I have a complicated relationship with people from South Africa, particularly when they are over the age of around 35, since I typically envision them having grown up enjoying the fruits of apartheid. This was not much of an issue before I moved to Israel, as I could count the number of South Africans (and to some extent, other White nationals of African countries) I had met in the States on two hands, while keeping several fingers free.
But South African Jews are everywhere in Israel, and when I made Aliyah in 2007 to Modiin, I began running into them at events targeting Anglo olim. I don’t know if they were aware of my discomfort, but almost every South African Jew I met while living in Modiin would say a nearly identical short speech after we were introduced, which could be boiled down to “South African Jews loved Black people and hated apartheid”. Unfortunately, after this disclaimer, I would inevitably be regaled with a wry anecdote detailing how some Black caregiver or domestic made a small error and found themselves keeping their job by the skin of their teeth.
The first time this happened, we were invited over for Shabbat dinner with our new neighbors. I noticed a collection of lithographs hanging on the wall depicting “Mammy” caricatures framed in multiple poses. The hostess followed my gaze over to the wall and gave a guilty start. “Ah, I see you’ve noticed my grandmother’s vintage artwork,” she said hurriedly. “I keep it for sentimental purposes.”
My distaste must have been evident, because she continued, “My grandmother was very prominent in the South African anti-apartheid movement. I grew up living with her, and I remember that she treated all of our staff like family. Once, Suki (I don’t remember the exact name, but it was definitely something stereotypically servile) threw out the carp that my grandmother was keeping in the bathtub in order to make gefilte fish. Boy, was my grandmother angry! But she just docked Suki’s pay instead of firing her, because she knew that without Suki’s salary, her family would starve.”
Since I am an only child, and both my parents were only children, I admittedly don’t have much experience in the family department. However, I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t fire my cousin if she threw out my fish. I doubt I would even ask her to reimburse me. This led me to believe that even in a more liberal family, there was a pretty strong tendency to depersonalize “the help”. And this was confirmed by my neighbor’s ability to openly display racist stereotypes as art.
Several years later, I told the story to a new colleague who had recently arrived in Israel from South Africa. His glib response to me was, “I bet you’re really glad for slavery!”
I had to ask him to repeat what he said, which he did gladly. He then clarified by saying that slavery had brought my family to America, where I eventually was able to reap the benefits of a good education, and where I became acquainted with Judaism, leading to my conversion and eventual move to Israel. If my ancestors (or at least the ones that weren’t plantation owners) had never been captured, I would have grown up in an African continent left pillaged and stripped of its resources, hoping I didn’t fall prey to AIDS or a pack of child soldiers. I asked why, if we were playing “what if”, I couldn’t imagine an alternate universe in which I was an African princess living in luxury who stumbled across the redemptive power of Judaism while enjoying myself in Monte Carlo, but my colleague shot that down as unrealistic.
A thorough exploration of the history of the African Diaspora, and the sad fate of those who remained behind is depressing. If I were to be given the opportunity to go back in time and direct my great-great grandmother many times removed on a course of action which would either see her delivered into the hands of the slavers or saved to remain behind in the jungle, it would amount to my personal version of Sophie’s Choice, most people of African descent could look forward to a future of mistreatment, whether they made the long voyage across the Middle Passage or stayed to be exploited by the colonials.
And this is why I am working to resolve my feelings of ambivalence towards South Africans. Because, while the system of apartheid was admittedly evil and hateful, who knows if buried deep within it were laid the seeds of a cure for some even worse moral cancer? And decades from now, perhaps we will be left questioning whether apartheid added some intrinsic value to the world, much like I still wonder whether I should be grateful for slavery.
Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.