Messy business of Jews, their roots and land

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Hillbrow: Crime spot or wellspring of creative energy? This cosmopolitan, black Johannesburg neighbourhood is a no-go land for many whites, who fear it, although they once owned it. Now, white land ownership is coming under political scrutiny, as blacks demand the return of what colonialists ‘stole’ from them centuries ago

JOHANNESBURG northern suburbs Jews and other whites generally fear going to Hillbrow, believing they’ll be mugged. But anyone attending the Hillbrow Theatre – previously the historic Andre Huguenot theatre – last weekend to see the show Hillbrowification staged as part of the Dance Umbrella Festival, might have been impressed by a neighbourhood abuzz with pulsating street life amid Art Deco buildings, and the cosmopolitan mix of black immigrants and local black people. Undoubtedly problems of poverty and crime exist, but the energy is infectious.

Adult Jews remember a largely white Hillbrow in the 1960-70s which hummed elegantly with shops and cafes like the popular Fontana, and buildings such as Highpoint in which the first Exclusive Books was born. For residents, Hillbrow was a first step up for many poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who had started off in the humble Doornfontein neighbourhood to the south.

Few, if any, Jews remain in Hillbrow today. They sold up and moved north to the more suburban areas of Orange Grove, Sydenham and Highlands North.

That move was organic, driven by personal decisions and aspirations to own better properties. But this may change with the radical possibility threatening white property owners today, as the black EFF party wants government to seize white-owned property without payment, claiming it was stolen from South Africa’s original black inhabitants by white colonialists. An EFF motion in Parliament last month to review the Constitution to allow ‘expropriation without compensation’ (EWC) was supported by the ANC.

Rural land in Jewish hands today is small, compared to the 1960s when there were a multitude of Jewish farms; for example, the 30-mile strip between Ogies and Leslie in Mpumalanga was almost entirely Jewish farmland. Today, the effects of Jews losing properties would be felt mainly in cities.

The argument is often made that Jewish South Africans’ success in this country, whether in property ownership, business or elsewhere is not because they lived in a country that legally discriminated against blacks and favoured whites. Rather, they worked extremely hard throughout their lives and deserve what they achieved – including property they own – and they shouldn’t have to pay for what colonialists did centuries ago. Many will say Jews are inherently industrious and creative, and succeeded in whichever country they emigrated to from Eastern Europe, whatever the circumstances.

There may be some truth in that, but land is an emotive issue and the argument won’t satisfy black people who believe it was stolen from them. What’s to be done? President Cyril Ramaphosa says it needs careful consideration and there will be no ‘smash and grab’ – such as the Zimbabwean catastrophe, with rampant seizure of white farms.

The issue is complex, whether you support EWC or reject it. From whom should land be taken, and to whom it should it be given? For example, there are whites whose forebears arrived here in the 19th century and who are fifth generation South Africans. Must they still pay for what the colonialists did, as if they are not South African?

Furthermore, to whom should land be given? Which people qualify as ‘original’ South Africans from whom the colonialists stole land? South African history is replete with events where one group took land from another. Perhaps the only genuinely original inhabitants were the San – the so-called ‘Bushmen’ who are virtually extinct today?

What no-one can dispute is the need for major land reform. In a country with a majority black population, ownership of most land by whites is both immoral and a recipe for disaster. What does this have to do with Hillbrow? It is still a metaphor for the country, a reservoir of pulsating energy bordered by land largely owned or controlled by the privileged. Imagine if the pent-up energy crammed into those few blocks was released into bringing life to new places.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )



The leadership quandary: Trust me, I’ll make your nightmares real


What kind of leaders does the world and South Africa need? As the international scenario heats up with bellicose posturing by powerful politicians, the morality of leadership takes a knock. In post-apartheid South Africa, racial tensions still fume as politicians use them for their gain. In the picture, the anti-white leader of the EFF party Julius Malema explodes in an outburst

WHAT makes a leader? Morality, humility, wisdom? The question becomes increasingly relevant as the planet seems to be hurtling towards potential self-destruction. Ordinary people watch fearfully as international leaders threaten stability in ways not seen since the Cold War. For us in South Africa, the country seems rudderless, lacking any true national leader.

