How Anne Frank remains vulnerable at 90

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Watch out Anne Frank, you’re just a little number to me! Jews are infuriated by the airing of a tasteless show which features Adolf Hitler ‘roasting’ Anne Frank in a programme called Historical Roasts

IN THIS age of vulgarity, with increasing anti-Semitism and racism, the power of the mass media to propagate hatred through the internet has increased a million-fold. It draws in people who would shudder at accusations of anti-Semitism, including naïve Jews. Who would have thought that this power would result in mocking world-renowned holocaust victim Anne Frank, who would have been 90 this month? One of the episodes of a show currently distributed by Netflix is called The Roast of Anne Frank, in which she is “roasted” by a panel that includes Hitler. He mocks her, saying, “Everyone knows you as a hero and a bestselling author, but to me you’ll always be little number 825060.”

It is part of a Historical Roasts programme, where various historical figures take the hot seat to be lampooned by their peers, including Abraham Lincoln and Princess Diana. It seems crude that the late Anne Frank should be included. Comedian Jeff Ross, who hosts the show, tries to deflect accusations towards him, saying that he only kids people he loves, and Anne Frank is close to his heart. He says her diary made him cry. This sounds like sloppy Hollywood thinking, where nothing is sacred.

Most Jews still view any depiction of the Holocaust and its victims as a serious thing, not to be treated light heartedly. This is particularly the case in an age when rising anti-Semitism reminds us of the 1930s.Jewish historians remember Nazi publications which used cartoon imagery to depict Jews, such as Der Sturmer in 1934,with its front-page cartoons of ugly Jews in grotesque poses, accompanied by allegations of Jewish ritual murder – the notorious “blood libel”.

But as the Holocaust recedes further into history, younger generations of Jews become more distanced from it. Even some of the children of Holocaust survivors who grew up with the constant echo of what happened to their parents are less inhibited about how they portray it.

Another, equally vulgar treatment of Anne Frank and the Holocaust, reported in May in the New York Times, involved the Harvard Lampoon, an independent satirical publication run by students at Harvard University. It published a sexualised, digitally-modified image of Anne Frank, depicting her facing the camera, with her head mounted on the body of a slim, large-breasted, bikini-clad woman. A bold headline above it read, “Gone before her time: virtual aging technology shows us what Anne Frank would have looked like if she hadn’t died.” The text below it read, “Add this to your list of reasons the Holocaust sucked.” An uproar followed among students and faculty, with demands of accountability. The journal apologised publicly, and promised to review the editorial processes which allowed this to slip through.

The New York Times has itself been accused of anti-Semitism after it recently published a cartoon featuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It apologised for the incident. The power of internet-based media houses is new in the world because of its scale. Netflix is like a behemoth that lacks cultural sensitivity. It challenges the moral basis on which the media operate, not only in relation to Jews, but others.

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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Selfies: How photography might lose its soul

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Wow, look at me at Auschwitz, isn’t it great? The arrival of the high quality camera as a standard feature on smartphones has brought with it not only an important news tool, but in the wrong hands a tool for contemptible behaviour by ignorant, insensitive voyeurs. Above, a group of tourists at the notorious gates of Auschwitz smiling for a selfie

PHOTOGRAPHERS today produce powerful images using sophisticated equipment, from dangerous places like Sudan and elsewhere, and places not necessarily dangerous, but containing crucial images. Such as the heartrending picture of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy on a Greek beach in 2015, one of 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos, encapsulating the extraordinary risks refugees took to reach the west.

These photographs provide visual insight into situations ordinary people would not have access to. And the images are distributed wider and faster than in previous eras on the internet, with more immediate effect. Many cameras also have sound recording capabilities, adding to their power. The downside: the internet also provides an easy platform for doctored images, for agenda-driven purposes or ‘fake news’.

Looking backwards, there are some pictures that almost everyone will know. On June 8, 1972, a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped a load of napalm on its own soldiers and civilians, resulting in one of the most iconic photographs of that era. This photograph so moved people about the tragedy of the Vietnam War that it helped end it.

It was a picture of a nude, burning 9-year-old South Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running screaming down the road towards an Associated Press photographer. It was outside Trang Bang village, about 25 miles northwest of Saigon. She had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing, screaming, ‘Too hot! Too hot!’

The photographer poured water on her and got her to a hospital, with third-degree burns covering her body. The Pulitzer committee awarded him its prize in 1973. The image rapidly spread around the world, becoming a form of shorthand for the atrocities of the War. In that year, America’s involvement in the war ended.

Photographs can define an entire moment in the history of a conflict and influence its course. The horror of the picture of Kim Phuc was echoed in South Africa in June four years later in 1976 in Soweto.  Hector Pietersen, a 12-year-old Soweto schoolboy was just one of the children protesting the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans. He was shot by police when they opened fire on the students. This resulted in a shocking news photograph of the mortally wounded Pietersen being carried by another schoolboy, while Pietersen’s hysterical sister ran next to them. It was splashed across the front pages of the world’s newpapers.

That photograph too, became a form of shorthand representing the inhumanity of apartheid, and the lengths to which its white enforcers were prepared to go in suppressing black people. The anniversary of Pietersen’s death is marked next Monday, designated as Youth Day.

Photography dates back to the early 1800s, with blurry images. It took a while until quality black and white images allowed news photographers to show the world in detail what was happening to civilians in the midst of conflict.

Before cameras were available as a tool, all we had were second-hand accounts of what had happened to victims and heroes such as Kim Phuc, Hector Pietersen and others that preceded them. Added to the essential list would be the photograph of the Jewish child with a yellow Star of David on his lapel coming out of a bunker at the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 with Nazi troops at his back. And we can’t forget the brave, lone man who stood in the path of a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen square in 1989, blocking their advance after the suppression by the government of the massive student-led protests.

Intrepid South African photographers, nicknamed the ‘Bang Bang Club’ documented, at huge personal risk, unimaginable violence between the IFP and ANC in the townships at the end of apartheid. Later, photographer Alon Skuy documented the 2008 xenophobic attacks countrywide, which were rife with equally crude violence.

Quality digital cameras are now a standard feature on smartphones. How would those scenarios play themselves out in contemporary, selfie-rotten times?

Would the photographer have had the urge to turn the camera on himself, with the victim in the background, in the name of the crude narcissism of our age?

Everyone with a cellphone can call himself a ‘photographer’, epitomized by the man – or ‘tourist’- who stands in front of the crematorium at Auschwitz, taking a selfie of himself to send to his friends.

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

Desperate measures for messy times

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Mr President, my own country is after me, but you will stand by me, won’t you, even if you think I was elected in a political system out of control? American President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have established a close relationship, but Netanyahu faces corruption charges which may weaken his status

IT’S NOT often that many people will agree with United States President Donald Trump on almost anything, but he was right when he said, with characteristic arrogance, that Israeli election politics is ‘all messed up.’ We’ve watched with amazement over recent weeks as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried – and failed – to assemble a coalition government that would be able to shield him from indictment on corruption charges.

For South Africans, this has echoes of former President Jacob Zuma’s legal dodging and diving, with endless court appeals, to try and avoid appearing in court on corruption charges, and the ANC backing him in parliament to defeat votes of no confidence. One could correctly say that both Israeli politics and South African politics are ‘all messed up’, where the entire country is bent to serve one man’s needs – the leader of the government.

Israeli politics has long been intensely important to SA Jews, who have had a strong connection to Zionism over many decades. Amongst numerous SA Jews the passion for Israel remains; aliyah figures are high relative to other countries. But South African Jewish families are spread all over the world, in America and elsewhere, probably more than in Israel’s early years.

The ugly drama of Israeli politics upsets SA Jews as much as others, such as statements from far right leader, MK Bezalel Smotrich who insists that Israel should become a state governed by Jewish biblical law as in King David’s time. Smotrich, known for extreme right-wing opinions and a declared homophobe, announced during recent coalition talks that he wanted the justice portfolio. He won’t receive it – even from Netanyahu.

The world’s two largest Jewish communities, America and Israel, have been growing further apart for a long time, with American Jews on the whole still more liberal than Israelis. A recent survey of 1006 American Jews by the American Jewish Committee revealed that the divide is growing faster than expected. Last year, 70 percent of American Jews questioned said that caring about Israel was a ‘very important’ part of their Jewishness. This year, only 62 percent said so.

Politically, the divide is more dramatic. On the explosive political issue about Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in 2018, 15 percent of respondents said Israel should be willing to dismantle all settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But in 2019, this had risen to 25 percent, according to Haaretz. Only 6 percent of Israeli Jews, however, were willing to dismantle the settlements.

