Donald Trump: the Ku Klux Klan comes back – it never died

ARAB JEWISH GRILS PLAY SOCCER WITH TEXT

Let us not score goals together: Palestinian and Israeli girls play soccer together in Holon, Israel, in 2013 as part of a programme to encourage them to get to know each other and make friends. The hope is that this will help in the process of making peace. But the US is withdrawing funds for such programmes

 

ONE puzzling aspect of this era is how to understand US President Donald Trump. His administration has announced it will cut the last remaining channel of American aid to Palestinian civilians, the conflict Management and Mitigation Program which allows Palestinians — many of them youth — to interact with Israelis, through US funding managed by USAID. The funds went to people-to-people exchanges, such as organising soccer games for Palestinian and Israeli girls, and bringing Israeli and Palestinian almond farmers together.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser on the Middle East, believes increasing punitive pressure on Palestinian civilians will create maximum negotiating leverage when it comes to implementing a supposed US peace proposal. Other US political leaders say the decision to cut such funding indicates that Trump has failed at diplomacy, that you don’t advance peace by cutting off programs for tolerance and understanding.

If he is serious about his boast that he will be the man to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, after a century of conflict, why would he want to cut off interaction? Is it a boast he himself doesn’t believe.

Donald trump

US President Donald Trump

On the other side, Israelis are generally pleased with Trump. He has relocated America’s embassy to Jerusalem, slashed payments to UNRWA which they feel perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, withdrawn America from Unesco which has long been hostile to Israel, and has a positive relationship with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

To millions worldwide, however, Trump still appears the fool he has been painted to be – impulsive, over-sensitive to criticism, and racist. He has hugely impacted global politics, using American power to confront long-established status quos. He has changed the tone of political discourse, introducing racist elements with comments like the one in January when he called African countries “shithole countries.” Will his flouting of established political protocol and withdrawal of America into an aggressive and nationalistic “America First” mind-set, ultimately lead the world to war?

Coincidentally, at precisely the same time as he is withdrawing funding to help Palestinian and Israeli children understand each other, his suggested racism is portrayed in a brilliant movie directed by celebrated filmmaker Spike Lee called Black Klansman, just released in Johannesburg.  It is a true account by a black undercover American policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, together with a Jewish co-officer. The deadly racism of white supremacists, as a thread in American society, is starkly illustrated. The thread still continues.

It led to a bloody clash in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and counter-protestors, many of them black. It was widely reported in world media. Torch-bearing white nationalists carrying guns, wearing Ku Klux Klan headgear, and waving Confederate flags and neo-Nazi emblems, marched through the town. A man rammed a car into counter-protesters, killing a woman. Trump did not denounce the white supremacists. He said there were “very fine people on both sides”. He did not call for reconciliation between them and black Americans, or impose punitive measures on them. Black people say Americans who were quietly racist before, now feel emboldened to say it openly under Trump.

What has this got to do with Israel, Jews and Palestinians? This is not a man searching doggedly for reconciliation between different people. Achieving an accord between Israelis and Palestinians has always required both a carrot and a stick to make the sides cooperate. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, favoured the carrot – he would never have cut Israeli-Palestinian interaction. Trump uses the stick, as if cutting contact will bring reconciliation. The real victims are the children, including Israelis and Palestinians, who won’t have the opportunity to know each other.

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

 

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After all this time, the Europe in our blood still runs

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We will return, even if it is 77 years later: Young people from the MEGA project of Minsk Hillel work to restore an old gravestone in the Jewish village of Zjembin in Belarus, whose inhabitants were killed by the Nazis in 1941

IN SPITE OF ALL the filth in world politics today, at this time of the year, it is not only appropriate but necessary to see some of the positive things happening in the ancient home of major Jewish populations – Europe.

As one example, contemporary Berlin is one of Germany’s most liberal cities and the destination of choice for many Israelis for interest and enjoyment. For them, there’s little in the atmosphere to indicate that it was the centre of German life during Hitler’s reign. Sometimes a trip there also includes visiting sites of the Third Reich, but many go mostly for pleasure. Of course this doesn’t downplay the crassness of the ‘selfie-takers’ at Holocaust sites.

In the city of Lviv in the Ukraine, once a major centre of Eastern European Jewish life, a ceremony last Sunday, attended by the non-Jewish mayor and other dignitaries, marked the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s annihilation of the Jewish population. It honoured people working to preserve what they can of what was left from the Nazi assault. A poignant illustration was an old metal synagogue key, which an American artist found at the market and recreated in glass; copies were presented by city authorities to 75 people. The ceremonies included a concert amid the synagogue ruins. The project comes amid larger attempts to revive memories of the Jews who were once integral to the region’s life.

The list of positive things continues: Last month a group of 30 American and Eastern European youngsters, descendants of Jews who once lived in the tiny shtetl of Zjembin in Belarus, repaired the Jewish cemetery, restoring tombstones and constructing a border fence. In 1941, the Nazis took Zjembin’s Jews into the nearby forest and shot them. The cemetery contains the ashes of Jews who had lived there between the 1700s and the 1900s. For many years it was neglected, and the graves disappeared under grass and debris. The youngsters were part of the Minsk Hillel’s project “MEGA” which has been working to clean up Belarus’ abandoned Jewish cemeteries, and to restore, describe and systematise graves, such as in the towns of Rogachev, Dyatlovo and Shatsk.

A more personal example of changes in attitudes of non-Jews comes from a Polish non-Jewish woman who signed up for the summer Yiddish programme at Columbia University in New York recently, and was one of the most dedicated students. She illustrates the beliefs of many Polish communities that Poland lost something of its soul when its Jews were lost to the Nazis. Jews once made up 10 per cent of Poland’s population. As part of this change in attitude towards “Jewish” culture, a klezmer music festival was revived some years ago by non-Jewish Poles.

But one must not be naïve about it. In our confusing era, positive trends live side by side with dangerous revivals in Europe of authoritarianism bordering on fascism. In some places old-style anti-Semitism is emerging again, such as in France, where Jews fear wearing kippot in public places today.

It is hard for Jews to make sense of all this, to trust the positives while recognising the negatives. One extraordinary change since the Holocaust is the tremendous development of Israel, to the point where it is the second largest Jewish community in the world after America, with a Jewish and non-Jewish population of some 8 million. It is often the source of acrimonious debate among Jews and others about Palestinian and other issues and is constantly under threat from its neighbours. But if Israel had been in 1941 anything like today, things would have been different for Europe’s Jews.

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

 

 

Lessons from Fukuyama: History is never boring

Zondo commission

Who really runs government? A virtual shadow state was created during the past ten years in South Africa by corrupt people, who manipulated the appointment of ministers and the use of state funds, often with the knowledge of former president Jacob Zuma. The chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, gave a media update on May 24 2018 (Photo: Sowetan/Thulani Mbele)

ONE HISTORICAL marker in the South African mind is the iconic King Kong musical, a rebellion against apartheid which took the nation by storm in 1959 when the racist regime was tightening its grip. It caused a sensation as a collaboration among blacks and whites – a challenge to apartheid’s attempt to separate people. It played to 200 000 South Africans before transferring to London’s West End.

Much history has passed since then: the awful decades of apartheid, the liberation struggle, Mandela’s release after 27 years, and eventually, amidst the naïve euphoria of the 1990s, the belief in a new, better South Africa.

Fast forward to today: The nation is in the clutches of another regime: sleaze, which threatens our democracy. The Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, in which government officials Mcebisi Jonas and Vytjie Mentor tell of the Gupta brothers’ attempts to bribe them, are the tip of the iceberg. Disappointment in how things have turned out since Mandela is palpable.

A lesson from the northern hemisphere is apt. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama, an acclaimed American political philosopher, prophesied the “end of history.” He postulated that after the fall of communism, free-market liberal democracy had won and would become the world’s “final form of human government.” Globalisation was the vehicle for liberalism to spread across the globe. Power politics and tribal divisions would be supplanted by the rule of law and institutions. His views were welcomed; his argument framed the international zeitgeist. But it was not long before things started going wrong.

Now that liberal democracy seems to be in crisis across the West, Fukuyama has modified his views: “Twenty five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward… they clearly can… Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history… will serve to get history started once again.”

So too, in South Africa. When Mandela was released, amidst euphoria – which seems simplistic now – South Africans drew up their sacred document, the constitution. It embodied the most idealistic principles; the travails of the past would, with cooperation from all, be put into the past. The liberation movements had won, apartheid was over, and the way forward was optimistic. The abiding image was of Mandela walking triumphantly out of prison, smiling, hand in hand with Winnie. Of course, much healing was needed, but he infused an energy everyone could draw from. South African history was “over.”

But watching the Zondo commission and testimonies from Jonas and Mentor, amid the wave of other scandals, it’s clear South African history is not over – like Fukuyama’s European and American democracies, democracy here can also go backwards.

But things are not as bad as they sometimes feel. Seeing the legal dignity of the Zondo commission, the roles of sophisticated black and white advocates, and coverage by a free media, must give optimism: South African history has not gone completely backwards. Here too, history has started again – and it won’t be boring.

And under the radar, at the level of the common folk, resides a different country with some of King Kong‘s spirit. Last weekend, the only surviving member of the cast, Bra B Ngwenya, was a guest at Benoni’s community arts centre, Sibikwa. Thirty years ago, Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba founded Sibikwa in times just as sleazy as they are now. Bra B accompanied joyous black children on the keyboard. Their optimism was infectious. For those kids, history is forward, not backwards.

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