The disgrace of a country that lies to its children

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We say we educate our children, but what chance does a child have with a mud hut for a school and no teachers? In the photograph, a child walks to school in June 2013 in a village outside the town of Mthatha in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Bruce

THE CHILDREN of South Africa have been betrayed by the education system. And the clamour to enter universities has given them a false sense of a passport to a better life. But it isn’t, given the declining state of our universities, and the abysmal matric system which sent them there.

Now, in an unbelievable move, the minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor, has lowered the minimum admission requirement for a Bachelor’s degree at a university to a matric which includes attaining only 30% in the language of learning and teaching of the university they’re applying for – which is mostly English – among other very low requirements. Yes, 30% for matric English is now enough to get a university-entrance matric! The implications are heartbreaking.

The overwhelming feeling among academics at South African universities is despair about the direction in which they are going, including the formerly best, such as Wits. A huge percentage of students coming in today have little adequacy in intellectual and analytic abilities. In addition, lecturers report that it is established practice by many universities to artificially boost their numbers by condoning passes. Remember the era when to get a university degree was a prized, difficult achievement? Wits also once brimmed with Jewish students and faculty, who worked hard to get their degrees, but came from a rigorous basic education, not only from the private schools. Now it has few Jewish students.

With such low competence levels because of appalling basic education, students simply cannot cope with a university environment. Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor in the Education Faculty at Stellenbosch University, calls the 2017 matric results, which government touts as an improvement, a “disgraceful freak show”.

To believe that the 2017 matric pass rate is 75.1%, about 2.5% higher than in 2016, is asking, says Jansen, “that you forego common sense”. Some 78% of children in Grade 4 cannot read with understanding, a finding Jansen cites that placed SA last among 50 countries with which it was compared; 9% of Grade 6 teachers cannot pass a Grade 6 maths test. Actually, the rot has set in from Grade 1.

“It is not as if the few who passed and even those who graduated with a so-called Bachelor’s pass have a solid academic education to see them through tertiary studies” he says. The quality of the matric examination is “so weak in the intellectual demands made of pupils that any fool can scale the 30% passing hurdle.” Most will drop out.

Flip Smit, former vice chancellor of the University of Pretoria, says the move by Pandor to lower university entrance requirements is reckless. Universities already receive between five and nine times more applications than they can accommodate. The new rules will make it far easier to get a matric Bachelor’s pass, and open flood gates for additional applications. And the ease of achieving a matric pass misleads learners into thinking they can complete a degree course.

Jansen says this government and its basic education department “are a disgrace to the nation. They have failed our children, mainly black and poor learners stuck in dysfunctional schools.”

You, who are reading this column, might be an alumnus of a South African university. But what does this mean for your children and those of other middle class South Africans, white and black, including the Jewish community, who were able to send their children to quality private schools where they received a good education? Less and less will send their youngsters to SA universities, rather they will send them overseas. And when you have studied overseas, you are unlikely to come back.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

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The continent you called ‘home’ that you never even knew

 

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Is literature a western thing? Anyone who knows Africa would disagree. The arts of all types are thriving in Nigeria and elsewhere. In September in Lagos, book lovers gathered for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2018, seen in the picture. It celebrates books, literature, entertainment, drama, dance, music, poetry, and reading – the full house

THINK of Rwanda and what you imagine is grotesque mass killings, and villages filled with the detritus of the Tutsi genocide at the hands of the Hutus.

But tiny Rwanda, a country of 10 million which dubbed itself the “Switzerland of Africa,” is the continent’s fastest growing state, surrounded by arable countries – the DRC, Uganda and Tanzania – with countless hectares of good land they can hardly use.

This ironic sub-text pervaded last week’s seminar at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre about changing narratives for African war reporting, 25 years after the genocide which killed 800,000 people in 100 days. The African roller coaster is largely quiescent now but with memories of what happened when tribalism went wild. Veteran worldwide journalists spoke at the seminar.

