UN Resolution 2334 – wise counsel or anti-Israel vitriol?


Do settlements prevent peace? An Israeli bulldozer demolishes a house in illegal West Bank settlement Maale Rehavam near Bethlehem in 2014, after Israel’s High Court ruled the state must remove the structures, which were on privately-owned Palestinian land.  Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

THE kneejerk response of some Jews and supporters of Israel to last week’s UN Security Council resolution declaring Israel’s West Bank settlements a violation of international law was to scream “anti-Semitism!” and “the UN hates Israel.” Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu called the resolution “shameful” and lashed out against its supporters.

The uncomfortable truth is that Resolution 2334 is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. Most countries that voted for it are Israel’s friends. The Security Council’s permanent members, the United States (which refrained from vetoing it, effectively allowing it to pass), Britain, France, China and Russia, as well as non-permanent members spoke together with a crystal-clear message: For the community of nations, the settlements are illegal.

Predictably, the South African government, which has full diplomatic relations with Israel as well as a long history of comradeship with the Palestinians, called the resolution “long overdue”.

One of the bitterest fights within the Jewish world today, reflected also in South African Jewry, is about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Many passionately pro-Israel Jews are unable to defend the country when it is accused of apartheid because Palestinians live under an occupation which has lasted half a century, with a full panoply today of humiliating checkpoints, separate roads, different legal systems and so on. Jewish bodies such as the SA Jewish Board of Deputies valiantly proclaim support for a two-state solution – which corresponds with the government’s line – but are left helpless to defend Israel when illegal settlements proliferate in the West Bank and threaten to make that solution impossible.

A significant proportion of Jews worldwide are dismayed by the impunity with which a relatively small group of ultra-nationalistic, religious Jewish settlers who have a lock-hold on Israel’s government, call the tune and sabotage any possibility of peace by creating new, illegal settlements on land needed for a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s claim that the settlements are not the obstacle to peace reflects the complexity of the situation, but does not help Jews who try to defend Israel in the world at large.

Anyone who understands Israel’s context knows ending the settlements will not automatically end the conflict. The Middle East is in turmoil, close to half-a-million Syrians have been killed in that country’s 5-year civil war, and the Palestinians have squandered numerous previous opportunities to get their state, opting instead for terrorism. The rise of Hamas in Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal is a prime example. A change in Palestinian attitudes is demanded by Israel and its friends. But those same friends regard the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Settlement supporters take the opposite view, seeing them as today’s authentic Zionism, part of the battle against an anti-Semitic world which wouldn’t care if Israel was eliminated. They accuse anti-settler Jews, such as the peace-seeking Jewish organisation J Street, of being naïve fools who if allowed their way would end up helping Israel’s defeat by its enemies. US president-elect Donald Trump’s proposed US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an avid settler supporter, likened J Street to the “kapos” – Jews who under the Nazis helped implement European Jews’ extermination.

Settler supporters are mistaken, however, when they declare that Resolution 2334 will spur a new drive to expand Israel into the territories, such as Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who says “No decision will cause Israel to stop building on its own land.” Israel cannot forever thumb its nose at the massive global constituency which rejects the settlements.

Resolution 2334 does not say the final Israel-Palestine border should be the June 4, 1967 “green line” between Israel and Jordan which existed before the Six Day War, which is unacceptable for Israel’s security. In 1969, Israel’s legendary diplomat Abba Eban warned that withdrawal from all the territories his country occupied in June 1967 would be a return to “Auschwitz borders.”

But the UN sees that line as the starting point and won’t recognise changes unless agreed by the parties in negotiations. Such changes have already been agreed repeatedly in previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, where major settlement blocs will become part of Israel in exchange for Israeli land elsewhere going to Palestine. Jerusalem is the thorniest issue, with its holy sites, but even there workable formulas are possible.

The UN resolution has no short term practical implications. No settlements will be dismantled because of it. But in the long-term countries and organisations may refuse to deal with the settlements, citing the resolution.

Israel is an incredible success story, of which Jews are justifiably proud. Resolution 2334 is a wake-up call from its friends. A wise Israeli leader might see opportunity here to shift direction. But wise leaders are in short supply.

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

The potency of “place” for Jews


Will they break decades of Jerusalem policy? US president-elect Donald Trump and proposed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman (above), intend moving America’s embassy to the Holy City, with major symbolism and dangers

THERE is huge symbolism in US president-elect Donald Trump’s declaration that he will relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the epicentre of Judaism’s beliefs and holy also to Muslims and Christians. Jerusalem itself is one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Arab conflict which has blocked peace negotiations, particularly regarding control over the Western Wall and the Temple Mount precinct.

The move is supported by Trump’s choice for American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, an Orthodox Jew and outspoken supporter of the settlement movement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week moving the embassy would be “great.”