Authentic leadership goes deeper than having a clean record. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been under police investigation for corruption, yet most Israelis still regard him as best choice for prime minister and vote for him, because no-one else in the political landscape seems able to ensure Israel’s security.

Israelis are anyway cynical about political leaders’ morality: President Moshe Katsav was jailed for rape in 2011; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was jailed for corruption a few years later; and Shas leader and cabinet minister Aryeh Deri was jailed in 1999 for bribery and breach of trust.

Ironically, one of Israel’s most outstanding leaders was an ardent right-winger, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who led the Likud to electoral victory in 1977 after three decades of Labour Party dominance. He was initially reviled by the left, but today is admired as a role model by people across the spectrum for common sense and propriety. He is the leader who made peace between Israel and Egypt with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, with whom he received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace.

In America, President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure in the White House and irrational tendency to change positions on major local and international issues, continues eroding confidence among Americans who believe he is unfit for the job, and creates disdain elsewhere. But he sits in the power seat and could lead the world into a hell from which it would take forever to recover.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin belligerently brags about the ability of his country’s nuclear weaponry to reach targets anywhere, particularly the United States, terrifying people who fear another nuclear arms race.

What about South African leaders? Obviously the historical giant amongst them was struggle icon and former President Nelson Mandela. He is history now, although the memory of his vision lives on, disappointed as the citizens may be at his country’s decline.

And the others? President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to prove himself; many people believe the task of reconstructing South Africa is too big for him. He succeeded in removing the poisonous President Jacob Zuma from office, but not yet the rot Zuma created.

On a much smaller, charismatic scale, we have Julius Malema. It may seem ludicrous to include him in a descriptive list containing the likes of Putin and Trump, but we are talking qualities not scale. One may not like his politics, but he makes enough noise on the national and even international stage to be noticed by people interested in South Africa. Whether his leadership brand will produce anything positive is unlikely because of his toxic anti-white racism, epitomised by his latest statement, “We are cutting the throat of whiteness,” referring to plans to remove Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip because he is white.

Sounds familiar? It is little different from apartheid leaders HF Verwoerd and PW Botha, whose target was blacks not whites.

Does a leader have to want the best for his people? Not necessarily. Hitler, as repulsive as he was, inspired Germans to move mountains, even if they were in the most depraved direction and eventually brought catastrophe down on them.

South Africa’s record on leaders is not a good one. Are there any potential Mandelas or Hitlers waiting in the wings? This country has a tendency towards great drama, and must beware of the likes of Malema, whose anti-white slogans could easily morph into anti-Indian, anti-Muslim or anti-Jew.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


The BDS knee jerk: Almost a witch hunt?

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Is a Palestinian state alongside Israel possible? Dr Alon Liel (right), former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to South Africa and Turkey, and Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian Authority Minister, say yes. The picture shows them at a peace rally in Jerusalem in 2012, where Israeli and Palestinian flags were waved. Liel was in South Africa in February to promote his views.

SOUTH AFRICA’S Jewish leaders have work to do concerning ANC members’ negative perceptions of Israel, exemplified in Parliament last week during a speech by then minister of science and technology Naledi Pandor. Her speech formed part of the debate following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address and was meant to respond to the international co-operation objectives he’d announced. However, Pandor’s comments in this regard had nothing to do with foreign affairs and was instead used as an opportunity to slam Israel. Pandor was confirmed on Monday as  minister of higher education in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But how should Jewish leaders relate to Jews criticising Israel? For example, a group recently formed in South Africa calling for Israel to end the “occupation” of the West Bank. The group is called SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation). An unfortunate response in the Jewish community is a hunkering down whereby anyone, Jewish or not, who criticises Israel is labelled a BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) messenger.

Some Jews label anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism, and might justifiably point to the distasteful comments by ANC MPL Sharon Davids in the Cape Legislature last Friday, who said Premier Helen Zille is “too much in love with the Jewish mafia.” She added that the Democratic Alliance “fabricated” Cape Town’s water crisis deadline so desalination contract kickbacks could occur. A sub-text can be easily inferred, that such contracts would come from the world’s expert in water affairs – the Jewish homeland, Israel.