Do we know Africa? Jean-Philippe Remy, Africa correspondent for French daily paper Le Monde has been living and working in Africa for 20 years. He says westerners still think of the continent as one country. But it is 74 diverse countries, each with its own character.

Amazingly, in the Rwandan genocide era, even good journalists used to say smugly, ‘we know Africa’ – just like good French colonialists. It was the era of parachute journalism, where French foreign reporters would arrive, do minor investigations and write through French eyes. In a welcome change, this attitude has lessened as cellphone journalism from locals became news sources, leaving commentary and analysis for major media.

Before the present era, journalists had to cover a continent overwhelmed by conflict in Ethiopia-Eritrea, Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. Then, in the 2002 Kenyan elections, President Arap Moi retired after a 24-year rule. Nairobi celebrations attracted the largest crowd ever. Remy says everything changed. Later, to integrate more with its region, Rwanda even changed its alignment and language from the French to the Kenyan English one.

What about literature? Is it still ‘western’? Unfortunately, that’s the narrow way most of us see it. But from the early 2000s new African voices have emerged in countries such as Somalia and Nigeria. It has raised interest in African writing in countries such as Germany. Martin Hielscher, a specialist in fiction at a German publisher, said we can’t simply call things ‘African’ anymore, as if it’s all the same. Africa must speak for itself. African literature tends to be structured less around the linear ‘plot’ associated with western literature, but a mix of different voices.

Give the violent history of the continent, journalism must inevitably deal with African suffering. The journalist Salim Amin, who addressed the seminar, is the son of renowned Kenyan photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin, who in 1984 revealed to the world the Ethiopian famine which threatened to starve 7 million people. Mo’s pictures inspired the musician Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid, a 16-hour concert for Ethiopia featuring Queen, Freddie Mercury and others. It was watched worldwide by 1.9 billion people. In a stunning success, it raised millions of dollars, and is what many adult westerners remember about Ethiopia. Salim showed the seminar a film about Mo’s work in conflict zones which kept the audience spellbound.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa appealed to Jewish youngsters at Sunday’s SAJBD conference not to leave South Africa, but help rebuild it after a ruinous decade, he knew many had already gone to places with secure futures. Most had lived here in capsules of privilege in an Africa opaque to them. They will make their new homes in America and elsewhere without being able to say, authentically, that they ‘know Africa’.

Perhaps South Africa will flower again – like Rwanda? Sadly, those emigrants won’t see it.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

Respect my values; I’ll respect yours

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Who is the real Jew, me or you? The tension between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews exploded in a ruckus aboard an El Al flight from New York to Israel, over shabbat observance. Above, an ultra-Orthodox and a secular Jew face off in Jerusalem (photo Times of Israel)

THE STORY which went viral in Jewish circles last week about chaos on an El Al flight to Israel which was delayed due to a snowstorm, would have been funny to an outside observer, like a scene in a British comedy, with black-coated Haredim running up and down aisles shouting, and secular passengers cowering in their seats. But for Jews, it captured the poisonous antagonism amongst them about religion. The plane, which left New York late, landed in Athens instead of Tel Aviv to avoid desecrating Shabbat.

Although Haredi passengers have been roundly condemned in the media for the ruckus they caused after believing they had been lied to by El Al, and voicing this vociferously to the crew, they were displaying the schism in the Jewish and Israeli world, with its own logic. Secular passengers have a right to be furious at the commotion, but need to look deeper.

Haredi and secular Jews both tend to see each other negatively. But what should a person do when his most precious symbol – such as Shabbat observance – is violated, beyond his control? Should he throw his proverbial toys out of the cot? Or step back and look for another way? And what about simple good manners?

The Haredis’ raucous behaviour is objectionable, and they would never have behaved like that on a Lufthansa or Swissair flight. But open-mindedness must allow for a contrary view. The truth is, most secular Jews don’t understand how important Shabbat observance is to religious Jews. They “just don’t get it!” as one commentator said. But perhaps the religious Jews should have planned their travels better to avoid any chance of violating Shabbat – things can always go wrong in the messy world of global travel.

