The universal message of passover

Money donated to the Jewish National Fund was used to plant the South Africa Forest on the remains of the destroyed village of Lubya in 1964. In 2015, fourteen South African Jews returned to apologise. Photo credit: Alex Levac

JVL Introduction

As passover approaches this year, it seems more appropriate than ever to draw out the universal lesson of freedom from the passover story.

In South Africa, Jews in the anti-apartheid movement were heavily over-represented in proportion to their numbers in the white community as a whole.

Howard Sackstein tells how Jews for Social Justice (JSJ), the South African Jewish anti-apartheid movement to inspire hope and share the message of freedom with others, embarked on a series of Freedom Seders from 1985 onwards, sharing the radicalism of the Jewish tradition with leaders of the liberation movement of the time.

Needless to say the representatives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which only finally condemned apartheid that year, after going along with it for four decades, were cautious in their response…

This article was first published in the South African Jewish Report.

We will follow it with others showing the radical Jewish tradition at work – against apartheid, in the civil right movement, against the Argentinian junta, against fascism and more. Do send us any thoughts and suggestions for areas you would like to see covered.

This article was originally published by South African Jewish Report on Wed 18 Apr 2018. Read the original here.

Freedom Seders – from revolution to revelation

 It was the heady days of South Africa’s revolution. The townships were in flames, and tens of thousands of people were in detention without trial. South Africa was burning in the 1980s, and democracy seemed like an impossible dream.

In 1985, Jews for Social Justice (JSJ), the South African Jewish anti-apartheid movement, decided that the story of Passover, the historical exodus from slavery to freedom, held a universal message for all of those in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Determined to inspire hope and share the message of freedom with others, JSJ decided to host a series of Freedom Seders with the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement to celebrate the universal message of liberation.

I approached Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris with the idea, and he immediately committed himself to support and attend the seder. He also committed himself to designing a universal Haggadah that would not only share the story of Passover, but also Jewish teachings on freedom. The Haggadah would include universal writings on liberty from Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and other icons of liberation.

Maxine Hart and I undertook to get as many activists involved in the proceedings. We invited, among others, the leadership of the United Democratic Front (the UDF was the internal wing of the ANC); the trade union movement, including Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions); the End Conscription Campaign; the National Union of South African Students; the Five Freedoms Forum; the Detainees Parents Support Committee; the Black Sash; the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee; the South African Council of Churches; and the National Educational Crisis Committee. The response from anti-apartheid activists was overwhelming.

As usual, the attempt to cajole the leadership of the South African Jewish community into attending was left to me. Their response was significantly more mooted (sic!) than that of the political activists.

The participation of Chief Rabbi Harris, whom Nelson Mandela would later refer to as “my rabbi” and his activist lawyer wife, Ann Harris, gave some cover for some communal leaders to attend.

Logistics for the operation was handled by Judy Froman Cowan, whose parents Colin and Penny Froman were always willing to offer their home for JSJ functions. My father, Maurice Sackstein, made charoset and chrain for the event. My mother, Helen, offered her kneidlach recipe, because no activist should ever have to suffer through someone else’s underwhelming kneidlach.

And so, each year for a number of years, we gathered at the Froman home, and shared Jewish lessons on freedom with those who risked their lives, every day, for the liberation of South Africa.

Among those who attended were the Reverend Beyers Naudé (Oom Bey as he was affectionately known), the Afrikaans cleric and theologian who was one of the few Afrikaners willing to stand up to the National Party; Popo Molefe the United Democratic Movement activist who later became premier of the North West Province; and current Transnet Chairman Mosiuoa (“Terror”) Lekota, the former premier of the Free State and the current leader of COPE (the Congress of the People). It also included the Reverend Frank Chikane, who became director general of the Presidency under President Thabo Mbeki; and UDF activist Murphy Morobe, who later headed South Africa’s financial and fiscal commission.

JSJ Chairperson Franz Auerbach, who had grown up in Nazi Germany, spoke of his family’s escape to freedom from Hitler. JSJ executive Ursula Bruce spoke passionately about her son, David Bruce’s, imprisonment for refusing to be conscripted into the apartheid army.

Chief Rabbi Harris skilfully steered the evening’s discussion on the meaning and importance of freedom. Freedom was a process, he explained, and that is why the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years. It was important that those with memories of slavery could pass on, and that only free people – those born in freedom unburdened by generations of oppression – could enter the land of Israel.

For years, the JSJ Freedom Seders would be among the most sought after events for those in the anti-apartheid community.

Politically orientated Passover seders are not unique, however. The President of the United States, Bill Clinton introduced a Pesach seder in the White House in 1993.

President Barak Obama started the tradition of seders while on his first election campaign in 2008 by celebrating in the basement of the Sheraton Hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Once in office, Obama would host the annual gathering held in the White House residence’s Old Family Dining Room. Attendance by Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, was compulsory, and the first children searched for the afikomen (a piece of matzah hidden during the seder) through the halls of the White House. Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel even wrote a specific piece of the Haggadah to be recited at the Obama seder.

Comments (1)

  • Sue Rubin says:

    I think it is important to note at time of divisive competing identities and nationalism that most of the Jews who were involved in the Anti Apartheid movement, identified themselves as secular, atheist, socialists communists and as internationalist.

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