What are we teaching our children?

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Are school textbooks conveying hatred to young people? Palestinians and Israelis have both been criticised for depicting the other as intrinsically hateful. The consequence of where this sort of education may lead is portrayed by Gunter Grass in his classic novel The Tin Drum, where a young boy looks at adults as hypocritical and evil. Above, a picture from a movie based on The Tin Drum

THERE is so much hatred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after 70 years, it is impossible to conceive of children not absorbing it. Whatever one’s view about the politics of the conflict, both sides face the question of what to teach their children. For Israelis: Are all Palestinians terrorists? For Palestinians: Are all Israelis oppressors? To sane adults, it is obvious neither side can be simply defined. But can a small child withstand the cynicism and expediency of adults?

All societies at war, or after it, face the dilemma of educating children amidst rage about what has happened. What should Jewish educators teach about Germans after the Holocaust? Or Rwandan Tutsis about the Hutus who killed 800,000 Tutsis in the 1994 genocide? After apartheid’s end, what should black South Africans teach their children about white South Africans? As conflicts continue erupting and the phrase “never again” becomes hollower, the problem gets worse.

German writer Gunter Grass, a Nobel Laureate who as a child was forcibly conscripted to the Hitler Youth, was a careful thinker on this topic. With books like The Tin Drum, he created a child character that looked to the previous generation with horror at its hypocrisy. A thread in this novel is exactly this: whatever shall we teach our children in the wake of such atrocities for which we are responsible?

A US-funded study in 2013 carried out by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, found that both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks depict the other as “the enemy” while presenting their own culture in positive terms; both teach their children little about the other’s religion, culture or economy; most maps in Israeli textbooks make little reference to the West Bank or Gaza; Palestinian maps often ignore Israel’s existence.

How can a schoolchild be expected to distinguish between what is accurate and what is not? A grade 4 textbook in a state-supported ultra-Orthodox religious school says Israel is “like a little lamb in a sea of seventy wolves…” A grade 12 Palestinian textbook says: “…Zionist occupation and its usurpation of Palestine and its people’s rights comprise the core of the conflict in the Middle East…”

Should we believe Israel’s repeated complaints about Palestinian textbooks, or is it Israeli propaganda? The textbooks released in September 2018 are supposedly more radical than previous ones, encouraging Jihad and demonisation of Israel and Jews rather than engagement with peace-loving Israelis. Past peace negotiations between Palestinians, Israel and Arab states, such as the Roadmap, Wye Agreement and Israel-Jordan peace treaty are omitted, as well as the Jewish historical presence in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Even maths education contains negative references to Israelis. Some would argue, “Who can blame the Palestinians, when Israel has robbed them of their land, beaten and humiliated them?”

International agencies are getting more involved. The European Union gives massive aid to the Palestinian Education Ministry, but with a condition that programmes financed should “reflect common values such as freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination within education.” The EU Parliament passed legislation in April 2018 intended to prevent European aid funds to the Palestinian Authority from being used to teach hate. Marcus Sheff, CEO of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, says the PA misuses EU money for “abuse of children” rather than “meaningful education for peace and tolerance.”

While adults rage, children are victims. Entire generations are conditioned to hate each other. It is supremely difficult to undo. But it must start with adults, and Israel and the Jews are the stronger side. Jewish institutions would be a good place to start.

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



Did I vote right?

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Do you work for the good of the common people? The ancien régime in France before the French Revolution of 1789 had opulent aristocrats enjoying privilege and the finery of life, divorced from the masses stooped in rags.  The term for political left and right derives from this:  the ‘left’ were commoners, the ‘right’ aristocrats. These terms influence how people vote today. In the picture, a member of the church, the aristocracy and the commoners

AMIDST the complicated post-election analyses going on in South Africa and Israel, ordinary people are often confused. And, notwithstanding the intellectual analyses, most people actually voted on a ‘tribal’ basis, in the sense that when they got into the voting booth, their emotional feelings dominated their minds and that’s where they placed their crosses.

There was a time when politicians were easier to understand and categorise than today – to the ordinary person, they were either left or right and their politics accorded with these labels. That’s not the case now: left and right can hardly be defined effectively.