Israelis are not, in general, an easy-going, tolerant people. Many Israelis of all stripes, secular and religious, have an anger issue and an unwillingness to hear the other side.

So here, roughly, are the two sides of the story. Secular passengers claim that 10 or 15 Haredi passengers, dressed in their black hats and coats, ran up and down the aisles,  yelling at the staff, “Liars, cheaters, you lied to us!” and started shoving flight attendants, some of whom apparently ended up crying, leading other passengers to intervene. Later, after the flight, other religious commentators claimed it was not as serious as that.

It sounds ugly. But one can also understand the Haredi anger, despite their inappropriate response. They had been hesitant about boarding the flight in New York. But after the pilot told them the plane would reach Israel before Shabbat, and then would not let them off, they were understandably furious at landing in Athens, having to spend all of Shabbat there. The scenario ended up as a power stand-off between Haredim and secular Jews.

What’s to be done? There has always been tension between religious and secular Jews. The genius of Jewish society derives partly from this. Each side has produced great minds. But the rift today is bitterer than ever, the sides more militant. Even the split between ‘secular’ Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast and ‘religious’ Israel in the Jerusalem hills displays this.

Step back for a long view. Jewish survival derives not only from study of Torah and Talmud, but also oppression by non-Jews over centuries, which made Jews stick together. Now that they are not oppressed, must they turn against each other by choice? It is sad and embarrassing; non-Jews must look at this scenario, and see not a comedy, but a community in vicious chaos, eating its own.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

Must women be naked to be heard?

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No place for a woman? Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the women’s suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914 (Photo Imperial Warm Museum)

IN LIGHT of US President Donald Trump’s reputation for lewd remarks about women, it is fitting that a bare-breasted woman chased his motorcade on the Champs d’Elysées in Paris on Sunday, en route to events marking the centenary of the First World War Armistice. The words “Fake Peacemaker” were written on her chest.

Theatrics aside, we live in a chilling era, when the world’s most powerful man is told to rein himself in by a topless woman because his actions and language evoke the kind of foolish nationalism which led to the First World War between 1914 and 1918. Some 9.7 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died in that war. Rational people watch with alarm the drift towards aggressive nationalism today.

Women using their bodies for politics is not new. It’s a potent weapon capable of moving a male-dominated domain. English suffragettes in the First World War era demanded voting rights for women by chaining themselves to railings, storming parliament and battling police. They wore long dresses appropriate to the time. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes, leading the government to force-feed them. After the First World War parliament gave women over age 30 the vote under certain qualifications, and ten years later full electoral equality with men.

Their campaign had a Jewish thread. In November 1912, female Jewish leaders founded the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, linking feminist goals with Jewish loyalties, aiming to unite Jewish suffragettes of all shades of opinion.

South African women have used their bodies for dramatic statements, particularly about violence against women. According to the World Health Organisation, South Africa’s 2016 femicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000, almost five times higher than the global average of 2.6 per 100 000. Statistics SA reports that 138 per 100,000 women were raped in 2017, also the highest rate in the world. The number is probably higher, with a large percentage of rapes going unreported. According to a SAPS report of 2018, femicide increased by 11% over the last two years.

It’s incredible that a country which was the darling of the world two decades ago, contains such poison. People fighting back have a bitter struggle. At a Gender-based Violence and Femicide Summit in Irene at the beginning of November, attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa and more than 1000 delegates, women survivors of sex trafficking, rape, abuse, and violence recounted the horrors and demanded stronger laws.

What courage it must take for a woman to bare herself publically as a gesture about the society’s sickness. Phindile Ncube did it. Speaking from the podium, she said she was kidnapped, kept in a house in Tembisa and raped by a gang of eight men over several days. As a result, she had to undergo five surgical operations on her stomach – including one procedure to remove plastic that had been inserted in her.

She spoke emotionally of the desperate pain of seeing her attackers back on the streets after serving only four years in prison – again, an incredible indictment of the society. How did we come to this?

