Where have all the Jewish art firebrands gone?

Steven-Cohen (2)

Is there such a thing as Jewish Art? South Africa has a tradition of Jews taking leading roles in innovative arts as patrons and audiences. With the changing nature of South African society and the community, will this tradition wither? Performance artist Steven Cohen, who has received international acclaim, is shown in the photograph

WHEN Israeli-born concert pianist Aviram Reichert performed in South Africa in the early 2000s on a five-week programme, auditoriums were packed everywhere. Having performed as a soloist with major philharmonic orchestras worldwide, Reichert commented that it was “very seldom that you encounter such audiences” in their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Close to two decades later, internationally acclaimed Israeli-born pianist Amit Yahav joined the Odeion String Quartet last week to perform Chopin and Dvorak at the Linder auditorium in Johannesburg. The music was superb, but the hall was half empty; mostly old people came to hear him, a few of them Jewish.

Jews are almost absent in the arts today, particularly young ones. Younger Jews have either emigrated, are doing business degrees and are uninterested in the arts, or have become deeply religious.

In the past, the most innovative artistic individuals, institutions and the bums on seats, were Jews: the likes of Steven Cohen, William Kentridge, Moving Into Dance founded by Sylvia Glasser, The Market Theatre by Barney Simon, the National Children’s Theatre by Joyce Levinsohn, Daphne Kuhn’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square, Norman Nossel’s generous support of classical music, the Johannesburg Musical Society by Avril Rubinstein, to name but a few.

It’s natural that each generation becomes bored with the previous one’s ethos, in arts and elsewhere. Teaching staff at South African universities report that when struggle musician Johnny Clegg and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys are mentioned, many students have either never heard of them, or refer to them as ‘old white men’.

Added to this is the pressure of the social media generation, and its impatience with such precious memories. This generation doesn’t read books, walks around with its collective headphones on and cellphones at hand, not talking to anyone, engaging instead with virtual friends on digital platforms. The digital age seems unstoppable, with everything being gobbled up and digitised.

Yet there are signs here and there of a counter-revolution, small green shoots appearing with an ‘analogue’ ethos, where it matters that you can touch something with your hands, read a physical book and have it on your bookshelf, see people face to face, not just on a screen, and so on. One small example is the revival of vinyl records, because people find digital CDs too cold in their ‘perfectness’. Manufacturers of vinyl records are running at full capacity.

Back with the arts: while Jews are withdrawing, it is ironic to see the young Afrikaans community, always highly cultured and now largely freed from apartheid’s stigma, producing excellent artworks engaging openly with post-apartheid South Africa.

As an example, a courageous Afrikaans-language film currently on circuit called Kanarie, directed by Christiaan Olwagen, looks piercingly into tough issues in Afrikaans culture. It focuses on a sensitive 18-year old Afrikaans boy (played by Schalk Bezuidenhout) from a conservative, rural village. He is drafted into the South African army during the 1985 state of emergency when unrest was at its peak. Being musical and talented, he enters the army choir. There are almost no black people in the movie; it is entirely about what young white, mainly Afrikaans boys faced in the army and the propaganda they were fed by the mainly Afrikaans regime. A brave movie for young Afrikaners to make.

SA Jews also went through the horror of apartheid and the army. They too have cutting edge stories to tell and explore. Are there storytellers brave enough to do it, in this generation? Will the pendulum swing for Jews, and pull back into its ranks innovative, young people? Ultimately, it always does. In the meantime, green shoots must be nurtured.

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


Boycott to and fro: Be careful what you ban


If I stop buying your goods, can I change you? Boycotts are a common political tactic, but they are sometimes more fashionable than successful, and their outcomes are not entirely predictable

SOUTH AFRICANS know a few things about boycotts, and Israel and those who want to boycott it could learn a bit, even though the two countries are worlds apart culturally and historically. From the 1960s until almost the end of apartheid, the trade, cultural, sports, academic and other sanctions against South Africa were intended to force the white regime to abandon its racist policies and its suppression of the black majority.

Historians will forever argue over how much the sanctions were responsible for apartheid’s demise, compared to other factors such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which changed the political environment. Nevertheless, being cut off from the world was painful; even travelling overseas on a South African passport was uncomfortable.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s first major victory, in 1961, forced South Africa to leave the Commonwealth. In 1962, the UN General Assembly asked member states to impose a trade boycott. In 1963, the Security Council called for a partial arms ban.

Expecting South Africa to capitulate, there was one effect the boycotters didn’t adequately foresee. Among certain sectors of the population, particularly conservative Afrikaners who wielded power, the boycotts induced a stubborn, creative camaraderie, a determination to hold things together and flourish despite sanctions – the opposite of the demoralisation the boycotters wanted. It was the midst of the Cold War, and politicians rallied conservative white groups by labelling liberal anti-apartheid protestors ‘communists’ – a damning indictment in the Cold War mindset. So South Africa continued stubbornly, for decades, to endure while the world was busy with the Cold War.

There is much talk today about partial or full boycotts of Israel. Anti-Israel movements use the South African boycotts as their model. But it is misguided. Africa is not the Middle East, and despite its flaws, Israel is not South African apartheid. Internationally, a major destabilising factor today is the complex conflict between the Islamic and western worlds. And boycotts can have the opposite effect to what is intended.

BDS makes a lot of noise, but achieving a full boycott of Israel is highly unlikely. It can only be symbolic. Israel stands on the highway of the world and is as strong as it has ever been. Most participants in ‘boycott’ groups know this.

So one wonders why Israel bothered to detain at Ben Gurion airport the 22-year-old American student Lara Alqasem who arrived on October 2 on a study visa. It was absurd when security officials who blocked her, cited her membership of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, and her alleged support for BDS. All it did was raise the boycotters’ profile; it had no practical effect. And by coming to Israel to study at the Hebrew University, Alqasem gave up any claim to represent the boycott movement.

Fortunately Israel’s Supreme Court has now overturned the decision of the Minister of the Interior to deny her entry, and she has entered the country after a two-week delay.

Pressuring Israel to change policies towards the Palestinians is urgently necessary. Its occupation of the West Bank will, if unchecked, foreclose any possibly of a two-state solution. But contrary to their intentions, supporters of boycotts are only giving the current government and its prime minister more politically expedient ammunition to tell Israelis that once again, ‘the whole world is against the Jewish state’. He will elevate BDS to the level of an existential threat, and rally Israelis behind him as if they were fighting yet another mortal, ‘anti-Semitic’ enemy.

South African sanctions had a huge effect on the country. But BDS will ultimately fail. Opposition to Israeli policies must come from within the Israeli and Jewish world. The question is how much damage, through overreacting, the prime minister will allow it to do to Israel’s image in the meantime.

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


Knowing us, knowing them: Healing feels impossible

Barkan 2

Working together: will it bring peace? In the Barkan Industrial Park, one of several Israeli-run commercial zones near Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Israel and its supporters hold it up as a model of coexistence. In the picture, an Israeli security guard with Palestinian workers as they wait to cross into the zone

THE killing two weeks ago of Israeli employees by an Arab worker at the Barkan industrial zone in the West Bank, a zone punted as exemplifying how Israelis and Palestinians could work together despite political problems, shows again the conflict’s intractability: Will reconciliation ever occur between the sides, even in small doses? Barkan reportedly has over 100 different factories where 8000 Palestinians and Israelis from both sides of the Green Line earn a living.

Jews in western countries look on with despair: What would it take for meaningful reconciliation to happen? They look to their own countries for possible approaches.

What about South Africa, touted as the exemplar of ‘dialogue’ for resolving problems because of achievements during former president Nelson Mandela’s era? Can this country offer anything? There are gigantic differences between the contexts – historical, religious and cultural. But this country also once attempted to reconcile obdurate differences between sides at loggerheads for generations – black South Africa and white South Africa, even though military power lay with the whites who called the shots. It has been partially but not completely successful.

The SA Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 followed South Africa’s political settlement. Is it totally naive to think there might one day be a Palestinian-Israeli TRC, even though there is no Mandela there?

There have been political wrongs from both sides. Even Barkan’s location in the occupied Palestinian territories makes it an obvious target for an attack. But nevertheless, could Palestinians and Israelis ever sit around a table and unpack rationally what occurred during seven decades of battle? It is unlikely to happen anytime soon; the chasm between them is so deep that mutual understanding is probably impossible in the short term. And victories and defeats in a peoples’ history become incorporated as emotive folklore, never to be forgotten. The Jewish people is as adept at this as any other; Arabs and Muslims equally so.

Add to this today’s ‘fake news’ ethos of social media, where distinguishing truth from lies is often impossible. Past attempts to reveal truth through a process such as South Africa’s TRC, seem quaint today amidst the full-blown social media circus, where truth is utterly malleable. How would Palestinians and Israelis fare?

Many people would say that Middle Eastern politics is so complex that the TRC model is a complete non-starter; South Africa’s problems seem relatively simple by comparison. All we can hope for is an uneasy truce between the Israeli and Palestinian enemies, where each side knows it cannot fully defeat the other.

Sporadic groups of Israelis and Palestinians have formed forums to get to know each other, with small-scale successes. The Barkan zone is an example where, through working together, some progress may be made. Politically too there have been some successes, such as the fact that Arab Israelis – Palestinians, essentially – have full rights in Israel and hold official positions in government and elsewhere.

But healing on a grand scale can only begin after a political settlement. Indeed, South Africa’s TRC happened only after the political settlement. This is still a very long way off in the Middle East, and none of the current crop of leaders, including Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterparts, seems willing or able to attempt it. US President Donald Trump’s much-touted ‘peace plan’ is yet to offer any hope.

Continuing with the theme of truth-seeking, a movie opened last week in Johannesburg cinemas called The Forgiven, about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s successful role in the TRC. In contrast, in Israel the killing continues, in Barkan and elsewhere. Will a film called The Forgiven ever be made about Israel-Palestine?

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