Q&A – To Be A Citizen – June 2011 – “Jewish Life” magazine
So Chief – without infringing on your constitutional rights, can I ask you if you voted in the May elections last month?
Yes I did, my wife and I went to vote and it was an easy and wonderful experience. The weather was beautiful, the polls were efficiently run and everything went smoothly.
Is it the responsibility of a good citizen to vote?
I actually sent out an email on the day of the voting to encourage people to go and vote because I feel strongly that that forms part of one’s Torah values – to be a contributing member of society. To live in a country and not vote in the government elections means that you are taking without giving. Voting is part of active participation in the country in which we live. Through your vote you affect the lives of so many people by participating in choosing the government authorities who are responsible for the welfare of all South African citizens.
But what responsibility do we have as Jews specifically?
What struck me very forcefully when I was at the polling station was the amazing blessings of Hashem. Before 1994 there was no democracy. Hashem blessed this country with a peaceful transition to a real democracy. Here you have, after more than 15 years, a democracy that is well and truly established. To have a very uneventful election, free of violence, where everything ran smoothly, is indicative that democracy is now a part of what South Africa is. That is a blessing, and we have an opportunity to participate in that – so how do you turn your back on that? It is a lack of graditude to Hashem and to the country as well, for all the rights and freedoms that we enjoy and so many people fought and died for.
What if we don’t support the government?
Participating in the democracy has nothing to do with which party you support. It is about saying that what happens in the country is important. Our sages guide us to be interested in what is going on around us and to be concerned about it. The Mishna even says that we must pray for the welfare of the government. We believe that prayer has a real power to change the world because everything is ultimately n the hands of Hashem. And prayer is also about care – you only pray for something that you want to get a positive outcome. The verse in Jeremiah ‘seek out the welfare of the city that you live’ shows us that as Torah Jews, Hashem expects us to make a difference in the world we live in and try to help it. To be givers not takers, which Reb Eliyahu Dessler says is the main paradigm of who a person is. Voting is just one dimension of this, symbolic of the deeper value of making a difference.
In what other ways can we do this?
To start, we have to observe the law of the country, as it says in the Gemorrah ‘The law of the land is the law’. That means paying taxes, obeying the rules of the road, not speeding or talking on cell phones whilst driving and so on. To be part of a broader society and to make a contribution to it, and being a responsible citizen are Torah values. We also have to look out for opportunities for chesed, kindness, because we have a duty to show chesed to the people in the society in which we live.
How do the SA Jews fare as citizens?
On the whole we do well with many of these values as a community. I’m always amazed at the enormous contribution, disproportionate to our numbers, that the Jews are making to poverty alleviation, chesed, and of course to building up the economy and society in all spheres. So I think we can be very proud of this. But we have to see it as part of our Torah identity –this it is part of what Hashem wants for us.
What freedoms do we enjoy as Jews, living here?
First it is important to have a good perspective of Jewish history. When you look at the sweep of Jewish history, most of the time and in most places since the destruction of the second Temple we have lived in subjugation and oppression with no rights and no freedoms or safety. Think about our ancestors who came from the different parts of Eastern Europe – they ran away from places wherein their property and their lives could be taken at a whim. But here, we can be a Jew in public, and our rights are protected. That is something that we can never take for granted, because looking at our history it is more the exception than the rule. When I go to a government function there is kosher food, double wrapped with all of the seals of the Beth Din kashrut department. That is unheard of in our history, and we cannot brush that aside just because that is what we are legally and constitutionally entitled to, because in reality, not many Jews have enjoyed such things.
But you mentioned safety – here is an example of how the government has failed us, as we have had to create our own methods of safeguarding ourselves…like CAP.
The issue of violent crime is one of the major social challenges in South Africa, and CAP is an incredible example of what we as a community have done to make a contribution to the country. CAP now protects well over 100000 people in Johannesburg and has, thank G-d, brought down contact crime 80 to 90 percent, in its areas of operation.
Doesn’t that let the government off the hook?
CAP in no way removes the primary responsibility of safety from the shoulders of the government. I have publicly stated on many occasions that CAP does not mean that we are assuming responsibility for the security and safety of the citizens and we don’t see ourselves as competing with the government who still has the ultimate responsibility for the safety of its citizens. But having said that, it is our mitzvah to save lives and protect people from pain and suffering where we can and that it what CAP is about. CAP has been built in the spirit of so many things we have done as a Jewish community over many decades to do our mitzvahs, whether it be in the field of Jewish education, emergency services or social welfare. Hashem has blessed the tenacity and creativity of our community with success in all these areas.