Zuma speech to SA Jews leaves crisis issues unanswered


Crowd at conference

The capacity Jewish audience at the SA Jewish Board of Deputies conference listens raptly to President Jacob Zuma’s speech on the state of the country and the ANC meeting with Hamas

The audience at the national conference of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in Johannesburg on Sunday expected President Jacob Zuma’s keynote speech to be the event’s highlight, despite other eminent speakers including World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, and French philosopher-activist Bernard-Henri Levy.

The latter had torn himself away from his “beloved, bereaved Paris”, still traumatised because of the recent terrorist attacks there by the Islamic jihadists of ISIS. Despite the emotional difficulty of leaving Paris, his family and friends at a time like this, he had decided to come, he said, because of the importance of South Africa, which was “one of the battles of my generation” – the anti-apartheid struggle.

The key leadership of SA Jewry assembled at the gala event, offered Zuma a chance to inject some optimism into the Jewish constituency that, although numerically small, is an important part of the SA mosaic. Its general feeling today – along with numerous other South Africans – is gloomy about the state of the country and its political directions. Jewish rage simmers about the ANC’s attitude to Israel, symbolised by its embrace of terrorist organisation Hamas when it visited three weeks ago.

Krengel, Levy, Zuma, Lauder (2)

Keynote speakers Bernard-Henri Levy, President Jacob Zuma and Ronald Lauder


Zuma did, at the end of his speech, talk about Hamas. But for the bulk of it, he simply plodded through the tired script about the important role Jews had played in the liberation struggle. As if by flattering the Jewish audience in this way, he could divert their anger. But instead of making them feel good, it came across as patronising. We know all that history already; the facts are correct. It is, however, history. Today’s urgent issues are about other things: South Africa’s flagging economy, political instability, racism in the society, corruption, foreign policy particularly regarding Israel, international terrorism and South Africa’s place in it, and so on. That is what people came to hear about.

From 1915, Jews helped form the first South African socialist organisations, said Zuma; in 1921 they helped create the SA Communist Party; in 1922 they tried diverting striking white miners’ anger to more constructive directions for the good of all; in the 1960s with the liberation movements’ bannings, Jews like Denis Goldberg provided safe houses for activists hiding from police; other activists went into exile, like Joe Slovo, a founder of Mkhonto we Sizwe; whites in the Rivonia trial were Jewish; Eli Weinberg was the courageous photographer of the liberation movements; in Mandela’s post-apartheid South Africa, Jewish jurists Arthur Chaskalson, Albie Sachs and Richard Goldstone were prominent in the legal system. And so on.

In his few sentences about the state of the country, he spoke about economic growth being too low to solve unemployment, affected by the slowdown in China’s economy. But there was nothing new said, or much hope offered. He looked like a man without a vision.

Regarding global terrorism, he said the incidents in Paris, Mali and other places put the spotlight on peace and conflict in the Middle East, including Palestine. And the key to Israeli-Palestinian peace is a two state solution based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian state’s capital. Audible murmurs of disapproval were heard from parts of the audience, and one wondered whether Zuma would be boo-ed.

But, he stressed, South African support for a Palestinian state does not exclude support for the safety of Israel. South Africa will engage with all sides. But again, he provided no programme or details for such engagement, no vision beyond his bland statement of principle.

Then he got to Hamas and said quietly that he had become aware that the effusive manner in which Hamas was received by the ANC, concerned the Jewish community. He had taken note of this, he said pointedly. This acknowledgement was perhaps as far as he was able to go in terms of his own political realities. He did not, however, specifically denounce Hamas’ terrorist tactics – or even acknowledge they existed – nor apologise for the welcome given to them. Rather, he repeated, South Africa must engage with all parties, in the belief that it has something to offer in the promotion of peace in the world.

Zuma is not regarded by Jewish leaders as an enemy of Israel, personally. Indeed, outgoing SAJBD president Zev Krengel stated categorically that on many occasions he intervened behind the scenes to solve problems regarding Israeli issues in South Africa. But clearly, the hostility towards Israel in ANC ranks is something Zuma does not have control over. Or is perhaps, unwilling to exert control over. Flattery about Jewish heroes of the Struggle cannot hide this. The most glaring element in Zuma’s speech was the absence of any vision for a better future.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on November 25, 2015)

What has Paris terror to do with South Africa?


South African President Jacob Zuma on the spot on terrorism

When President Jacob Zuma addresses the SA Jewish Board of Deputies conference on Sunday, it will be in the shadow of the horrific terror attacks by ISIS in Paris last Friday, which left 129 dead and hundreds of others wounded. All signs are that the Third World War, between radical Islam and Western civilization, has begun in earnest. French President Francoise Hollande said as much when he declared, “France is at war”, imposed a state of emergency and told the French parliament on Monday that France should unite with the US and Russia in a grand coalition to destroy ISIS.

The audience at the SAJBD conference will have mixed feelings towards Zuma because of the ANC’s welcome extended to the Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas a few weeks ago.

It will be disappointing if he sticks to mouthing the old, worn-out platitudes about the rainbow nation, the Jews’ importance in the liberation struggle, and how the ANC is fighting for the good of the country. There is a perception that under his leadership, South Africa has lost its moral bearings and has shrunk to an irrelevant midget on the world stage, two decades after the great international prestige it held during Mandela’s time as a moral touchstone for all.

South Africa has never faced terrorism of the sort going on in Europe and the Middle East, and which destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. But we are not immune, even here at the bottom of Africa. We are part of today’s connected world.

The Paris attacks illustrate the reduced role of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in international affairs, despite the massive media attention it still gets. The brand of terror France has suffered has little to do with the “occupation of Palestine”; it is more about the clashing Islamic and other forces in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other places in the Mideast, as ISIS attempts to establish its Islamic caliphate under Sharia law.

Diplomatic myopia still exists about the relative role of the Palestinian issue. Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon said after the Paris killings, that European defence ministers visiting Israel to consult with him mostly focus – correctly – on radical Islam’s anti-Western terror campaign. But, he said, “when foreign ministers come, they speak with us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if that is the source of all the world’s problems.” ANC support for a Palestinian state is legitimate. But South African politics, whether in the ANC, Cosatu, the SACP and elsewhere, still seems largely stuck in the latter mindset.

Radical Islam has become the ‘Nazism’ of the 21st century. It will have to be defeated by a determined international alliance of countries acting together, in the same way Nazism was defeated in the Second World War. This is what Hollande is calling for.

Going back to Zuma’s speech at the SAJBD conference: Terrorism is at the top of people’s minds and he needs to address Jewish outrage about his Hamas meetings. Was it part of a long-term strategy, or motivated by expedient local politics? The issue is complicated, and not everyone opposes engaging with Hamas, including some top Israelis. For example, former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy, who spent decades in the Mossad and was a key player in achieving the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, says Israel itself should talk with Hamas. Interviewed at a Haaretz-sponsored conference on peace in Tel Aviv recently, he said military action hasn’t been successful in combatting the terrorist group, and Israel should recognize democratically-elected Palestinian governments even if they include Hamas. Other Israelis vehemently reject this view.

France is the birthplace of human rights, epitomised by its secularity, vibrant culture, and the phrase liberté, égalité, fraternité. Together with all of Europe, it faces the dilemma of how to protect these human and individual rights while providing security against terrorism. The most important individual right is the right to life itself.

Zuma has an opportunity to show his colours: Is he a leader of global stature who understands the grim new reality of the Third World War? Will his South Africa side unequivocally with Western values, and support the grand coalition against Islamist terror in a more meaningful way than simply sending ‘condolences’ to Paris? Or will he continue playing small-minded local politics aimed mainly at staying in power?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on November 18, 2015)

Handshakes with terrorists and peacemakers

Jacob Zuma and Khaled Meshaal shaking hands, Pretoria, October 2015

Two milestones occurred in the past few weeks: The twentieth anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination; and the provocative visit of a Hamas delegation to South Africa as guests of the ANC, where President Jacob Zuma’s warm conversation with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was publicised widely in the media.

In 1993, Rabin signed the Oslo agreement with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who had until then been regarded only as a terrorist leader aiming at Israel’s elimination. The iconic photograph of the two of them shaking hands on the White House lawn in the presence of a beaming US President Bill Clinton, is one of the most famous images in international diplomacy. It was an interim deal involving a partial Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and creation of the Palestinian Authority. An outcome was formal recognition of Israel by the PLO, and the PLO by Israel as the representative of the Palestinians. Many hoped the accord would lead to lasting peace, but it also engendered vicious opposition from different factions on both sides. Rabin’s murder at a Tel Aviv peace rally by a Jewish religious extremist in November 1995 dealt a major blow to its chances of success.

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, watched by Bill Clinton

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands, watched by Bill Clinton

It’s a good time to reflect on South Africa’s changing attitude towards Israel in the past two decades. South Africa has become one of the most hostile political environments towards Israel in the world, where members of the ruling ANC and its allies Cosatu and the SACP openly support BDS and Israel’s enemies, and hatred of Israel sometimes merges into blatant anti-Semitism. This is notwithstanding the fact that the government maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, its official policy still supports the two state solution, and trade between the countries is healthy. Hamas, on the other hand, rejects Israel’s right to exist and is officially listed as a terrorist organisation in many parts of the world.

When Rabin was assassinated, Mandela sent Deputy President Thabo Mbeki to represent South Africa at the funeral in Jerusalem. In addition, Mandela attended the memorial service organised by the Jewish community at the Oxford shul in Johannesburg, accompanied by ANC personalities like Tokyo Sexwale and Walter Sisulu. In his address, he lauded Rabin’s courage and quest for peace.

Mandela – whose handshake with apartheid-era President FW de Klerk after his release from jail is another famous image – also made a point of visiting the Rabin memorial in 2001 during a hush-hush visit to Israel to meet with Israeli President Ezer Weizman, Foreign Minister David Levy and Prime Minister Ehud Barak. SA Jewish leaders Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, Russell Gaddin and Marlene Bethlehem went with him to Yad Vashem and a walk on the Via Dolorosa.

But Mandela was also intrinsically sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. Five years before Rabin’s murder, he angrily rejected criticism from Jewish leaders after he was photographed embracing Yasser Arafat warmly in Namibia in 1990, soon after his release from prison. Mandela retorted that he had also once been called a terrorist, but said his position enabled him to intervene where the Jewish community could not. It was long before the Oslo agreement, when the Israeli Prime Minister would himself shake Arafat’s hand in Washington.

The anniversary of Rabin’s murder comes amidst high tension over control of the Temple Mount site in Jerusalem, terrorist attacks throughout Israel, and a chaotic and violent Middle East generally. Some people are saying the Third Intifada has begun. It is another reminder of the intractable nature of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the hatred that thrives when hopes for finding a solution die and visionaries like Rabin are lacking. An often-quoted statistic says 70 per cent of Israelis support a two-state solution, but 70 per cent also believe it is not possible to get there.

Many people believe Oslo – Rabin’s legacy – is all but dead and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, cannot survive much longer. What comes afterwards no-one knows.

South Africa’s attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to ebb and flow with the existence of a peace process. When Rabin was alive and the chances for peace looked better, South Africa’s attitude was more positive towards Israel. Now that there is essentially no peace process, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders express little vision for a peaceful future, it gives fuel to Israel’s enemies.

Rabin came closer than any other leader to forging Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. His assassination means we will never know whether peace – and the handshake – was an illusion based on wishful thinking, or stood a real chance.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on October 30, 2015)

Jews and Afrikaners ask: Stay or go?


AfriForum, an Afrikaner interest watchdog, handed a memorandum to Pres Zuma, defending the right for university students to study in Afrikaans. Photo: Youth spokesperson Ian Cameron.

Underlying the furore over the ad against Hamas placed by SA Friends of Israel in the Sunday Times – it is not yet clear how it will play out in the coming weeks – sits the perennial, painful question: what is the future for Jews in this country? And other white minorities such as Afrikaners whose ethnic identities are partially at odds with dominant political forces.

Will the betrayal SA Jews feel at the ANC’s enthusiasm for terrorist-branded Hamas add more reason for young Jews to throw in the towel on South Africa and emigrate? The Jewish population has already shrunk by half since its peak of 135 000 in the 1970s. Many factors push in this direction, such as the ticking time bomb of poverty in the country. When will it explode – as it must eventually? And things like the corruption estimated by the Institute of Internal Auditors to have cost the country R700 billion over the past two decades, the cronyism and maladministration. And the ‘reverse racism’ many whites feel.

SA Jews are as South African as anyone else, and must insist on this. The most stirring thing would be for them to stand their ground forcefully and demand government sensitivity to their feelings – including their loyalty to Israel.

The dilemma also applies to other white minorities, amidst strident calls by black students, trade unions, and political parties such as Julius Malema’s EFF to ‘decolonise’ universities, and ‘transform’ society and all its institutions. In theory, all this is good for South Africa, but in practise it has come to mean getting rid of whites and making those who remain feel insecure. Racism is, sadly, as malignant a force as it ever was.

Jews and Afrikaners share certain things as white minorities with strong ethnic identities, historical involvement in South Africa’s development, and a sense of being politically embattled today, not just as whites, but regarding their particular place in society. Both groups are highly educated, active in business, the professions and the arts. For Afrikaners, their disquiet is partly about how their language is regarded. For Jews, it is partly about how Israel is regarded. Over the past few decades, many Jews and Afrikaners left the country, seeking security and stability, and taking skills and talents with them. The country is much the poorer for it.

Would white Jews and Afrikaners come back if offered help? It is a touchy subject in the atmosphere of growing racial tensions. To say the country is in a mess and would benefit from their – and others’ – return is to open oneself to accusations of racism. But it is true: The country is in a mess, and needs the skills the emigrants took with them.

But there is hope, despite the rudderless, leaky ship the ANC has become under Jacob Zuma. ANC stalwart Mathews Phosa has stuck his neck out and said South Africa should make it easy for skilled Afrikaner and other whites who left the country to come back. A gutsy thing in today’s political climate; easy fodder for incitement by Malema’s anti-white ilk. Addressing a conference on “Whiteness – Whites‚ Afrikaans‚ Afrikaners” hosted by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection‚ Phosa said the economy bumbled along at an inferior level, without meeting the country’s needs. South Africa had failed to bring in the expertise available that went with the whites who emigrated, and there was excessive government interference in employment policies and practices.

“Let’s open the doors and welcome those skilled and experienced Afrikaners and other whites that abandoned their beloved country in search of security and stability, and acknowledge their skills in our economy. Let’s make it easy for them to return and to stay‚” Phosa said. Successful nations were built on education‚ skills and harnessing experience.

Many emigrant South African Jews have done well in Australia, Canada, the UK, the US, Israel and elsewhere. If they are to consider returning, they must be convinced they will not feel unwelcome, and money they bring back or earn here will be secure.

That is not yet the case. If the people of honour still left in the ANC – many Struggle veterans are deeply unhappy about the state of the party – want to help, they need to turn the ship of state around urgently and avoid things like the Hamas debacle.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in SAJR on November 11, 2015)

Expensive ads against Hamas a bad idea

One can understand the anger motivating people in the Jewish community to place a full page advert last weekend in the Sunday Times, denouncing Hamas and the ANC’s enthusiastic welcome of its leaders to South Africa two weeks ago. The ad was intended to inform the public of the true – and terroristic – face of Hamas, hidden behind the smiles and speeches. But was it a good idea, tactically?

In any event, it didn’t happen. The Sunday Times – South Africa’s biggest-selling weekly newspaper with a claimed readership of some 3 700 000 – pulled the ad on Friday afternoon, despite the fact that it was paid for.


Advert against Hamas which SA Friends of Israel intended placing in the Sunday Times to protest the ANC’s welcome to Hamas in South Africa

The SA Zionist Federation informed the Jewish community about this in an e-mail, criticising the newspaper: “…These are the facts that they did not want their readership to know about Hamas!” In a further development on Tuesday, however, the Sunday Times agreed to run the ad this weekend, but without the original photograph showing a masked Hamas operative in a threatening pose.

Among other things, the original ad said: “Unlike South Africans, who achieved peaceful resolution to conflict through dialogue, negotiation, truth and reconciliation, the political head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, emphatically insists: ‘Jihad and armed resistance are the true and correct way… There will be no concession on an inch of the land’.” In other words, Israel must be eliminated.

Placing such an ad raises issues familiar to any media expert. Firstly, no matter how well composed it is, you cannot control how it will be exploited and understood by sectors of the newspapers’ colossal readership.

Among many, particularly in the Muslim communities, it will have the opposite effect than intended: Hamas will be seen as heroes from Gaza fighting courageously for the return of their “stolen” land.

The ad will be viewed as a crude attempt by the “Zionist lobby” to discredit Palestinians fighting Israeli oppression, using Jewish money and influence – a full page ad in the Sunday Times costs an enormous amount.

Secondly, such an ad gives Hamas massive, free publicity. People who have never heard of it will want to know its story. With ANC heavyweights – including President Jacob Zuma – openly embracing it, many will assume there must be something good there. In most places, there will not be anyone to put the Israeli side of the story.

Political adverts are by their nature problematic, by condensing complex topics such as the Middle East conflict into a few sentences and emotive slogans. The nuances are lost.

The Jewish community was outraged a few years ago when BDS placed billboard adverts along the highway to Pretoria, containing simplistic maps purporting to show how Israel progressively stole Palestinian land over several decades. The billboards’ accuracy was challenged and they were ultimately removed.

There is a good chance the Sunday Times and those behind the Hamas ad would be challenged in court over the original ad’s tone and veracity. Ensuing court battles could again give Hamas huge public opportunities for arguing its case against Israel.

