There is an unfortunate tendency for people to resort to irrational scapegoating when confronted with threats they are unable to fully understand. History has shown time and again how collective fear can lead to the emergence of all kinds of noxious prejudices, usually aimed at those faced by those very same threats. Almost invariably, scapegoating targets vulnerable minority groups who are seen as an alien element in society and therefore somehow untrustworthy. From our own history, the blaming of Jews for the Black Death and the horrific persecutions that resulted is a particularly grim example of this phenomenon.
The global Coronavirus crisis has regrettably provoked a new wave of xenophobic prejudice, in this case targeting people of Chinese origin. However illogically and unjustly, the mere fact that the pandemic originated in a province of China is being seen as a reason to shun, defame and even physically attack Chinese people.
We are all feeling a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty over the Coronavirus threat, and this is normal. Clearly, it is something we need to concern ourselves about in order to protect ourselves and our society in general. However, when legitimate concern spills over into unfounded prejudice, discrimination and the stigmatizing of an entire community, we have a duty to take a firm stand against it. This was the motivation behind the Board’s #ShoppingAgainstPrejudice initiative, in which Board representatives, as a public gesture of solidarity with the Chinese community in Johannesburg, arrived en masse at the Chinese Market on Monday to do their pre-Purim shopping.
A demonstration of solidarity with Chinese South Africans at this time was worthwhile in itself, but in order for it to be truly effective, it needed to be adequately publicized. Our media statement detailed the reasons behind the initiative, also making reference to how it resonated with the themes and lessons of the upcoming Purim festival. In interviews with, amongst others, Radio 702, ENCA and Africa Newsroom, National Director Wendy Kahn explained how Purim was intrinsically bound up with the themes of human rights, anti-racism and acceptance of diversity. One of its universal lessons was the evil of prejudice and what it could lead to if left unchecked. Wendy also stressed how Purim is also about fostering bridges of friendship and understanding between people, as shown by the practice of exchanging gifts. In the same way, she said, the aim of the Board’s pre-Purim shopping visit was to express our community’s support and extend a hand of friendship to our Chinese fellow citizens.
The Board’s gesture was greatly appreciated by representatives of the Chinese community, who are deeply concerned by the way its members are being maligned and effectively boycotted by the public at large. We can be proud that our own community has taken the lead in standing up against this irrational chauvinism and hope that it will inspire others to do likewise.
• Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM every Friday 12:00-13:00.