Boycott to and fro: Be careful what you ban

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If I stop buying your goods, can I change you? Boycotts are a common political tactic, but they are sometimes more fashionable than successful, and their outcomes are not entirely predictable

SOUTH AFRICANS know a few things about boycotts, and Israel and those who want to boycott it could learn a bit, even though the two countries are worlds apart culturally and historically. From the 1960s until almost the end of apartheid, the trade, cultural, sports, academic and other sanctions against South Africa were intended to force the white regime to abandon its racist policies and its suppression of the black majority.

Historians will forever argue over how much the sanctions were responsible for apartheid’s demise, compared to other factors such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which changed the political environment. Nevertheless, being cut off from the world was painful; even travelling overseas on a South African passport was uncomfortable.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s first major victory, in 1961, forced South Africa to leave the Commonwealth. In 1962, the UN General Assembly asked member states to impose a trade boycott. In 1963, the Security Council called for a partial arms ban.

Expecting South Africa to capitulate, there was one effect the boycotters didn’t adequately foresee. Among certain sectors of the population, particularly conservative Afrikaners who wielded power, the boycotts induced a stubborn, creative camaraderie, a determination to hold things together and flourish despite sanctions – the opposite of the demoralisation the boycotters wanted. It was the midst of the Cold War, and politicians rallied conservative white groups by labelling liberal anti-apartheid protestors ‘communists’ – a damning indictment in the Cold War mindset. So South Africa continued stubbornly, for decades, to endure while the world was busy with the Cold War.

There is much talk today about partial or full boycotts of Israel. Anti-Israel movements use the South African boycotts as their model. But it is misguided. Africa is not the Middle East, and despite its flaws, Israel is not South African apartheid. Internationally, a major destabilising factor today is the complex conflict between the Islamic and western worlds. And boycotts can have the opposite effect to what is intended.

BDS makes a lot of noise, but achieving a full boycott of Israel is highly unlikely. It can only be symbolic. Israel stands on the highway of the world and is as strong as it has ever been. Most participants in ‘boycott’ groups know this.

So one wonders why Israel bothered to detain at Ben Gurion airport the 22-year-old American student Lara Alqasem who arrived on October 2 on a study visa. It was absurd when security officials who blocked her, cited her membership of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, and her alleged support for BDS. All it did was raise the boycotters’ profile; it had no practical effect. And by coming to Israel to study at the Hebrew University, Alqasem gave up any claim to represent the boycott movement.

Fortunately Israel’s Supreme Court has now overturned the decision of the Minister of the Interior to deny her entry, and she has entered the country after a two-week delay.

Pressuring Israel to change policies towards the Palestinians is urgently necessary. Its occupation of the West Bank will, if unchecked, foreclose any possibly of a two-state solution. But contrary to their intentions, supporters of boycotts are only giving the current government and its prime minister more politically expedient ammunition to tell Israelis that once again, ‘the whole world is against the Jewish state’. He will elevate BDS to the level of an existential threat, and rally Israelis behind him as if they were fighting yet another mortal, ‘anti-Semitic’ enemy.

South African sanctions had a huge effect on the country. But BDS will ultimately fail. Opposition to Israeli policies must come from within the Israeli and Jewish world. The question is how much damage, through overreacting, the prime minister will allow it to do to Israel’s image in the meantime.

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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Knowing us, knowing them: Healing feels impossible

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Working together: will it bring peace? In the Barkan Industrial Park, one of several Israeli-run commercial zones near Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Israel and its supporters hold it up as a model of coexistence. In the picture, an Israeli security guard with Palestinian workers as they wait to cross into the zone

THE killing two weeks ago of Israeli employees by an Arab worker at the Barkan industrial zone in the West Bank, a zone punted as exemplifying how Israelis and Palestinians could work together despite political problems, shows again the conflict’s intractability: Will reconciliation ever occur between the sides, even in small doses? Barkan reportedly has over 100 different factories where 8000 Palestinians and Israelis from both sides of the Green Line earn a living.