Previous US presidents have refrained from moving their embassy to Jerusalem for political reasons, while declaring it was a long-term goal. Israeli security officials fear relocation now would provoke belligerent reaction from the Arab world and East Jerusalem’s Arab neighbourhoods. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it would lead the PLO to revoke its recognition of Israel, demolish the possibility of a two-state solution, and indicate American acceptance of “Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.”

Symbolic acts such as relocating the embassy have few practical implications – it could operate effectively from either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – but are often more powerful than practical deeds. Depending on the context, they may provoke terrible bloodletting, or comforting, reassuring feelings. The rapid rise of militant nationalist politics in many countries worldwide today has a lot to do with symbolism – people will fight and die for their flag.

But there is another side to the symbolism of place. A contrasting but equally powerful deed relating to Jewish sites and experience is occurring in Hungary, where the Budapest Festival Orchestra has an inspiring plan to perform in the many towns and villages in Hungary now devoid of Jews but where a synagogue still stands, “bringing music and life to them and recalling the memory of the annihilated Jewish communities”. Hungarian Jews were almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust – about 500,000 from a population of 800,000. Two years ago, conductor Iván Fischer and the BPO, which he co-founded in 1983, formulated the programme.

These old synagogue buildings are mostly derelict, have been ransacked or are used for other purposes. In some cases they have remained locked since the German occupation.

On December 1 a fundraising concert was held in the magnificent Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, which was restored in the 1990s through support from prominent Jews living elsewhere in memory of their forebears. The solo pianist was illustrious pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, who played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 and Chopin’s G minor Ballade, among other pieces. The synagogue is one of the world’s largest, with a capacity of 2700 people, adorned with candelabra, gold leaf, wood, marble and rich ornament, in Byzantine and Romanesque styles. In 1859, the year it opened, Franz Liszt played the organ.

The BPO’s website says: “What’s our purpose? We would like to reduce prejudice and tell the story of how Christians and Jews used to coexist peacefully here… Music brings people closer to each other and purifies memories.”

The plan resonates with a similar story in a 1988 novel, The Magic We Do Here, by late author and Holocaust scholar Lawrence Rudner, in which a Jewish actor travels through Poland to places where Jews lived before the Holocaust and performs in town squares and streets, re-enacting their lives in front of todays’ non-Jewish Polish residents.

Nationalistic Jews would say moving America’s embassy now to Jerusalem symbolises the confident return of Jews – in the form of the state of Israel – to where they once lived. Others say it is a premature, provocative act making peace less likely, and should only happen in the framework of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Symbolic deeds can be reconciliatory or aggressive. The consequences of the American embassy move, and the BPO’s performances in old Hungarian synagogues, are likely to be vastly different.

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

Tighten seatbelts for fightback against sleaze



Where is South Africa headed, 22 years after democracy? Old stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle such as Albie Sachs differ in their views. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

WHO better to ask about the direction South Africa is taking and whether it can reverse the corruption tsunami engulfing it than jurist and Struggle stalwart, Justice Albie Sachs? Aside from spending most of his adult life fighting apartheid from within the country and later from exile, he was one of the framers of the country’s Constitution promulgated in 1996 by Nelson Mandela, and a judge on the constitutional court charged with ensuring it is upheld by all.

This is what motivated callers to Radio 702 on Friday, asking him for his prognosis on the country’s situation and future. Sachs was a guest anchor on the popular Redi Tlhabi show, taking calls from the public on an open line.


Albie Sachs –  fightback on corruption

The first few callers were like old friends and relatives, and talked about the days of yore rather than politics, relating fond memories of Sachs’ highly politicised Jewish family when he was a child, particularly his Lithuanian-born father Solly Sachs. The latter was a member of the Communist Party and leader of the Garment Workers Union in the 1930s, among his other political activities. Albie allowed the nostalgic memories to run a while, then turned the topic towards more serious contemporary matters. Most callers were desperately worried about the state of the country.

With the year 2016 drawing to a close after its torrent of corruption scandals and ugly political brawls, many citizens are heading into Christmas holidays with a sense of foreboding that South Africa has lost its way. So much sleaze at the highest levels has been exposed this year that it will be seen by future historians as a watershed moment in the struggle of the country to become a successful democracy, against the ethos of patronage and corruption of President Jacob Zuma’s cabal which would turn it into a failed state.

The parliamentary inquiry currently underway into the publically-owned SA Broadcasting Corporation has exposed just how deep the rot goes in this state entity, with tyrannical figures like boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng running the show on a huge salary, while violating basic principles of a proper media organisation such as editorial independence. His dictats have pressurised journalists to favour the governing ANC in their coverage, suggesting who his backers are behind the scenes.

The debacle at the SABC is symptomatic of the fiasco in other state entities such as South African Airways and power utility Eskom, which have had to be bailed out repeatedly by the government because of mismanagement and the influence of ANC-appointed people at the top who are unqualified for their jobs. South Africans are justifiably feeling exhausted and furious.

Listeners to Sachs’ radio programme expected him to share their rage and pessimism, and disappointment at what has happened to the country he fought for and sacrificed so much for. But he struck a different note, hinting at something positive many people are unable to see amidst all the smoke and political noise.

With the characteristic reserve and careful use of words of a jurist, Sachs would not be drawn into bluntly condemning Zuma and his government, but countered that things were not as pessimistic as the callers were saying. Indeed, he suggested, there were clear signs of a broad-based fightback beginning by the citizens against the country’s decline, demonstrating a healthiness in the political culture. This process was essentially the young South African democracy flexing its muscles and showing its mettle.

It is true that good people who for too long have kept silent about the state of things are now speaking up, for example the 101 ANC Struggle stalwarts demanding urgent action within the organisation to rescue it from its ideological and factional malaise. Many are calling for Zuma to resign. Other bodies such as Save South Africa, the Helen Suzman Foundation and Freedom under Law are campaigning against corruption, cronyism and patronage, sometimes with notable success.

They are turning particularly to the courts, which continue to be fiercely independent and resistant to political pressure. Indeed, the judiciary is one of the key remaining bastions of SA democracy. The most dramatic example of this was earlier this year when Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng ruled that Zuma himself had violated the Constitution by ignoring the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela that he had benefitted unduly through state funds being used to upgrade his personal homestead, Nkandla. Zuma was ultimately forced to pay back more than R7m.

South Africa has never been an easy country to live in, and it is not clear which side will win in this battle for its soul. Probably for the next decade it will muddle through, with the forces of light sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Tighten your seatbelts for the ride.

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

But some of my best friends are black!


Are we friends? Mandela envisioned a South African ‘rainbow nation’ with deep interracial friendships, but young blacks today regard their dignity as more important than having a white friend

ONE of the ugliest racial incidents of 2016 occurred last month when two white Afrikaans farmers near Middelburg sadistically forced a young black man into a coffin, pushed the lid down and threatened him with setting the coffin alight, because he took a shortcut over their farm. They videoed their act and put it on YouTube, with the victim’s terrified cries clearly heard on the soundtrack.

Most South Africans were disgusted and wished the worst on the white men when they appeared in court. Indeed, the experience of most people in urban areas today – South Africa is a highly urbanised society – is the opposite: a remarkable degree of kindliness and warm-heartedness between blacks and whites.

Frans Cronje, CEO of the SA Institute of Race Relations says within most South Africans there exists a “vast well of common decency and mutual respect across the colour line”, despite the country’s brutal racial history and politicians attempting to turn people against each other. He quotes a 2016 poll asking people whether “the different races need each other for progress and there should be full opportunity for people of all races”. Nearly 84 per cent of people in mainly black urban areas said yes. In informal areas and shack settlements almost 90 per cent agreed. Among white people just over 80 per cent agreed.

But what about personal friendships between black and white? Last Monday marked three years since Nelson Mandela died, and anyone who witnessed the scores of black and white people hugging, crying and dancing together in the road outside his house in Houghton, Johannesburg that day would have thought he had made it possible for skin colour not to matter anymore. In the beautiful nation he envisaged, blacks and whites would not just tolerate each other, but become friends in the deeper sense.

Sadly, it has not happened on a mass scale, despite many people’s best intentions. The power relationship between blacks and whites is too skewed, not a good foundation for genuine friendship. In the main, whites are still too wealthy and powerful compared to their black compatriots.

How many people in the minority white communities – whether Greek, Jewish, Afrikaans, or others – have personal black friends? Not just colleagues at work, or familiar waiters in restaurants with whom they exchange greetings, but actual friends with whom they socialise, share intimacies and spend lots of time. Very few. Superficial, contrived friendships are not enough to show that racism has gone.

Indeed, those sorts of light friendships referred to above ring alarm-bells for Jews who have often heard Jew-haters loudly proclaiming how many Jews they know, as if this proves their non-racial credentials: “You can’t say I’m anti-Semitic, because some of my best friends are Jews!”

Sisonke Msimang, a Ruth First Fellow in Journalism at Wits University posed a tough question in the book Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa. She asked whether, as Mandela’s rainbow nation myth recedes, reconciliation in South Africa still requires interracial friendships as a barometer of the nation’s health. From a black perspective, she says, black dignity may be more important than having white friends.

“The power imbalances [between blacks and whites] are too great, the possibilities for manipulation and domination… are simply too high…” Many young black people today, she says, are saying that friendship with whites is not a goal for them – we must instead be guided by the need for black people to live dignified, equal lives commensurate with whites.

They are only half right. Friendship cannot wait for the politics and economics to sort itself out. It is as urgent as equality. The foul coffin farmers and their ilk mentioned above cannot be allowed to derail it.

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