Fiddling with strangers: why do we think we can?

Gay Pride Parade Tel Aviv June 07/2013

Breaking boundaries, taboo or not? Since 1998 gay pride parades have grown in Tel Aviv. This year the parade attracted 250,000 people, for which main roads were closed off in the central city. The photo shows the parade in 2017

DO YOU remember a time in this country when people thought it was witty to call a man who seemed effeminate by the derogatory term ‘moffie’? Such pejorative language made homosexual people frightened to openly be themselves. That word is mostly gone now, but societies still struggle to catch up with the increasing recognition of different kinds of sexuality, which were once hidden.

Other forms of punishment exist. Incredibly, “corrective” rape of lesbians is still perpetrated in South African townships. It has been highlighted by black lesbian Zanele Muholi, a self-described visual activist working in photography, portraying black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people – the LGBTI community. She is a professor at University of the Arts Bremen in Germany. In a story in The Guardian last year, she called her work “a space for people to be visible, respected and recognised”.

Her message: Despite having the most progressive constitution and equality laws, South Africans are far from accepting the prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation – in other words, accepting different forms of sexuality. The LGBTI population fears attacks, murders and “corrective” rapes. Women photographed by Muholi have died after “corrective” rape. A recent play by Phyllis Klotz – founder of Sibikwa dance and theatre company – called Chapter 2 Section 9, reinforces this point, portraying true stories of black women, broken for being lesbians.


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Works from an exhibition by Zanele Muholi in Nottinghamshire, UK, called Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the Dark Lioness in isiZulu), comprising over 75 photographs using the body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation

Elsewhere in the world, the picture is different: Last Friday saw a festive gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, of 250,000 people, for which the city closed major roads. Religious figures who don’t accept gay legitimacy recoil at this, such as leaders of Orthodox Judaism. They say homosexuality is a “choice”, not inherently part of a person’s identity, and through therapy people can – and should – be persuaded to choose otherwise. Are people in the parade transgressing G-d’s will? Some say no. Others say yes, that mere large numbers don’t prove such a point.

For rabbis who reject homosexuality, it’s a difficult dilemma when a gay member of a congregation wants to hold a formal position in a shul, or study to be a rabbi. Or a gay Jewish man wants to marry another man, which is legal in 26 countries including South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States, and wants the rabbi to perform the ceremony.

Is one’s LGBTI status a religious or human rights issue? America’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman said he was “proud” of the Tel Aviv parade, tweeting: “…Promoting, protecting, and advancing human rights – including the rights of LGBTI persons – has long been the policy of the United States.”

Some gay rights activists directly confront the establishment. Steven Cohen – one of South Africa’s most flamboyant performance artists – grew up during apartheid, served in the army, and now lives in Paris. In the past, he courageously attended a rugby game at Pretoria’s Loftus Versveld stadium dressed as a character he devised called Ugly Girl, in feathers and other provocative regalia, and mingled with the ultra-conservative crowd, who called him derogatory names and threatened him.

Why is somebody else’s sex life everybody’s business? Some people ask why the LGBTI community makes such a parade – why not just be who you are, without a big show? Part of the answer is that coming out with one’s identity is difficult. A mass parade gives support.

Pressure on the LGBTI community takes different forms. They may be practical and violent such as “corrective” rape. Or subtle, by shunning and shaming. Outwardly, a world of difference lies between Zanele Muholi’s artworks and Tel Aviv’s parade. But the message is similar – there are a myriad legitimate ways to be human.

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



Labels and epithets: who are you calling ‘loony’?

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Call me Zionist if you want: Bob Dylan attended the barmitzva of his son Jesse at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 1983, in the period when he had also been dabbling in Christianity.  He recounts how the press worldwide interpreted his visits to the Wall as evidence that he had become a “Zionist”

EVERY one of South Africa’s diverse communities has its rebels who stand outside, or who go against the mainstream on contentious issues – Jews, Greeks, Afrikaners, Chinese and others. Sometimes the mainstream closes ranks and rejects them; at other times an argument ensues, with all sides weighing in. For the Jewish community, the relationship with Israel is an issue which constantly simmers and divides Jews, as Israel’s complex standing internationally swings between positive and negative, and its needs for defense and security factor in, along with the search for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There is a term  which mainstream Jews use for Jews on the far left who show up at Israeli-oriented events and protest against Israel with pro-Palestinian supporters, condemning Israel for its ‘oppression’ of the Palestinians – they are called the ‘loony left’. Should one endorse or take exception to this label? Among them are members of the group JVJP (Jewish Voices for a Just Peace) who have waved vitriolic anti-Israel banners at Israeli Independence Day celebrations and elsewhere.

When a speaker at a Limmud seminar (a Jewish group which explores different perspectives on being Jewish in this era) in Johannesburg last weekend used the term ‘loony left’, it evoked a strong response from an audience member: “I take issue with your use of that phrase….” The speaker apologized immediately, showing that the term is not endorsed by all.

The challenge the ‘loony left’ poses to Jews is: what is Israel about, and what is Zionism? Most Jewish South Africans are ardent Zionists. Their rage is palpable – even understandable, given that Zionism is a pillar of their community life – when the ‘loony left’ shows up with negative banners and slogans at their celebrations of Israel and Zionism.

What should one make of these ‘aberrant’ Jews? Dismiss them as self-hating? Or be more sympathetic, believing everyone is entitled to their viewpoint and should be engaged with? Or perhaps be supportive – historically, it has often been the aberrant members of society, blowing their whistles, who were retrospectively identified as bearers of the sanest stance although they were reviled at the time.

Being Zionistic is almost axiomatic for SA Jews; this community has traditionally been one of Israel’s greatest supporters. But Zionism is not axiomatic for Jews everywhere. Among American Jews, for example – the world’s second largest Jewish community – attachment to Israel, once strong, has weakened considerably in recent years, particularly among the youth who say Israel’s values today, such as aggressive nationalism, ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and a failure to seek peace with the Palestinians, conflict with their own values.

Some American Jews were never Zionists. The world’s greatest folk singer, Bob Dylan – recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – explores in his autobiography, Chronicles, the personal difficulties of being revered by the masses. He didn’t want to be the “toastmaster” of any generation, he says, and as a wry tactic to counteract being seen as a perfect leader by the leftist counterculture of the ‘60s who were unsympathetic toward Israel, “…  I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist.”

SA Jews outside the mainstream are also not all Zionists. But studies show that most of those who identify strongly with being Jewish, whether they are professionals in general society, academics, writers and so on, and whether they are politically right or left, support Israel’s right to exist even though they may not explicitly call themselves Zionists. But they are critical of its government’s policies. Current events such the Israel-Gaza conflict disturb them, but also deeper issues such as Israel’s embrace of US President Donald Trump, despite the buffoonery of the man who now heads the world’s most powerful nation.

The same applies to many members of the Jewish ‘loony left’ – they support Israel’s right to exist, but object to its government’s policies, and abhor Trump and what he stands for.

Where does this leave the mainstream community? Could the ‘loony’ label itself be discarded, with a recognition that they have something worth listening to? Or could the mainstream itself change its borders, to incorporate a greater degree of debate and argument about what Israel and Zionism stand for?

For the foreseeable future, the relationship to Israel will roil and boil among Jews as long as the conflict remains unresolved. It may be seen as a poison in their midst; or as part of the important debates about peoplehood, nationalism and community, and how individuals fit into these things.

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


Homelessness: It’s never what you think

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Street teacher: Moses Velaphi is a homeless man from Kwazulu-Natal who found a way of earning money from regular drivers at traffic lights by teaching them a new Zulu word each day on his board (CCTN AFRICA)

WHAT is the personal story of the black beggar in dirty rags who approaches your car window at a traffic light, pointing to his mouth, asking for food? You often hear complaints from residents of Johannesburg’s middle class neighbourhoods about being bothered by homeless beggars, making them scared to open their windows.

Three weeks ago at the Kingsmead Book Fair, hosted at Kingsmead College – an elite girls-only school in upmarket Rosebank, Johannesburg – one of the most moving panel discussions focused on a critically acclaimed film called Vaya, whose team included Anthony Mafela, a once-homeless man. Vaya enjoyed a limited screening at local cinemas last year and gave rise to a book, Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg. The film tells true stories of rural people from Kwazulu-Natal coming to the city, who land up in desperate situations. After the speakers’ presentations a sincere question came from an obviously privileged white woman in the audience: “What is it like to be homeless?” None of the panelists answered satisfactorily; they skirted the question. How to describe having nothing, to someone with everything?

Vaya, directed by Akin Amotoso, portrays real-life stories of three homeless people – the kind drivers might glimpse from car windows. A taste of the underbelly of Johannesburg – one of the world’s most unequal cities – existing alongside mainly white middle class suburbs like Glenhazel, Sandton or elsewhere. The script is crafted from the Homeless Writers’ Project, which started in 2009.

It opens with three hopeful people on a train from rural KZN en route to Johannesburg – each expecting help from family, but finding themselves alone and in danger. The first, Nhlanhla, has no money for lobola to marry Sihle in KZN, so he is going to Joburg to make money after a cousin offers him a job, but is quickly trapped into the world of gangsters, becoming a killer dependent on gang bosses. The second, the beautiful young woman Zanele, comes to the city with her friend’s child, wanting to be a dancer and finds herself – and the child – on the point of being sold into the illegal trade in women. The third, Nkulu, has come to fetch his migrant-worker father’s dead body from the mines, to take home to his KZN family for the ancestors’ sake, only to discover that his father had built a second family in the city and only visited his original wife and family in KZN every six months, leaving Nkulu in limbo in Johannesburg.

In streets leading up to Kingsmead College on the day of the fair were parked rows of gleaming 4x4s and other expensive fair-goers’ cars; across the road at Rosebank Mall were shops selling international brands of clothes and food. And as if to push the searing disparities in your face, barefooted beggars in dirty rags hung around the avenue of jacaranda trees at the school entrance.

The exploration into ‘underground’ Johannesburg includes an intriguing book series by Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis called ‘Wake up, this is Joburg’, published by Fourthwall Books. It tells stories of ten inhabitants in the city’s ‘alternative economy’. One depicts ‘survivors’ carving out a precarious living chopping up S’kop – cows’ heads rejected by traditional butcheries whose meat is eaten amongst poorer sections of the society – under the highways and in abandoned buildings, invisible to ordinary Johannesburg residents. They fly by the seat of their pants, amongst xenophobia and a changing city.

What do the visitors to the Kingsmead Fair – and the readers of this column – with roofs over their heads and cars in their garages, make of this other, invisible world? At least the sense that the ragged people at their car windows have stories as interesting and relevant to the city as theirs.

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


Ways of seeing: you, me and them

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Does the camera lie? One of the pictures taken by a photojournalist during the 1976 Soweto riots helped bring down apartheid. Today, with cameras in every cellphone, social media can send images, not always accurate, across the world instantly

SAM NZIMA died two days before last week’s killings along the Israel-Gaza border. He was the South African photojournalist for The World newspaper who took the picture during the 1976 Soweto riots of the bloody schoolchild Hector Peterson being carried in the arms of a frantic young boy after being shot by apartheid police. Most people don’t know Sam’s name. But by the next day the photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers from New York to Moscow and is held worldwide as a symbol of the reality that was black peoples’ lives. It marked a turning point in the struggle.

Israel is not apartheid, nor are Palestinians black South Africans. But the pictures flashing around the world from the Gaza killings are seared into peoples’ minds as symbols of what happened. Israel looks as bad as apartheid – how many Hector Petersons were there that day?

After thousands of words have been written about historical events, it is often the photographs that most define their meaning. For example, the naked 9-year old Vietnamese girl running down a road in 1972 away from a napalm attack – known later as Napalm girl – which made Americans see the Vietnam War differently; the lone man – later called Tank Man – who stood in front of a column of Chinese army tanks in 1989, after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests; an unidentified man falling headfirst after jumping from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center – later nicknamed Falling Man – in 2001 after Al Qaeda terrorists crashed aircraft into the building and destroyed it; the picture of the Jewish boy with a yellow star of David on his lapel, walking out of a building in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, hands in the air, surrounded by German soldiers with rifles, which became emblematic of the Holocaust.

Three Israeli pictures from May 14, when seen together, capture the crudeness of what happened that day: The first is a beaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the new American embassy building in Jerusalem, with a Barbie-doll-like Ivanka Trump unveiling a plaque with her father’s name – US President Donald Trump – followed by the singing of “Hallelujah” by the right-wing politicians from both countries.

The second smiling image was when 50,000 Israelis congregated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to celebrate Israeli singer Netta Barzilai’s win at the Eurovision Song Contest, and hear her sing her song ‘Toy’ twice over.

The third, as if on another planet yet just an hour away, was the bloody confrontation between IDF soldiers and 40,000 Gaza Palestinians who were storming the border fence, resulting in 60 Palestinians killed and thousands injured. To viewers around the world, particularly South Africans, the melee looked like Soweto, June 1976 – stolid security forces facing frantic rioters. It wasn’t, but that’s the way it looked.

“What a glorious day. Remember this moment. This is history,” Netanyahu told the inauguration ceremony at the US embassy. The mixture of the three scenes will be viewed by future historians as so bizarre as to wonder if the facts are correct. Why was he smiling so cheerfully when the Gaza border was burning?

Images can be spread instantly worldwide these days via social media. But life is not made up only of images. Beneath, lies a reality. Gaza is a desperate place. Israel is not fully responsible for what is happening there. Hamas rules cruelly, and wanted the world to see Israelis killing Palestinians. It succeeded wildly.

Sam Nzima’s picture of Hector Peterson influenced millions. Last week’s pictures of Israel, looked at together, swayed millions against it. Can this negative tide be turned, for now and for history?

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

Is there any solid ground in this quicksand of rage?



The rage and the response: Palestinian protesters on Israel’s border with Gaza face teargas and other harsh means as Israel tries to keep them away from the border fence. Some 60 Palestinians were killed by live fire from Israel in the protests

SOUTH AFRICAN Jews can be forgiven for being confused about Israel and South Africa, both of which concern them immensely. The abiding feeling is a conflict of loyalties.

This week’s conflagration in Israel looms large, with Monday’s lethal clash with some 40,000 Palestinians protesting along the Gaza border, and reports saying 60 were killed and 1200 wounded, with more expected in coming days.

SA Jews generally believe the United Nations is biased against Israel. Thus, when two-thirds of the Security Council expressed “profound concern” Monday night, complaining that a 2016 resolution demanding that Israel must stop building settlements on Palestinian land was being ignored, they were not surprised. Nor that Ireland – also considered anti-Israel – demanded an independent investigation into the killings.

But when, to many Jews’ dismay, the SA government, in crude and one-sided, inflammatory language, immediately recalled its ambassador to Israel and called on Israel to “withdraw from the Gaza Strip and bring to an end the violent and destructive incursions into Palestinian territories”, it was too much: South Africa didn’t seem to know that Israel withdrew in 2005.

All of this came just after Israel’s Independence Day celebration and opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, which most SA Jews praised. So whose side to take?

The official response of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and SA Zionist Federation said the government’s decision was “outrageous and displays gross double standards… against the Jewish state.” But many will criticise it harshly for entertaining no questions about any conceivable failures on both sides in the situation, even if they were unintentional – an “Israel is completely right, the Palestinians are completely wrong” attitude. They will see it as a blind closing of ranks with no grey areas, and not as a call for all South Africans to understand that there are many sides to the conflict.

The SAJBD’s long-standing mandate is looking after Jewish community welfare, not national politics. But where does the line lie? It will argue that SA policy towards Israel directly affects the welfare of the Jewish community and that SA criticism of Israel provokes anti-Semitism. Many Jews will agree. Some may not.

Numerous questions beg answers from Israel and South Africa. Israel had put in place measures to avoid loss of Palestinian lives, particularly because of criticisms after unarmed Palestinians were killed in previous weeks. What happened?

Who controls SA foreign policy? Is it President Cyril Ramaphosa, admired as the man who will repair the country? SA politics is as complex as Israel’s; no one knows what’s going on in the struggle between him and the old Zuma network of patronage. Until recently there was a feeling of ‘ramaphoria’ about him – the messiah coming to save the country.

He has begun fixing things and ejecting corrupt individuals. But his support is fragile; he treads carefully around powerful people. If he proposed a different Israel stance, would he anger ANC members? How important is his Jewish constituency? ANC policy supports the two-state solution – Israel living alongside Palestine. But ANC heavyweights strongly favour the Palestinians.

In the SA media, Israel was a front page story for some, but it won’t last. The truth is, most people are tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s more of the same, year after year, with no solution in sight.

Most ordinary people watch the news and shrug. Some take an emotional position after watching a certain item, but change it soon after; there are too many variables, it’s too complex. Ultimately, many withdraw and go on with their lives. The danger is that at times like this, people get sucked into a mob mentality, separating everyone into ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ as if those on the other side are not human.

There are people on all sides with dreams and hopes for a better life.

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



How to keep your wits in a trigger-happy world

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Is it guns who kill, or the people who use them? Gun advocates such as US president Donald Trump say it’s the latter. The scourge of gun-related killings in America and South Africa – the worst in the world – puts his words to a severe test. 

HATE him or love him, American president Donald Trump provokes debate on just about everything, the latest being his theatrical pro-gun speech to the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Friday. South Africans listening to it should be worried about guns in their own country, which comes second only to America on gun-related homicides per capita in the world.

Despite America’s shocking statistics on gun violence, Trump fiercely defended their right to own guns. America’s rate of gun violence exceeds all other developed countries – a 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun homicide than people in other wealthy countries. But Trump, insanely, advocates even more guns. To make his point, he quoted the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, where Islamist gunmen murdered staff at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, shoppers at a Jewish supermarket, and others. If civilians were armed, he said, “it would have been a whole different story.” Can you just imagine the bloodbath?

Sadly, the rate of firearm-related killings in South Africa ranks just behind America, which has 10.2 deaths per 100,000 population – the highest in the world. South Africa has 9.4 per 100,000. Next on the list is Switzerland, way down at 3.84. These figures are from a study by American medical professionals based on data from 2010-2012.

Middle and upper class South Africans don’t experience this reality directly because they are shielded behind high walls and security guards in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, and lead a semblance of first-world lives. But if they read the papers they may be aware of the effect on poorer people in townships and elsewhere. Studies report that 18 people are shot and killed every day in South Africa.

In America, politics plays a huge role for Trump: the NRA, one of the country’s most politically powerful groups which can make or break politicians, zealously resists gun control. It is generally easier to be a legal gun owner “than it is to be a legal driver,” says David Hemenway, director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center.

South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa, promises to fix the country after the 9-year Zuma debacle. But he has enemies, and violence in SA society is deep-rooted and goes back decades. The figures are shocking: According to a 2014 report of the IEP (Institute for Economics and Peace) South Africa ranks as the 15th worst country worldwide for societal safety and security, and the 8th most violent, with a homicide rate – gun-related and others – of 31 per 100,000 people. Rates like this are generally found in countries with serious ongoing crises or at war.

Does a country with external threats risk higher internal violence because of stress? Not necessarily; Israel exists in a region of major violent conflicts along its borders, and continuous threats to annihilate it, but its rate of gun-related deaths, at 2.16 per 100,000 is extremely low compared to the 9.4 quoted above for SA.

The daily experiences of the two nations’ inhabitants reflect these figures. Israelis have no hesitation going out in the streets late at night, including young people, men and women. But drive through many neighbourhoods in South Africa and you’ll see the massive walls with barbed wire around the houses, and the cars of private security companies patrolling the streets. Go to almost any shopping centre at 9 at night, and you’ll find few people there, and entertainment facilities mostly closed by then.

Can South Africans repair their society? Trump has many followers in gun-happy America who want even more guns. Taking his cue and giving ‘innocent’ people more guns in South Africa would be madness. Yet how to stop it? It causes many of the best South Africans who can still leave, to do so.

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


Is this the moment when everything changes?


Hidden threat under cups of coffee: The liveliness and enjoyment of crowds in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighbourhood covers a sinister challenge for Israel – will it be irrevocably stained as Israeli soldiers are instructed to fire at unarmed protesters on the Gaza border?

IN EVERY nation, certain events are identified by historians looking back as tipping points which defined its character and soul. Israel’s wars are markers – the War of Independence, Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, which gave Israelis and Jews the feeling they weren’t doomed to forever be “strangers” in other peoples’ countries. Crucial moments in the Jewish soul.

It doesn’t have to be war in the conventional sense; it could reside under the surface of everyday reality, as it does on this seventieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.

Anyone visiting Neve Tzedek, the artsy area in South Tel Aviv last Friday night would have seen the incredible buzz of people, young and old of all cultures and languages confidently enjoying themselves at cafes and strolling the streets, and might have been inspired at how far Israel has come and the confidence of its citizens. Israeli flags hung on almost every street pole, from every window, and on cars’ aerials. At the crowded shuk’s’ entrance, a man sang popular 1960s songs amidst the flags.

But if you went into a café and listened to conversations, you would hear sprinkled among them, the ‘war’ going on just across the border a few kilometres away over the Green Line, in the West Bank and Gaza, beyond the privileged Tel Aviv ‘bubble’. There is also talk of a new force in politics, not just to do with the shaky coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding together amidst scandals, but about a potent recent incident: The morality of Israeli soldiers shooting and killing unarmed protesters on March 30, at the Gaza border during protests there, which started a train of events Israel seems unable to stop.

That event may be what historians will identify as the point when even ardent believers in the justice of the Jews’ statehood could not excuse its actions – where in some respects, Israel lost something in its soul.

Such markers in a nation’s character don’t have to be bloody. In the United States, the Rosa Parks incident, where a black woman refused to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955, triggered a wave of protests that reverberated throughout the United States. The flurry which the incident generated became a symbol of the indignities black people were constantly subjected to, affecting the soul of the nation and its sense of morality. She is internationally recognised as the “mother of the modern day civil rights movement” in America. Everyone knows the name Rosa Parks.

Other tipping points affecting inner, personal feelings in the United States include the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001, which future historians might one day interpret as the beginning of the third world war.

For the new South Africa, the 2012 killings at Marikana will probably qualify as the tipping point for negative perceptions about the ANC, as the 1960 Sharpeville massacre was for the apartheid government.

Sometimes tipping points are contradictory. South Africa’s difficult situation today regarding rising racial tensions, inequality and poverty, suggests that rather than being the dawn of a new, bright era, the much heralded 1994 democratic elections might be seen by future historians as the beginning of a new decline of SA into a corrupt, bankrupt country. What a tragedy, after the bitter struggle that was waged here.

Another glance at the buzz in Neve Tzedek reveals that behind the façade of joy and laughter, lies the uncomfortable knowledge that something much more difficult and complex is playing out. How to recapture the moral high ground after incidents such as the shooting of unarmed civilians is no less of a struggle for Israel than winning a war.

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


If I sing your anthem, will I feel at home in the world?


Anthems which ignite passions: Are they always liable to cause divisions by creating an enemy? Or unite people? In the picture, black and white players of the South African Springbok rugby team sing the South African national anthem.

WHEN Israeli writer David Grossman told bereaved Israelis and Palestinians on Memorial Day this month that “fortress Israel” is not yet a home for Jews because it is not “stable and relaxed” – among other things – it raised questions for South Africans about their own country. Are South Africans relaxed and feeling at home after the political earthquakes that have numbed and traumatised their society during apartheid and after it?

For South African Jews in particular, such questions become louder on occasions such as the recent Holocaust Memorial Day at Johannesburg’s West Park cemetery, when the singing of various anthems takes place after the speeches by Holocaust survivors and other dignitaries.

The South African anthem evoked nervous glances from white people in the crowd, looking to see if the black people present were offended that they didn’t know the anthem’s words – as if this would question their patriotism. The lyrics employ the five of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages – isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The five different languages were incorporated into the anthem as an attempt at South African reconciliation after apartheid. But the only part most white adults know is the English and Afrikaans, not the African languages, where they generally just hum along to the main refrain, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”

The African part was originally composed as a hymn in 1897 by Methodist school teacher Enoch Sontonga and became a symbol of defiance against apartheid. It means “G-d bless Africa.” Sadly, most white South Africans, particularly in the cities, cannot speak any African language at all or understand what black people are saying to each other.

The Jewish world has its own very special anthem which is in some ways a Jewish counterpart to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, based on Jewish experience. It is called the “Partizaner lid” – the Partisan Song – a defiant Yiddish song considered an anthem of Holocaust survivors which is sung in memorial services worldwide. It is about Jewish resistance and survival: After numerous attempts to destroy them by the Nazis and others, the Jews “are still here.” The lyrics were written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, a Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto who was inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Should Israel’s national anthem Hatikva be sung at such events? Some say it is essential, to celebrate the fact that the horror of the Holocaust was followed by the joy of Israel’s creation. A few people have reservations, however, saying that including it inappropriately politicises the event, since the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish trauma, not an Israeli one. Hitler targeted Jews of all stripes – Zionist and anti-Zionist, religious and non-religious.

Another white ethnic group experiencing similar questions about belonging as the Jews are the Afrikaners, who during apartheid passionately sang their own anthem, “Die Stem van Suid Afrika” – “the Call of South Africa.” Many Afrikaans farmers may soon be singing another national anthem – Australia’s – following a statement by its home affairs minister Peter Dutton that he would fast-track visas for white South African farmers because of the “horrific circumstances they face.” The SA government protested against his comment.

What’s in an anthem? Is it still a unifying symbol for which people will live or die? David Grossman’s son Uri died as a soldier in the 2006 Lebanon War, fighting for his country and, by implication, for the words of its anthem. But in Israel too, the anthem has controversy attached to it. Not all Israelis will sing it.

The passion and patriotism of anthems inspire people to do great things, but equally, evil. It’s worth remembering that the Nazis also had their anthems.

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

When politics turns populist, the smell of blood is in the air

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Politics and populism: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema at the party’s fourth anniversary rally in Durban in July 2017. Speaking to a crowd of 7000, he hurled insults at then President Jacob Zuma, former president Thabo Mbeki, whites and KwaZulu-Natal Indians. He encouraged the crowd to occupy land.

DRAMA is nothing new for Julius Malema. Already making waves in 2013, the EFF leader appeared that year in the form of a large puppet of a baby in comedian and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys’ show, “Adapt or Fly.” Uys caricatured politicians who have governed South Africa from DF Malan onwards, showing most – excluding Nelson Mandela – as horrid. He transformed himself into the characters’ features, such as PW Botha’s gesticulating finger and scowl, and John Vorster’s thick eyebrows and sinister coldness, and held “Malema” in his arms. That infant is grown up now, and some of Uys’s predictions about Malema have come true.

The show was set in the period before the 2014 elections, amidst the horror of Jacob Zuma possibly becoming president again. At the end, Uys raised the house lights, sat on the stage facing the audience, and appealed to those younger than 25 who hadn’t yet voted, to register and take control – if only they had, we might have avoided the nine-year Zuma disaster.

Portraying Malema, Uys threaded an analogy with Hitler. Since then, Malema has become one of the most important South African politicians – his party is the third largest, characterised by its members’ unruliness and red garb. Last Saturday he brought Soweto’s Orlando Stadium, packed with thousands, to a standstill as he delivered his emotion-packed funeral tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Social media was abuzz afterwards, praising him.

When Uys displayed the Malema puppet in 2013, the message was to remember how Hitler, an incredibly charismatic and populist speaker, achieved power, with his policy of National Socialism. He promised the German masses to fix the economy, provide jobs for everyone, bring back Germans’ dignity, and rectify the perceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty after the First World War. The seemingly direct simplicity of it appealed viscerally to Germans. Even some Jews endorsed him, not knowing what was to follow.

When Malema made his potent speech at Winnie’s funeral, filled with populist slogans with which millions could identify, such as ending corruption, free education for all, jobs for all, nationalising mines and banks, expropriating land without compensation, and eliminating ‘white monopoly capital’ some would say Uys’ cautionary voice was in the background – things aren’t as simple as the slogans.

Was Uys behaving like an irrelevant ‘old white man’ in 2013, detached from South Africa’s new reality? Some would say yes. Others recall his sharp satirical skills during his heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, when he highlighted the apartheid state’s insanity. In his most recent show which opened a few weeks ago, entitled ‘‘When in doubt say Darling’’ he plays an elderly man in the process of packing his life into boxes before entering a retirement home. The sharpness for which he was renowned was blunted. He finds nothing important in the newspapers.

Malema has made a significant, positive impact on South African politics, forcefully raising crucial issues the old guard preferred to keep quiet. For that, South Africa must thank him.

His tribute to Winnie was dramatic, both in substance and in his passionate delivery: “She put the country first, above her own personal safety… and confronted gun-carrying white men who were sworn killers of the apartheid defence force…” He addressed her directly: “…you fought for what you believed was right, possessed only by your love for our people and the restoration of their dignity.”

Was Uys wrong about Malema in 2013? Is he the future president who will inject new energy into the country? Or a threat? His vibrant youthfulness is his drawcard, while his aggressiveness and racism towards whites is tolerated. People said he would mature and become more reasonable. To some extent, he has, becoming more sophisticated in his politics. But who will he be tomorrow?

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


Is this the Wild West or the Middle East?

march of return

What to do about Gaza? Thousands of Palestinians joined in a March of Return at the border with Israel on March 30. Israeli soldiers set up positions facing them across the border. Snipers picked off individual demonstrators. The world watches as the casualties mount, and no-one knows how it will end. In the picture, Israeli soldiers face demonstrators.

ONE thing which puzzles Diaspora Jews seeing images of Israeli soldiers facing masses of mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in the March of Return at the Gaza border, and hearing reports of killings by Israeli snipers, is: Why is Israel not using non-lethal means of riot control? Live fire is not the only way.

For South African eyes and ears, pictures of demonstrators being shot evokes memories of one of South Africa’s greatest traumas – the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when some 6,000 unarmed black people protesting the pass laws converged on police; many were shot, some in the back as they fled, resulting in 69 dead and 180 wounded.

The contexts of these two events are so fundamentally different that comparison is absurd – unless one considers the mere existence of Israel to be equivalent to apartheid. South African black people were never aiming to destroy the South African state, but destroy the apartheid system; the Palestinian goal, expressed clearly by Hamas, is destruction of Israel.

While that is true, Sharpeville’s effect on South Africa’s political landscape was profound; if the Palestinians’ March of Return gathers momentum and more are killed, it could reignite severe focus on Gaza and Israel’s role.

It seems that under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s response to ‘trouble’ from the Palestinians is to quickly resort to massive force rather than a non-violent approach. Diaspora Jewry is repelled by this, even if seen from their situation of relative privilege; an American Jew in the safety of his California home cannot imagine American soldiers firing on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. Why, they ask, should Israel do it? The answer is that Israel shouldn’t be doing it, there are other means.

Diaspora Jews’ existential dangers are nothing like Israel’s. But from where they sit, Israel seems to be unnecessarily choosing lethal means over non-lethal ones. It seems the hawkish Netanyahu is not interested in how the Diaspora sees him. But even high-profile, respected right-wingers in the Diaspora, such as Ronald Lauder, are beginning to speak against him.

Some people on the right claim Israel’s record is clean as a whistle compared to the sickening Syrian violence – the latest outrage being a gas attack by dictator Assad on his opponents. And that the world should stop complaining about little Israel.

But Syria is not the standard by which to judge the Jewish state. The value of human life is a Jewish precept, including a Palestinian demonstrator’s life. How to control riots without killing demonstrators?

The March of Return, which Hamas has exploited for its own agenda, is expected to continue for weeks. Thus far there have been close to 30 fatalities and hundreds wounded. Some Hamas members have tried to plant rudimentary explosive devices across the border fence.

Israel’s failure to develop nonlethal methods to disperse demonstrators at relatively long distances has been discussed in security circles for many years; the State Comptroller explicitly commented on it in 2003 and 2017. The historical background was that, at the height of the second intifada in 2002, IDF soldiers under the Gaza Division operated under flexible rules of engagement which allowed them to shoot at anyone approaching the border fence from Gaza.

Even then, this was not accepted by all officers. For example, the current IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, who was a young division commander at the time, objected to these open-fire directives and instructed his soldiers in armoured battalions to ignore them, and not routinely approve shooting at a person approaching the fence before their intentions were known.

Netanyahu should not be allowed to become the face of Israel today. A trigger-happy Israel loses not only the soul of the Zionist project, but also the support of Diaspora Jewry.

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