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.

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Politics: a feeble bridge over troubled waters?

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

The dirty business of politics and friendship

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

 

Criticism of Israel: Whose right is it, anyway?

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 To criticize or praise Israel? When South African Jews filled a Johannesburg park in August 2014 to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, other Jews from a group called Jewish Voice For A Just Peace gathered across the road to protest Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian territories 

IT is not unusual for elder South African politicians to use their anti-apartheid struggle credentials as political capital, as if their views are superior to others.

The issue found a reverse echo in Israel last week, when Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely – an ardent right-winger and settlement supporter – contemptuously criticised American Jews who “never send their children to fight for their country (America)… most of them are having quite convenient lives.” And they don’t really care about the kotel, she added. She, on the other hand, lives in Israel and serves in the IDF, as if that makes her views superior to Jews who don’t – which means most American Jews. Her comments outraged sections of American Jewry. A response in Israeli media from a high-ranking US military officer listed Jews who fought with the US army in World War Two, and hold high military positions today.

Hotovely also disparages Diaspora Jews who criticise Israel’s weakening of liberal values, and the occupation. Sadly, many American Jews – the world’s second largest Jewish community after Israel – who are overwhelmingly liberal, do not see Israel as part of their identity, but a problem evoking antagonism from other people because of the occupation. US Jews dislike racism and religious extremism. Despite being only 2 percent of America’s population, they played a huge part in the civil rights movement, and continue to do so in culture, the arts, politics and the economy.

Their relationship with Israel has weakened as the country has moved towards right-wing extremism and nationalism. If they have a Reform or Conservative religious identity – as the majority of American Jews do – they accuse Israel of acting arrogantly as if it held a copyright on Judaism. They perceive Israel’s Orthodox establishment as being contemptuous of other streams.

Israel was created as a worldwide Jewish project to be a moral, democratic state for all inhabitants, with the intention of being intimately connected to the Diaspora. Do Israeli public officials have the right to criticise Diaspora communities. Could Hotovely’s attack on US Jews also be applied to South African Jewry?

And should South African Jews criticise Israel, against the accusation that they don’t live there, face Middle East dangers, serve in the IDF, and so on?

South African Jewish institutions are loath to criticise Israel, believing it gives ammunition to anti-Israel groups such as BDS. The recent controversy provoked by a Johannesburg Reform shul inviting people with BDS connections to its sukkah, highlighted the issue. At Israeli-oriented events such as Yom Ha’atzmaut in Johannesburg, left-wing Jews demonstrate against Israeli actions, and promote the Palestinian cause, evoking anger among mainstream Jewry. Even moderate Jewish groups who support Israel passionately, but demand an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories are often branded, without any evidence, as belonging to BDS in order to silence them. They are accused of being traitors.

The SA political environment is receptive to attacks on Israel. The Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress, Jesse Duarte, for example, published an article in the Daily Maverick this week in anticipation of the ANC leadership conference later this month, saying: “Israel has continued to violate international law, occupation continues and the brutality of the Israeli system of oppression has, rightly, been likened to apartheid … As the ANC therefore prepares for its National Conference, South Africa’s future relations with Israel hangs in the balance and rightly so.”

For SA Jews who support Israel but oppose the occupation, it is a difficult line to tread. But it must not stifle meaningful debate about Israel, including praise and criticism where necessary. Like South African struggle veterans’ critiques of the ANC and South Africa, this kind of engagement is crucial.

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

 

The visit ‘home’: Do SA émigrés ever wish they’d stayed?  

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Is this place mine? Political turmoil in South Africa has led many people to leave over the decades. Did they make the right choice? In the picture, a statue of ANC president OR Tambo at the international airport in Johannesburg

ANYONE who has attended a 40-year high school reunion knows the uncomfortable feeling when you meet classmates from several decades ago, who immigrated to other countries and have had vastly different lives. After five minutes of warm greetings – “Wow, it’s so nice to see you again! Do you remember when we played Sunday league soccer together?” – an uncomfortable silence falls over the gathering, amidst awkward attempts to joke about the passing of time and how everyone is getting older. The gap between their lives and yours is too great for easy conversation.

That often happens when people who left South Africa decades ago, come visiting family here, to attend a funeral or wedding. The relative who has built a life in America – or the UK, Israel, or elsewhere – and has American kids, and who is full of praise for his new country, has little appetite for understanding the complicated, worrying politics of South Africa. He might rage about how Americans could elect someone like Donald Trump as president, but the equally bizarre realities of South Africa are of little interest, serving mainly to validate his decision to leave long ago.

We are living through ‘exciting’ times, for those with the insight to see it that way. No less than a new liberation struggle is required against the degenerate regime the once-proud ANC has become – similar to liberation movements elsewhere after they gained victory over oppressors.

Journalist Jacques Pauw’s recent book, The President’s Keepers, and other publications by struggle heroes such as Ronnie Kasrils, all confirm South Africans’ worst fears about how the corrupt ANC leadership has damaged this country.

Superficially, white South Africans’ lives, and the Jewish community, Afrikaners and other minority communities, have changed little since the émigrés left. They drive the same kinds of cars, live in similar large houses, employ domestic maids at tiny salaries, run successful businesses, and send their kids to private schools. Of course, they are surrounded by high security walls and electrified fences, but they say they have gotten used to it.

There was a brief historical moment after Mandela emerged from jail and became president, during which South Africans would gloat and say the émigrés who had left had erred, and had missed out on the inspiring country South Africa had become. Showing a South African passport when travelling was a proud action, then. Today, however, there is shame, with the decline to junk status financially and politically. It evokes gloating from those who had the wisdom to leave after Sharpeville or similar events.

Current happenings in Zimbabwe add fuel. Jews remember the once-proud Zimbabwe Jewish community which has all but vanished after 37 years of Mugabe’s despotic rule, the liberator- turned-dictator, who is finally being thrown out after destroying the country. Is that our destiny here?

Last weekend Professor Njabulo Ndebele, an academic and fiction writer, and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, addressed an ANC struggle veterans’ meeting, bemoaning the bunch of thieves the government had become. The country’s spirit may “run dry,” he said, without a new “imaginative political project to give life and shape to it… [South Africans] require entirely fresh perspectives from which to view and understand themselves.”

What will it mean in ten, twenty years to be a Jewish South African? It is up to far-sighted leaders to articulate a new vision for a community half the size of what it was in the 1970s, and still shrinking. Sadly, such leaders are scarce.

Ten years from now, when émigrés come visiting for a reunion, will they find family and friends inspired again? It certainly could happen, the country’s spirit, today, has not yet been broken. We are again at a crossroads. But the jury is still out.

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

 

How to paint the town in #MeToo colours

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You raped me 24 years ago! The #MeToo movement urges women to tell about past sexual abuse by men who have gone on with their lives. In the photo, former South African soccer boss and politician Danny Jordaan, and former singer and ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson, who accuses him of rape (Photo: Agencies/AP)

THE growing worldwide momentum of the #MeToo movement through which women who were sexually harrassed are speaking out after remaining silent for many years, echoes two erstwhile women’s movements of equal passion: the Suffragettes in the late-19th and early-20th centuries demanding women’s right to vote in public elections; and the 1950s feminists campaigning for equal pay for doing comparable jobs as men, and similar issues.

Social media, a key platform for #MeToo, is a powerful vehicle. But in the social media environment, #MeToo competes with numerous other movements, many of which reach thousands of people and then fade away as trending stories move on. Some are serious, others, trivial or mischievous, all clamouring for attention. Will the #MeToo movement fade like others, or have a lasting impact on men accustomed to using their power for sexual favours from women?

The growing list of accused men includes ordinary people, but also many high-profile names such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey in the United States. There too, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, star of the box office hit “Wonder Woman” refused to sign onto a sequel unless distributor Warner Bros cut financing with producer Brett Ratner, who has been accused, among other things, of masturbating in front of actress Olivia Munn.

An upsetting inclusion in the list is the late Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and icon of moral standing Elie Wiesel, who has been accused of groping the buttocks of a 19-year old woman in 1989 during a group photograph at a charity event. Important Jewish papers such as the New York Jewish Week wrote pain-filled editorials about the dilemma in how to cover the story.

In Israel, Haaretz journalist Neri Livneh has accused Alex Gilady, president of Keshet Broadcasting group and Israel’s representative on the International Olympic Committee, of sexual ‘indecency’ towards her 18 years ago. She said she chose to speak up now to support another journalist, Channel 10 anchor Oshrat Kotler, who told viewers she received an ‘indecent’ advance 25 years ago from Gilady, when he was CEO of Keshet. She said she did not speak up earlier because she worried about the possible negative impact on her career.

