Is there such a thing as too many babies?

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Car, cars, cars one after the other! Will they never move? Traffic jams are a major problem in big cities. Tel Aviv has highest density per paved road in the developed world.

SOUTH Africans take it for granted that they live in a large country where the population of 56 million fits easily into it, and they can drive for hours in the countryside and pass through only a few towns with few people. Not all residents live well; aside from the poisonous racial obsession, most are poor and unemployed. The country is not an unqualified success by most indicators.

But other countries which are regarded as eminently successful, such as Israel, have their own problems. The Zionist ideal of Jews going there to build a flourishing society has been immensely successful, but success depends on the criteria used to measure it. Demographers from Israeli universities quoted in Haaretz are united in the view that Israel’s changing demography within current borders poses extremely hard challenges which could undermine the successes. Israel is not the same country it was in the early days of Zionist pioneers, when it pleaded for Jews to come and help build the kibbutzim and cities, and South African Jews and others responded enthusiastically.

The figures are startling. Today Israel is, worldwide, the third most densely populated developed country, after the Netherlands and South Korea. It is growing so rapidly – 2% a year versus just 0.5% for OECD countries – that by 2035 it will be the most densely populated.

If its population, currently at 8 million, reaches 18 million by 2050, 98% of Israelis will have to live in massive apartment towers containing hundreds of units each – essentially tiny cities. Parts of Singapore and Hong Kong already live like that, but people there have small families. Israeli families average 3.1 children; Singapore and Hong Kong average one.

The implications of a dense population are apparent in daily life. Try driving on the roads, which are the most clogged up in the developed world, with more cars per paved street than Spain, which comes second. Medical care is stretched: at 94%, Israeli hospital emergency rooms have the highest occupancy rate in the developed world. One demographer says you can’t measure the standard of living without relating to quality of life, such as “the ability to spend time outdoors without being overwhelmed by the masses.” Lake Kinneret’s shores, for example, are closed during Passover when they reach full capacity.

This is where demographers enter contentious territory; they say excessive population growth relates to the widespread view in Israel that “children are a blessing.” It encourages childbirth with child allowances and gives discounts for large families. Many Israelis, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox sector, have very large families, sometimes more than 10 children. It is almost heretical to suggest a negative view of this. But it is contrary to most developed countries, who expect future populations to shrink – Japan has already begun to do this.

There is also sensitive politics involved; Jews still believe Israelis face being overwhelmed numerically by Palestinians. Yet birth-rates among Israeli Arabs dispute this: over the last three decades the Israeli Arab birth-rate has dropped from an average of nine per woman to three. This does not account for the larger political dimension – the future of the West Bank and its relation with Israel. The demographers assume a political agreement will be reached for two national entities.

These figures give much food for thought, but what do they mean practically for South African Jews, many of whose children are immigrating to western countries such as Australia? It is not clear. Perhaps their concept of city life, including Israeli cities, will change; other world cities where people live happily are also densely populated. Changing one’s view is not easy.

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

Looming elections: Can the centre hold?

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Settlers and police: who will they vote for on April 9? Israeli settlers are on the right of the political spectrum and will play a key role in elections on July 8. In the picture, Israeli security forces clash with settlers at Beit El trying to prevent demolition of illegally constructed buildings, on July 28, 2015 (FLASH90). South African national elections are also due in on May 8, with the ANC likely to win, but with huge problems in the country


TWO ELECTIONS coming up will provoke serious arguments around South African Jewish dinner tables about values. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rightist Likud party which has been in power since 1977, alternating with Labour, has declared a snap election for April 9; he leads a confident country at the pinnacle of its economic and political power. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa heads the African National Congress and presides over a depressed country in desperate economic and political crisis, which wants him to save it from going over the cliff. Elections will be on May 8.

Every democratic society has radicals on the extremes, and a centre holding it together. It is instructive to compare the two countries. Centrist South Africans fret over Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to be on the left, but behaves like a fascist thug in a red overall, playing to the masses’ grossest emotions, like Hitler once did. Israel has radicals who would throw all the Palestinians out of their land, but a powerful centre skilled at knowing where the red lines are, and what would lead to war.

Netanyahu’s motives for calling the election are not so much about policies, but very personal: his concern about criminal charges against him for bribery, which the police have already recommended. If it was possible, he would probably have held elections sooner, so he would be doing so as leader of a popular, recently re-elected party. The Likud will almost definitely win. It’s a sad development: Israel’s previous great leaders, such as Menachem Begin, lived in small apartments and would never have flirted with corruption.

Netanyahu is a man accustomed to the trappings of power, but with his tail between his legs. According to polls, more than 50% of Israelis want him out. And his fight with the radicals, whether settlers or the ultra-Orthodox, constantly threatens to bring his government crashing down.

Ramaphosa represents the moderate left in his country, and is a resolute firefighter with a clean record, aiming to douse the meltdown from the failure for nine years of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma to govern effectively. But he has powerful political and tribal enemies; will he have sufficient time in office to do that?

The left in Israel is in disarray, both the moderate left and the radicals. It won’t recover anytime soon. But the centrist and extreme right has risen dramatically.

Bezalel Smotrich, for example, is leader of Israel’s furthest-right faction, the National Union party, and part of what he calls the “strong backbone” of the tent of the right. He could be called the Israeli equivalent of the racist, anti-white Malema. The media call him the “blue-eyed, bearded settler,” the youthful face of unashamed political and religious extremism. A second-generation settler, he was born in the Golan Heights and grew up in Beit El.

He is criticised as racist, homophobic, messianic and undemocratic – serious charges in Israel’s democracy. In 2005 the Shin Bet arrested him on suspicion of organising violent protests against the Gaza disengagement. He declared himself a “proud homophobe” and organised an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem to protest a gay pride parade, featuring goats and donkeys to ridicule the celebrating of so-called “deviant acts.”

To South Africans and the vast majority of ordinary Israelis, this comes across as bizarre. Smotrich would be unwelcome in South African politics – his views would be declared unconstitutional and branded as hate speech.

What attitude should Jews adopt towards the Malemas and Smotriches of this world? They vote in South Africa but think hard about Israel. Everyone must straddle the line between distaste and support.

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

Playing to seekers of excellence, African and European

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Can Africans call Mozart one of their own? The flourishing of European classical music in South Africa, which still struggles to clarify its African identity, poses challenges to both its European and African roots. In the picture, the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival brings in capacity audiences, mostly white, at Johannesburg’s Linder auditorium

IS EUROCENTRICITY still a proverbial four-letter word in today’s South Africa? After the coming of democracy in 1994 there was political and social pressure to be more Afrocentric, to counter eons of brutal white and colonial rule that had emanated from Europe and persecuted Africa’s people.

But the society has matured and become less threatened by different ways people may identify themselves, whether ‘African’, ‘European’ or something in between.

Anyone parachuting into the huge Linder Auditorium on Wits university campus on Saturday to hear Italian pianist Mariangela Vacatello perform works by European composers including Mozart, might have thought it was a wholly European event. The 1,000 seat-plus auditorium was packed to the rafters, but noticeable was that the audience was almost exclusively middle-aged and white: hardly a black face was to be seen aside from waiters serving in the restaurant. Superficially, it looked like the 1960s, when apartheid was alive.

Of course, in those days there was a curfew for black people in white areas and they could not have attended. They had to keep to places such as Soweto, and carry a ‘pass’ signed by their white employer, to be in a white area.

Saturday’s performance left the audience breathless and demanding more. After a standing ovation Vacatello gave several encores, the last ending with Mozart’s lively Rondo alla Turca, with a jazz beat. She had come to South Africa under the auspices of the Johannesburg Musical Society, a more-than 100-year old institution currently managed by Avril Rubenstein, in partnership with Richard Cock’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF).

On Sunday, the Linder, which has, over the years, been host to significant luminaries such as Pinchas Zuckerman, saw a grand performance of the Mozart Requiem by the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra and the Symphony Choir of Johannesburg, programmed by JIMF and conducted by Richard Cock. There was not an empty seat and again, an almost exclusively white audience. They were there not because they were white, or because Mozart was European, but because that was the kind of music they love.

The dichotomy seems crude. And it is. There are many black lovers of European classical music in this country, as there is a growing interest in opera by black practitioners. But overwhelmingly, there is disproportion in audiences such as that of the Mozart Festival.

Does the skewed make-up of audiences indicate that South Africa’s non-racial project has failed? In this racially obsessed country, the likes of black populist politicians like Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema question the place of whites in the country. Showcasing these so-called ‘European’ works could be interpreted by mischievous politicians as a statement that whites are not ‘African’, but European and not deserving of African status.

What place does this divisive argument have in the new South Africa, which is confused with identity issues and sees its rainbow nation dream wither? With elections coming soon, racist rhetoric will intensify as parties with a ‘white’ image such as the Democratic Alliance, compete against parties with a ‘black’ image, such as the African National Congress and EFF. Malema knows how to ride that wave, his party attracts votes through racial bombast. But in the broad sense, most people no longer regard it as sinful, politically or artistically, to be Eurocentric.

Too often in the recent past, art has received accolades not because of its quality, but its maker’s identity. This is dangerous and misleading. Mozart may have been born in Europe some 260-odd years ago. He may have been born white-skinned and male. But these are not the reasons he is loved. He is loved because of the brilliance of his work.

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