The Israel-Hamas war has fractured Muslim/Jewish community relations in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. But in South Africa, ordinary people take pride in being an outlier, creating a country where for decades and even now, Jews and Muslims have gotten along well and live side by side in communities.
“We are not perfect, but we exist peacefully in the same communities,” said Dan Schindler, a mechanic and 55-year-old Jewish father of two in Yeoville. His town is a multicultural South African suburb that is home to many Jews, Slovaks, Italians, Muslims, African emigrants, Russians and Chinese. Here in bakeries, mills, schools, cafes, Jewish and Muslim South Africans employ one another without a hesitation about one’s faith and identity.
“I feel no fear walking past a local mosque, asking a guard to refill my water bottle and taking my kids to a multi-racial school in this neighborhood where both Jewish, Rastafarian and Muslim students can wear their religious outfits on top of the normal school uniform,” Schindler said proudly.
“The violence and hatred over there in the Middle East doesn’t define us as South Africans of diverse heritages.”
“We are all watching the war on TV, but the violence and hatred over there in the Middle East doesn’t define us as South Africans of diverse heritages here in Yeoville. As I speak to you, I’m coming from a respectful school parent meeting of Muslim, Hindu, African, Jewish families.”
The Israel-Hamas war has wreaked havoc in families, schools and neighborhoods across the globe. For example, antisemitic gunfire threats are being directed at vacant school premises in places like Montreal, Canada, while Islamophobic graffiti attacks have been shamefully pinned on walls in places like Brownsville, Texas.
“Yes, we all have strong emotions about the war; I wouldn’t lie. But we won’t suddenly intimidate our neighbors based on their faith or racial identity. That is a shameful conduct that we would not sink to here in Yeoville,” said Awad Abdul Doha, a local Muslim imam in Yeovil.
South Africa’s history of 100 years of racist apartheid colonialism has made it an oasis of intercommunal relations where Jewish South Africans and Muslim South Africans can live side by side in peace in its cities, said Pastor Effart Axice, a retired evangelical cleric in Chatsworth, Durban, on the country’s vast Indian Ocean coastline.
“Jews and Muslim leaders united with Nelson Mandela to lead the country’s bitter anti-apartheid fightback until victory in 1994. Prominent Jewish leaders like Denis Goldberg and Muslim leaders like Ahmed Kathrada were key lieutenants in Nelson Mandela’s fights to dismantle apartheid,” Axice explained.
The only white man who was jailed decades for his opposition to racist apartheid rule, Dennis Goldberg, was a Jewish political activist who offered to sign his own death warrant in 1963 so the life of Nelson Mandela could be saved. Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid detainee who also spent three decades in jail with Mandela, is a prominent Muslim South African activist who is cherished in South Africa.
“From a young age it is cherished in our morals as South Africans that Jewish, Muslims South Africa are one people, all South Africans. We have taken great risks together to oppose apartheid, which was great fascism,” said Axice, pointing to the prominent lives of Jewish South Africans like Arthur Chaskalson, a celebrated Jewish attorney who was the first chief justice in 1994 in a free and democratic South Africa.
Axice further looks around at his town’s own ethnic makeup. For nearly 100 years, Chatsworth has been a steaming pot of racial diversity, he said. A century ago, British colonial ships sailed from India with Indian laborers coming to be worked harshly on sugar plantations. Today, millions of people of Indian heritage live in South Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline as South Africa citizens and alongside European and Black South Africans.
“No one is Jewish, Muslim, Indian first here in Chatsworth. We are all South Africans first hence the interfaith/racial peace that prevails,” he said.
South Africans have waked a difficult road of 100 years of apartheid colonialism and learned the struggle against racist tyranny attracts a united front of people: Black, Jewish, Muslim, Hundu, Arab, European all working for liberation, said Mulandu Shaffa, a teacher at a mixed school where Muslim, nondenominational and Jewish students attend in Yeovil.
“Considering our painful history in South Africa and the reconciliation we have had since 1994, perhaps it’s time Palestinians and Israelis pause the wars and take a leaf from our painful negotiations for reconciliation,” Shaffa said.