Then, in a shocking move, Ncube lifted her dress, wearing nothing underneath, exposing her body for all – including Ramaphosa – to see the scars. Audience members covered their eyes at the spectacle. Facing the president she said: “I was not born like this, this came as a result of my attackers, and I have to carry the scars while they walk free… Our lives can’t be paroled Mr President, the minimum sentence for sex offenders must be at least 50 years.”

Some people would say even 50 years is not enough.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

The Arts: Not yours to fiddle with

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Is any message in art permissible? In July Israel decided to expel two Italian graffiti artists who were painting a mural of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, on Israel’s separation barrier at the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Tamimi had been jailed after she was filmed slapping an Israeli soldier

THREE WEEKS ago Israel approved a draft law providing culture minister Miri Regev with authority to cut funding from cultural institutions that “contravene the principles of the state”, known as the “loyalty-in-culture bill.” Because of Israel’s condition of perpetual threat from its neighbours, some politicians argue that the arts must show loyalty to the state and its institutions.

Accordingly, Regev could reduce budgets to arts institutions for denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish, democratic state, incitement to racism, violence or terrorism, supporting armed struggle or terrorism against Israel, marking Independence Day or the establishment of the state as a day of mourning, desecration of state symbols and other criteria.

At first reading, it sounds reasonable to a patriotic Israeli or Jew, as a way to prevent terrorism or the undermining of the state. But, like everything in politics, motives must be questioned. Some politicians think she is trying to gag artists from criticising her party Likud. Trying to regulate the arts for such a political motive will be tantamount to forcing artists to march in lockstep, which is the death of real art. The Soviets tried to do this and what came out was dismal, a caricature of art.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, not regarded as a left-winger, supports Israeli artists’ stand against the Regev legislation and has pledged to compensate any cultural establishments hurt as a result of her loyalty law.

Historically, powerful people everywhere have tried controlling artists to make them produce works matching their political and cultural views. But for art to thrive, artists must be free to produce beautiful works as well those which make people angry.

The arts have thrived in Israel in music, literature, visual arts and other genres. Is Regev trying, for political reasons, to rein them in? Many Israeli artists and intellectuals think so. Dozens of respected cultural figures have produced a manifesto against the legislation, including author David Grossman, celebrated winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for literature.

Artists say Israel is a strong society which depends on being able to conduct multifaceted discussions embracing wide-ranging views. Public funds, they say, must not be used to prevent varied views in the public space. It’s about politics versus freedom of expression.

Israeli artists are particularly vulnerable compared to colleagues in America, where art is generally not state-funded, but operates in an open market, with artists beholden to wealthy patrons, private individuals and foundations. Thus, their work is almost completely uncensored by the state; it is evaluated through appeal to those institutions. In the European and Israeli model, however, artists often receive state funding for certain activities. Regev’s new bill grants her authority to cut funding to an institution whose politics she doesn’t like, such as one that publicly observes Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, or calls for a boycott of Israel or the settlements.

South African artists are familiar with this issue from historical experience. For decades, severe censorship was imposed by the government on newspapers and literature to make them conform to a particular view. Contrary to Israel, however, the SA government wanted racism, not nation-building. And in many ways, Israeli public debate is freer than it ever was in South Africa. Accordingly, its arts history is very different.

Nevertheless, art is like water, inexorably flowing to the sea: If you try to suppress it in one way, it tends to come out elsewhere. The work of satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys during apartheid is a South African example: Since the 1970s, he’s been unrelenting in lampooning the government with a smile on his face and their censors on his tail.

So where should the axe fall? Should Israeli artists capitulate to the security argument? An eternal question, without final answer. Ultimately, good art cannot be evaluated for its utilitarian value. It would go against the soul of great art, including Israeli art.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

Beware the danger at the gate

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After the Pittsburgh massacre, could a “Robert Bowers” do the same in South Africa? The question of Israel causes tension between Jews and other South Africans politically, but an underlying goodwill tends to cross boundaries. In the picture, a demo in Cape Town containing blacks and Jews

SOUTH AFRICANS can see something of their own history in Robert Bowers, the killer of 11 Pittsburgh Jews in their synagogue on Saturday who said he “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” For him, Jews were outsiders coming to take over his beloved America.

Adult South Africans will remember the alarmist cry the Nationalist Government sounded about the ‘swaart gevaar’ – the black danger they said was at the gates waiting to come in and slaughter white people. Whites had to collectively man the barricades, they said. South Africa’s painful history is based on the horrible things you can do when you define another people as malicious outsiders. The whole structure of apartheid was built on seeing blacks as a danger to white society.

 

Robert Bowers saw Jews as outsiders who had to be stopped by any means. His comments on the right-wing GAB website, which regularly runs conspiracy theories and extremists, include: “Why hello there HIAS! [the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” For Bowers, the equivalent of the South African ‘swaart-gevaar’ was an American ‘Jew-threat’. His hatred of Jews was not about individuals. When he opened fire, he shouted, “All Jewish people must die.”

He was probably influenced by statements of US President Donald Trump, who has referred to African countries as “shithole countries” and has stigmatised Mexicans, refugees, Muslims and Africans. Trump claims Americans are under threat from outsiders. Nobody has accused the president of being an anti-Semite, but amidst the resurgence worldwide of hate speech and authoritarian regimes, his rhetoric fills people with resentment and fear.

Where does South Africa, land of the k-word, stand on an issue like this? An undercurrent of xenophobia exists, aimed at Indians, Muslims, as well as Africans from other countries such as Somalia. It has, at times, surfaced violently and chaotically, and people have been killed in their homes, shops and in the streets. Xenophobia is an ongoing, dangerous problem simmering under the surface.

For Jews, there have been unpleasant anti-Semitic incidents, particularly on social media, but no direct violence or anything like what Bowers did. On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the Pittsburgh attack, and has called for society to refrain from anti-Semitism. A demand in South Africa for Jews to be thrown out would probably be condemned by all political groups. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility that an extremist might see Jews as representative of the white establishment and try to do something similar to Bowers.

Being an outsider is the most tragic theme in Jews’ long history, which has led indigenous populations to turn on them, including even sending them to gas chambers. Some people are more positive about this condition, believing that being an outsider is a source of Jewish genius, that not being allowed to truly ‘belong’ in a society gives you perspectives others don’t have.

Why do bigots like Bowers get so enraged at Jews? One thing which makes them seem sinister to him is that they look from the outside just like others in mainstream society. The same for homosexuals who, on the surface, appear like anyone else: the bigot becomes outraged at discovering it, as if he has been hoodwinked by some subversive being. On the other hand, blacks, Asians, Indians, as well as people with disabilities are immediately apparent.

America has been the most Jew-friendly country in history, although it feels a little less friendly now. South Africa too, has been good to its Jews. But if America could produce a Robert Bowers, South Africa could also do so.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

Where have all the Jewish art firebrands gone?

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Is there such a thing as Jewish Art? South Africa has a tradition of Jews taking leading roles in innovative arts as patrons and audiences. With the changing nature of South African society and the community, will this tradition wither? Performance artist Steven Cohen, who has received international acclaim, is shown in the photograph

WHEN Israeli-born concert pianist Aviram Reichert performed in South Africa in the early 2000s on a five-week programme, auditoriums were packed everywhere. Having performed as a soloist with major philharmonic orchestras worldwide, Reichert commented that it was “very seldom that you encounter such audiences” in their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Close to two decades later, internationally acclaimed Israeli-born pianist Amit Yahav joined the Odeion String Quartet last week to perform Chopin and Dvorak at the Linder auditorium in Johannesburg. The music was superb, but the hall was half empty; mostly old people came to hear him, a few of them Jewish.

Jews are almost absent in the arts today, particularly young ones. Younger Jews have either emigrated, are doing business degrees and are uninterested in the arts, or have become deeply religious.

In the past, the most innovative artistic individuals, institutions and the bums on seats, were Jews: the likes of Steven Cohen, William Kentridge, Moving Into Dance founded by Sylvia Glasser, The Market Theatre by Barney Simon, the National Children’s Theatre by Joyce Levinsohn, Daphne Kuhn’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square, Norman Nossel’s generous support of classical music, the Johannesburg Musical Society by Avril Rubinstein, to name but a few.