There may be some truth in parts of that. But how should Jews debate amongst themselves about Israel? Such as when the abovementioned South African group made up of born and bred Israelis, Jews who have lived there, and Jews who simply love Israel, says current Israeli government policy is wrong and it should withdraw from the West Bank – the most contentious Israeli issue.

Amongst the Israelis, the group includes the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa at the time of Nelson Mandela’s ascendancy to power, Alon Liel, who was also previously director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and who had a close relationship with the South African freedom icon. In a 2013 article in YNet he said: “I met [Mandela] just five days after assuming the position of Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. Even before I submitted my credentials, Mandela himself telephoned me at 6 am… and said, ‘I’ve heard Israel is changing its policy. Let’s talk.’”

When this group, which includes several South African notaries such as a judge of the high court, asked recently to engage with Jewish institutions, many Jewish community leaders – although not all – said no, and certain individuals were summarily labelled “BDS”. However, the Cape Board of Deputies hosted him, and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – which supports a two state solution to the conflict, thus implying an end to the occupation – met with him and his wife and issued a statement afterwards.

Liel and his cohorts are hated by the political right in Israel, amongst other things for alleged ties to the leftist organisation Breaking the Silence, and promoting boycotts of goods from the “occupied territories” to make it clear the settlements endanger Israel’s future.

Are they too far left for most SA Jews? Organisations who shunned them included the SA Zionist Federation, Johannesburg’s main Jewish community centre, and the youth movement Habonim – which was warned not to host him. Although his group repeatedly asserted its opposition to BDS – which advocates total boycott of Israel and supports its destruction – some Jewish leaders still accused him of representing BDS.

Shunning people like this group is misguided. SA Jews miss the opportunity to strengthen their views by debating contesting perspectives even if they disagree, and they push to the margins Jews reluctant to express themselves in the mainstream for fear of being ostracised.

Other, larger Jewish communities successfully incorporate wide-ranging debate on Israel. But SA Jewry is small. It is essential not to provoke people to leave because of their Israel perspectives. The last thing we need is an echo chamber of identical views.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


South Africa: Send me!

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From a catastrophe to a new dawn? New SA president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to end corruption, fix government, give jobs to the youth and a host of other remedies, after the disastrous nine years of the Zuma presidency. In the picture, then deputy president Ramaphosa went jogging on the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town the dawn after Zuma resigned, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and met some of  his citizens.

FROM the perspective of their new lives in London, New York and other places to which South African ex-pats have fled over the decades during apartheid and after it, will the revived spirit of hope brought to South Africa by new President Cyril Ramaphosa inspire any of them to consider coming back?

South Africans overseas have often felt smug looking at the country’s decline during the catastrophe of former president Jacob Zuma, when it hurtled towards becoming yet another failed African state. They, after all, had been smart enough to leave and were far from Africa’s problems.

The huge emigration of many whites and others started during apartheid, particularly after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, continuing until Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his ascendancy to the presidency. Amidst the euphoria, emigration slowed as South Africa seemed again a place with a future. There was talk of expats coming back.

This country’s story is about cycles of betrayal and hope, betrayal and hope, again and again. Can it now return to the spirit of hope?

Today the newspaper headlines on the street poles proclaim “goodbye Zuma” and “a new dawn begins.” Addressing the nation from parliament, Ramaphosa quoted from a song by legendary musician Hugh Masekela – known as the father of SA jazz – about everyone lending a hand.

Masekela’s life is a metaphor for this country. He left after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, helped by anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and international friends such as Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, going to the UK, then to the US.

He married another South African icon, jazz singer Miriam Makeba. Masekela wrote well-known anti-apartheid songs, such as Bring Him Back Home, about the movement to free Mandela. He returned to South Africa in the 1990s after Mandela’s release and continued to compose and perform locally and on the world stage. The muso, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, died last month. A line from one of his songs, Thuma Mina, goes: “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around.” Indeed, he was.

