Politics: a feeble bridge over troubled waters?


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?


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


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 )