It’s natural that each generation becomes bored with the previous one’s ethos, in arts and elsewhere. Teaching staff at South African universities report that when struggle musician Johnny Clegg and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys are mentioned, many students have either never heard of them, or refer to them as ‘old white men’.

Added to this is the pressure of the social media generation, and its impatience with such precious memories. This generation doesn’t read books, walks around with its collective headphones on and cellphones at hand, not talking to anyone, engaging instead with virtual friends on digital platforms. The digital age seems unstoppable, with everything being gobbled up and digitised.

Yet there are signs here and there of a counter-revolution, small green shoots appearing with an ‘analogue’ ethos, where it matters that you can touch something with your hands, read a physical book and have it on your bookshelf, see people face to face, not just on a screen, and so on. One small example is the revival of vinyl records, because people find digital CDs too cold in their ‘perfectness’. Manufacturers of vinyl records are running at full capacity.

Back with the arts: while Jews are withdrawing, it is ironic to see the young Afrikaans community, always highly cultured and now largely freed from apartheid’s stigma, producing excellent artworks engaging openly with post-apartheid South Africa.

As an example, a courageous Afrikaans-language film currently on circuit called Kanarie, directed by Christiaan Olwagen, looks piercingly into tough issues in Afrikaans culture. It focuses on a sensitive 18-year old Afrikaans boy (played by Schalk Bezuidenhout) from a conservative, rural village. He is drafted into the South African army during the 1985 state of emergency when unrest was at its peak. Being musical and talented, he enters the army choir. There are almost no black people in the movie; it is entirely about what young white, mainly Afrikaans boys faced in the army and the propaganda they were fed by the mainly Afrikaans regime. A brave movie for young Afrikaners to make.

SA Jews also went through the horror of apartheid and the army. They too have cutting edge stories to tell and explore. Are there storytellers brave enough to do it, in this generation? Will the pendulum swing for Jews, and pull back into its ranks innovative, young people? Ultimately, it always does. In the meantime, green shoots must be nurtured.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

Boycott to and fro: Be careful what you ban

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If I stop buying your goods, can I change you? Boycotts are a common political tactic, but they are sometimes more fashionable than successful, and their outcomes are not entirely predictable

SOUTH AFRICANS know a few things about boycotts, and Israel and those who want to boycott it could learn a bit, even though the two countries are worlds apart culturally and historically. From the 1960s until almost the end of apartheid, the trade, cultural, sports, academic and other sanctions against South Africa were intended to force the white regime to abandon its racist policies and its suppression of the black majority.

Historians will forever argue over how much the sanctions were responsible for apartheid’s demise, compared to other factors such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which changed the political environment. Nevertheless, being cut off from the world was painful; even travelling overseas on a South African passport was uncomfortable.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s first major victory, in 1961, forced South Africa to leave the Commonwealth. In 1962, the UN General Assembly asked member states to impose a trade boycott. In 1963, the Security Council called for a partial arms ban.

Expecting South Africa to capitulate, there was one effect the boycotters didn’t adequately foresee. Among certain sectors of the population, particularly conservative Afrikaners who wielded power, the boycotts induced a stubborn, creative camaraderie, a determination to hold things together and flourish despite sanctions – the opposite of the demoralisation the boycotters wanted. It was the midst of the Cold War, and politicians rallied conservative white groups by labelling liberal anti-apartheid protestors ‘communists’ – a damning indictment in the Cold War mindset. So South Africa continued stubbornly, for decades, to endure while the world was busy with the Cold War.

There is much talk today about partial or full boycotts of Israel. Anti-Israel movements use the South African boycotts as their model. But it is misguided. Africa is not the Middle East, and despite its flaws, Israel is not South African apartheid. Internationally, a major destabilising factor today is the complex conflict between the Islamic and western worlds. And boycotts can have the opposite effect to what is intended.

