For the 193rd and last time, the black minister and white rabbi from South Africa stood before an American audience Tuesday night to tell of their vision of a non-racial society and their experience of a racist one. When it was over, the gathering was reminded, the Rev. Zachariah Mokgoebo and Rabbi Ben Isaacson would be going home--back to their families, their friends, their struggle--and back to apartheid.
The last stop on this six-week, 23-city national speaking tour was at Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum’s house in Brentwood where about 70 people, most of them white, came to hear them and respond to an appeal for funds. Sponsored by New Jewish Agenda, in cooperation with the Washington Office on Africa, the tour had taken them into churches and synagogues, college campuses and community centers, and living rooms--often to groups racially separated, if not segregated, by geography, money, and social structures, contacts and customs.
It was more than an irony. Concern for the separation and tensions between the races here, especially between black and Jewish Americans, was one of the purposes of the tour. New Jewish Agenda, a 5,000-member organization with 50 chapters committed to “the just ordering of human society and the world,” announced that the tour was intended not only to build support for the speakers’ work in South Africa, but to increase Jewish involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, to strengthen coalition work between Agenda and the black community and to re-open black/Jewish dialogue here and decrease existing racial and religious tensions.
The two visitors lent themselves to that effort, and commented on it.
Having called the tensions between Jews and blacks serious here, Mokgoebo said “the continued estrangement of both groups from each other is not in the best interests of either. . . . I praise you (for your work against apartheid). You are worthy of my praise. But you cannot be taken seriously if racism in this country is not taken seriously.”
Later, Isaacson said privately he too had found the problems severe, and thought, as did Mokgoebo, that most of them stemmed from Israel’s active involvement with South Africa, especially in arms trade, and the black perception that American Jews support those policies. From the racist accusations and suspicions on both sides has come a mutual wounding, Isaacson said.
“I think both communities have to have a good look within themselves and then talk frankly,” he said. “I’d almost like to stay and get involved. It should be the number one challenge in the rabbinate.”
Mokgoebo, 35, is a minister in the black Dutch Reformed Church and a leader of the Belydendekring, a dissident group of nonwhite ministers within that church. He has worked in the black township of Soweto for most of his ministry and belongs to the Civic Assn. of Soweto.
Isaacson, 50, is founder of Har’el, an independent congregation near Johannesburg that resembles the Conservative movement in Judaism here. Tracing his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, he said he is a critic of South Africa’s Jewish establishment for not taking a strong enough collective stand against apartheid. He said, however, that many Jews are involved in the struggle as individuals. Last year he helped found Jews for Justice, an anti-apartheid organization.
The two clergymen had come to describe their still vague-sounding plans to establish “centers for peace and justice” that would symbolically and literally break apartheid by bringing together peoples of all faiths and colors to live and work together and prepare for life after apartheid.
Asking for moral and material backing, they came armed with a letter of support from Desmond Tutu, Anglican archbishop of Capetown, who called the two men “courageous witnesses in the struggle against racism” and said of any help given them: “I will count it as a personal favor.”
A project of the African chapter of the World Conference for Religion and Peace (a group of about 250 religious leaders working against apartheid, Mokgoebo said), the centers are planned for Johannesburg, Capetown and Durban. They brought with them a budget proposal estimating costs of about $1 million each to buy the properties and put the program into operation.
Ideally religious leaders and their families from all racial groups would live and work in them, but since the Group Areas Act prohibits such multiracial living arrangements, their aim would not be to flaunt the act at the expense of the work, but to have some people stay for 18 of the day’s 24 hours, observing the technicalities of the law.
While at the centers, they said, they would study comparative religions and traditions, train young people in leadership and provide business training for black people interested in starting small businesses.
‘Prepare for the Future’
“Our task as religious leaders is to prepare for the future,” Isaacson said. “Now is the time to show the world, the white community and the black community in South Africa, that there can be peace.”
And, Sheinbaum reminded his guests, now was the time for all the people who sit in his living room asking, “What can we do that is positive?” to do something positive. About $15,000 in donations and pledges was collected on the spot, New Jewish Agenda spokesman Joel Gayman said later, adding that the organization and co-sponsors planned to follow up with appeals to the groups the men had spoken before. (In Los Angeles, Southern Christian Leadership Conference had co-sponsored events.)
The centers were for the future, and both Mokgoebo and Isaacson talked also about the urgency of the present, Isaacson saying that since the clampdown on the press last year, not only was South Africa off the front page of the American news much of the time, but much of the news could not be reported at all. If the plight of South Africa is forgotten by the world, Isaacson said, “we’re lost.”
Mokgoebo thanked groups such as New Jewish Agenda for “keeping us on their agenda” at such a time. His major concern these days, he said, was the erosion of a belief in democracy that he saw apartheid causing. Young people, especially, he said, were losing faith in democracy, in authority of any kind, including parental, in religion as a force for change. Since people or groups who come out against apartheid and cite its injustices often get labeled “communists” by the government and in the press, it follows that communism would look good to young people experiencing oppression, he said.
“We believe we can act in this critical hour while the country is engulfed in violence. Apartheid itself is a system of violence,” Mokgoebo said. “If we can’t act now, it will be difficult for people like ourselves to have a role in the post-apartheid era.”