Sachs says… tolerance

by tobybee

On April 22 Albie Sachs, an activist with the ANC and former justice of the South African Constitutional Court, gave a speech at the Cape Town Press Club. We haven’t mentioned before, on this blog (i don’t think!), the shameful saga which developed in South Africa recently, when Judge Richard Goldstone was effectively barred from being at his grandson’s barmitzvah (before the threats were lifted in the days before the barmitzvah, and he was in the end able to attend), but presumably you’ve seen the coverage elsewhere (see for instance here, here, and here). Sachs, up until this point, had not commented on Goldstone’s report, as he wanted to remain in a position where he could practically contribute to creating peace between Israel/Palestine, in some form. But, he says, the outrage of what was done to Goldstone and his family, and what was done to Jewishness too, impelled him to speak. And so he said, in the most beautiful way…

I felt sick. I knew how family-orientated Richard and Noleen were, and how proud they were of their children and grandchildren. I couldn’t believe that political anger against him, which people had every right to express, had evolved into an uncontrolled and unconscionable rage that sought to violate the spirit of one of the most sacred aspects of formal Jewish tradition. Non-believers, as secular people like myself are called, tend to fall into two categories… either we aggressively repudiate all religious belief as obscurantist humbug, or we actively acknowledge that people owe much of their dignity and personhood to their consciences and beliefs. I belong to the latter group. It shocked me deeply that instead of being a sanctuary of spiritual communality that transcended, even if momentarily, the feuds of secular life, the shul was being converted into a trench of partisanship. Above all, I felt for the barmitzvah boy. He had a right to have his grandpa there on his very special day.


Like Richard’s grandson, I had the fortune or the misfortune to be born into a family with a famous figure constantly in the headlines. In my case it was my Dad, Solly Sachs, a trade union leader who was loved by many and vilified by others. The wounds that affected him the most were those inflicted not by his enemies but by persons in his own circles. Just as we can’t choose our parents, so we can’t choose our grandparents. I only hope that the awkwardness the barmitzvah boy must feel at being dragged into the limelight by the anger directed by some people at his grandfather, is outweighed by the knowledge that the love and concern that Richard has shown for justice for all grandchildren in all countries in no way reduced his enormous interest in and affection for his own grandchildren. What must certainly be puzzling is that the anger is coming from people in the Jewish community, many of whom have been his friends, when so much of the origins of his intellectual and emotional passion comes from the fact that he is a Jew. As Freud explained, however, the intensity of emotion comes precisely from the closeness of the parties, from what he called the narcissism of small differences – it is when people are very much alike in deep ways that their points of disagreement become bitter and magnified.

What does it mean to be a Jew? From time to time I ask myself this question. As long as there is anti- Semitism in the world, I will proudly affirm myself as a Jew. But apart from the fact that I am viscerally anti-anti-Semitic, what does being a Jew signify to me in positive terms? Last year I happened to visit the United Kingdom Supreme Court while a case concerning the right of admission to the Jewish Free school was being argued. I heard counsel suggest as a rule of thumb that there were three characteristics of a Jewish family: it had a tiny scroll in a holder called a mezuzah hanging by the front door, its members went to synagogue regularly, and they contributed to Jewish charities. By that reckoning I failed all three. Yet in a tribute at the funeral of Joe Slovo a decade ago, despite the fact that Slovo was not the slightest bit religious and had no special links with the Jewish community, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris stirringly declared that Joe was not only a good Jew but an exemplary one because of his contribution to the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights in South Africa.

When I was detained in solitary confinement the only reading matter I had been allowed was a book containing the Old and the New Testaments. Rationing myself to two pages a day, I slowly read through the Torah from beginning to end. The parts that reached me most powerfully were the lyrical and beautiful Songs of Solomon and the magnificent poetic visions of the prophets in exile. What they extolled above all was the righteousness of the humble and the oppressed seeking to be free in an imagined new world where all would be free. I picked up similar themes poetically expressed in the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. The connection with the past that served as a source of courage for me in prison, came not from the passages exalting leaders who smote their enemies and destroyed every living thing in captured cities, nor from what I perceived as the inward-looking zealotry of some of the scribes. It stemmed from the way I felt myself to be immersed in an eternal striving for the achievement of knowledge that would enable the world to be better understood and human life to be made more perfect.