So what to do about the ANC’s embrace of Hamas? Some points in the proposed ad were on target. Such as asking why on earth the ANC would want to “warmly” welcome them in South Africa, when the European Union, US, Canada, Australia and many democracies, “keep Hamas on their terrorism blacklist”, and “Hamas is unwelcome in Amman, Cairo and Riyadh”.

That question, however, would be better targeted directly at people who can engage with the Middle East’s complexity and the Israeli dilemma regarding how to achieve security in that chaotic region. The majority of Sunday Times readers are either not interested, or will be instinctively suspicious of the ad’s message.

Given the ANC’s increasingly beleaguered condition as South Africa unravels under its rule, it is puzzling why it chose this moment to do something as provocative as hosting Hamas.

The recent nationwide student uprising over university fees is one illustration that the party is hopelessly out of touch with the people’s needs. What has Hamas got to do with those needs? Is the ANC simply trying to capture the Muslim vote in the Western Cape by parading Hamas’ Meshaal as their guest? The harm this does to the country’s image is enormous.

The ANC should be made to pay for its blundering and for contradicting its own policy of supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But there are better ways to do this than a one-sided, expensive ad in a newspaper which will in any case be misinterpreted. We wait to see what reaction the ad will have if the newspaper does indeed run it this weekend. The ad’s sponsors may come to regret it.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in SAJR on November 6, 2015)

Xenophobia: Was Mandela just a blip on the screen?

This country has been a ship without a rudder for a long time. The xenophobic mayhem sweeping it, shaming us all, is one symptom. The great leaders who steered us during those heady days from apartheid to democracy two decades ago are gone. Mandela, Sisulu, Slovo and the others. They have been largely replaced by midgets. Perhaps the turmoil we’re experiencing now is the natural progression after any ‘revolution’, before a new generation of real leaders steps in to chart a fresh course.

You hear bold statements by our current bevvy of politicians: “This violence against foreigners is un-South African, un-African, inhumane, etc.” But it’s not convincing. Nobody seems to have the gravitas to stop the thugs running around with machetes and knives and filling their bags with looted goods from foreigners’ shops after the owners have fled terrified into the darkness.

Remember those wonderful phrases at the time of the 1994 democratic elections? The rainbow nation. Ubuntu. We touted ourselves as an example to the world: “South Africa has taught every nation a lesson in dialogue and reconciliation.”

Tough questions have to be asked. Was Mandela’s magic just a momentary – in historical terms – thing? Is the pot of gold at the end of our rainbow nation actually a pit of vipers? It is painful to think that maybe this beautiful land is not the tolerant society of ubuntu we imagine ourselves to be. We lived through more than four decades of apartheid – we even gave the world the term for this ‘crime against humanity’, as the UN defined it. The separate ethnic pieces this country was divided into, are still there. And the foreigners float among them, sometimes tolerated, sometimes hated as the ‘Other’.

The Jewish community did what most white groups did during apartheid. In the main, it went along with the racist system – or at least didn’t protest very loudly, except for a few heroes: The Joe Slovos and others of his ilk who went into exile and fought from there, and some gutsy Jews who opposed apartheid from within, often at great cost to themselves. Jews and other white communities did the same act of lying low and keeping out of trouble.

Apartheid did not arise from nowhere, but out of our chequered history of colonialism, tribal wars, and ethnic clashes. Then Mandela came and convinced us that we could fashion from this fraught mixture a compassionate, tolerant society. Could it be that he was just a blip on a screen who lifted us high on his shoulders, then left us to come down to ground level again? Hard to imagine. Yet why is it that we put up with such second-rate, visionless leaders like President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts today, and the corruption and incompetence that come with them?

The abomination of xenophobia is a test: How we meet it will show who we really are. When Mandela died, a huge crowd gathered outside his house in Houghton, bringing flowers, candles and messages, and singing together. They were from all races, classes, ages, religions and countries. He made us believe we were something special as a nation. We betray him if we don’t throw the thugs who are killing foreigners into the jails where they belong.

Jews know what it is to be newcomers to a country. Our forebears came here – from Lithuania mostly – about a hundred years ago, generally penniless and often discriminated against by the locals. They did then what the small shopkeepers from Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are doing today – eked out a living, but with an eye on the future, gradually building themselves up to stand on their own feet. Today, Jews stand firmly on their feet, and are powerful in the economy and elsewhere. They have the capacity to help today’s terrified foreigners with moral and material support. They should do that loudly and clearly.

Would it be too much to hope that out of this disgrace will come a leader to take the rudder again, to give this beautiful country a vision and dream again?