There are not many Masekelas, and it is unlikely many SA expats will return, no matter how rosy the South African dawn sounds. They have put down roots elsewhere; their children were raised as Canadians, Americans or with other identities. And the changes in South Africa are not yet solid enough. Can Ramaphosa pull off this gigantic task of renewing the country? It is not yet certain.

One consequence of this past decade is that the ANC – Mandela’s glorious liberation movement turned government – has tainted itself by supporting Zuma. Its hands are dirty. Can Ramaphosa cleanse it? Whether he succeeds or not, the manner in which Zuma was sent off into the wilderness according to strict constitutional principles, shows South African democracy’s solidity.

Many expat South Africans look down their noses at this new multiparty African democracy from the comfort of their mature European and American democracies. But maturity is a relative thing. The parliament building in Cape Town from where Ramaphosa spoke so elegantly to the nation this week, is the same place in which the apartheid rulers formulated the brutal racial policies of their time, and also the place where Zuma sat as president while his cronies looted the country’s coffers. Has betrayal turned to trust again? Can expats in London see it or not?

Ramaphosa, when he was still deputy president, was jogging recently along the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and encountered some young Jewish women also jogging. A warm, happy selfie of all of them is circulating. Hopefully it will also reach the expats in London. He’s going to need that warmth and trust from everyone if he’s going to untangle the mess of this country.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


Filth, filth everywhere: who can you trust?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided being found guilty on numerous corruption charges. Israel’s highest court has now given police the go-ahead to publicize indictment recommendations in two long-running corruption investigations which could lead to a new scenario for him (Photo: Amir Cohen)

HOW do corrupt politicians cling to power even after being fingered? In Israel, something which shields Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been accused of corruption time and time again, is Israelis’ perception that he is tough on security, which is crucial in that neighbourhood. Although disliked and mistrusted by many, his security credentials win the day.

How did Jacob Zuma stay for so long as South Africa’s president when he was clearly destroying the country? Future historians will puzzle over it, but it has something to do with the ANC’s belief that it owns the country after leading the liberation struggle, and couldn’t allow itself to be seen as installing a crook as president.


President Jacob Zuma

It was social critic Mark Twain who said: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”

While South Africans fume at Zuma’s shenanigans, political corruption was not invented here. It is endemic in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. It includes countries like Israel, to many Jews’ dismay. In the United States, law enforcement authorities are trying to nail President Donald Trump for the same thing.

Transparency International monitors sleaze in 176 countries. Its 2016 corruption perceptions index lists Denmark and New Zealand as the most squeaky-clean, least corrupt, both at number 1. At the list’s bottom, at 174-176, are the most corrupt – North Korea, South Sudan and Somalia. The United States is 18, Israel 28, and South Africa 64.

In Israel, several prime ministers in the last two decades have been criminally investigated, including Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, whose period in office is second only to Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, has been investigated for a range of things, including receiving expensive gifts from businessmen, a newspaper collusion scandal, a submarine procurement affair, a problematic natural gas deal, a Bezeq (Israel’s telephone company) probe, a case involving furniture in the two Netanyahu residences, and others.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has likened Netanyahu to a mafia boss. In July last year he listed on Facebook criminal investigations linked to Netanyahu, and he posed the question to Israelis: “Hasn’t the time come to put an end to all of this? Have we all gone crazy?”

Netanyahu was initially investigated for fraud and breach of trust in 1997 during his first term as prime minister, and was accused of appointing an attorney general who would deal favourably with a political ally. Two years later, he was investigated for fraud regarding accusations about a government contractor.

Other prime ministers have been no less suspect. In the late 1990s, Sharon was believed to have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in the “Greek Island Affair.” The accusation involved Israeli businessman David Appel bribing Sharon, who was then Foreign Minister, to help Appel win approval for a development in Greece.

Olmert was given a prison sentence in 2014 for fraud and breach of trust in the “Holyland Affair”, a housing project in Jerusalem where he was mayor before becoming prime minister. He was also convicted in 2016 of taking bribes in the “Talansky Affair” where American businessman Morris Talansky testified that he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash.

Do South Africa and Israel share anything on this topic? Both countries have the sense of a grand mission. The former soared to euphoric heights through Mandela’s vision, and although things have since gone wobbly, it still resonates, although not as potently. Israel was seen by its founders as the glorious redemption of a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an inspiration and a haven for the Jewish people.

But politics is politics, and Mark Twain rings true regardless of grand ideals.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


Refugees: home is not where the heart is – a voice from SA Jews?

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Equal pay, equal work? Israeli activists and African asylum-seekers protest outside Tel Aviv Museum of Art in April 2017 against special conditions on migrants’ salaries, designed to encourage them to leave the country (photo:Eliyahu Kamisher)

WHEN acrimonious debates arise in the Jewish world, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial intention to deport 38 000 African refugees from Israel back to Africa, voices from tiny Jewish communities such as South Africa seem very muted.

South African Jewry has long been in distress because of political chaos in the country, its attempts to find its place here as a minority group, and its rapidly shrinking size – it is less than half what it was in the 1970s and many of its best and brightest have left for safer shores. Given these internal problems, it appears there is little appetite for involvement in wider matters such as the migrants.

Jews are justifiably proud of Israel without having to trumpet its achievements to the world. However there are moments in a nation’s history when it must do something extremely public to affirm its core. This is such a moment. The status of ‘refugee’ is central to the Jewish historical experience, and Jews are being put in the position one generation later of making such a decision for others.

Some 72 percent of the migrants are Eritrean and 20 percent Sudanese who arrived between 2006 and 2012 to escape war and repression. Many live in south Tel Aviv. The Knesset gave Netanyahu the power to deport them or imprison those refusing to leave ‘voluntarily.’ There have been accusations from Israelis that they have contributed to rising crime in the area and other misdemeanors. Many Israelis want them out.

Does this little South African Jewish community have anything useful to say? The mandate of its representative organisations is to ‘protect the Jewish way of life’. Could this way of life include something about treating migrants? We have witnessed a myriad times in South African history, the effects on helpless people of governments shunting them off to inhospitable places.

Menachem Begin gave us the opposite example in 1977 when, in one of his first acts after becoming Israeli prime minister, he welcomed 66 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who had been rescued at sea, comparing them to Jewish refugees seeking refuge during the Holocaust. He granted them citizenship. Israel was praised for its humanity.

Refugees from war and disaster zones globally are more numerous today than any time since the Second World War, estimated at 66 million. Some Western countries have taken a number in, others have refused. The 38 000 in Israel constitute one-half of 1 percent of Israel’s population – currently no threat to its demography, although obviously the future is uncertain.

Netanyahu’s intention to eject them has evoked protest in the Jewish world. Nearly 800 American Jewish clergymen signed an open letter urging him to cancel the deportations; two former heads of the Foreign Ministry, Nissim Ben Sheetrit and Alon Liel have protested; and 147 Israeli academics, 35 former diplomats, and Israeli Holocaust survivors.

El-Al pilots have said they will refuse to fly deportees to Africa; the New Israel Fund, refugee support group HIAS and rights group T’ruah have joined; ADL’s national director and CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt has protested, as well as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Irwin Cotler, former justice minister in Canada who chairs the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal and has dealt with African migrant matters for over a decade, has lobbied against deportation. Netanyahu has accused George Soros, international humanitarian and philanthropist, of backing protests.

Are there any voices from rabbis, leaders or others here which might add a South African angle to the debate?

It would be interesting to hear the views of South African Jews – whether they agree with Netanyahu’s plan or not – on something that is not about running Israel, but about a moral issue.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


Politics: a feeble bridge over troubled waters?


Water, water nowhere, not even a drop to drink. Cape Town in the midst of drought is about to cut off its taps, the first city to do this. Above, a pedestrian bridge over a dry dam

AS CAPE TOWN’S Day Zero approaches when the taps will be switched off, you hear South African Jews declaring smugly how different things might have turned out if politics had not prevented using Israel’s water technology. South Africa and Israel are both arid regions requiring innovation to avoid running dry. But punting Israeli technology is a distraction rather than a solution.

Until 2011, the University of Johannesburg and Ben Gurion University of the Negev conducted research together on water reclamation. That year, UJ severed the cooperation under pressure from anti-Israel groups such as BDS, which gloated: “Palestinians, South Africans and the international academic and solidarity community rejoice at this decisive victory.”

The lessons about Cape Town’s water crisis don’t only lie in technology. German desalination plants are as good as Israel’s. The lessons are political. Former World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin was ominously correct when he said in 1995, “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”

In the Middle East, your security depends on having a reliable, adequate water source. Water scarcity is one of the greatest triggers for political tension. Syria and Jordan depend on some of the same water sources as Israel. Palestinians complain of insufficient water and accuse Israel of using it for political control.

Israel is justifiably proud of its victory over its water problem; the country is two-thirds arid, but achieved a situation a few years ago where Israelis could take long showers, water their gardens, and farmers had adequate water for crops. The country spent $4.3 billion on its national water grid and sewage treatment centres, and the commercial sector invested roughly $2 billion on five desalination plants. Exporting water to other countries became a possibility.

Israel reclaims 87 percent of its wastewater, which is purified and reused for agriculture. Singapore, second on the list, reclaims 35 percent, and most countries less than 10%.

Israel is not immune to water crises. Four years of drought are now testing its capacity. The Sea of Galilee is forecast this year to hit its lowest level ever, before winter rains are expected to raise it; underground aquifers are approaching levels that will turn them salty. There are planned cuts to water use for the coming year of more than 50 percent in some areas. Constructing another desalination plant and new reservoirs to catch rain and flood waters is under discussion.

South Africans, who are so embroiled in their daily political scandals, need to sit up and take serious note. Cape Town’s water crisis is not a one-off incident. Southern Africa is an arid region, and unless long term planning is done, a similar catastrophe could happen in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and elsewhere and bring the country to its knees. Or the whole region.

Years of sleazy politics under Jacob Zuma almost destroyed South Africa’s economy and reduced millions more people to poverty and unemployment, while the ANC allowed him and his cronies to fill their pockets from the public purse.

The irony is that corruption and incompetency under the ANC, as bad as it is, may not be the greatest threat to this country. It may be water: Who has access to it, and who doesn’t. In the elitist world of people like Zuma, he will always have it, alongside his fancy cars; the poor people in the townships, however, will lack it.

To be a loyal South African doesn’t mean promoting Israeli technology. That is a red herring. It means demanding that there is planning in this country for potentially catastrophic problems such as water. Wouldn’t it be tragic if it was water scarcity that ended up destroying everything Mandela and his generation fought for?

 (GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


Can Israeli film take on the monster of war and win?


Anyone for a dance? An Israeli soldier in the controversial new film Foxtrot embraces his rifle in a bizarre dance in the desert (photo Samuel Maoz)

WHAT SHOULD someone who loves Israel feel about a film showing the Israeli army negatively rather than heroically, when the war against the country continues unabated, its enemies unrelenting in their desire to destroy it?

Wars, wherever they occur, are fertile territory for artistic creativity in films and books. Israel’s wars fit the same bill, including the 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories and the generations of Israeli soldiers who served there.

A new Israeli film raising hackles among Jews and Israelis is “Foxtrot”, which on Saturday received the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival. It won best film at Israel’s Ophir Awards and is shortlisted for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. Lead actor Lior Ashkenazi also won the Best Actor award in Venice.

Foxtrot , due to open in American theatres on March 2, is a heartrending portrayal of parents’ reaction to their soldier son’s death in the line of duty, the blind alley of Israeli control over the West Bank, and how this humiliates the occupied people and hardens the souls of those who control them. One scene shows an Israeli soldier doing a mock dance – the foxtrot – with his rifle. Like the foxtrot, things always return to the same spot.

Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev slammed the film. In a statement on Saturday she said: “It’s outrageous that Israeli artists contribute to the incitement of the young generation against the most moral army in the world by spreading lies in the form of art.”  She accused the film-maker of “self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israeli narrative.”

