Confronting apartheid of the heart – opinion

Apartheid of the heart is a prejudice that focuses on any difference that allows us to see another human being as “other.”

Apartheid Week (photo credit: CAMPAIGN AGAINST ANTISEMITISM)
Apartheid Week
I grew up under the shadow of apartheid in South Africa. I recall people of color being arrested for walking in “white areas.” I saw public toilets and benches marked separately for black and white people. I lived in a society in which racism was institutionalized by parliament, carried out by the courts, and enforced by the police.
Then came the sweeping changes, the great bloodless revolution. Protests, fierce opposition and international boycotts brought the ruling National Party apartheid government to its knees and forced a reckoning, making it clear that no country could exist under such evil law.
I have such vivid memories of it all: president FW de Klerk announcing the sweeping reforms that marked the beginning of the end of apartheid in February of 1990; the unbanning of the anti-apartheid African National Congress political party; and the euphoria that greeted the long-awaited release of Nelson Mandela from prison, where he had served 27 years. Who can forget the sight of Mandela, in a gray suit and tie, arm-in-arm with his wife, Winnie, greeting his throngs of cheering supporters as a newly free man.
Four years later, I vividly remember the festive atmosphere and the sheer excitement of lining up to vote in South Africa’s first ever free-and-fair democratic election, which brought the visionary Mandela to power and truly marked the dawn of a new era.
And yet – as painful as it is to admit – the story does not end here. Despite incredible progress, 26 years later, South Africa is still riven by racial divisions, by mutual mistrust. Right now, in America, and in countries around the world, people are grappling with similar problems of racism and casting about for solutions. Every legislative reform required to uproot institutionalized racism needs to be passed. That is a given. But is legislation enough?
It took decades of struggle to dismantle apartheid. Freedom fighters, international pressure, a Mandela-led government and a brave new constitution stripped apartheid from the statute books. But that was only the beginning. Each and every day, we must work to build a society in which we dismantle the apartheid of the heart.
Apartheid of the heart is a prejudice that focuses on any difference that allows us to see another human being as “other,” whether it is race, class, culture, nationality, political outlook or religious belief. Because these feelings are embedded so deeply in our hearts and minds, they cannot be removed by legislative fiat. Policy reforms are necessary, but real progress demands a more profound shift in values.
What we need, essentially, is a change of heart. As it says in the Book of Ezekiel, “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.”
HOW DO we change our hearts?
Eradicating apartheid of the heart must start at home. Parents play a vital role in transmitting values to their children.
These values help inform what our children consider to be a normal and natural part of life, and they often become the values they pass on to their own children. If a child is raised in a home of compassion, a home in which they are encouraged to appreciate and embrace the differences in others and recognize the equality of all human beings, then there is hope of overcoming the temptation to view others with suspicion and aversion – now and for generations to come.
The transmission of these values from generation to generation is foundational for building a new society. As Jews, this is not a new idea. Our homes are central to who we are, and the passage of principles, values and tradition from parent to child is the secret to our survival.
Every year since our birth as a people, we have recounted the story of our Exodus from Egypt to our children: how Divine miracles liberated our ancestors from slavery and oppression; and how our freedom allowed us to receive the Torah from God at Sinai and pursue our spiritual destiny.
We tell this story in our homes every Passover, guided by the Torah verse: “And you shall tell your children... ” The commandment is not only to relate the story of the Exodus, but to communicate its lessons and values to our children, one of which is how God commands us in many verses of the Torah to “Love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The stranger is anyone we may mistakenly see as different from us – as “the other.” This is because they are fundamentally no different from us. Indeed, there is no “us” and “them.” These are the values we must instill, and most importantly, model for our children, from the moment they are born.
The deeper truth is that none of us are strangers. Here, too, the Torah can guide us. From the beginning, we learn and teach that all of humanity descends from one Adam and one Eve. The Talmud explains that God created all of us from one common father and mother to prevent theories of racial superiority. However wondrously diverse we may appear, we are all brothers and sisters. When we understand that we are part of one family, then we are able to see that any perceived otherness is not real.
But our connectedness goes far deeper than biology and heredity. The Torah says that we are created in God’s image; that our souls are in some way a reflection of the Divine. This is captured in Pirkei Avot: “Beloved is the human being created in God's image.”
BENEATH OUR differences, every one of us has a godly soul. Once we recognize that the essence of every human is the soul and not the body, we see that all of the things that separate us – that make us “other” or “stranger” – are completely superficial and therefore inconsequential. We are souls clothed in bodies, and beneath the surface each of us is a reflection of the Divine. Nothing else matters.
It is our duty to not only live by these values, but to pass them on to our children. The Torah provides the mantra that should fill our homes: “Beloved is the human being created in God's image.” Nothing – not skin color, class, level of social status or wealth, nationality, culture, religion or politics – can alter the Divine equality of every human being.
Our humble faith that everything we have in this world ultimately comes from God also brings us closer to a belief in the equality of all human beings, as one of our great sages, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, wrote, in a letter to his son, “Of what should a person be prideful? If they have wealth – it is God who makes one prosperous. And if honor – does honor not belong to God? If they take pride in wisdom – let them understand that God may remove the speech of the most competent and take away the wisdom of the aged. Thus all people stand as equals before their Creator.”
This sacred value system – and translating it into action – is crucial to removing the apartheid of the heart. We must transform this philosophy of the Divine equality of all human beings into how we relate to each other. Thankfully, the Torah provides both lofty ideals and practical guidance for leading a humane and righteous life, with lessons for treating people with dignity, speaking gently, showing kindness and compassion, and looking for opportunities to help. These are the values we need to teach our children, primarily by example.
It remains essential that governments introduce reforms that fight the prejudice at the heart of our institutions. But, ultimately, any solution must come from removing the apartheid of the heart. We need to appreciate, in our hearts, the breadth and beauty of humanity, and the innate and wondrous Godliness of every single person. Once we have brought that love for others into our hearts, we must act on it, and pass it on to our children.
May God bless us all. May we know no more pain. May we cause no more pain. May He help us remove any remnant of a heart of stone within us, giving us a “new heart and a new spirit.”
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.