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Isha Bekia

Q&A – March 2012 – Opening of Parliament: "Jewish Life" magazine

Mar 18, 2012 | SA Media, SA's democracy


Were you at the opening of Parliament this year?
Most years I attend the opening of Parliament and this year was no different. It is always a fascinating experience, and it is a wonderful opportunity to chat to people, important leaders and opinion makers in South Africa who are all present.
Why is it important for you to be there?
It is important for me to be there representing the Jewish community because it shows the government and South African society that we care about the future and the destiny of this country. Parliament is where a lot of what determines the country’s future unfolds – and my being there is saying that we Jews are an important part of the society and that we have a role to play in it.
That sounds nice and meaningful – but practically, is there any point?
It allows me as a representative of the Jewish community to speak to many politicians, Cabinet Ministers and senior opinion makers in the country in a relaxed, friendly environment – and those relationships are very important to our position here as the South African Jewish community in the context of the broader society in which we live. Very often, in politics you achieve a lot more with a friendly chat on the steps of the parliament building than you would in a formal meeting across the boardroom table.
But when do you get a chance to chat? Aren’t the  proceedings very formal?
Before the official proceedings begin there is a lot of time to talk and mill about in the corridors of Parliament. Afterwards everybody stands around meeting and greeting in the plaza in front of the Parliament buildings and then  the evening continues at a dinner hosted by President Zuma which is held afterwards, across the street where they set up a massive marquee – you can hardly see from one side to the other.
I assume you arranged kosher food – how did it find you amidst all the people?
I have to say that at every state function that I attend  (like the presidential awards ceremony at the Union Buildings in Pretoria as well) they provide kosher food for me in the double wrapped tin foil container complete with my own cutlery bearing the Beth Din stickers. They are very careful with that and do it 100% properly. 
Is there some part of you that feels ‘shemsach’- sitting eating out of your ‘doggy’ bag while a feast goes on around you?
Not at all, in fact I feel very proud.Firstly, all the tin foil avoids the Halachic problem of mar’it ayin – it is forbidden to eat in an unkosher restaurant, even if one is provided with kosher food because  a casual observer might think that you are eating the same treif food as everybody else. So the fact that I am set apart and so obviously eating a special meal takes care of the Halachics of it. But on a more philosophical and emotional level,  it makes me think of my great-grandparents– they fled from eastern Europe, Lithuania, where Jews had it hard, persecuted, sidelined and discriminated against. And here we have a society that is an open democracy, which not only doesn’t persecute us for our beliefs and our views but which in fact facilitates us living by our Judaism.
Why are they so diligent in this respect?
This is the new South Africa in action, the motto of which is unity within diversity. This means that diversity is celebrated – one never has to compromise on being a good Jew. Rather, one can be a proud and good Jew who keeps all the mitzvot, because the general society is so diverse, and this is celebrated as part of the South African ethos.
How do the politicians respond to you?
In all my interactions with the politicians and leadership of the country, I experience much warmth and openness. There is an appreciation for what the Jewish community of this country is doing for the society as a whole.
Does that impose on us a responsibility toward the Government…
Being a Torah Jew  includes respecting the law of land and contributing toward the society in which we live. The Mishna says that we must pray for the welfare of the government, and we do in our shuls on Shabbos morning.
When you daven for something we acknowledge that nothing can be successful without Hashem, as it says ‘The hearts of kings is in the hands of Hashem’. It also means that we care about the hopes and dreams of the society,  that we care about what actually happens in this country.
What about for the lay man who isn’t always operating under the umbrella of unity within diversity – sometimes it is hard for him to be the one eating out of tin foil…
This is a key thing – you do not have to give up your Torah values and Jewish identity to fit in with society. There isn’t a conflict. The ethos of “unity and diversity” means there is an open space for us to be loyal and committed Jews. I know that there are many places in the world, particularly in Europe where Jews feel embarrassed or at risk to wear their yarmulkes in public, but not in South Africa. We have some of the lowest rates of anti-Semitism in the world and we should embrace that blessing from Hashem, but also use it. There is no excuse to say that one is embarrassed to be ‘too Jewish’.  South African Jews are famous the world over for our pride in and commitment to our Judaism and Jewish identity.