The film’s director Samuel Maoz told reporters in Venice after claiming his prize that his criticism of Israel is because he loves his country and worries about it.

Myriad films have been made about the horror soldiers endure in wars, and the trauma of their families. Some romanticise it; others plunge to the depths of the suffering and absurdities permeating every war.

Iconic films include Catch 22, made in 1970 and based on Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war novel – a black comedy revolving around the “lunatic characters” who are soldiers at a World War Two Mediterranean base, and whose main aim is to get back home alive. A 1978 film, The Deer Hunter, portrays the Vietnam War in a hard-hitting glimpse of its effect on American working class steel workers shattered by what happens to their loved ones – those who return and those who don’t.

A powerful new American biographical drama of 2017, Rebel in the Rye, is based on the book Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. It shows the author’s life before and after World War Two and the tragic consequences of the PTSD he suffered from his active duties in the war, causing him to isolate himself for years in a wooded retreat far from society, and to cease publishing his work.

Potent triggers about patriotism, courage and betrayal are embedded in the gore of war and movies about them. Are Israeli soldiers and film-makers who depict negatively their experiences and Israel’s current political path, betraying their fellow soldiers and citizens? Are they traitors, as some of their critics would have it? Or brave men telling truths most people don’t know, or don’t want to?

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin emerges as a sane voice, unlike others. Before he had actually watched the film, he said he admires Israeli cinema as “a symbol of freedom of expression and the strength of Israeli democracy.”

His words won’t deter the pack who blindly toe the “party line” and have Maoz in their sights. It’s a sad indictment of Israel’s rightwing government that its Culture Minister sees culture through so narrow and chauvinistic a lens.

 (GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


The dirty business of politics and friendship


A meeting of minds and hearts? President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations on 20 September 2017

AMIDST the hot air sprouted by politicians during this December/January break, US president Donald Trump took the cake for something significant for South African Jews who consider themselves both Zionist and African.

This story goes back to January last year, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent the newly inaugurated Trump a warm message: “Congratulations to my friend, President Trump.” Here was a man, said Netanyahu and Israeli rightists, who would unequivocally support Israel, including West Bank settlements, and was not afraid to stand up to the Palestinians and the Muslim world – a welcome contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama. Conservative Jews, including South Africans, backed Trump, particularly among the Orthodox, hoping he would strengthen Israel’s right wing.

He pleased them further last December by announcing that the US recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, upending decades of established US policy, and would begin moving the American embassy there. Delighted Israelis decided to name a planned railway station after him near the Old City. Photos of Trump standing at the kotel caused Jews worldwide to think he was their friend.

But be careful who you call your friend. Michael Wolff, celebrated author of the bombshell new book “Fire and Fury,” exposing the White House’s disastrous inner workings, said in interviews that Trump is racist, xenophobic and sexist, views women in “as transactional a way as he thinks about everything” and is “aware of who is Jewish in a way that feels creepy,” although not saying he is anti-Semitic. Trump denies it all.

Never one to disappoint, Trump dropped a new bombshell last week in a meeting with lawmakers at the Oval Office on immigration reform, where he called African nations “shithole countries”, provoking outrage worldwide.

Netanyahu boldly declared recently that Israel is “coming back to Africa,” amid high-profile visits to African countries to strengthen ties. Does he have the courage to criticise his “friend” Trump for his comments about Africa? Trump is child-like, and one day when he is piqued by something Israel does, will use a similar slur for it.

What do conservative South African Jews think? Will they continue applauding Trump because he supports Israel and Jerusalem as its capital? Or broadcast disgust for his comments about their African home?

They can’t hide behind the notion that it is not their affair what the American president does in relation to other countries. Trump’s words are gutter-level politics which dehumanise Africans. Jews have a long history of being dehumanised by such politics, prior to being attacked – by Nazis or others.

