Criticism of Israel: Whose right is it, anyway?

IsraelRallyHuddlePark 3Aug2014 (46) (3)

 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: )



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

OR Tambo statue at airport

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: )


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: )


Censorship: A double-edged sword


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: )