Yet still, the most common division in politics everywhere remains what analysts call ‘right’ and ‘left’. It’s all relative: even during apartheid, when all South African political parties were essentially racist for participating in the white-controlled racist system, the more accommodating white parties were called the left wing, and the most unyielding – the verkramptes –  the right wing. In this system, the renowned anti-apartheid politician, Helen Suzman, would be called leftist, although today many blacks regard her as a white racist for being willing to sit in a racist parliament with total control over blacks.

The terms Left-wing and Right-wing originated from the French Revolutionary era, where the seating of the ancien régime of France from the 15th to the 18th centuries was arranged in such a way that the commoners sat on the left, and the aristocrats on the right. Thus leftists became associated with working for the good of the ordinary folk, and rightists with dominance and power over ordinary folk.

The left-right battle is always complex, even if the terms aren’t easily definable. This contemporary era is characterised by the rise of what are called right wing, neo-fascist groups worldwide, who emphasise ethnic nationalism above egalitarian politics. Even in Israel, this phenomenon is evident, as seen by the closeness developing between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to authoritarian rulers in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, such as Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the ruling Fidesz Party of Hungary, who recently visited Israel. The nation-state bill passed recently by the Knesset defining Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, emphasised this movement.

How dominant is this trend? A leftist visitor to South Africa from the Meretz party in Israel, tried on Tuesday to unravel for a Johannesburg Jewish audience why the Israeli left, which advocates accommodation and compromise with the Palestinians, has performed so badly in elections; it has never spoken with one voice and its percentage of the vote has progressively decreased from one election to the next. But the right, led by Netanyahu who is determined not to yield to Palestinian demands, is better at marshalling diverse elements to form a formidable bloc to dominate the political landscape.

The South African far-left often labels Israel an apartheid state, an aspect which was raised on Tuesday. On the contrary, Israeli democracy within the 1967 borders is nothing at all like apartheid: it is vibrant and very strong, with a totally free press and full judicial authority in the Supreme Court which has traditionally been quite leftist in its rulings, including on women’s and LGBTI rights, and at times it has overturned government decisions; and it has other, powerful democratic elements. It is in the occupied territories with their 600,000 Jewish settlers, where the apartheid analogy may apply, with 2 million Palestinians with no voting rights. But even there, there are significant differences.

Whatever the context, things are so complicated today that care must be taken in easily labelling someone leftist or rightist. It is just not that simple.

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

Can a hidden life ever be a happy one?

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In August 2014, fighting between Hamas and Israel fueled anti-Semitic outbursts  in Germany and other European countries, especially France, ranging from violent attacks to chants of “Death to the Jews”. Jews kept out of sight, but synagogues were bombed, Jewish groups received hate mail and anti-Semitic slogans were spray-painted on buildings

LAST week, when the leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan condemned ‘Satanic Jews’ in a talk at the Sabina Catholic Church, it threw into relief religious freedom in South Africa. He said Jews dislike him because he exposes their ‘hatred of Jesus in the Talmud’. South Africans experience religious vitriol occasionally, but the society condemns it strongly and publicly, even where there is politics involved. South Africa is a highly religious society; a large proportion of its citizens identify strongly with a religious denomination, whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, traditional African faiths, or others.

The Archdiocese of Chicago distanced itself in a pro-forma way from the Sabina Church’s decision to invite Farrakhan, saying his rhetoric has no place in American society when hate crimes are rising. But there was no country-wide outcry; the news of the day quickly moved on.

Universities are meant to be places of intelligent debate. But in August 2013 at Wits University in Johannesburg, Palestine solidarity activists, including BDS sang a struggle song containing the lyric ‘shoot the boer’, targeting a performance by Israeli musician Daniel Zamir, but transposed the words with ‘shoot the Jew.’ It drew such wide criticism, that BDS South Africa issued a statement condemning racism ‘even if it were to come from within our ranks’, while still attacking Zionism and Israel. Many people questioned their sincerity.

As unsavoury as this incident was, it is small fry compared to Jews’ experiences elsewhere. The walls around houses in Johannesburg are high, but they keep out criminals, not religious zealots.  Jews in America, Canada, and Europe would be pleased to have these high walls rather than the ones they have.

Schools are meant to be safe places. But in public schools in Belgium, for example, the biggest insult a child can pay is calling someone a Jew. Some 39% of Belgian respondents to a survey said they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the last year. The doors of the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, never used to be locked during visiting hours. After May 2014 when a jihadi terrorist killed four people, they were closed with a special lock. Belgium symbolises Europe’s diversity, home to EU institutions and Nato, and made up of three linguistic groups, French, Dutch and German. Facing hostility, parents move their children into Jewish schools. But they are fearful, since schools themselves may be targets.

In a civilized society, you should be able to walk in the street unhindered, whatever religion you follow. But in 2013, surveys found that nearly 40 percent of European Jews feared to openly identify as Jewish, including 60 percent of Swedish Jews, 51 percent of French Jews, and 43 percent of Dutch Jews. Some of them told CNN: ‘A happy life is a hidden life.’ This extends to institutions; synagogues are typically unmarked and encased by draconian security.

Should Jews withdraw behind closed doors? This would be tragic. Rather be a dynamic, living institution, open to engagement and dialogue. This is what the Belgium museum’s director of exhibitions, Bruno Benvindo wants. But it is an idealistic notion: it depends on the threat. Jihadists don’t want dialogue. Nor does someone like Farrakhan.

Nobody knows where South Africa is headed, with its topsy-turvy politics. But for now, you can wear a kippa safely in the streets, welcome and unhindered as a Jew, as opposed to Paris or most other European cities. Even EFF leader Julius Malema’s racist comments about whites have no Jewish element, and would be condemned if he moves in that direction. Amidst all the political chaos, it is something worth remembering.

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

Does nothing shock us anymore?

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Flower child or beast? In 1969 at the height of the hippie era, a guitar playing Charles Manson sent his young female acolytes to commit gruesome murders, leading many to question what a hippie stood for

WHAT has the power to shock us today, so deeply that we sit up and take notice? Could it be the increase of right wing demagoguery and nationalism in America that has peaked under US President Donald Trump’s reign? Neo-Nazi, fascist groups, anti-migrant and anti-Semitic, are on the rise in countries all over the world.

Or closer to home, could it be the rise of right wing and left wing populism in South Africa that shocks us? The elections that have just been completed this week will throw up many questions about this.

Talking about being shocked, let’s go back 50 years to a time when the world was profoundly stunned by a man called Charles Manson. Everyone knows the name and views it with horror. Manson signifies the depravity that can emerge from a seemingly benign mass movement when people stop thinking for themselves, such as the hippie counter-culture of the 1960s. He led a cult in California. With his long hair, charisma and ability to charm a crowd with guitar playing, he looked like a peaceful hippie filled with love and human fellowship1960s

He manipulated his followers into committing the most grisly murders: Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, was slashed 16 times with knives by Manson’s acolytes. His highly publicised 1970 trial irrevocably tarnished the hippie image, appalling the world. He was sentenced to death, but saved from execution when California’s Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972.

Why, 50 years later, do we remember Manson? It is because at that time the world was so astonished by his crime that it felt as though society had shifted on its moral axis. Nothing like this had been done before. People weren’t sure how to exist in a world where such a crime was perpetrated. And thus, the hippie movement ended.

In the 1960s, news was received in a measured way via newspapers, radio and television. There was a time lapse between the event and its coverage. Today, news goes via the internet – the instant communication of social media into which gigabytes upon gigabytes of information and sinister ideas are poured, bludgeoning people into confusion about almost anything.

We can’t react rationally anymore to killings and catastrophes reported from around the world every day, whether they are true or not. We don’t have the ability to be shocked anymore the way people were at what Manson did. It’s just too much, so we scroll down; there were similar items yesterday and there will be more tomorrow. Yet we can’t switch off the internet because so much of our lives depend on it.

The dangers of our times are many; we hear about them via the internet. One of the biggest, which we have hardly begun to address amidst the others, is destruction of our planet’s ecosystem, through which human life could be obliterated. Climate change activists are the equivalent of the 1960s counter-culture. Hopefully there won’t be a Charles Manson among them.