The African Union, representing the continent’s countries, condemned Trump. Will SA Jews stand with the AU, or refrain because some AU countries are anti-Israel? A group of 54 African countries at the UN denounced “the continuing and growing trend from the US administration toward Africa and people of African descent to denigrate the continent and people of colour.” Will Israel and Netanyahu support them against Trump?

At its recent national conference, the ANC resolved to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Israel. Jewish community organisations showed Israel loyalty by protesting and sending mass mailings to members. What about their loyalty to Africa? They may be Zionists, but they are also African.

A Jewish public statement denouncing Trump for insulting Africa could be appropriate. It might also gain credit for them in ANC ranks, or be an opportunity to agree for once with someone like ANC deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte, who is no friend of Israel, but publically denounced Trump.

Cavorting with people like Trump may serve short-term goals for Israel as perceived by Netanyahu, but it generally comes back to haunt. Israel was built with the help of many Jews from those “shithole” African countries, including from South Africa.

 (GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )


Israel: Can the enemy of my enemy really be my friend?

John Vorster in Israel

A friend of convenience? South Africa’s prime minister John Vorster (second from right) is feted by Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) and Menachem Begin (left) and Moshe Dayan during his 1976 visit to Jerusalem. Photograph: Sa’ar Ya’acov

THE current diplomatic flurry about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting numerous African countries all over the continent to strengthen or create ties has many positive angles, but also rattles skeletons in the closet, particularly for South African Jews.

Ties to the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa have a complicated history with high-points and lows. Israel’s geostrategic interests have long been promoted there, especially in the Horn and East Africa. Training in intelligence and security has been given to countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Nigeria and others.

What about South Africa? The strong Zionist links to Israel of the South African Jewish community is one aspect. But when older South African Jews think of Israel-SA ties, several uncomfortable affairs come to mind, particularly Israel’s strong military ties to the apartheid regime in the 1970s. A lot has happened since, and it is used today mainly to discredit contemporary Israel. But the notion of who we make friends with is important.

Israel openly criticised apartheid through the 1950s and 1960s, with the spectre of the Holocaust still in recent memory as a moral background. Alliances with post-colonial African governments were forged. Then came the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Under pressure from the Arab world, most African states severed Israeli links, helping to make it a “pariah state”.

Looking around for friends, Israel drew close to another pariah state, South Africa. In 1976 it even invited SA Prime Minister John Vorster – former Nazi sympathiser and leader of the fascist Ossewabrandwag that sided with Hitler – for a state visit. South African Jews were uncomfortable with the ironies, as Vorster visited Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. His visit produced an Israel-South Africa alliance which became a leading weapons developer locally and internationally.

Israel’s attitude was:  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. They were both states driven by fear, seeing themselves in a struggle for their existence. In Israel until the late 1970s, the threat from its Arab neighbours was very real; the country had fought three wars to protect itself. White South Africans, meanwhile, watched with horror as colonial empires receded and black rule swept Africa. Scenes of whites fleeing Angola, Mozambique and (then) Rhodesia were used by the apartheid regime to terrify white citizens about black rule; phrases such as “swart gevaar” gained traction.

Today, South African Jews would like nothing more than for the SA government and the Israeli government to be on excellent terms. The countries do have formal diplomatic relations, including ambassadors, and below the surface there is much trade and other connections. But politically it remains a cold relationship, epitomised by calls from important ANC members to downgrade the links. The ANC’s criticism towards opposition leader Mmusi Maimane’s public visit to Israel earlier this year, ignoring President Jacob Zuma’s urging for South Africans not to visit there, shows how pervasive anti-Israel feelings still are.

Israel is strong today, no longer the pariah state it once was, even though it is portrayed that way in some places. Even BDS, the worldwide campaign to boycott it, has failed as an economic and diplomatic weapon. Israel’s gross domestic product of some $154 billion in 2006, when BDS began, has nearly doubled to $299 billion for 2015.

Israel still faces the eternal question of how political links should be used. Some of the African states that Netanyahu is courting use Israeli assistance to suppress democracy, engage in civil wars and perpetrate human rights violations. The dilemma about whether politics is only about “interests” or must also be driven by morality has no definitive answer. But it is given special fuel by the South African experience.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )