A group of South African Jewish men and women have dedicated their Yom Kippur fast to the people of Gaza, and are using the religious celebration as a platform to raise money for the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP).
While the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) have “respected” the decision, it says that the initiative shows a “simplistic” and “one-sided” understanding of the Gaza conflict.
A flyer promoting the fast on Facebook pulls no punches. It recounts the experience of many Jewish people who have been educated within their community about the Holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe.
“We have been told that never again should another Holocaust be allowed to take place,” reads the flyer. “And yet… in our name, a massive atrocity is being committed. The Israeli government, in the name of the nationalist ideology that is Zionism has since 1948 been in charge of a colonial state that has displaced and occupied the Palestinian people.”
This year’s Yom Kippur comes a few weeks after a tenuous ceasefire between the Israeli government and Hamas in the Gaza strip. Over 2,100 Gazans were killed — primarily by bombardment from the Israeli Defence Force. Just over 70 Israelis were killed.
Fast organiser Jared Sacks says, “In the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur, we are meant to ask forgiveness to anyone we have wronged and do what we can to account for this wrongdoing. On Yom Kippur, we are meant to fast and pray and atone for those sins.” He adds that the holiday is important for religious and secular Jews alike.
The GCMHP was chosen because of the negative mental health effects that the bombing, injuries and deaths has had on Gazans who survived Israel’s “Protective Edge” operation this year. The institution is internationally renowned and best placed to help Palestinians “move beyond their collective trauma,” says Sacks.
Mary Kluk, Chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies, said that Yom Kippur is the most significant Jewish holy day and confirmed that it was a time for every Jew to “reflect” on the past year.
“While it is highly unusual for Yom Kippur to become a political forum, I respect the right of this group to make it so. However, I thoroughly disagree with their simplistic and one-sided understanding of this tragic conflict,” she said.
University of Johannesburg Professor Steven Friedman, who is also dedicating his Yom Kippur fast to the people of Gaza, retorted that Yom Kippur is often used as a political platform by Zionists who use the day to defend the Israeli state and its human rights abuses.
“(This is done) with the full support of the SAJBD,” he said, adding that he has publicly been denounced by a rabbi on Yom Kippur for objecting against Israel’s “human rights abuses”.
“The SAJBD does not object to people taking political positions on Yom Kippur, it objects to them taking positions which are critical of the Israeli state. Its problem with our understanding of the conflict is not that it is one-sided, but that it is not that – that we refuse to one-sidedly distort the Jewish religion to justify gross human rights abuses by a state.”
Sacks said that fear of ostracisation within the Jewish community has resulted in a number of their supporters pledging money anonymously.
“They’re afraid of verbal abuse and ostracisation from the more intolerant section of the Jewish community. Attacks like these happen to most Jews who speak out against the occupation including myself,” said Sacks.
The fast for the Gaza Community Mental Health Program has raised R6,000 of a targeted R20,000 so far.