(First published in SA Jewish Report, April 24, 2015)

Can SA Jewry provide a home for same-sex marriages?

GAY MARRAIGEWhen the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is now legally binding in all 50 states, American Jews celebrated publicly. Surveys show that some 77 per cent of them favour the legitimacy of same-sex marriage – among the highest of all religious groups. Numerous American Jewish organisations, including representatives of the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative streams – which together constitute the majority of religiously identified US Jews – supported the ADL’s amicus brief filed in the case where the court took its decision.

The difference between South African and US Jewry regarding acceptance of homosexuality stands out sharply. Gay individuals or married couples in America who want to remain in the Jewish fold, have a myriad options in the diverse, large – over 5 million-strong – community. Whereas in South Africa’s small, overwhelmingly Orthodox community of 70 000 people, there are few options: Gay Jews are left virtually ‘homeless’ in a Jewish sense, and generally end up looking outside the Jewish fold for a community.

The Reconstructionist and Conservative streams are all but non-existent in South Africa, while the once-vibrant Reform/Progressive stream has shrunk dramatically and has little influence today. In many places in the United States, there are small, active egalitarian ‘minyans’ – liberal equivalents of the Orthodox shtiebls which have proliferated in Johannesburg – offering complete openness to gay Jews. They are almost unknown in South Africa.

Worldwide, social attitudes on same-sex marriage are changing fast. It has been legal in South Africa since 2006, based on the constitutional right not to be discriminated against because of one’s sexual orientation. Twenty-one countries allow it, including Belgium, Canada, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Argentina, Denmark, Brazil, England and Wales, France, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Scotland and Ireland. Now the US has joined this group. A decade ago, some two-thirds of Americans were against it. Today, well over half support it.

Israeli social attitudes are moving in the same direction, and Tel Aviv is already famous as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. But the legalising of same-sex marriage is still a long way off in Israel because there is no procedure for civil marriage, and all Jewish marriages must go through the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate. However, calls are growing rapidly for change in this realm.

The issue poses a major theological problem for Orthodox Jewry, because of the clear halachic injunction against homosexuality. The reaction by Agudath Israel of America to the US court ruling expressed this, warning in a statement about attempts to force any particular religious community to accept same-sex marriages. This has already happened with Christian groups – a Christian baker in Colorado, for example, has been the subject of an enforcement action for declining to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

The Agudah said its members faced “moral opprobrium” and were in danger of “tangible negative consequences” if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. The issue, it said, is not whether all human beings are created in the Divine Image, or whether they have inherent human dignity: “Of course they are, of course they do. [But] the truths of Torah are eternal, and stand as our beacon even in the face of shifting social mores.”

South Africa’s Jewish community has experienced tough times in the past few decades because of emigration and anxieties about the country’s future. It has shrunk by almost half since its heyday in the 1970s and lacks the diverse range of Jewish options that the US or UK communities provide. The increasingly religious Orthodox mainstream has become so dominant in the last two decades, that liberal or secular Jews have almost nowhere to go where they feel a sense of belonging.

While the solid growth of the Orthodox ba’al teshuva movement is to be lauded, the unfortunate flip-side of its dominance of SA Jewry is the alienation felt among other Jews whose talents and energies would otherwise have enriched the Jewish community.

It is an important challenge to religious leaders: will they find a way to make all Jews feel at home amongst them? The gay and same-sex marriage issue is not going to go away, but will only increase in importance.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in SAJR on July 3, 2015)

Artists should go where politicians fear to tread

The idea of acclaimed Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim conducting a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Tehran sounds like fantasy. But that is exactly what was mooted two weeks ago, as an accompaniment to the first official visit to Iran later this year by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A form of ‘cultural diplomacy’ that might have had a big impact.

But would Iran’s rulers allow Barenboim the Israeli citizen in, given their rejection of Israel’s right to exist? The answer came over the weekend: No! This was despite his long support for the Palestinian cause, his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian co-operation through music, and the fact that he is also an Argentinian citizen and an ‘honorary’ Palestinian citizen. The Iranian culture ministry said: “Iran does not recognise the Zionist regime and will not co-operate with artists of this regime.”

On the Israeli side too, not everyone sees the concert idea as positive. Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev, for example, acting clearly as a politician despite her ‘cultural’ portfolio, has urged that it not go ahead. She says it will undermine Israel’s efforts to block the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu sees as a serious threat to Israel.

