South Africa is a society in transition. South Africa ushered in a new era of democracy and fundamental rights in 1994. Its Constitution, widely recognized as one of the most progressive in the world makes equality, dignity and freedom first-order values. Specific commitments to equality on the basis of race and gender are recognized as foundational values of the Republic. The Constitution requires both private and public bodies to avoid discriminating unfairly.
In recent years some of the secular communal structures in the South African Jewish community have adopted an unpublished but acknowledged policy of barring female voices—especially in song—from the communal, secular space. This is a form of unfair discrimination against women in the Jewish community that fundamentally offends their dignity.
In more recent years, however, there has been a shift: an unpublished but acknowledged policy of barring female singers from the communal, secular space. This practice came to the attention of a young organization, SACRED (South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity) at the end of March 2012, when a mixed voice choir, sponsored by WIZO, was initially refused participation in the annual SAZF-sponsored Independece Day celebration.
That refusal was later rescinded, and the choir did participate, but the policy itself remains in force. There is no guarantee that female singers and mixed groups will be allowed to participate in future large-scale public, communal events.
But such events are not the preserve of one segment of the community: they are designed to attract all Jews. SACRED believes most Jews are sincerely committed to the principles of equality and dignity in the South African Constitution. This is particularly relevant at an event to commemorate Israel’s independence, since the State of Israel has a fundamental commitment to gender equality that includes women singing at Independence Day celebrations.
Other events have also come to the attention of SACRED, which started a database of complaints 18 months ago. Earlier in 2012 a King David High School marimba band with a teenage female singer was barred from an event sponsored by the school’s parent body, the constitutionally Orthodox South African Jewish Board of Education. Women’s singing is silenced at Cape Town and Johannesburg Yom Hashoah commemorations as a policy. A pattern emerges that is contradictory to the Jewish values of respect and dignity, as well as the South African Constitution. The exclusions occur not on merit, but on an ideological basis.
A six-minute video released by SACRED after this year’s Yom Haatzmaut “Fusion” celebration, features eleven South African Jewish women. They make the matter clear: this is not a matter of their personal affiliation to Orthodox or Progressive Judaism. It is a matter of human and civil rights that the religious prejudice of some may not inhibit the civil rights of others.
SACRED invites all to join its campaign in South Africa. Our specific goals include calling upon all communal organizations to have transparent, inclusive policies that conform to the values of the Jewish community and the non-discriminatory policies of the South African Constitution. Those who share SACRED’s point of view are invited to lodge their support for women singing by signing up on our website.
Excluding women in a society where violence against women persists, and the struggle for equality remains unfinished, represent core human rights issues that Judaism has addressed since ancient times.
Robert A. Jacobs chairs SACRED and is Rabbi at Bet David Progressive Synagogue, Johannesburg and chairs the South African Association of Progressive Rabbis. Charlotte Fischer is the Executive Director of SACRED.
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