SA Jews mobilize to help foreign victims of violence

Focus of efforts to donate essential supplies such as food, blankets and clothing to migrant workers who have been attacked by black South Africans.

south africa violence 22 (photo credit: AP)
south africa violence 22
(photo credit: AP)
The Jewish community in South Africa has come together to provide aid to foreign victims of recent attacks. Aid groups in the Johannesburg area said as many as 13,000 people had been displaced by the violence, most of it targeting Zimbabweans, Malawians, Mozambicans and other foreigners living alongside South Africans in squatter camps. At least 22 people have been killed in 10 days of unrest. The focus of these efforts, which are being led by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, is to donate essential supplies such as food, blankets and clothing to migrant workers who have been attacked by black South Africans. The board has coordinated with other Jewish groups to set up a fund to buy supplies for the victims. "The response has been overwhelming," said Wendy Kahn, the Board of Deputies' national director. "It's been quite an inspiring experience to see how generously the community has responded to this." The Union of Jewish Women has provided its facilities as collection points while asking its members to help the cause. According to David Saks, the Board of Deputies' associate director, many Jewish organizations are helping to provide aid. "The welfare organizations, the youth movements and the day schools have come forward with a huge amount of material and donated a lot of money," Saks said. While in the past it has had contact with the groups who are now perpetuating the violence, the Jewish Board of Deputies, as of now, has not engaged in efforts to reconcile the conflict. An absence of leaders on either side would make such mediation difficult, Saks said. "There's no leadership on either side," he said. "We wouldn't know who to speak to. That's part of the problem." Before the outbreak of violence, the Jewish community was active in helping the black population to address the aftereffects of Apartheid. Saks does not feel that the Jewish Board of Deputies's current efforts with the victims of violence will hinder that work in the future. "They're two different things," he said. "We're working on behalf of the poor. I don't think one will interrupt the other." Volunteers from the Jewish Board of Deputies have brought some supplies directly to refugee migrants, though the Red Cross has conducted most of the deliveries. Saks does not expect any violence against the Jewish community. "[The community is] always on high alert anyway because of the high crime rate and possible terrorist attacks," he said. "We haven't upped our security levels. Jews are not particularly at risk here." The crisis's severity, said Saks, was bringing an especially strong response from the community. "People who don't give support to black welfare causes are doing so now because of the extent of the problem," he said. "Jews have an obligation to come forward on behalf of these people, and [are driven by] the images in the daily media of what's happening." Chaya Singer, a Jewish university student who has been involved both with Jewish efforts and with those on campus, feels an imperative from Jewish tradition to help out. "As Jewish students we deplore any kind of xenophobia or racism, or acts of violence," said Singer. "As Jews who have been refugees and are taught to embrace the stranger, we feel we have to stand up for the rights of minorities, for people whose lives are being destroyed." Singer said that this is the first time many students have encountered this type of crisis as adults. The violence is the first of its kind since Apartheid ended in 1993. "It's the first time we've seen anything like this," she said. "People are turning on their neighbors. It's complete, rampant violence. Amazing people are volunteering to help the situation." While Kahn expects the Board of Deputies to increase its efforts in the coming days by coordinating with other religious groups and government agencies, she does not want the community to lose perspective. "We're trying to be quite proactive and focused," she said. "We don't want this to be a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue and we are moved by the plight of the people who are suffering so much." AP contributed to this report.