This story comes hot on the heels of another art-versus-politics incident, when Jewish singer Matisyahu performed the song ‘Jerusalem’ at the Rototom Sunsplash reggae festival in Spain recently. The festival had initially cancelled his appearance under BDS pressure, then re-invited him and apologised. Matisyahu – who is American, not Israeli – was targeted by BDS as the only Jewish performer on the roster. The festival had cancelled his slot after he refused to declare support for Palestinian statehood, igniting an uproar from Jewish organisations and the Spanish government. Some pro-Palestinian audience members protested when he took the stage, but other people applauded. He said before his closing song: “Whoever you are and wherever you come from, raise a flag and wave it in the air. Let music be your flag.”

In South Africa we have had our own examples of the tension between art and politics, such as the infamous incident in 2013 when Israeli-born classical pianist Yossi Reshef’s concert at Wits University was disrupted by BDS-motivated students in the middle of a Beethoven piece. The pianist was escorted out of the Wits Great Hall by security guards for his safety. Reshef actually lives in Berlin, yet his Israeli origins were enough to provoke the students into sabotaging his performance. How contrary that was to the South African ideal of dialogue!

Can politics and art be separated? A local South African example gives a partial clue to this tricky question, through the works of landscape painter JH Pierneef, whose paintings have become an integral part of South Africa’s heritage. An exhibition of some of his best works which is currently on at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg had to install special security arrangements, because the artist – who died in 1957 – was a seminal member of the Broederbond, a bastion of racist white South Africa during apartheid which is reviled by many South Africans. There were fears his paintings would be defaced. Yet he is today considered one of the best of the old South African masters, with the quality of his art prevailing over his racially based political views.

The Iranian state which has refused Barenboim entry, has been controlled by the ayatollahs since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They are virulent enemies of Israel – they won’t even call it by its name, only the “Zionist regime”.

But could there be another, hidden side to the Iranian people – “Persians” – who are known for their richness in culture and art, notwithstanding their government. Could it be that the beautiful music made by the Berlin Philharmonic and the skill of its Israeli conductor might have opened avenues for further encounters, and softened the stony hatred between the nations? For sure, the hall would have been packed to capacity by Iranians wanting to hear the performance. Maybe that’s exactly what the ayatollahs fear.

Artists can sometimes go where politicians fear to tread, and create opportunities for human engagement when politicians see only obstacles. Is it too much to hope that one day the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra might perform in Tehran to packed houses? Sadly, a lot will have to change before that happens.

(This first appeared in SA Jewish Report, September 4, 2015)

On clamouring for a South African passport

It is unlikely that the proposal of Obed Bapela, a senior ANC official on international relations, to forbid dual citizenship for South African Jews who want to also be citizens of Israel will succeed. The legal obstacles to changing the law in this direction are formidable, and it would also have to apply to South Africans who are citizens of other countries. The negative effect on them will be huge, as will the effects on the country’s image. He probably knows that, so why is he willing to do so much damage to the morale of South African Jews by making them feel singled out in this way?

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment, and contemplate a scenario where such a law actually gets passed and South Africans can only hold one citizenship. What would Americans who also hold SA citizenship do? Give up their American citizenship? Very unlikely. Or British, Lithuanians, Canadians, Australians and others? Would they choose to relinquish those passports and be South Africans only? The vast majority of them would – with great sadness for most – give up their South African citizenship rather than the others they hold.

Not because they don’t want to be South Africans. There still remains an idealism in this country, and a feeling that we have done extraordinary things in the past and can again in the future. But there are serious questions about the future. People will look at how South Africa seems to be unravelling under the inept and corrupt leadership of President Jacob Zuma and his ANC party, and wonder what lies ahead.

What does it mean to carry a passport? Twenty years ago at the dawn of South African democracy, the citizens of this country for the first time felt proud producing their SA passports at international airports when they travelled. We were the people from the miracle country of Mandela, this was our brand, as opposed to the days when apartheid was the brand associated with us.

These days, however, many people are again embarrassed, because we have become famous for our crime, corruption, xenophobia and racial divisions again, and for the ineptitude which characterizes our government. The debacles at Eskom, SAA, Prasa, and other major pillars of our economy, and the fact that poverty has got worse since apartheid ended, rather than better, should make us hang our heads in shame. Bapela and the ANC should be concentrating their energies on making South Africa a country which people admire and are clamouring to be citizens of, rather than playing cheap politics in this way. He should be aiming for a day when a South African passport will be valued like a jewel because of the successful country it represents.

In making a noise about South Africans who go to Israel, he is scoring points with sections of the electorate, wanting to look like a gutsy campaigner for human rights. But it is superficial political grandstanding. It paints Israel and SA Jews with a crude, broad brush as if they can be neatly summarized in one phrase: the building of more Jewish settlements on stolen Palestinian land, and the oppression of the Palestinians. It takes no account of the widely diverse views they hold on the nature of Israeli society, the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation of the West Bank, their personal roles, and so on.

None of the above is to say that Israel is blameless in this. It has today one of the most right wing, rejectionist governments in its history, and a Prime Minister who provides no vision for a peaceful future – only more and more conflict. But without a doubt, nor are the Palestinians that he champions blameless. They could have had their independent state living in peace alongside Israel many years ago – they were offered it repeatedly by more liberal Israeli governments but couldn’t bring themselves to make the choice to end the conflict.

All of these nuances seem to escape Bapela. Sadly, the only thing his ranting has achieved is to make South African Jews feel more vulnerable. But he needs to understand: South Africa is their country as much as it is his, and they will stand up for this right.

(First appeared in SA Jewish Report, September 11, 2015)

Military might is not enough for Israel

The mind boggles at the naivety of the BDS crowd who tried – unsuccessfully – to disrupt the Pharrell Williams concert organised by Woolworths at the Cape’s Grandwest Casino on Monday. BDS rattles on about Israeli ‘genocide’ of the Palestinians, while millions of Syrians next door have either been killed by fellow Muslims and Arabs, or are fleeing their homes and becoming refugees pleading for other countries to give them sanctuary. BDS refuses to relate to the catastrophic nature of the region in which Israel lives.

But we should not be too smug about their illusions regarding Middle East reality. We suffer from our own illusions, as no less a person than Israeli President Reuven Rivlin pointed out last week at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, during a ceremony marking 42 years since the Yom Kippur War.

Referring to the attitude of Israelis prior to the war, he pointedly warned against being seduced by a false sense of security based on Israel’s military might. Military might may hold its enemies at bay for a time, but without creative and bold steps to achieve genuine peace, the Israeli bubble of stability will eventually puncture.

On October 6, 1973, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a surprise attack on Israel as the Jewish state marked Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement observed with a full-day fast. Reserve soldiers were summoned urgently from their synagogues to join their units at the front lines. The IDF was ultimately victorious in repelling the Arab armies after initial major setbacks, but over 2,500 Israeli soldiers were killed and hundreds taken captive.

A public outcry ensued against the government and army for failing to predict the attack, for their complacency in believing Israel’s much-vaunted military strength was a sufficient deterrent and guarantee of its security. IDF chief of staff David Elazar resigned after a commission of inquiry recommended his dismissal; Prime Minister Golda Meir and her cabinet – including defense minister Moshe Dayan – also resigned.

That war, said Rivlin, was still an “open wound”. He urged the Israeli public to learn the lesson, and to be bold in questioning its leaders about what they are doing creatively to ensure Israel’s long-term security and stability.

It is essential for Israel to be militarily strong, or it would be wiped out in a moment by its enemies. But it has to be careful not to fall into the trap that occurred prior to the Yom Kippur war – the belief that military might is enough to bring security. More creative initiatives are desperately needed for genuine peace.

Developments in the region are frightening. Not just the flood of Syrian refugees – the numbers are staggering – but in the past couple of weeks also the growing buildup of Russian forces in Syria, sent there by Russian President Vladimir Putin to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. The United States, which believes Assad should step down and allow a different leadership to try to end the carnage in Syria, is deeply concerned about Russia’s true intentions in the region. The sheer complexity of exactly who is fighting who, and what is at stake, is enormous. Analysts agree that the Syrian state itself is unlikely to survive. What will come in the wake of its disintegration is unknown.

In the meantime, Israel sits right next door as a militarily strong island of stability. But it has its own internal explosion waiting to happen – the 3 million Palestinians who live under Israeli military occupation. Sadly, many Jews and Israelis today have virtually given up on the possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world. The mayhem in the region provides, for some, an excuse to give up trying to resolve that question. They have reconciled themselves to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and the increasing improbability that the two state solution will ever be implemented.

Said Rivlin: “On that Yom Kippur [in 1973], we were addicted to the illusion of stability that was imagined in the status quo of being the regional superpower… Israel in 2015 must not become addicted to that same false stability; it must dare and initiate. Even under conditions of uncertainty we must shape the diplomatic and strategic horizon with our own hands. Israeli society must be critical of its leadership, to bravely ask questions.”

Are we asking enough questions of Israel’s leaders? When the Palestinian question explodes – as it will one day – will we accuse them of complacency, of living under the illusion that our military might could forever hold them in check?

(First published in SA Jewish Report, September 25, 2015)