BDS makes a lot of noise, but achieving a full boycott of Israel is highly unlikely. It can only be symbolic. Israel stands on the highway of the world and is as strong as it has ever been. Most participants in ‘boycott’ groups know this.

So one wonders why Israel bothered to detain at Ben Gurion airport the 22-year-old American student Lara Alqasem who arrived on October 2 on a study visa. It was absurd when security officials who blocked her, cited her membership of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, and her alleged support for BDS. All it did was raise the boycotters’ profile; it had no practical effect. And by coming to Israel to study at the Hebrew University, Alqasem gave up any claim to represent the boycott movement.

Fortunately Israel’s Supreme Court has now overturned the decision of the Minister of the Interior to deny her entry, and she has entered the country after a two-week delay.

Pressuring Israel to change policies towards the Palestinians is urgently necessary. Its occupation of the West Bank will, if unchecked, foreclose any possibly of a two-state solution. But contrary to their intentions, supporters of boycotts are only giving the current government and its prime minister more politically expedient ammunition to tell Israelis that once again, ‘the whole world is against the Jewish state’. He will elevate BDS to the level of an existential threat, and rally Israelis behind him as if they were fighting yet another mortal, ‘anti-Semitic’ enemy.

South African sanctions had a huge effect on the country. But BDS will ultimately fail. Opposition to Israeli policies must come from within the Israeli and Jewish world. The question is how much damage, through overreacting, the prime minister will allow it to do to Israel’s image in the meantime.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

Knowing us, knowing them: Healing feels impossible

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Working together: will it bring peace? In the Barkan Industrial Park, one of several Israeli-run commercial zones near Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Israel and its supporters hold it up as a model of coexistence. In the picture, an Israeli security guard with Palestinian workers as they wait to cross into the zone

THE killing two weeks ago of Israeli employees by an Arab worker at the Barkan industrial zone in the West Bank, a zone punted as exemplifying how Israelis and Palestinians could work together despite political problems, shows again the conflict’s intractability: Will reconciliation ever occur between the sides, even in small doses? Barkan reportedly has over 100 different factories where 8000 Palestinians and Israelis from both sides of the Green Line earn a living.

Jews in western countries look on with despair: What would it take for meaningful reconciliation to happen? They look to their own countries for possible approaches.

What about South Africa, touted as the exemplar of ‘dialogue’ for resolving problems because of achievements during former president Nelson Mandela’s era? Can this country offer anything? There are gigantic differences between the contexts – historical, religious and cultural. But this country also once attempted to reconcile obdurate differences between sides at loggerheads for generations – black South Africa and white South Africa, even though military power lay with the whites who called the shots. It has been partially but not completely successful.

The SA Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 followed South Africa’s political settlement. Is it totally naive to think there might one day be a Palestinian-Israeli TRC, even though there is no Mandela there?

There have been political wrongs from both sides. Even Barkan’s location in the occupied Palestinian territories makes it an obvious target for an attack. But nevertheless, could Palestinians and Israelis ever sit around a table and unpack rationally what occurred during seven decades of battle? It is unlikely to happen anytime soon; the chasm between them is so deep that mutual understanding is probably impossible in the short term. And victories and defeats in a peoples’ history become incorporated as emotive folklore, never to be forgotten. The Jewish people is as adept at this as any other; Arabs and Muslims equally so.

Add to this today’s ‘fake news’ ethos of social media, where distinguishing truth from lies is often impossible. Past attempts to reveal truth through a process such as South Africa’s TRC, seem quaint today amidst the full-blown social media circus, where truth is utterly malleable. How would Palestinians and Israelis fare?

Many people would say that Middle Eastern politics is so complex that the TRC model is a complete non-starter; South Africa’s problems seem relatively simple by comparison. All we can hope for is an uneasy truce between the Israeli and Palestinian enemies, where each side knows it cannot fully defeat the other.

Sporadic groups of Israelis and Palestinians have formed forums to get to know each other, with small-scale successes. The Barkan zone is an example where, through working together, some progress may be made. Politically too there have been some successes, such as the fact that Arab Israelis – Palestinians, essentially – have full rights in Israel and hold official positions in government and elsewhere.

But healing on a grand scale can only begin after a political settlement. Indeed, South Africa’s TRC happened only after the political settlement. This is still a very long way off in the Middle East, and none of the current crop of leaders, including Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterparts, seems willing or able to attempt it. US President Donald Trump’s much-touted ‘peace plan’ is yet to offer any hope.

Continuing with the theme of truth-seeking, a movie opened last week in Johannesburg cinemas called The Forgiven, about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s successful role in the TRC. In contrast, in Israel the killing continues, in Barkan and elsewhere. Will a film called The Forgiven ever be made about Israel-Palestine?

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za 

 

Donald Trump: the Ku Klux Klan comes back – it never died

ARAB JEWISH GRILS PLAY SOCCER WITH TEXT

Let us not score goals together: Palestinian and Israeli girls play soccer together in Holon, Israel, in 2013 as part of a programme to encourage them to get to know each other and make friends. The hope is that this will help in the process of making peace. But the US is withdrawing funds for such programmes

 

ONE puzzling aspect of this era is how to understand US President Donald Trump. His administration has announced it will cut the last remaining channel of American aid to Palestinian civilians, the conflict Management and Mitigation Program which allows Palestinians — many of them youth — to interact with Israelis, through US funding managed by USAID. The funds went to people-to-people exchanges, such as organising soccer games for Palestinian and Israeli girls, and bringing Israeli and Palestinian almond farmers together.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser on the Middle East, believes increasing punitive pressure on Palestinian civilians will create maximum negotiating leverage when it comes to implementing a supposed US peace proposal. Other US political leaders say the decision to cut such funding indicates that Trump has failed at diplomacy, that you don’t advance peace by cutting off programs for tolerance and understanding.

If he is serious about his boast that he will be the man to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, after a century of conflict, why would he want to cut off interaction? Is it a boast he himself doesn’t believe.

Donald trump

US President Donald Trump

On the other side, Israelis are generally pleased with Trump. He has relocated America’s embassy to Jerusalem, slashed payments to UNRWA which they feel perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, withdrawn America from Unesco which has long been hostile to Israel, and has a positive relationship with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

To millions worldwide, however, Trump still appears the fool he has been painted to be – impulsive, over-sensitive to criticism, and racist. He has hugely impacted global politics, using American power to confront long-established status quos. He has changed the tone of political discourse, introducing racist elements with comments like the one in January when he called African countries “shithole countries.” Will his flouting of established political protocol and withdrawal of America into an aggressive and nationalistic “America First” mind-set, ultimately lead the world to war?

Coincidentally, at precisely the same time as he is withdrawing funding to help Palestinian and Israeli children understand each other, his suggested racism is portrayed in a brilliant movie directed by celebrated filmmaker Spike Lee called Black Klansman, just released in Johannesburg.  It is a true account by a black undercover American policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, together with a Jewish co-officer. The deadly racism of white supremacists, as a thread in American society, is starkly illustrated. The thread still continues.

It led to a bloody clash in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and counter-protestors, many of them black. It was widely reported in world media. Torch-bearing white nationalists carrying guns, wearing Ku Klux Klan headgear, and waving Confederate flags and neo-Nazi emblems, marched through the town. A man rammed a car into counter-protesters, killing a woman. Trump did not denounce the white supremacists. He said there were “very fine people on both sides”. He did not call for reconciliation between them and black Americans, or impose punitive measures on them. Black people say Americans who were quietly racist before, now feel emboldened to say it openly under Trump.

What has this got to do with Israel, Jews and Palestinians? This is not a man searching doggedly for reconciliation between different people. Achieving an accord between Israelis and Palestinians has always required both a carrot and a stick to make the sides cooperate. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, favoured the carrot – he would never have cut Israeli-Palestinian interaction. Trump uses the stick, as if cutting contact will bring reconciliation. The real victims are the children, including Israelis and Palestinians, who won’t have the opportunity to know each other.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za