Jews in western countries look on with despair: What would it take for meaningful reconciliation to happen? They look to their own countries for possible approaches.

What about South Africa, touted as the exemplar of ‘dialogue’ for resolving problems because of achievements during former president Nelson Mandela’s era? Can this country offer anything? There are gigantic differences between the contexts – historical, religious and cultural. But this country also once attempted to reconcile obdurate differences between sides at loggerheads for generations – black South Africa and white South Africa, even though military power lay with the whites who called the shots. It has been partially but not completely successful.

The SA Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 followed South Africa’s political settlement. Is it totally naive to think there might one day be a Palestinian-Israeli TRC, even though there is no Mandela there?

There have been political wrongs from both sides. Even Barkan’s location in the occupied Palestinian territories makes it an obvious target for an attack. But nevertheless, could Palestinians and Israelis ever sit around a table and unpack rationally what occurred during seven decades of battle? It is unlikely to happen anytime soon; the chasm between them is so deep that mutual understanding is probably impossible in the short term. And victories and defeats in a peoples’ history become incorporated as emotive folklore, never to be forgotten. The Jewish people is as adept at this as any other; Arabs and Muslims equally so.

Add to this today’s ‘fake news’ ethos of social media, where distinguishing truth from lies is often impossible. Past attempts to reveal truth through a process such as South Africa’s TRC, seem quaint today amidst the full-blown social media circus, where truth is utterly malleable. How would Palestinians and Israelis fare?

Many people would say that Middle Eastern politics is so complex that the TRC model is a complete non-starter; South Africa’s problems seem relatively simple by comparison. All we can hope for is an uneasy truce between the Israeli and Palestinian enemies, where each side knows it cannot fully defeat the other.

Sporadic groups of Israelis and Palestinians have formed forums to get to know each other, with small-scale successes. The Barkan zone is an example where, through working together, some progress may be made. Politically too there have been some successes, such as the fact that Arab Israelis – Palestinians, essentially – have full rights in Israel and hold official positions in government and elsewhere.

But healing on a grand scale can only begin after a political settlement. Indeed, South Africa’s TRC happened only after the political settlement. This is still a very long way off in the Middle East, and none of the current crop of leaders, including Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterparts, seems willing or able to attempt it. US President Donald Trump’s much-touted ‘peace plan’ is yet to offer any hope.

Continuing with the theme of truth-seeking, a movie opened last week in Johannesburg cinemas called The Forgiven, about Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s successful role in the TRC. In contrast, in Israel the killing continues, in Barkan and elsewhere. Will a film called The Forgiven ever be made about Israel-Palestine?

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

 

Donald Trump: the Ku Klux Klan comes back – it never died

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Let us not score goals together: Palestinian and Israeli girls play soccer together in Holon, Israel, in 2013 as part of a programme to encourage them to get to know each other and make friends. The hope is that this will help in the process of making peace. But the US is withdrawing funds for such programmes

 

ONE puzzling aspect of this era is how to understand US President Donald Trump. His administration has announced it will cut the last remaining channel of American aid to Palestinian civilians, the conflict Management and Mitigation Program which allows Palestinians — many of them youth — to interact with Israelis, through US funding managed by USAID. The funds went to people-to-people exchanges, such as organising soccer games for Palestinian and Israeli girls, and bringing Israeli and Palestinian almond farmers together.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser on the Middle East, believes increasing punitive pressure on Palestinian civilians will create maximum negotiating leverage when it comes to implementing a supposed US peace proposal. Other US political leaders say the decision to cut such funding indicates that Trump has failed at diplomacy, that you don’t advance peace by cutting off programs for tolerance and understanding.

If he is serious about his boast that he will be the man to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, after a century of conflict, why would he want to cut off interaction? Is it a boast he himself doesn’t believe.

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US President Donald Trump

On the other side, Israelis are generally pleased with Trump. He has relocated America’s embassy to Jerusalem, slashed payments to UNRWA which they feel perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, withdrawn America from Unesco which has long been hostile to Israel, and has a positive relationship with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

To millions worldwide, however, Trump still appears the fool he has been painted to be – impulsive, over-sensitive to criticism, and racist. He has hugely impacted global politics, using American power to confront long-established status quos. He has changed the tone of political discourse, introducing racist elements with comments like the one in January when he called African countries “shithole countries.” Will his flouting of established political protocol and withdrawal of America into an aggressive and nationalistic “America First” mind-set, ultimately lead the world to war?

Coincidentally, at precisely the same time as he is withdrawing funding to help Palestinian and Israeli children understand each other, his suggested racism is portrayed in a brilliant movie directed by celebrated filmmaker Spike Lee called Black Klansman, just released in Johannesburg.  It is a true account by a black undercover American policeman who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, together with a Jewish co-officer. The deadly racism of white supremacists, as a thread in American society, is starkly illustrated. The thread still continues.

It led to a bloody clash in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white supremacists and counter-protestors, many of them black. It was widely reported in world media. Torch-bearing white nationalists carrying guns, wearing Ku Klux Klan headgear, and waving Confederate flags and neo-Nazi emblems, marched through the town. A man rammed a car into counter-protesters, killing a woman. Trump did not denounce the white supremacists. He said there were “very fine people on both sides”. He did not call for reconciliation between them and black Americans, or impose punitive measures on them. Black people say Americans who were quietly racist before, now feel emboldened to say it openly under Trump.

What has this got to do with Israel, Jews and Palestinians? This is not a man searching doggedly for reconciliation between different people. Achieving an accord between Israelis and Palestinians has always required both a carrot and a stick to make the sides cooperate. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, favoured the carrot – he would never have cut Israeli-Palestinian interaction. Trump uses the stick, as if cutting contact will bring reconciliation. The real victims are the children, including Israelis and Palestinians, who won’t have the opportunity to know each other.

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

 

After all this time, the Europe in our blood still runs

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We will return, even if it is 77 years later: Young people from the MEGA project of Minsk Hillel work to restore an old gravestone in the Jewish village of Zjembin in Belarus, whose inhabitants were killed by the Nazis in 1941

IN SPITE OF ALL the filth in world politics today, at this time of the year, it is not only appropriate but necessary to see some of the positive things happening in the ancient home of major Jewish populations – Europe.

As one example, contemporary Berlin is one of Germany’s most liberal cities and the destination of choice for many Israelis for interest and enjoyment. For them, there’s little in the atmosphere to indicate that it was the centre of German life during Hitler’s reign. Sometimes a trip there also includes visiting sites of the Third Reich, but many go mostly for pleasure. Of course this doesn’t downplay the crassness of the ‘selfie-takers’ at Holocaust sites.

In the city of Lviv in the Ukraine, once a major centre of Eastern European Jewish life, a ceremony last Sunday, attended by the non-Jewish mayor and other dignitaries, marked the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s annihilation of the Jewish population. It honoured people working to preserve what they can of what was left from the Nazi assault. A poignant illustration was an old metal synagogue key, which an American artist found at the market and recreated in glass; copies were presented by city authorities to 75 people. The ceremonies included a concert amid the synagogue ruins. The project comes amid larger attempts to revive memories of the Jews who were once integral to the region’s life.

The list of positive things continues: Last month a group of 30 American and Eastern European youngsters, descendants of Jews who once lived in the tiny shtetl of Zjembin in Belarus, repaired the Jewish cemetery, restoring tombstones and constructing a border fence. In 1941, the Nazis took Zjembin’s Jews into the nearby forest and shot them. The cemetery contains the ashes of Jews who had lived there between the 1700s and the 1900s. For many years it was neglected, and the graves disappeared under grass and debris. The youngsters were part of the Minsk Hillel’s project “MEGA” which has been working to clean up Belarus’ abandoned Jewish cemeteries, and to restore, describe and systematise graves, such as in the towns of Rogachev, Dyatlovo and Shatsk.

A more personal example of changes in attitudes of non-Jews comes from a Polish non-Jewish woman who signed up for the summer Yiddish programme at Columbia University in New York recently, and was one of the most dedicated students. She illustrates the beliefs of many Polish communities that Poland lost something of its soul when its Jews were lost to the Nazis. Jews once made up 10 per cent of Poland’s population. As part of this change in attitude towards “Jewish” culture, a klezmer music festival was revived some years ago by non-Jewish Poles.

But one must not be naïve about it. In our confusing era, positive trends live side by side with dangerous revivals in Europe of authoritarianism bordering on fascism. In some places old-style anti-Semitism is emerging again, such as in France, where Jews fear wearing kippot in public places today.

It is hard for Jews to make sense of all this, to trust the positives while recognising the negatives. One extraordinary change since the Holocaust is the tremendous development of Israel, to the point where it is the second largest Jewish community in the world after America, with a Jewish and non-Jewish population of some 8 million. It is often the source of acrimonious debate among Jews and others about Palestinian and other issues and is constantly under threat from its neighbours. But if Israel had been in 1941 anything like today, things would have been different for Europe’s Jews.

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

 

 

Lessons from Fukuyama: History is never boring

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Who really runs government? A virtual shadow state was created during the past ten years in South Africa by corrupt people, who manipulated the appointment of ministers and the use of state funds, often with the knowledge of former president Jacob Zuma. The chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, gave a media update on May 24 2018 (Photo: Sowetan/Thulani Mbele)

ONE HISTORICAL marker in the South African mind is the iconic King Kong musical, a rebellion against apartheid which took the nation by storm in 1959 when the racist regime was tightening its grip. It caused a sensation as a collaboration among blacks and whites – a challenge to apartheid’s attempt to separate people. It played to 200 000 South Africans before transferring to London’s West End.

Much history has passed since then: the awful decades of apartheid, the liberation struggle, Mandela’s release after 27 years, and eventually, amidst the naïve euphoria of the 1990s, the belief in a new, better South Africa.

Fast forward to today: The nation is in the clutches of another regime: sleaze, which threatens our democracy. The Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, in which government officials Mcebisi Jonas and Vytjie Mentor tell of the Gupta brothers’ attempts to bribe them, are the tip of the iceberg. Disappointment in how things have turned out since Mandela is palpable.

A lesson from the northern hemisphere is apt. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama, an acclaimed American political philosopher, prophesied the “end of history.” He postulated that after the fall of communism, free-market liberal democracy had won and would become the world’s “final form of human government.” Globalisation was the vehicle for liberalism to spread across the globe. Power politics and tribal divisions would be supplanted by the rule of law and institutions. His views were welcomed; his argument framed the international zeitgeist. But it was not long before things started going wrong.

Now that liberal democracy seems to be in crisis across the West, Fukuyama has modified his views: “Twenty five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward… they clearly can… Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history… will serve to get history started once again.”

So too, in South Africa. When Mandela was released, amidst euphoria – which seems simplistic now – South Africans drew up their sacred document, the constitution. It embodied the most idealistic principles; the travails of the past would, with cooperation from all, be put into the past. The liberation movements had won, apartheid was over, and the way forward was optimistic. The abiding image was of Mandela walking triumphantly out of prison, smiling, hand in hand with Winnie. Of course, much healing was needed, but he infused an energy everyone could draw from. South African history was “over.”

But watching the Zondo commission and testimonies from Jonas and Mentor, amid the wave of other scandals, it’s clear South African history is not over – like Fukuyama’s European and American democracies, democracy here can also go backwards.

But things are not as bad as they sometimes feel. Seeing the legal dignity of the Zondo commission, the roles of sophisticated black and white advocates, and coverage by a free media, must give optimism: South African history has not gone completely backwards. Here too, history has started again – and it won’t be boring.

And under the radar, at the level of the common folk, resides a different country with some of King Kong‘s spirit. Last weekend, the only surviving member of the cast, Bra B Ngwenya, was a guest at Benoni’s community arts centre, Sibikwa. Thirty years ago, Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba founded Sibikwa in times just as sleazy as they are now. Bra B accompanied joyous black children on the keyboard. Their optimism was infectious. For those kids, history is forward, not backwards.

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

 

 

Your way, my way: The tightrope of being Jewish ‘enough’ in this world

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SA Jews – a different future? Jewish South African politician Jack Bloom in a shanty town near Johannesburg where he spent time after a devastating fire. He chronicled his experiences in his 2015 book, “30 Nights in a Shack.” In an interview, he says the experience prodded him to return to his Jewish roots. He was inspired by legendary Jewish anti-Apartheid politician Helen Suzman (photo Times of Israel)

WARNINGS of alarming schisms threatening the Jewish people’s future have come in the last two months from two international Jewish heavyweights: Ronald Lauder, right-wing billionaire, Donald Trump supporter, and president of the World Jewish Congress; and Naomi Chazan, left-wing professor of politics at the Hebrew University and former speaker of the Knesset. Their views also challenge South African Jewry.

Lauder’s article in the New York Times last week described rising rifts between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, America and Israel. Young Americans compare Israel’s ethos on human rights and similar issues to theirs, and are becoming alienated. This is exacerbated by domination of Israel’s government by ultra-Orthodox parties, and PM Netanyahu’s apparent disregard of how his policies are perceived by Diaspora Jewry.

Examples of the past year include the government withdrawing from an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, proposing a strict conversion law impinging on non-Orthodox Jews’ rights, and a law denying equal rights to same-sex couples.

Lauder says the vast majority of the world’s Jews are not Orthodox, but traditional, secular, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated. Orthodoxy should be respected, “but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.”

Chazan’s equally sombre warning in July in a Times of Israel blog said two Jewish worlds are being created: A progressive, open, liberal and pluralistic mindset among most American Jews; and a conservative, particularistic, introspective and much less tolerant worldview in contemporary Israel.

She quotes American Jewish Committee polls: 73 per cent of American Jews support a mixed-gender prayer area near the Kotel, but only 42 per cent of Israeli Jews; 80 per cent of American Jews favor allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to perform marriages, divorces and conversions, but only 49 per cent of Israeli Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows similar divisions: 85 per cent of Israelis applauded Trump’s decision to relocate America’s embassy to Jerusalem, but only 46 per cent of American Jews.

Does South African Jewry fit this American-Israeli split? South African Jews have extensive links to both America and Israel, but contrary to America, this tiny community of 70,000 is largely Orthodox-dominated – the Reform component is tiny, and many Jews have chosen to be unaffiliated. South African Jewry at large has a reputation of being conservative on Judaism and Israel, and the violence-ridden South African society also creates a tendency to be inward-looking, although with some notable exceptions of people who engage deeply with the society in political and social activism.

There are indications of a different trend, however, even in the mainstream of the community, towards a more open attitude along the lines of the American Jewish mindset, exemplified by the phenomenal growth of the annual Jewish liberal conference, Limmud, a concept which is hosted worldwide. When it was launched in South Africa in August 2007, senior Orthodox rabbis would not participate – as was the case almost everywhere in Jewish communities worldwide, even though Limmud does not oppose the principles of Orthodoxy.

On 25 October 2013, the SA Jewish Report reported: ‘In 2008, the Southern African Rabbinical Association discouraged members from participating, referring in a resolution to its “existing policy toward the upcoming Limmud learning programme, which is that no (Orthodox) rabbi will accept an invitation to participate”.’

This policy is still largely in place but it has not dented Limmud’s growth, and relationships between the Orthodox establishment and other streams are generally characterised by goodwill and tolerance. This month’s hugely successful Limmud was packed to the rafters with Jews of every stripe.

But still, reported the Jewish Report in the same issue of 2013, among South African Jewry, the issue regretfully sits like the proverbial “elephant in the room” particularly in the light of “the stunning success of recent projects emanating from the Orthodox establishment, such as Sinai Indaba and the Shabbos Project.”

Taking a cue from Chazan: Will South African Jewry develop in the future according to the open, liberal and pluralistic American Jewish ethos, or the Israeli model of a conservative, particularistic, introspective, less tolerant worldview?

It will be neither. It exists in a very different environment to both. This corruption-ridden, unstable South Africa, with its ethnic and racial pressures and hostility towards Israel, influences how the community defines itself in a different way to both America and Israel. And the needs of SA society will make radically different demands on it in political and other ways. In whatever manner things develop in the relationship between Orthodoxy and other streams of Judaism, there are a multitude of other tough issues South African Jewry will have to deal with, and its resources will have to work together and evolve to be unique to the situation here – a challenge as great anything else.

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

White guilt: Why calling a spade, a spade is scary

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Is this white or black land? White dispossession of black people’s land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through colonial expansion was resisted by black lawyers who used the law as an instrument, but lost the fight. People such as advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi tell the story in his book The Land is Ours: Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism in South Africa, launched in Cape Town in May. Land and white privilege continues to haunt the country today

“DON’T YOU dare say I don’t belong here!” That’s what a group of mostly middle-aged Jews who lived through apartheid seemed, privately, to want to say to black advocate and author of the book “The Land is Ours”, Tembeka Ngcukatoibi,  last Sunday in Johannesburg. They were at a panel discussion that grappled with how whites and Jews make meaning of their lives in South Africa today. But what these people in the audience actually conveyed, pleadingly, was: “I beg of you, please tell me I belong.”

Ngcukatoibi insisted that to really belong, they needed to shed their ‘whiteness’. The aim, he said, was to create an ‘African’ identity. White and black must be transcended. But what about their ‘Jewishness’?

This is the anguished conversation playing itself out in a myriad ways in South Africa, 2018 and, in this case, at Limmud, a two-day conference with a range of workshops and talks on topics of relevance to South African Jews.

Ngcukatoibi was on a panel that included journalist Richard Poplak and SA Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng chair Marc Pozniak, and facilitator Lael Bethlehem.

Panelists drenched the audience in guilt for not fitting into the new South Africa. The discomfort was obvious, while not expressed openly. However, a quiet voice inside them seemed to say: “Do I actually want be part of this new South Africa, with its ghastly corruption, politics and violent crime? As a white, I am sidelined. When I apply for a job, I am told it is for blacks only. I have relatives in Australia; why should I stay?”

Hard questions. The panel was arguably one of the conference’s most relevant, and despite it being the last on a full schedule, the hall was packed. But while the topic should have ignited passionate arguments, there were instead polite platitudes and tip-toeing around deep feelings. Is there a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, the politically incorrect? South African politics today is a minefield of racial and other accusations, whether justified or not.

All panelists were on the moderate left. What was missing was someone from the right to provoke, to say unapologetically, as some whites do: “I am a white South African who didn’t ask to be born into apartheid, but worked incredibly hard my whole life for my living and my kids. I will not be made guilty, and will fight if you try to take it from me! Or I’ll leave the country with my skills and money.”

Disappointment in how South Africa has turned out is widespread among whites – you hear it everywhere in the Jewish community and other communities. The enthusiasm of Mandela’s era has been replaced by fear.

People who 25 years ago decided to stay and rebuild the country, are rethinking. Many audience members had always opposed apartheid in one way or another, even if they didn’t go underground. Bethlehem asked: “Can you be white and ‘progressive’ today, as in the past, by running an NGO and giving blankets, or is that space closed? Can Jews be part of the national project?”

Poplak issued a challenge: “When did Jews become white? They came to South Africa and negotiated their ‘whiteness’, sometimes with bad people, at the majority’s expense. But the gigantic gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation in 1994 has not worked out and we’re at the giving-back stage, way past charity and sewing blankets. You have to give up something to belong.”

Ngcukatoibi expresses blacks’ feelings eloquently: The cultural domination of whites suffocates black people, forcing them to negotiate inclusion into the cultural space determined by whites – the language, the institutions. ‘Whiteness’ remains the overriding cultural norm, in an overwhelmingly black country; whites must give up their supremacy.

Is giving up ‘whiteness’ even possible for South African Jews to consider? It might include giving up things like holiday homes and 4x4s. Is this community too comfortable in its affluence to rethink itself? The same questions apply to other communities. These questions need to be on the table even if there are no simple answers.