And so it goes, revelation after revelation, many concerning incidents purported to have happened decades ago. In South Africa, former singer and ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson has accused former national soccer boss and anti-apartheid activist Danny Jordaan of raping her 24 years ago in a hotel room. And a former freedom fighter in exile during apartheid, Sibongile “Promise” Khumalo, has accused former Pan Africanist Congress leader Potlako Leballo of raping her in the 1970s.

There are arguments among supporters and opponents of #MeToo about whether “social media vigilantism” is the appropriate way, where accused men are not given the chance to pursue formal legal processes to defend themselves, before being publically named. But in the absence of effective legal channels for redress, “vigilantism” is going to flourish. Sadly, the formal legal channels in most countries have been notoriously unsympathetic to women on this issue, leaving the field to the social media.

#MeToo should be taken seriously. Even though many accusations are about things that happened long ago, exposing them now may set a new tone for the future. To succeed, it must beware of all kinds of people jumping on the bandwagon, clouding the issues with their own agendas, and creating a witchhunt mentality. It is easier for a woman to log into facebook than call a lawyer to lodge a complaint.

It would be gratifying if #MeToo made a lasting impact, as did the Suffragettes and the feminists. To do this, the wheat must be carefully distinguished from the chaff.

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

Censorship: A double-edged sword

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THE clumsy attempt by the State Security Agency and SA Revenue Service to block printing and distribution of the book by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers, is nowhere near the censorship which prevailed during apartheid. But it eerily reminds us of how the slippery slope begins in that direction. A desperate President Jacob Zuma will go to any lengths to protect himself and his cronies from exposure for wrongdoing, as the book does, and possibly going to jail. He has turned the security establishment and SARS into his defensive tools.

Thankfully the country has constitutional safeguards against censorship, a vigorous press, an independent judiciary and a populace accustomed to freedom of expression earned by generations of struggle activists. For example, recent controversial artworks by Ayanda Mbuli depicting Zuma in lewd sexual poses with the Guptas, offended many, but it’s a tribute to the country that the works were never banned.

Predictably, Pauw’s book quickly gained a large global readership after government demanded its recall. It is now into a second printing. Local bookstores rejected the call to remove the book. Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk said: “I will censor a book that is blatantly racist, has hatred of Jews, hatred of black people or any other people. But a book like this, why should we refuse to sell it?”

Could the government have a case in demanding its recall? Do details about Zuma’s dodgy tax affairs violate his right to privacy? This is as much about politics as anything else. In a democracy, the government cannot suppress such facts about a public figure like the president, or censor someone’s opinion of him. It must take the matter to court, which would be a good thing, since then the beans about Zuma will definitely be publicly spilled.

Anyone who was politically aware during apartheid will remember the ideological absurdities of censorship. Black Beauty, one of the best-selling books of all time which lauds kindness and respect, was apparently banned for using the word ‘black’ in the title, in conjunction with the word ‘beauty’. Burger’s Daughter by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, was banned for contradicting government’s racial policies by telling white anti-apartheid activists’ stories. In the sexual realm, the state’s defenders of ‘morality’ put Playboy magazine out of bounds, with its double-page spreads of naked women, but copies were smuggled into the country and passed from hand to hand.

Internationally, banning books with sinister ideological or religious themes sometimes has a more acceptable side. There have, for example, been many unsuccessful calls over the years for banning The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tract which concocts a false Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, and was used as justification for Jewish persecution. And Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, was banned in Germany since the Second World War, but last year it became legal to publish and sell it as a commented edition.

South Africa’s political turmoil today, reflected in the many bizarre public statements and postures of its politicians, has an echo of the story in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, a parable extolling democracy while describing a workers’ revolution which goes horribly wrong. It’s about the successful overthrow of a harsh regime of human farmers by an animals’ liberation movement. The new order becomes corrupted, however, when leaders turn arrogant, and ‘alternative facts’ – the ‘fake news’ of today – are propagated to suit political ambitions. It sounds familiar, not unlike the tragic corruption of the once-admired ANC liberation movement.

Pauw’s book is not ideological in the traditional sense, except to the extent that law-breakers, whoever they are, should be exposed and punished, including the president if necessary. Zuma’s selfish motives in wanting the book recalled are so transparent, a child could see through them. But he doesn’t care; he knows he will probably never be called to account. Or could it be that the tide is finally turning against him?

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