WHEN Israeli writer David Grossman told bereaved Israelis and Palestinians on Memorial Day this month that “fortress Israel” is not yet a home for Jews because it is not “stable and relaxed” – among other things – it raised questions for South Africans about their own country. Are South Africans relaxed and feeling at home after the political earthquakes that have numbed and traumatised their society during apartheid and after it?
For South African Jews in particular, such questions become louder on occasions such as the recent Holocaust Memorial Day at Johannesburg’s West Park cemetery, when the singing of various anthems takes place after the speeches by Holocaust survivors and other dignitaries.
The South African anthem evoked nervous glances from white people in the crowd, looking to see if the black people present were offended that they didn’t know the anthem’s words – as if this would question their patriotism. The lyrics employ the five of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages – isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The five different languages were incorporated into the anthem as an attempt at South African reconciliation after apartheid. But the only part most white adults know is the English and Afrikaans, not the African languages, where they generally just hum along to the main refrain, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”
The African part was originally composed as a hymn in 1897 by Methodist school teacher Enoch Sontonga and became a symbol of defiance against apartheid. It means “G-d bless Africa.” Sadly, most white South Africans, particularly in the cities, cannot speak any African language at all or understand what black people are saying to each other.
The Jewish world has its own very special anthem which is in some ways a Jewish counterpart to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, based on Jewish experience. It is called the “Partizaner lid” – the Partisan Song – a defiant Yiddish song considered an anthem of Holocaust survivors which is sung in memorial services worldwide. It is about Jewish resistance and survival: After numerous attempts to destroy them by the Nazis and others, the Jews “are still here.” The lyrics were written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, a Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto who was inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Should Israel’s national anthem Hatikva be sung at such events? Some say it is essential, to celebrate the fact that the horror of the Holocaust was followed by the joy of Israel’s creation. A few people have reservations, however, saying that including it inappropriately politicises the event, since the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish trauma, not an Israeli one. Hitler targeted Jews of all stripes – Zionist and anti-Zionist, religious and non-religious.
Another white ethnic group experiencing similar questions about belonging as the Jews are the Afrikaners, who during apartheid passionately sang their own anthem, “Die Stem van Suid Afrika” – “the Call of South Africa.” Many Afrikaans farmers may soon be singing another national anthem – Australia’s – following a statement by its home affairs minister Peter Dutton that he would fast-track visas for white South African farmers because of the “horrific circumstances they face.” The SA government protested against his comment.
What’s in an anthem? Is it still a unifying symbol for which people will live or die? David Grossman’s son Uri died as a soldier in the 2006 Lebanon War, fighting for his country and, by implication, for the words of its anthem. But in Israel too, the anthem has controversy attached to it. Not all Israelis will sing it.
The passion and patriotism of anthems inspire people to do great things, but equally, evil. It’s worth remembering that the Nazis also had their anthems.
(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )