Lavender power: Israel’s tinder box?


Gay pride, no longer any need to hide; it is a bedrock of the South African constitution: Simon Nkoli holding a sign representing the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) region (now Gauteng) at a pride march in 1998

FURIOUS PROTESTS currently going in Israel demanding LGBT rights and the surrogacy option, bring the spotlight home to what it was to be gay in apartheid South Africa – for many years illegal, punishable by fines and jail terms. Same-sex marriage, of course, was totally unimaginable. With worldwide shifts in social mores, how do things stand?

Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006. The SA Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country to legalise same-sex marriage. Couples can adopt children and arrange IVF and surrogacy. Other countries allowing same-sex marriage include Belgium, Canada, Argentina, England and Wales, and the United States.

But legal legitimacy doesn’t automatically translate into gay acceptance, particularly in black rural areas and townships. Even before the question of same-sex marriage, let alone surrogacy or children, in any form, comes up, black lesbians face the horror of so-called “corrective” rape. Rapists believe they can “fix” women not conforming to conservative gender norms. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, including against lesbians, because they are lesbians.

The plight of LGBT people is continually highlighted in theatre, photography and dance, by artists such as activist photographer Zanele Muholi, choreographer Mamela Nyamza and playwright/artistic director Phyllis Klotz, in very important works which give victims voice and achieve wide audiences. The media gives significant coverage.

But it is not just in South Africa, and not just a contemporary issue. In the United States during the Cold War in the 1950s, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy led the Federal government to target gay men and lesbians, accusing them of endangering public morals and linking them to Communists. In a movement known as the Lavender Threat, hundreds of people were persecuted, bullied and lost their jobs because they were suspected of being homosexual.

What about LGBT people in religious communities, such as the Jewish communities in America and South Africa? The American community and the Israeli one are the two largest Jewish communities in the world. The South African one is very much smaller and still shrinking.

When the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage was to be legally binding in all 50 states, American Jews celebrated. Surveys showed that some 77 per cent favoured its legitimacy. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish streams – which together constitute most religiously identified US Jews – supported it.

Among South African Jewry, which has traditionally been a conservative community, including towards gay people, greater acceptance of gays is apparent in recent years, following the trend in post-apartheid South Africa in urban areas. Prominent community rabbis have said openly that gays are welcome in their synagogues, without explicitly condoning homosexuality. Rabbis still refrain from conducting same-sex marriages, however, either because of personal reservations, or because the policy of their Jewish stream does not allow it.

The SA Jewish community has shrunk by half since its 1970s heyday to only some 60 000 people, and lacks diversity compared to the 5-million-strong American community, where Jews wanting to remain in the Jewish fold have numerous options, such as egalitarian minyans, similar to the Orthodox shtiebls which have sprung up in South Africa, but with a liberal slant.

Back in Tel Aviv, touted as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, legalisation of same-sex marriage and surrogacy seems, ironically, a long way off, despite the protests and the festive gay pride parade of 250,000 people earlier this year, for which the city closed major roads.

Haaretz reported this week on a Hadashot TV poll published on Tuesday, which found that a majority of Israelis across the political spectrum support the LGBT community’s fight for surrogacy rights. It showed that 56 percent of the public support the LGBT protests, while 33 percent oppose them.

Even right-wing parties backed the protests: 51 percent of Likud voters, and 58 percent  for Jewish Home, a largely religious party. Centrist and left-wing parties showed substantially higher support, with Zionist Union voters at 87 percent, Yesh Atid at 89 percent and Meretz at 82 percent

As expected, a majority among ultra-Orthodox parties opposed the LGBT campaign: United Torah Judaism and Shas registered 90 percent and 78 percent opposition respectively. The ultra-Orthodox opinion is crucial, since civil marriage is absent in Israel and all Jewish marriages must go through the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate, which follows the halachic injunction against homosexuality.

The Haredi parties’ political and religious power, however, rests on key positions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. Will the gender rights protest be the tinder box that ignites a new direction in Israel’s politics?

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

You call it cultural identity; he calls it racism – who is right?


Jewish first or citizen first? Israeli parliament members and other people take part in a protest march in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018, against the new Nation-State Law, which has caused major divisions in Israel. The banner reads “this is the home of all of us”

FROM HERE at the bottom of Africa, with South Africa’s tragic racist history still dominating its people’s lives, Israel’s nation-state bill working its way through the Knesset causes a chill to run through the spine of lovers of Israel. We have seen in South Africa how a people’s legitimate drive to preserve their cultural identity – in the South African case, Afrikaans – can become an obsession with separateness from others, and ultimately separation between communities based on law.

Many items in the bill are quite reasonable for any nation proud of its identity. But vehement opposition to its initially proposed text honed in on a seriously objectionable clause, in paragraph 7(b), “to allow a community, including one composed of a single religion or nationality, to establish its own separate communal settlement.” This could permit, based on law, rejection of Israeli Arab citizens, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, from multiple Jewish settlements countrywide, and cause other groups with different identities to experience similar discrimination based on their religion, nationality or other criteria.

This is not South African apartheid, where power relationships and cultural issues were different. But enemies of Israel, and many friends, will see the trend as going in that direction –legalization of racism and ethnic chauvinism.

Fortunately, there are enough sane voices in Israel in the judiciary, politics, and even the Likud and the president himself, who see the terrible potential consequences of the trend towards this inward-looking mindset. This is not the Israel for which thousands of Jews fought, to have it turned into a place where separation of communities can be legislated based on religion, nationality, and similar defining characteristics.

All of this is not to say that communities should not be allowed to nurture their own identities, which already happens in a positive way in numerous places and helps build a strong society. Democracy has to be flexible enough to allow and encourage this. But to enshrine separateness in this kind of law opens potential deep chasms of division and is anti-democratic.

The fight-back from democratic forces resulted in revision of the wording of the most problematic section of the bill to read: “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.” Meaning that establishing Jewish settlement is not to be based on discrimination as a basic value, but authentic realization of Zionism.

Zionism has often been called the “liberation movement” of the Jewish people. Like all liberation movements it is idealistic, and interpreted in complex ways. But what happened to the Universalist vision of Zionism and the state of Israel? Critics of the overall thrust of the proposed bill protest that it relates only to Israel’s Jewish nature, contrary to principles of Israel’s declaration of independence. Israeli democracy is unmentioned, nor the spirit of equality that has attracted Jews worldwide to identify with it as a source of enlightenment to themselves and the world.

Jews have prided themselves on how Israel has sustained the diversity of its society and democratic vibrancy despite never-ending attacks on it; other countries have reacted to such threats by becoming militant dictatorships. It seems an abrogation of that vision to defend a bill such as this, which does not acknowledge the one-fifth of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. Yet this is happening at the hands of an Israeli government.

South African Jewry is especially qualified, having lived for decades in a society where communities were separated based on law, to sound warning bells about the direction in which Israel is heading. Will anyone here do it?

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 



Are we friends, if I look the other way?


Is he Israel’s friend? Growing ethnic nationalism in the West carries dangers of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hatred of the “other”.  Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, warns against  accepting refugees, who he calls a “Trojan Horse”

REMEMBER the Hebrew writing on South African weapons during apartheid’s war against its enemies in the 1970s? Israel needed whatever friends it could get at the time, and so did South Africa. Working together, they became a leading weapons developer and force in the international arms trade, although Israel made pronouncements elsewhere about being against apartheid. That was realpolitik.

Many other countries in the West and elsewhere, including France and Britain, also cooperated extensively with South Africa.

Realpolitik has again guided Israel recently, on an issue with roots back to the Holocaust and the groundbreaking 1985 film Shoah, a 9-hour documentary about the Holocaust made by Claude Lanzmann, who died last week. The film contains interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators conducted during visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland, including extermination camps. Its approach was radical in that it included no archival footage, but relied on first-person engagement. Simone de Beauvoir hailed it as a “sheer masterpiece.”

However, the film was badly received in Poland, which said it accused that country of complicity in Nazi genocide. This view still simmers among Poles, and six months ago the government passed a law intended to stifle discussions of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Anyone suggesting that it participated in the Jewish genocide could be charged with libel and imprisoned. Outrage emanated from Holocaust survivors, intellectuals and governments worldwide, who demanded the law be revoked.

For Israel, the situation was difficult because Poland is a strong ally. The two governments entered into discussions, and on June 27 announced an agreement to amend the law, removing the aspect that criminalizes anyone who says Poland had a role in Holocaust guilt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had protected the “historic truth of the Holocaust.” It was realpolitik in action.

Where should the diplomatic line be drawn? Netanyahu was slammed in Jewish circles, who said he had given Israel’s stamp of approval to a cover-up about Poland’s Holocaust role. The respected Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, castigated Netanyahu, saying the belittling of the Polish role in the destruction of Polish Jewry “borders on betrayal.”

Diplomats defend realpolitik because, in this dangerous world, every country must balance moral values against pragmatic interests, which constantly change. Lord Palmerston of Great Britain is credited with putting it thus: “In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Most world leaders have faced this dilemma. Israeli leaders say since Israel’s security is constantly endangered, its fundamental interest must be its security – whatever the demands of realpolitik.

It is seven decades since the Holocaust. For many, it is a vague memory, not reality, which allows Israel more diplomatic flexibility. Nevertheless, it boggles the mind that the Jewish State’s Prime Minister stands accused by scholars of aiding Holocaust revisionism, which is only expected to come from rabid Jew-haters.

Israel is criticized for other recent examples of realpolitik, of turning a blind eye to immoral regimes and anti-Semitism, for other interests. On June 4, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer praised Hungary, saying it was Israel’s friend and had a “zero tolerance policy” towards anti-Semitism. But Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who is due to visit Israel in mid-July, is regarded as one of the new crop of populist European neo-fascists.

EU monitors of his campaign in Hungary’s recent elections reported “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric” against migrants and others. His politicians use time-worn anti-Semitic tropes and blame Jewish billionaire-philanthropist George Soros, with his “open society” philosophy, for Hungary’s problems.

Orban has praised Hungary’s World War II dictator Miklos Horthy, who the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says was “complicit” in the extermination of Hungary’s Jews. Some analysts say Herut founder Menachem Begin would be ashamed of Netanyahu’s whitewash of Hungary’s anti-Semitism and Poland’s Holocaust revisionism

Realpolitik has long tentacles. Netanyahu’s warmth towards United States President Donald Trump, with his “America First” mindset and attack on liberal internationalism, is hazardous. It seems convenient in the short term, but in the long run, Israel will probably pay for this.

In the 1970s, Israel justified embracing racist South Africa during apartheid, including military cooperation, as realpolitik. How does history judge it? Some SA Jews say this was correct at the time. Others are uncomfortable with it. Today’s dilemmas again pose the question where the red lines are.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Words we are not allowed to use: Who decides?


Crude words carry a price: Using the k-word in South Africa today to refer to black people can lead to legal action. In the picture, Vicki Momberg at her trial for abusing black policemen who tried to help her

WHAT SHOULD we do about the k-word? Flight crew evicted a woman from a flight about to take off from Johannesburg to Durban two weeks ago, after she used the word in an sms to refer to the black captain and passengers, and another passenger noticed it and complained to the crew. The woman, Alochna Moodley from Midrand, admitted it was wrong, but protested that the other passenger, Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza, invaded her privacy by reading her sms. She reportedly lost her job at her company as a result. Mabuza later said that although he forgave her after she made a public apology, he still planned to open a charge of crimen injuria (wilful injury) against her.

This follows another case when Vicki Momberg a white, former real estate agent was sentenced to an effective two years in prison for a racist tirade in 2016. She was found guilty of crimen injuria, after she had lashed out at a black police officer who helped her after a smash-and-grab incident in Johannesburg. In a video clip that went viral, she complained about the “calibre of blacks” in Johannesburg. She used the k-word 48 times. In sentencing her, the magistrate said the policemen who assisted her were in their uniform ready to serve, and Momberg’s slurs stripped them of their dignity. There was widespread public support for her sentencing.

The controversial word goes way back in South African history, and was once common among sections of the white population to refer to black people. To South African ears, it is profoundly insulting, implying that the person referred to is inferior, uncultured and subject to the power of the word’s user. Colonialism and apartheid’s cruel spirit embodied in a word.

It appears in important literature, for example through the mouth of a clearly racist Oom Schalk Lourens, a complicated character in a racial country created by one of the country’s admired writers, Herman Charles Bosman. Lourens says: “I could never understand why (G-d) made the ‘k’… and the rinderpest”

The k-word has a close cousin in the United States in the insulting n-word, which has long evoked emotional reactions. In February, two books regarded as literary classics – the Pulitzer-prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, depicting racial injustice in Alabama, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain dealing with slavery in pre-Civil War America, which contains offensive language by racist characters – were removed from school syllabuses in Minnesota over fears their use of racial slurs would upset black students. Both books have been lauded over the years as anti-racist, although set in racially loaded contexts.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported the decision, saying the books use hurtful language “that has oppressed people over 200 years.” But free speech organisations criticised it, with the National Coalition Against Censorship saying rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for dialogue to teach students to confront racism. It’s like banning Charles Dickens for portraying Fagin, the Jew.

The k-word and n-word have been red flags to a bull in South Africa and the United States. Now, in some quarters, including South Africa, a new word has been added: the z-word (Zionist), which has taken on almost as insulting a meaning when mouthed by virulently anti-Israel or anti-Semitic groups. How long will this list of no-nos become?

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ decision last week to lay criminal charges for hate speech against three men who posted violent Whatsapp messages against Zionists and Jews, saying the Holocaust will be a picnic compared to what they are going to do to them, will test free speech boundaries. Should those men be punished for hate speech, or are their utterances legitimate political discourse?

This country is early in the process of defining its red lines on speech. EFF leader Julius Malema, a firebrand political figure, uses militant racial statements against whites and Indians, such as accusations that “the majority of Indians are racists,” and barbs against other groups such as coloureds – should it be allowed? In many western countries, such utterances by a politician would end his political career. Crude words, when repeated often enough, tend to provoke violent actions by reckless people. Malema is a potential Mussolini-in-the-making, and dangerous.

The topic tends to become irrational. But confronting it is a necessary process in clarifying post-apartheid South Africa. Remember the reputed banning of the children’s novel Black Beauty during apartheid because censors didn’t want the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ on the same page? Some scholars refute this, but whatever the case, the last thing we need now is to go back to that crazy mindset.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: