Is BDS still a four-letter word for SA Jews?

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Although BDS consists of only a few activists in South Africa, it has achieved a higher profile due to connections with people in the ANC, trade unions and other organisations. It has pressurised the SA government to sever ties with Israel, posing a dilemma for SA Jews on how to react

In 2014, a furore erupted in the South African Jewish community when a student at a Jewish school wore a keffiyah in public, which was interpreted by many as support for Israel’s enemies. Hundreds of people signed an online petition calling on the school to remove the student from all his leadership roles as deputy head boy and SRC member. Later, a new petition by former head boys and head girls as well as their deputies emerged, calling for the attacks on him to stop. Eventually the school board supported his right to express his own views but to be aware of how it might affect others.

In 2018, two  Jewish pupils at Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town, took a knee during the singing of Hatikva, causing outrage. In the same year, Limmud had to drop three speakers from its programme because they supported BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), which is intensely hostile to Israel, though they were not scheduled to speak about BDS.

What do South African Jews think about criticism of Israel today? Traditionally, they have been extremely sensitive, taking it almost as a personal affront. Attitudes have softened, but it remains a hot topic liable to provoke a vehement reaction, even if it involves only a small number of people.

Support for BDS is more serious than mere criticism of Israel, but isn’t a mass phenomenon in South Africa. However, since Israel regards it as an important enemy in international forums, and actually passed legislation in 2017 barring anyone supporting BDS from entering, diaspora Jews are uncertain about what stance to take. BDS characterises itself as a non-violent human rights group. But is its priority human rights, or annihilating Israel? Most portray it as the latter.

What about South Africa? As part of a general survey of attitudes among the Cape Town Jewish community, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT asked interviewees on their attitudes around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether the community should engage with Jews who support BDS. Findings were presented at Limmud two weeks ago. The survey did not ask about direct engagement with BDS, only the extent of interaction with community members who support BDS. More generally, should Diaspora Jews feel free to criticise Israeli policy?

Jews younger than 30 were relatively more often open to public criticism of Israel and engaging with community members who support BDS, relative to older Jews. It is possible this result stems from Diaspora Jews’ diminishing attachment or even alienation towards Israel, and a lesser sense of what nationhood means to them generally. Among the middle aged group (30-50) attitudes are more mixed. As would be consistent with this age range, one might assume that professionals and academics are more likely to be open to both criticism of Israeli policy and BDS, while others still believe BDS’ only aim is Israel’s annihilation. Also, during their entire lives Israel has been criticised for occupying the West Bank; they want to know more. Older Jews (50+) are still likely to maintain past attitudes and oppose all public criticism of Israel. It is likely that this age cohort still considers Israel a precious haven for persecuted Jews after the Holocaust; if Israel acts harshly, it has no choice but to defend itself; and criticism is mostly anti-Semitic.

Aside from the survey, what about SA politics? BDS-SA has very loudly pressurised the ANC government to sever ties with Israel, often bringing trade unions and similar groups into the picture to paint Israel as an unqualified evil. In a dramatic development in April, the Minister of International Relations announced the downgrading of South Africa’s Embassy in Tel Aviv to a Liaison Office, to the justified outrage of SA Jews who felt that cutting ties is completely the wrong way to go.

With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far from resolution and SA politics in turmoil, attitudes towards Israel will stay fluid and often expedient. Many SA Jews report that in work and social environments, they hesitate to say they support Israel because of the hostile reaction. Unfortunately, the chance for open discussion remains slim and may have to wait until there is real movement on Israeli-Palestinian peace.


For the woman who makes your bed

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The nanny in white South African homes who looked after the children and did chores around the house during apartheid, and still does them today, is not generally recognised as one of the women who kept the country going. Women’s Day does not mention them.

ON the day Nelson Mandela died in 2013, a crowd gathered on the pavement outside his house in Houghton, Johannesburg. Black women arrived from every direction, lit candles, sang and danced in their own languages, dominating the neighbourhood. Their sadness at losing Mandela was huge, but equally palpable was the mood of optimism for the future he had made possible.

It is common knowledge that the country has not done justice to Mandela’s vision. Even ratings agencies such as Moody’s can see it, and the citizens who are fleeing elsewhere. Black South Africans are no better off today than when Mandela emerged from jail. Many people have benefited little from democracy, even if they have freedom of speech, which doesn’t put food on the table. Most black South Africans are still desperately poor.

In the United States, another great person who died on 5 August also had a dream for the black diaspora. Nobel Laureate in literature Toni Morrison attempted to do through her literature and personal greatness what Mandela tried to do for black South Africans: eliminate the racism that tormented them. Yet today there is a resurgence of the racism towards black Americans that she abhorred, as evidenced by the rising of the alt-right movement.

One thing Morrison emphasised was that the hardships in society are often borne more by black women than men. The dignified dance by women outside Mandela’s house had a similar message. Platitudes praising all kinds of women are everywhere, but one category has received insufficient attention: the black nannies who look after white families in Glenhazel and other northern suburbs of Johannesburg, and have done so, thanklessly, for decades.

Aside from what the nanny must do inside the house: clean, make the beds, cook and so on, an abiding image for South Africans is the group of nannies sitting on the pavement outside where they work for white madams, clad in aprons, with doeks on their heads. They often have their legs stretched out straight in front and the white children with them.

As with the male ‘servants’ – as they were referred to by white people – they lived in small ‘servants’ rooms, usually at the back of the house, sometimes with special gates from the street.

Have their lives changed since black women sang on the pavement outside Mandela’s house in 2013? It depends on their employers. But in general, to the shame of rich Jewish South Africa, many are still not paid a living wage. Women who once were tasked to carry white people’s babies on their backs, while their own children were neglected in townships, have been ‘repurposed’ to be so-called carers for the elderly. Their families in rural areas are still poor and their sons and daughters still don’t have jobs.

Disillusionment in the country has gone so far since Mandela’s time, that even mentioning his name today in some political quarters will be seen as naïve. Incredibly, there are even people who refer to him as a ‘sell-out’ because he chose at the end of apartheid to hold secret negotiations with the very people who wanted to leave the country with their money.

There are other legendary black South African women to be celebrated in Women’s Month. Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Mandela. But the humble black women who raised their families during apartheid, often alone while their husbands lived in migrant hostels or elsewhere in the cities, in the mines or other places, bore the brunt of the struggle. Not only do white employers today not recognise or pay them properly, in many cases they don’t even know their surnames.

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


Rise of the great white plague

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White supremacist groups like the National Socialist Movement, seen here at a rally in Arkansas on Nov. 10, 2018, have gained power in the US since 2016.
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UNITED States President Donald Trump has referred to migrants congregating at the United States’ southern border with Mexico as an “invasion”. That, in a word, is what warriors for white nationalism believe, which inspires them to kill people they think are not white, or are migrants wanting entry. They perceive a conspiracy called the ‘Great Replacement Theory’, in which whites will diminish in numbers and power.

White ethnic nationalism is one pernicious reaction, which appears to lie at the heart of the massacres in El Paso and Dayton in America over the weekend, in which 20 and 9 people respectively died. There have been other, similar attacks. The world watches, alarmed, as this movement grows in many places.

The previous terror wave was Muslim-inspired through ISIS; now, domestic white terror increasingly originates from what is called the alt-right. It’s as if a previous era has returned which is racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, anti-Hispanic, homophobic and so on, encouraged by attitudes from people such as Trump since 2016, and ethnic nationalists elsewhere. The internet is its major pathway, such as the website ‘8chan’, a far-right bastion carrying messages promoting hatred and violence. It’s difficult to stop; there are many hiding places on the internet.

A sense of apprehension is on the rise about the resurgence of these attitudes, how to prevent atrocities such as El Paso and Dayton, and to counter the attitudes motivating them. But white nationalism has potent tools such as the internet and social media which it didn’t have before, and powerful adherents.

Previous incidents are a warning: The suspect in the massacre of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand in March allegedly posted a white nationalist text and link to his Facebook feed on 8chan. The suspect at a synagogue in Poway, California, who killed one and injured three, allegedly posted an anti-Semitic letter on 8chan. The website is also believed to have been used by the El Paso suspect to post a white nationalist rage. The platforms for such material are difficult to shut down.

8chan’s internet infrastructure is hosted by a US based company, Cloudflare. Its chief executive officer, on demands to remove the site after the Christchurch massacre, said there are many competitors to Cloudflare and “the minute that someone isn’t on our network, they’re going to be on someone else’s network …” .

Will white nationalism run out of steam against the liberal, multi-ethnic world? Racial, ethnic conflict is as old as time. In history, other long-standing conflicts became so embedded in peoples’ consciousness that it seemed they were endless. The Cold War, an ideological standoff between the west and the Soviet Union, lasted 45 years, threatening a nuclear war.

Another entrenched conflict, between Arabs and Israelis, has lasted over a century, with religious overtones, including pre-state years and after the state of Israel actually existed. There have been minor successes at resolving it, but the core is firmly in place and unlikely to dissipate soon. Meanwhile, most ordinary people just want to raise their children and grow old gracefully; ordinary Arabs and Jews try to lead normal lives.

Over centuries, writers and artists have expressed an absurd quality to this ongoing human reality of living in the imperfect present, while believing in a perfect future. For Judaism, the idea of the Moshiach finds implied expression in the play Waiting for Godot by modernist playwright Samuel Beckett. Like the concept of total harmony between people, such as Jews, Muslims, alt-Right warriors, and so on, Godot is indefinable. Everyone waits, but will it ever come? Meanwhile, struggles against mentalities like alt-right terrorism are here and now.

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

Racism or assimilation: the war of the spray can


Racist talk is becoming less out of bounds, almost respectable in some places, even amongst government leaders like US President Donald Trump. South Africa and Israel are both fertile territory for this. The words sprayed on a wall in an Arab village express concisely those feelings: Racism or Assimilation 


“YOU’RE a racist!” is one of the most cutting accusations one can make in these politically charged times, as we drown in a cacophony of hate speech on social media. To promote racism publically, even amongst members of the world’s white elite, is still mostly regarded as disgusting. But it is becoming less so in many places, from ordinary people to top government leaders, including in the Jewish world.

Israel is fertile ground for this talk, given the power relations between parties in the conflict with the Palestinians, and the religious and demographic nature of the conflict. Graffiti daubed in the Arab city of Kafr Qasem in central Israel on Sunday made no bones about the intentions of its authors. The graffiti went so far as to explicitly endorse racism by saying there were two simple choices for the Jews and for Israel: ‘Racism or Assimilation’, and ‘Death to Arabs’. Things like this are not new in Israel, they go back many years, and have emanated from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides of the conflict.

But for Jews the slogan taps into a hot issue in the Jewish world: assimilation is the biggest enemy amongst many leading figures, in the rabbinic world and elsewhere, who believe almost anything should be done to prevent it. That is why there is such anger towards the non-orthodox streams of Judaism because of their tolerance of liberal streams of Judaism and for non-Jewish partners of Jewish spouses, which threatens Jewish ‘purity’ and demography.

Some well-known rabbis have gone so far as to say assimilation is equivalent to another holocaust, and it will essentially finish the job Hitler started. This is the context in which the slogan ‘racism or assimilation’ exists for radical right wing Jews. In other words, to preserve the Jewish people, it is permissible in the West Bank and according to any possible political ‘solution’ to the conflict, to treat Palestinians according to racist principles. Essentially, this is unabashed apartheid, with no pretence at being anything else.

In South Africa, racist talk, such as use of the k-word, is classified as hate speech, a violation of the constitution, liable for legal action and possibly jail. The most famous example which became almost a national catchword for racist talk, is that of the late Cape Town estate agent Penny Sparrow who drew the ire of many South Africans in 2016 after posting racist Facebook remarks.

Incredibly, in some places in the world it has become almost respectable to be overtly racist, even amongst leaders of governments. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has accused president Donald Trump of wanting to add a citizenship question to next year’s census because he ‘wants to make America white again’; such a question would have a chilling effect on who responded, and discourage people who are in the US illegally from responding, thus giving a false, more white picture of the makeup of the population.

In this era of growing nationalist and identity politics, this kind of identity politics is the flavour of the times. In the US last week, the words “Why have Jews been kicked out of 109 countries?” and “Nationalism or extinction” were written in Santa Monica on a public highway, and the “Holocaust is a lie” was found on a bicycle path nearby.

Identity, religious and personal, is hugely important to the human being: but how far should we go achieve it? Who are these people who wrote ’racism or assimilation’? Are they fair warriors in the war for identity, or a dangerous poison? In this war, the spray can becomes a cowardly weapon.

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


Still rearranging the deckchairs on this Titanic?


22 JUNE 2019

FINGERS are being pointed everywhere about the tragic decline in the numbers of South African Jewry. Every ten years, the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town does a survey of the Jews of South Africa. The figures for this year have yet to be compiled and verified, but there are suggestions amongst people in the academic world and amongst community leaders that the numbers of SA Jewry might have declined from its heyday of 120,000 in 1970 to as few as 50,000 to 60,000 today. The figure of 50,000 was quoted in Haaretz on June 16, 2019, but before the actual results are in, this still remains speculative and has been disputed.

Whatever ends up being the final survey figure, it is clear the numbers have seen a massive decline, which is still continuing. Those who say this is not tragic, are either putting on a brave front or fooling themselves.

Part of the explanation is that Jews are leaving the country as part of the broad trend of the white exodus from the country. Between 2013 and 2018, the white population dropped by 2 percent to 4.5 million, out of a total population of 57 million.

The iconic Titanic has been a cipher for many metaphors of collapse. SA Jewry fits here. Some may say the community can be smaller but still vibrant, with active Jewish day schools and so on. That may be true for now, but the numbers tell their story. In ten years time there won’t be 50,000 or 60,000 Jews, but maybe 10,000. Afterwards, as more old people die and younger ones leave, who knows? Within a few years, there will probably be no African country with a sizeable Jewish community. Most Africans will never meet a Jew in their life and only be left with stereotypes from books

Where is the Jewish religious leadership? Religious leaders are a major influence in how Jews see themselves. It would be good if those leaders of whatever rank, would do what they can to build bridges and bolster morale, not divide. The opposite is true in many cases today.

Many believe the orthodox component of this community – the largest – has failed to show the leadership necessary. To an observer, the obsessive attention to whether the international Jewish learning programme, Limmud, is kosher enough, or whether it is kosher for women to sing at the cemetery, is bizarre.

The same goes for orthodox leaders who have used European holocaust rhetoric to bolster arguments against Israel’s critics, rather than exploring if this dying community can be rescued by gathering together its remaining resources. Examples of this trend were published in Haaretz in the article about SA Jewry on June 16, in which the South African chief rabbi is quoted as saying that the apartheid accusation against Israel is “on the level of blood libels in Europe.” And the national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation is quoted as saying that BDS tactics which have included storming events with Israeli guests and boycotting stores that carry Israeli products are “a Kristallnacht.”

Historians and pro-Israel quarters find this trivialisation of the blood libel an insult to Jews who were persecuted in its name over centuries. Similarly, the use of the word Kristallnacht in this way, is insulting to Jews who were destroyed by it – Kristallnacht happened on 9 and 10 November 1938 and heralded the beginning of Nazi persecution of Jews in the Holocaust in which at least 6 million died.

Leaders use these analogies irresponsibly; while the Titanic that was once SA Jewry, quietly begins to list. Rationally analysing the facts and listening to critical voices, would be better than demeaning the critics.

Jewish leaders are constrained by their positions, from expressing personal views openly. They have to stick to the standard line that the community will survive; and that Jews are loyal South Africans.

This column is not constrained: Alarm bells are ringing; this Titanic is sinking. In years to come, there may be a retrospective reckoning about who tried to man the lifeboats and save something, and who let everyone go down as the band played on, because they wouldn’t sit at the same tables as other Jews.

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

A tale of two suburbs

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Now tell us what you know and what did you did! Former SA president Jacob Zuma has been grilled at the Zondo Commission about his role in the “State Capture” of major public institutions for the benefit of himself and his friends

20 July 2019

THE IMPRESSIVE and effective functioning of South Africa’s legal system shown by the dignity and thoroughness with which the commission investigating state capture is doing its work, must be noted by people who have been uncertain about where the country is headed. Among the many South Africans who have left the country over the years because they lacked confidence in its future, there is lots to think about. Perhaps some might even consider coming back.

The appearance before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture of a humbled former SA president Jacob Zuma, to explain his role in the corruption of the nine years during which he was in charge, is an example. He stands accused of allowing or encouraging the ‘capture’ of state institutions by criminal elements, including the notorious Gupta family.

He has been allowed every possibility to ‘have his days in court’, which is what everyone is entitled to. Justice Zondo went to great lengths to insist on Zuma and his legal team being given all necessary protection to ensure their safety and shield them from intimidation.

The remarkable thing is that, despite attempts to undermine it, the country’s basic legal foundations have stood up. South Africans can raise a glass to that. It was gratifying to see this once powerful man, the former president, talking to the judge at the commission’s premises in Parktown, Johannesburg, as if he was just another citizen facing the law trying to explain his way out of a difficult situation. It remains to be seen if he might outwit those using the legal process on the other side to tie him down.

Despite the impressiveness of the Zondo commission and other legal examples such as the respected constitutional court, to which many have turned for rulings about adherence to the constitution of the republic, some people who left the country would still be relieved that they have built other lives elsewhere, where political complications are less severe and there might be greater opportunities for them. But others might miss the country they were brought up in, as it performs in ways they never thought possible.

On the negative side, if a society’s health is judged by crime figures, South Africa comes out very badly. For example, spectacular headlines were made this week about the situation in the Cape Flats, the impoverished area near Cape Town, where gangsterism has escalated so drastically that 900 people were murdered in the first six months of 2019, according to mortuary statistics.

What does this have to do with the ordinary South African? As always, in the wealthier suburbs, life continues differently and often elegantly. Many white South Africans know the ‘white areas’ of Cape Town such as Sea Point on the Atlantic coast from living or holidaying there in the past. Sea Point in particular has always been a very ‘Jewish’ area, with beautiful buildings, delightful beaches, and a boardwalk and pools in which children swim.

Sea Point’s residents have always known that in the Cape Flats there was poverty and crime. It is important now, as the country tries to consolidate the good things that it has in its favour, that everyone becomes more aware of what happens in places like the Cape Flats, and looks at ways in which they might be able to help.

Helping in a situation like that is not easy for the average person, without the resources or know-how. But a spirit of optimism about the country and a belief that despite its difficult past and the challenges it faces now, might in itself help.

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