For readers of this paper today, a never-ending burden is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which fills their Twitter and Facebook pages. There too, people struggle to make sense of it; it is so unrelenting in bad news that many people stop reading, and scroll down. The exchange of fire this week between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is the most recent example.

Truth be told, all these things are scrollable, on our devices. But no matter how much Twitter and Facebook shake us up, we can’t switch the internet off. We have to find other ways of looking each other in the eye.

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


Has freedom failed in SA?


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I will defend you in the courts of apartheid! Bram Fischer was the lawyer who confronted apartheid on behalf of Nelson Mandela and the other black anti-apartheid defendants in the infamous Rivonia trial of 1963, in which they received life sentences. In the photo, a scene from the film about Fischer, An Act of Defiance, shows him with a young Mandela

FREEDOM is intoxicating. When Freedom Day was established in 1994 as an annual holiday for post-apartheid South Africa, it was amidst the euphoria of the victory of the struggle. Optimism abounded; the country seemed to be headed towards a non-racial, prosperous future. In retrospect, such ideals were naive, given the scale and complexity of the problems.

What have we done with our freedom? There are some successes; lots of failures. It is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. Half of its population lives in poverty; 40% of its youth are unemployed and will probably never work; and a tiny, wealthy elite lives comfortably. Many people who can afford to leave are doing so, for fear of the future.

In this season of holidays and memorials, including the elections on May 8, the tendency to look at the past with nostalgia is epitomised by a new South African-made film called An Act of Defiance, made in 2017 and released here a day before Freedom Day. The film had its New York premier in 2018, and was a star item in the New York Jewish Film Festival. It is about the 1964 Rivonia trial in which Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.

It tells the story of Bram Fischer, the lawyer who put his life at risk to defend Mandela and his black and Jewish comrades in apartheid South Africa, which led to life imprisonment for Mandela for sabotage. Fischer, who was of Afrikaner stock, was especially hated by the apartheid leaders, who regarded him as a traitor to his people and treated him with increased brutality when he was imprisoned, such as denying him treatment for his cancer, and not letting him attend the funeral of his son. The Afrikaans cultural thread is expressed in domestic scenes, court scenes and scenes of the police pursuing Fischer and Mandela.

Another theme articulated in the film is the Jewish one: aside from the Jewish defendants, the state prosecutor, Percy Yutar, was also Jewish, and acted according to the legal rules, although these were apartheid rules. Joel Joffe, later Lord Joffe, the instructing solicitor for Mandela’s defence team, was Jewish. He played a key role in helping the future South African president and his compatriots avoid the death penalty. Mandela made reference to his Jewishness and called him “the general behind the scenes in our defence.” And all five of the white defendants at the Rivonia trial were Jewish. Another two Jews escaped from detention before the trial.

The film’s director, Jean van de Velde is at pains to represent the texture of South Africa in the early 1960s. But when you leave the movie house, you realise that today’s dire reality in South Africa is not that different. Mirrored in seemingly innocuous scenarios, some things remain as they were during apartheid, when whites were bosses and blacks were servants.

In a lush park in a fancy neighbourhood near Rosebank Mall, Johannesburg, there’s a black beggar whose sole activity is to pick up the dog poop left there by mainly white people who come on weekends to walk their pedigree dogs. He calls himself Shepherd.

Take a step back from this: In Paris, you can be fined for letting your dog mess on the pavement. In South Africa, the wealthy see it as a right to have a black man, spade and plastic bag in hand, waiting behind their crouching poodle. For Shepherd, last Saturday was just another day in the park, despite it being Freedom Day.

Does South Africa as a society still have the will to change, as it fiercely believed it could, on April 27, 1994? At that time too, there were the proverbial ‘shepherds’, but also the hope that apartheid’s devils could be defanged.

South Africans are confused and uneasy. Tribalism and racism are rising; national pride is falling. In this condition, some countries turn to an autocrat who promises to sort things out. But autocrats who start off as benevolent, generally turn into harsh rulers who won’t leave. A glance north to Mugabe and Zimbabwe is a warning.

South Africa faces a rough ride to get back on track.

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