When looking after one’s own is also up for reproval

Dominique Herman writes in response to a comment she overheard about Jews and their “way of thinking”

Friday night before last I was sitting in the dining room of a hotel several hours’ drive from Cape Town. At the table next to mine I overheard a woman say something that I couldn’t get out of my head for the rest of the weekend, particularly when news broke on Saturday morning of the sheer medieval savagery perpetrated by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel.

This woman was white, probably in her late fifties or early sixties, clearly educated and comfortably off. She said: “The Jews really look after their own. I don’t understand their culture or way of thinking.”

I was intrigued by this statement and waited for someone else at the table of four to ask her what exactly she didn’t understand. Jewish or not Jewish, I certainly would have. Did she not understand the culture or way of thinking of Jews in general, or did that comment relate to her earlier statement that Jews “really look after their own”?

If it was the latter, I wondered whether she knew anything of the 2000 years of persecution Jews have faced wherever they have lived. From being massacred by Cossacks in Russia, forcibly ejected from places in which they had long been resident such as Spain, England and many Arab countries, to being locked up in ghettos and transported in cattle trucks to camps designed purely for their extermination in Europe. After all of that, is it a wonder that Jews look out for and after each other?

However, if she wasn’t privy to the smorgasbord of ill treatment Jews the world over have experienced through history, she just needed to turn on the news the next morning to discover the latest hit: virulently anti-Israel and anti-Jew conscripts of Hamas rampaging through towns, villages and kibbutzim in Israel, pillaging, burning and shooting civilians at point-blank range. Mercilessly murdering babies and young children in their beds, mutilating and raping others and then taking hostage the ones they hadn’t already killed, including the most vulnerable members of society: the very young, the very old, those with disabilities and those on life-supporting medications and apparatus.

The context for this woman’s remark was in response to her host who had been giving her the background of a Jewish businessman he knew well who he was planning to introduce to this woman and her husband the following night at an event at the hotel. The businessman in question has several properties in Cape Town as well as the town we were all visiting that weekend and has had a long and successful career. I happen to know him, too, and his success is due to the dint of his own efforts.

How her host talking about what properties this man had developed should lead to a comment from her about how Jews really look after their own and presumably, as a consequence of that, she couldn’t understand them, completely escapes me. But it’s entirely unsurprising. An uncomfortably large percentage of society doesn’t like Jews and can’t wait to stick the boot in, however seemingly innocuously. And that in essence is why Jews look after their own. If they don’t, who will exactly?

There are many countries in the world where it would be categorically unsafe for Jews to live and where there is not one single Jewish person there as a result. But even in so-called western liberal democracies, places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany, Jews have to be vigilant – particularly when there’s a conflagration in the Middle East.

When that happens, thousands of kilometres away, Jewish communities have to spring into action to protect themselves, their businesses, places of worship and community centres from the inevitable incidents of physical intimidation and criminality that occur.

In Germany, where I spend a lot of time, Muslims go about their daily lives without fear of anyone launching an attack on them. Their mosques and businesses are plain to see. In Wiesbaden, a small city near Frankfurt where I am based in Germany, there is a huge immigrant population from Turkey and Syria (the largest foreigner group in Germany is Turkish).

Walking around the pedestrian zone of that city, one could be forgiven for thinking one was in the Middle East. There are so many women dressed in the abaya and hijab and walking in large groups where nobody is speaking German that I sometimes struggle to reconcile this ubiquitous scene with being in a Western European country.

Jews, by contrast, are reticent about displaying any indication that they’re Jewish. I’ve yet to see a man in a kippah (skullcap) – let alone full-on religious garb – anywhere I’ve been in the country.

I don’t attend synagogue in general but I was interested to see what the Jewish community in Wiesbaden is like after visiting the memorial in town where the once magnificent-looking synagogue stood before it was destroyed in 1938 during the Third Reich Progromnacht (it used to be called Kristallnacht).

The current synagogue in Wiesbaden was inaugurated in 1966 and caters to a dramatically slimmed-down community due to their forbears having been wiped out by the Nazis. On my first stay in the city several years ago, I walked up and down the street where it is located not being able to find it. After much head-scratching, I discovered the entrance was through a nondescript-looking office building that housed a travel agency and a language school. Inside the entranceway and through a locked security door accessible only by intercom, there lay a courtyard not visible from the street at all, beyond which a much more modest yet architecturally lovely building stood where local Jews now gathered to pray.

When services are held at synagogues across Germany, there is a police presence outside every single one. Now imagine that outside every church and mosque and it begins to dawn on one how unreal that is in a modern-day western democratic state like Germany, a country that promulgates equality for all no matter race, religion or gender.

It’s heartening, considering the country’s history, that Jewish citizens in Germany are now protected like this (and not only Nazi history; attacks on synagogues in the country have happened much more recently than that). But it’s also deeply sad that there needs to be police protection for only one exceedingly small segment of the local population, simply so they may observe their religion without being physically harmed.

While the events of the past couple of weeks are absolutely horrifying all round, it’s a comfort as a Jewish person to know that there’s a community looking after its own. In Cape Town, a city with about 12 000 Jews, I have received numerous emails from community organisations not only detailing the ways people can seek help if they require it, but the ways in which they can help others that require it. Generally where there are Jewish communities worldwide, resources are provided collectively by members of those communities to ensure that there is a safety net for those in need.

In South Africa, there is not one Jewish child who has to forego an excellent education if his or her parents can’t afford it. Not one Jewish person will starve or be homeless or thrown in the gutter in old age. This is not because there aren’t many indigent Jews both in Cape Town and elsewhere in the country. It’s that those who can help do, unfailingly. It’s part of the ethos of being Jewish. And this ethos extends to all manner of charitable endeavours outside of Jewish communities and interests, despite the enduring stereotype of Jews as stingy.

Jews do take care of their own. That is a cultural trait to be admired. It is something to be emulated, not querulously criticised. Jews aren’t a burden, financially or otherwise, on other members of society in South Africa. If they are struggling, their needs are taken care of by other Jews. When Jews are attacked, other Jews rush to their aid. Communities all over the world are organising to help the victims of this latest attack. Its a well-worn reaction. “We’re all family”, said Joel Haber, an American Israeli living in Jerusalem, when I interviewed him recently.

What Jews don’t do is vandalise the businesses of members of other religious groups in their home countries when a conflict breaks out in the Middle East. They don’t stride the streets in areas where big numbers of those other religious groups live and congregate there in aggressive and loud protest. And when Jews are combatants in the conflict, such as now, they don’t desecrate and then parade the corpses of those with whom they are at war through the streets of their own country to a chorus of cheering and whooping.

The values of Jews in general align with the Western world. In their minute numbers, they seek to integrate and contribute to the societies in which they find themselves. As a group, Jews constitute a quarter of one percent of the world’s population; they have been awarded not far off a quarter of all Nobel Prizes.

Jews don’t seek to impose their belief system and way of life on those who aren’t Jewish. They’re not looking to hurt or intimidate other people. Simply put, they’re not a group of people to be afraid of and there are very few of them. Consequently they’re an easy target and handy scapegoat all over the world to vilify and terrorise and attack, and it’s not surprising as a result that they are periodically vilified and terrorised and attacked wherever they live.

But, after this latest series of attacks, for a seemingly educated, sophisticated person like the woman in the dining room in the hotel that I overheard that Friday evening, understanding the Jewish culture and way of thinking when it comes to looking after its own should now, hopefully, not be too difficult a task or ask.

Dominique Herman writes on Substack.