A comparable split exists regarding the nature of a political settlement: Two thirds of American Jews support a two-state solution which establishes a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank; only 39 percent of Israeli Jews do.

Aside from the politics, Israel is experiencing a brain drain, primarily to America, adding to the alienation. Increasingly, Israel’s most educated citizens are immigrating, says a report by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, of Tel Aviv University.

Those leaving come from the segment most crucial to Israel’s success – educated Israelis, professionals looking for a better lifestyle. Despite Israel being the ‘Start-Up Nation,’ workers in high-tech faced ‘huge pressure’ to go to America, closer to investors and markets. This has serious implications. Some 3 percent of Israelis work in high-tech, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the country’s exports. Less political tension in their lives would also be a drawcard for professionals.

Trump may be right: Israeli politics really is all messed up. But given his own ‘America first’ agenda, his power and his closeness to Netanyahu, he is not the one to help clear things up.

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

 

Wear your kippa to the bundestag!

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Can a Jew wear a kippa in Germany? Jews have been warned not to wear a skullcap (kippa) openly in certain parts of Germany, for fear of an anti-Semitic attack. A German newspaper printed a skullcap on its front page in protest, urging all its readers to wear it. But Jews were even more anxious. Above, the blue skullcap on the Bild paper’s page

BLANK spaces in a newspaper can speak as loudly as words. In 1985, the South African anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail was bombarded one day by the powerful Security Police acting as state censors, who used red pens to cross out numerous words or lines, and whole pictures and stories to prevent publication. Rather than simply comply, however, the paper printed the issue with heavy black lines crossing whole sections, and censored pictures were removed completely, leaving blank spaces.

It was a provocative move; the editor thought the paper might be shut down by the government. But when Security Police arrived the next morning, they saw that the paper had essentially complied with the law. Those massive black lines and blank spaces were a graphic, powerful representation of censorship, displaying to all the world how much had been hidden from them.

The power of a publisher has also been used in profoundly negative ways, such as Der Stürmer, a vehemently anti-Semitic German tabloid published by Julius Streicher from 1923 to the end of World War Two. A significant part of Nazi propaganda, it often ran caricatures of Jews with Stars of David and hooked noses, accusations of blood libel, and sexually explicit, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, and anti-monarchist propaganda.

The newspaper originated at Nuremberg during Adolf Hitler’s attempt to establish power. From 1923 its circulation grew, reaching a large percentage of the German population, and peaking at 486,000 in 1937. In 1933, Streicher was calling for the extermination of the Jews in Der Stürmer; during the war, he regularly authorized articles demanding their annihilation. After the war, he was convicted of crimes against humanity, and executed.

Ever since, the publication of the Star of David in a German newspaper, whether positively or negatively, evokes shivers in the spines of Jewish readers with a sense of history: might this presage bad things, if German sentiments reverted to what they once were? These sensitivities were aggravated this week when a mass-circulation German tabloid touting conservative values and famous for its past images of topless women, placed an item of potent Jewish symbolism on its front page. The publication, the Bild, said its intention was to protect Jews; it has achieved worldwide acclaim for its imagination.

It was reacting to advice by Germany’s commissioner on anti-Semitism, that Jews shouldn’t wear a skullcap in public in certain places because it is dangerous. So the Bild published a blue cut-out-and-use skullcap on its front page, urging readers, non-Jewish and Jewish, to wear it. It thumbed its nose at anti-Semites, saying, in its editor’s words, ‘the kippa belongs to Germany.’ Like the Weekly Mail 34 years previously, it was standing against powerful right wing forces.

A daily tabloid, the Bild is a powerful paper; in 2018, it printed 2,2 million copies every day across Germany. Founded by journalist Axel Springer in 1952, it has been a major shaper of mass opinion in Germany ever since. It is hardly a conventional political paper, although it plunges into hot political topics. Its trademark identity for 28 years was the pictures of topless women on its front pages; its headlines are large and provocative, its articles short and hard hitting,

The use by Germans of the Star of David will always conjure up frightening images of the yellow ones Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. Gestures like the Bild’s front page kippa mimic the cheekiness of the Weekly Mail’s blank pages in the 1980s. But in an era when the anti-Semitic pot is boiling, right wing populist papers might print their own yellow Stars of David on their front pages.

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