As I lay captive, in my mind the subsequent wandering of the Jews throughout the world could not be separated from the wondering of Jews about the world. If the universe had constantly to be re- understood, re-imagined and re-configured, it was no surprise that three of the most influential and revolutionary thinkers of our epoch had been Jews –Karl Marx, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. A heightened sense of the link between marginalisation, migration and freedom had undoubtedly integrated itself into my Jewishness. My grandparents fled from pogroms in Lithuania, where every Easter they hid in concealed basements or ran into the forests as Cossacks swept through their villages shouting that the Jews had killed Christ, now they would kill the Jews. Many of their generation brought with them to their new country the ideals of a world of equality without oppression and exploitation, ideals which were to engulf my parents and affect my existence from birth. Though none of these ideas were exclusively held by Jews, they lay under my pillow, so to speak, because I was a Jew. And although the majority of Jews in South Africa went along with the privileges that came with their racial classification as white, the small number of whites who joined directly in the liberation struggle included a high proportion of Jews, and many Jews were represented in the larger body of whites who opposed apartheid in quieter ways. What worries me now is that it is Jews, and not just anti-Semites , who seek to dictate to Jews how they should behave. The demand is for an uncritical loyalty based on a form tribal self-defence rather than on conscientious adherence to a position. Heaven help Jews, even those whose hearts since childhood have been deeply invested in the idea of a Jewish State, if they dare suggest that the country with which they still identify strongly in many ways, must be measured by the standards of appropriate conduct that apply to all nations. Yet it cannot be right that people are called upon to choose between being a Jew, on the one hand, and being able to express their own sense of justice, on the other. Surely they should not face excoriation and banishment if they answer that in their case it is precisely being a Jew that animates their sense of justice.

For each one of us our Jewishness will have different significance. In my case I cannot separate out the influence of my Jewish origins from the effect on me of growing up in a family involved in the struggle for race and class justice. I was not named after a Biblical figure, but after Albert Nzula, an African trade union leader who died shortly before I was born. Amongst my very first memories is that of hearing my mother Ray saying urgently to me and my little brother: tidy up, tidy up, Uncle Moses is coming. Uncle Moses was not a Jew, but our mother’s ‘boss,’ Moses Kotane, a prominent African leader whose typist she was. And quietly, without realising it at the time or ever saying thank you thereafter, I received the great gift of African humanism, today referred to as ubuntu. As I grew up I discovered in practice rather than through logical disputation that the grand notions about the good and virtuous life are not restricted to any particular culture, religion or tradition, but overlap and fuse and enrich each other. The Prophets, the Sermon on the Mount and ubuntu, feed seamlessly into each other. What little I know of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, suggest that they contain much of the same. It is paradoxical but fortunately true that while each of the world’s great traditions, including the secular tradition of the Enlightenment, claims to offer a unique set of truths to its adherents, each at the same time contains injunctions to be wise, to listen to others and to welcome strangers.

The world needs tolerance. South Africa needs tolerance. The Middle East needs tolerance. It is especially in areas of actual or potential conflict that tolerance is least found and most required. The true test of tolerance is not how much you are willing to put up with ideas that you might disagree strongly with, but which do not rage against your soul. It is in fact easy to tolerate notions that you regard as ridiculous but which do not threaten your sense of self in any serious way. The true test of tolerance is firstly your capacity to allow space for ideas that shake you up inside and challenge central notions of what you stand for, secondly to think about them and try to understand them and, thirdly, if you think they are wrong and harmful, to seek to refute them with honest and persuasive argument. The law and the Constitution will place limits on what society will regard as tolerable, but in an open and democratic society such as ours these limits will be based on discernable constitutional harms, and not just on what may be upsetting or unsettling to certain groups. And showing tolerance is not just a matter of good manners or personal propriety. It is central to democratic discourse . It acknowledges that there are different voices in a pluralistic society.

(You can find the full speech at the Cape Town Press Club website: it’s a pdf, and there’s a link on the left hand side, under the ‘latest news’ tab. Thanks to Mark Baker for the link.)