *say* this equation is really “just” about Israel and doesn’t really mean the individuals behind that mere construct?

  3. Xpat on July 28, 2013, 12:13 pm

    The silver lining in this sliver of public life – which I think NY Times readers may be beginning to notice – is the emerging awareness of the structural fault lines between Israeli Judaism and American Judaism. Not even the insular Orthodox community is immune to the local political system it belongs to.
    The status women is, alongside interfaith marriage (and related issues), the key ideological divide between Israeli and the United States Jewish communities: the ordination of Rabbi Sara Hurwitz is going to strain even further relations between the new, hardline, state -appointed Chief Rabbis in Israel and the liberal Modern Orthodox establishment in the United States.

    Why should anybody else outside the Orthodox Jewish community care?
    Because many liberal Jews (and I expect their non-Jewish friends too), see in the Orthodox as the most authentic, contemporary expression of the traditional Jewish past. The editors of the Times believe the ordination of a woman is news for their liberal readership.
    So it’s time to expose the lie: what matters is not the religious community but the political system. American Judaism, with separation of church and state and the drive to fully emanicipate women is always going to lead the world’s Jewish community. Israeli Judaism may, or – in the case of the ordination of women and accepting non-Jews in the community – will not, follow suit.

    P.S. Contrary to legend, in response to danger, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. If they did, lions and the other big cats would have long ago eaten them all up.

    • Citizen on July 28, 2013, 12:52 pm

      To continue your metaphor, though they cannot fly, ostriches are the fastest-running birds, reaching speeds up to 43 mph; this means they can outrun leopards. The ostrich can also use its powerful legs to kick like a kangaroo; its kick is strong enough to kill a lion. Ostriches can also defend themselves with a 4-inch claw on each foot.
      Ostrich brains are as big as a walnut and smaller than their eyes. They are not particularly intelligent, but they can see very far.

  4. German Lefty on July 28, 2013, 3:05 pm

    I’d like to point to this article:
    Liberal Zionists and the demographic dogma
    And to this report:
    Israel is an Example of an Economy Hijacked by Military-security Interests
    Although the U.S has the world’s largest military industrial complex, Israel has the largest ratio of its economy dedicated to the military and security industry

  5. W.Jones on July 28, 2013, 3:07 pm

    Wasn’t one of South Africa’s main industries gold mining? A Russian documentary on Israeli-S.A. relations focused in part on that, showing that on one hand, the miners were blacks working in tough conditions.

  6. Les on July 28, 2013, 3:26 pm

    Isn’t the actual history of apartheid in South Africa is that the Jewish community was a latecomer to the movement to end apartheid? Was that unknown to the Times’ reporter? Crediting the very few exceptions does not make the rule.

    • Xpat on July 28, 2013, 7:46 pm

      I know of some stalwart Jewish opponents of South African apartheid, some of them, I know personally. Nadine Gordimer is, perhaps one of the most famous public figures. She wrote of how her Jewish immigrant family background informed her political activism.
      I’m curious to learn the source for your general statement about South African Jews (and its significance?).

      • Les on July 28, 2013, 8:13 pm

        To the best of my recollection I first read that here on Mondoweiss. I add to that from a description of Gideon Shimoni’s Community and Conscience:
        “The author documents the apparent paradox that while many whites who actively opposed apartheid were Jews, few Jews were active opponents of apartheid. He seeks to explain both the largely bystander comportment of the Jewish community and the contrasting major role of Jews in all forms of resistance to apartheid. Balancing the more predictably conservative views of many Jewish institutions are riveting portraits of dozens of liberals and leftist radicals who worked to dismantle the apartheid regime.”

      • Stephen Shenfield on July 31, 2013, 7:06 am

        There is no contradiction between a relatively large proportion of Jews in the white resistance to apartheid and the fact that these anti-apartheid Jews were still a very small proportion of all South African Jews. That is because (1) so few white people, Jewish or Gentile, resisted apartheid, and (2) the white Jewish community was of considerable size. A large proportion of a very small number is another very small number (somewhat smaller than the first one, in fact).

      • Xpat on July 31, 2013, 8:25 am

        Yes, that’s straightforward. I was actually questioning Les’ timeline:
        ” the Jewish community was a latecomer to the movement to end apartheid”.
        Nadine Gordimer, for example, was in the campaign for decades.

      • MRW on July 29, 2013, 7:13 am

        I think Tony Karon said something like that too, Elliot.

    • SQ Debris on July 29, 2013, 6:24 pm

      “the Jewish community was a latecomer to the movement to end apartheid”

      Tardiness to a party is forgivable as long as the latecomers hoop it up. It may take a few more years for the broadly defined “American Jewish Community” to show up at the ongoing Lets End the Genocide of the Palestinian People gala. I hope that everyone who stumbled in early will welcome the arrival of every new reveler with wide open arms and broad grins.

  7. hophmi on July 28, 2013, 5:27 pm

    CAMERA holds nothing on you Phil, for sheer disingenuousness.

    There is nothing in the piece that presents the support for the Palestinians by the ANC as surprising. There isn’t a critical remark about Nelson Mandela’s stance. It isn’t even enough for you that the piece points out the relationship of Israel and the apartheid government. No, for you, it’s a “feel-good moral parable about breaking gender bonds among the Orthodox, a narrow band of American Jewish life” and somehow, an implicit surprise that the ANC would support the Palestinian, who are just resisting (as they hijack planes, murder schoolchildren in Ma’alot and so on, facts the piece doesn’t mention either).

    Even your crack about Orthodoxy being a “narrow band of American Jewish life” is ignorance nonsense. If you read Jewish newspapers, you’d know Yeshivat Maharat graduated its first class in June, and the story received a tremendous amount of coverage in Jewish newspapers. And orthodoxy is not “a narrow band of American Jewish life;” it’s well over 20% of Jews in the United States. It is the only part of American Jewish life that is growing. The rest of it is shrinking. And it’s a major development when gender boundaries are broken by those who are intense practitioners of their faith. It would do Islam a lot of good if it had a similar movement to Yeshivat Maharat.

    • talknic on July 31, 2013, 8:23 am

      hophmi “CAMERA holds nothing on you Phil, for sheer disingenuousness”

      Uh huh. So CAMERA IS disingenuous. Bravo! Small steps

  8. Abdul-Rahman on July 28, 2013, 5:41 pm

    On the relations between the old South African apartheid regime and the Israeli apartheid regime:

    “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa” by Sasha Polakow-Suransky (Democracy Now’s covering of this story)

    This might explain why the South African ANC (that was formerly led by Nelson Mandela himself) is a strong supporter of Palestine and BDS against Israeli apartheid

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