As Dan Goldberg recently noted, South African Jews have become a formidable component of Australian Jewry – enriching the community culturally, religiously and commercially. Yet their prominence, and very presence, has been met with resistance and derision by many. Much of it boils down to the immigrants’ persistence in retaining their identity, and a misplaced nativism that permeates Australian culture, politics and discourse.
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Sure, the distinctive South African accent may grate many an Australian Jew’s ear with phrases like “yar,” “howzit” and the like. And sometimes, South Africans are louder than their more restrained, Anglicized co-religionists. Yet behind the alleged brashness and arrogance, exists a community that, in addition to being proud and industrious, is also traumatized by the dislocation that comes with emigration. To leave one’s home is no small feat. It takes years, if not decades, if not an entire generation, to fully integrate.
And, yes, the truth is that many South African Jews would have preferred to stay in their birth land. It goes beyond the ease of life there – marked by domestic workers and often plush mansions. Emigration usually entails leaving aging parents and grandparents, lifelong friends and businesses behind, all to start from scratch in an unfamiliar country. The older one gets, the harder this is.
It’s not a sin to miss one’s original home, or an expression of disloyalty to the host country. It’s normal and natural and to be expected. Indeed, there is much to pine for. South Africa is a wildly beautiful country, defined by a mesmerizing cultural mosaic and painful yet rich history. From the deserts and the coasts to the bushlands and wetlands, the magnificence of the beloved country becomes seared into one’s being.
I moved to Sydney as a toddler, and have never truly felt Australian. My accent never disappeared, and I still root for the Springboks in rugby union games, even when they play the vaunted Wallabies. There’s nothing more pleasurable then devouring a bag of biltong, the quintessential dried meat that nearly every South African relishes, and hearing the soul-stirring new multilingual anthem of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika – God Bless Africa. Old affinities die hard.
As a kid, I’d spend my summer holidays back in Johannesburg and holidaying on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, immersed in my vast family, many of whom remain there. Despite the fact that I worry deeply about their safety - my grandfather has been hijacked, my grandmother, aunty and cousin tied up in their own homes and threatened with rape - I understand their resistance to leaving. South Africa is their home, for better or worse. It's too painful to seriously contemplate saying goodbye to all that is known and cherished. It’s a predicament similar to that faced by many Israelis. Despite the war, rockets and hardship, this is their home. The decision to remain goes beyond the rational. It’s a matter of the heart.
Those Australian Jews that criticize the influx and eccentricities of their South African brethren should show more empathy, and be mindful of the fact that they themselves are the offspring of immigrants. In fact, the entire non-indigenous population of the great southern land were once newcomers.
This Jewish nativism speaks to a larger issue in Australia of who belongs – namely, the influx of boat people fleeing war and hardship in Asia and the Middle East. As former Prime Minister Bob Hawke once declared: “We’re all bloody boat people – that’s how we found the place.” The days of a white, Christian Australia are over – and that's something that should be celebrated, not mourned.
Also, those who charge that racism arrived in the suitcases of South Africans are dead wrong. It has been a part of Australia since the dawn of European settlement at the end of the 18th century. The history of Australia’s treatment of its native population is arguably worse than the horrors of apartheid. In the case of the former, wide-scale genocide was practiced, which cannot be rolled back with affirmative action and reversion to indigenous rule, as in the case of post white-rule South Africa.
Australians in general and Australian Jews in particular do not and should not have a monopoly on who belongs, on whose accents are the most acceptable and whose demeanor is most sufferable. Australia is a nation of immigrants, many of whom have divided – though largely symbolic – ethnic loyalties. Identity is a convoluted, at time torturous phenomenon. Fluid and hybrid, it often doesn’t fit neatly into one box of cultural or nationalistic affiliation. Welcome to today’s world.