Aug. 27th: A visit to the South African Constitutional Court and meeting a former Justice

The ancients believed that the body is the temple of the soul. This is true both in the sense that the body houses the soul, and also that how we treat our bodies often indicates how we feel about ourselves. Similarly, a country's public buildings often speak to its values, as well as its history. The neoclassicism of Washington DC evokes the democratic values America inherited from ancient Greece and Rome. The transparent dome of the German Reichstag transforms a building associated with monarchy and dictatorship into a potent symbol of a restored democracy.

South Africa's Constitutional Court, Johannesburg

On a recent visit to South Africa, our ACCESS group had the opportunity to visit the country's Constitutional Court in Johannesburg -- one of the most moving public spaces I have ever encountered. The Court building is built at the site of an apartheid-era prison that housed political dissidents and activists. Parts of the original structure remain, and the court chamber itself is constructed from bricks that once formed the prison's walls.

The interior of the Court has architectural elements borrowed from Western courtroom design such as a bench for judges, facing podia for counsel and a center lectern from which counsel address the judges. In addition, the Court incorporates traditional African elements, including an animal skin patterned carpet and -- most strikingly -- tanned cowhides draped over the Justices' bench, with an individual hide for each justice. The dual traditions create the amazing effect of feeling that one is simultaneously in a Western courtroom and sitting under a tree in the Savannah with tribal elders. The diverse elements work together to create this effect, which is especially powerful in light of a history in which Western law was for centuries used as a tool of oppression.

In the courtroom wall that separates the chamber from the street, a narrow eye level window allows people inside to see out into the street, but only at the level of the knees of the passing pedestrians. Thus, the motion of the people is visible, but not their race -- South Africa's take on blind justice; here, justice is not blind, she can see the people, their speed, cadence and direction, but their race is invisible, thus presenting the ideal of a color-blind society.

Our visit to the Court came a few days after meeting one of its distinguished former Justices in Cape Town: The Honorable Albie Sachs who served from 1994-2009. Justice Sachs, who is white and Jewish, worked for decades as an anti-apartheid activist, and lost his right arm to a car bomb set by agents of the apartheid government. He spoke of many subjects and, in response to a query from a member of our group, discussed the most challenging case he had decided as a judge. The case (Grootboom) involved an action for eviction brought by white landowners against poor blacks who were unlawfully squatting on their property. In finding a solution, Justice Sachs' found a way to protect the property rights of the owners while respecting the human rights of the squatters. A maimed body sheltering a courageous and wise soul.

Aug. 29th: Last Day In JOBURG

South African Board of Jewish Deputies (SAJBD) Gauteng Council Annual Meeting, Johannesburg.

Perhaps it is fitting that the final day of our journey to South Africa was spent at SABJD’s Gauteng Council Annual meeting. The keynote address was delivered by AJC’s Rabbi David Rosen, who spoke about his work to foster interfaith dialog. It was a largely optimistic speech focused on Rabbi Rosen’s success in bringing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel into discussions with Christians and Muslims. There has been only limited success in South Africa reaching out to the Muslim community, which numbers close to one million (Jews number 75,000 in the country)

Opening of the Gauteng Council Annual Meeting

The Gauteng Council meeting is held each year to discuss issues both large and small that come before the community and to elect leaders for the coming year. The South African Jewish community is a well-oiled machine. In a country where citizens can’t always rely on government-provided municipal services, SA’s Jews provide for their own security, education, health care, senior care, etc. Their effectiveness in doing so is something to be marveled, but it also highlights the luxury we as American Jews have in being able to devote so much of our efforts to outward facing issues such as defense of Israel and human rights advocacy.

This isn’t to say the community is insular and only concerned with self-preservation. On the contrary. SA’s Jews are doing great work in their surrounding communities fighting poverty and hunger through highly professional and well-funded projects like MaAfrika Tikkun. The community’s true spirit of charity and concern for its fellow citizens was exemplified, however, through volunteer drives to support the victims of Xenophobic violence in 2008 and more recently, to fill-in at hospitals during the ongoing civil service workers strike which has left many without access to health care.

Staff at Orange Farm Community Center (a MaAfrika Tikkun sponsored project) entertain us.

One of the principal debates at this year’s meeting revolved around whether the community should speak with one voice – on domestic policy, on Israel and religiously.

There was little disagreement that the community should speak with one voice as it relates to domestic policy, and the SAJBD has done a remarkable job making sure the community’s voice is well represented, having developed relationships with President Jacob Zuma as well as a number of ministers and local representatives. On Israel, there was some debate over whether the community’s stated policies are too far to the right, but the South African Zionist Federation largely adheres to a policy of avoiding public criticism of Israel – a democratically elected sovereign government – supporting her right to exist as a Jewish state. Behind closed doors and among “friends,” however, including in direct meetings with Israeli government officials, SA Israel advocacy groups work as hard as they can, for example, to point out the difficult issues such as settlement expansion and perceived poverty in the Territories, pose to those who want to defend Israel in hostile environments like South Africa.

Perhaps the most controversy centered on the ability of the community to unite along religious lines. 90% of South African Jews consider themselves Orthodox despite the fact that a significant number of them do not keep Kosher or Shabbat. Still they attend Orthodox shuls and feel strongly about maintaining strict standards on rituals, education, Kashrut, marriage and conversion, which is concerning to a small but vocal minority of Progressive Jews who feel alienated. To me as an outsider and to most of my ACCESS colleagues, the alienation and protests expressed by the Progressive members of the community were uncomfortable to hear. I had to step back for a moment to realize, however, that we were viewing the situation through our own biases. We don’t even attempt to achieve a semblance of cohesion on religious matters here in the U.S.; we simply form new groups to suit our needs. Jews in South Africa need to stick together due to their small numbers and mostly common interests, and the community must therefore cater to the majority.

While I’m not ready to fully excuse the alienation felt by the Progressive members, I must give credit to the SABJD for the inclusion of all groups within the structure of its governance and its ability to reach acceptable compromises on most topics. This is quite an achievement for Jews, who by our nature rarely agree on anything. Which brings me back to the first point I made, the SAJBD is quite an impressive institution for all it has achieved, and one feels a sense of optimism for the continued survival, vibrancy and ability for the South African Jewish community to thrive in spite of its numbers.

And to our hosts for the entire week – both in Cape Town and Johannesburg – I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to the SAJBD, and in particular Wendy Kahn, for devoting so much care attention to our delegation in the midst of the strike volunteer drive and preparations for the Gauteng Council meeting!