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

The Likud selfie: drawings that shout louder than words

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What’s in a pen? Drawings of political cartoonists are often the first thing people read in a paper, lampooning some essential quality about people and events, often delighting, and equally often outraging the subjects of their drawings. Zapiro, (above) has long been an iconic commentator on South African affairs

WHO WOULD have thought a shocking picture of a woman being raped by then president Jacob Zuma would appear on the oped pages of a major South African newspaper? Not a photograph, but a drawing. What about an image in an Israeli paper showing Israeli leaders as pigs? That’s what political cartoonists like Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – and Avi Katz do in South Africa and Israel: stab at peoples’ most sensitive impulses, to make a point. They have outraged people for years – and delighted many. And Katz was fired last Tuesday from his position at the Jerusalem Report magazine for his ‘pigs’ cartoon, reported Ynet.

For Zapiro, rape has been a potent image to depict South Africa’s ‘rape’ under Zuma, based initially on accusations in 2005 that he raped a friend’s daughter, known as ‘Khwezi’.

In 2008 a Zapiro cartoon in the Sunday Times depicted Zuma preparing to rape ‘Lady Justice’ who was held down by major politicians, with one saying, “Go for it, boss!” And in 2011 a cartoon in the Mail and Guardian showed Zuma zipping up his pants, lasciviously, as an ANC politician held down a woman, with the words “free speech” draped over her body and Lady Justice looking on saying “Fight, sister. Fight!”  Then in 2017 a cartoon in the Daily Maverick depicted the Gupta brothers robbing the country with corruption – again, Zuma was shown zipping up his pants gleefully as one brother prepared to rape a woman draped in the South African flag, held down by political figures. The caption read: “She’s all Yours, Boss!”

South African Jews find Zapiro’s unashamed anti-Israel depictions highly offensive – he has gone so far as to draw analogies between contemporary Israel and Nazism. In April 2002 he depicted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as similar to a Nazi leader, when the IDF bombarded the West Bank town of Jenin after a wave of suicide bombings.

Rape for one, pigs for another: In Israel, veteran cartoonist Avi Katz rendered an image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers as the pig characters in George Orwell’s iconic book “Animal Farm.” The unflattering image derived from a photograph which appeared in Israeli papers of the Knesset members taking a congratulatory selfie to celebrate the passage of the controversial nation state bill. The cartoon’s homage to “Animal Farm” included the widely known quote “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

In response, hundreds of outraged comments were posted on Katz’ Facebook page deploring his swine imagery – pigs are considered unclean in Judaism. Some compared his cartoon to anti-Semitic caricatures.

The cartoon was shared more than 2,800 times. “Crazy anti-Semite, filled with self-loathing…” wrote one commenter. Another wrote that within a few months, the brouhaha about the nation state bill will recede, but Katz’s cartoon will remain forever and become a new anti-Semitic Shylock image, like that from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, to be exploited by Jew-haters. It will be uncontrollable and enable hatred “of orthodox, of fat, of men, of Jews in general…”

Are Katz’s critics correct? In a statement, the Union of Journalists in Israel voiced support for him, saying: “Causing harm to a journalist because he expressed an opinion, let alone when it was approved by his editors, is a dangerous step that must not be accepted.”

We are living in dangerously deceptive times, where the internet makes it easy to tar the cartoonist as the ultimate enemy. Love them or hate them, the job of a political cartoonist is to confront and make people think, and they will do that even by resorting to the most inflammatory images conceivable. It’s their job.

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

Lavender power: Israel’s tinder box?

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Gay pride, no longer any need to hide; it is a bedrock of the South African constitution: Simon Nkoli holding a sign representing the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) region (now Gauteng) at a pride march in 1998

FURIOUS PROTESTS currently going in Israel demanding LGBT rights and the surrogacy option, bring the spotlight home to what it was to be gay in apartheid South Africa – for many years illegal, punishable by fines and jail terms. Same-sex marriage, of course, was totally unimaginable. With worldwide shifts in social mores, how do things stand?

Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006. The SA Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country to legalise same-sex marriage. Couples can adopt children and arrange IVF and surrogacy. Other countries allowing same-sex marriage include Belgium, Canada, Argentina, England and Wales, and the United States.

But legal legitimacy doesn’t automatically translate into gay acceptance, particularly in black rural areas and townships. Even before the question of same-sex marriage, let alone surrogacy or children, in any form, comes up, black lesbians face the horror of so-called “corrective” rape. Rapists believe they can “fix” women not conforming to conservative gender norms. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, including against lesbians, because they are lesbians.

The plight of LGBT people is continually highlighted in theatre, photography and dance, by artists such as activist photographer Zanele Muholi, choreographer Mamela Nyamza and playwright/artistic director Phyllis Klotz, in very important works which give victims voice and achieve wide audiences. The media gives significant coverage.

But it is not just in South Africa, and not just a contemporary issue. In the United States during the Cold War in the 1950s, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy led the Federal government to target gay men and lesbians, accusing them of endangering public morals and linking them to Communists. In a movement known as the Lavender Threat, hundreds of people were persecuted, bullied and lost their jobs because they were suspected of being homosexual.

What about LGBT people in religious communities, such as the Jewish communities in America and South Africa? The American community and the Israeli one are the two largest Jewish communities in the world. The South African one is very much smaller and still shrinking.

When the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage was to be legally binding in all 50 states, American Jews celebrated. Surveys showed that some 77 per cent favoured its legitimacy. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish streams – which together constitute most religiously identified US Jews – supported it.

Among South African Jewry, which has traditionally been a conservative community, including towards gay people, greater acceptance of gays is apparent in recent years, following the trend in post-apartheid South Africa in urban areas. Prominent community rabbis have said openly that gays are welcome in their synagogues, without explicitly condoning homosexuality. Rabbis still refrain from conducting same-sex marriages, however, either because of personal reservations, or because the policy of their Jewish stream does not allow it.

The SA Jewish community has shrunk by half since its 1970s heyday to only some 60 000 people, and lacks diversity compared to the 5-million-strong American community, where Jews wanting to remain in the Jewish fold have numerous options, such as egalitarian minyans, similar to the Orthodox shtiebls which have sprung up in South Africa, but with a liberal slant.

Back in Tel Aviv, touted as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, legalisation of same-sex marriage and surrogacy seems, ironically, a long way off, despite the protests and the festive gay pride parade of 250,000 people earlier this year, for which the city closed major roads.

Haaretz reported this week on a Hadashot TV poll published on Tuesday, which found that a majority of Israelis across the political spectrum support the LGBT community’s fight for surrogacy rights. It showed that 56 percent of the public support the LGBT protests, while 33 percent oppose them.

Even right-wing parties backed the protests: 51 percent of Likud voters, and 58 percent  for Jewish Home, a largely religious party. Centrist and left-wing parties showed substantially higher support, with Zionist Union voters at 87 percent, Yesh Atid at 89 percent and Meretz at 82 percent

As expected, a majority among ultra-Orthodox parties opposed the LGBT campaign: United Torah Judaism and Shas registered 90 percent and 78 percent opposition respectively. The ultra-Orthodox opinion is crucial, since civil marriage is absent in Israel and all Jewish marriages must go through the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate, which follows the halachic injunction against homosexuality.

The Haredi parties’ political and religious power, however, rests on key positions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. Will the gender rights protest be the tinder box that ignites a new direction in Israel’s politics?

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

You call it cultural identity; he calls it racism – who is right?

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Jewish first or citizen first? Israeli parliament members and other people take part in a protest march in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018, against the new Nation-State Law, which has caused major divisions in Israel. The banner reads “this is the home of all of us”

FROM HERE at the bottom of Africa, with South Africa’s tragic racist history still dominating its people’s lives, Israel’s nation-state bill working its way through the Knesset causes a chill to run through the spine of lovers of Israel. We have seen in South Africa how a people’s legitimate drive to preserve their cultural identity – in the South African case, Afrikaans – can become an obsession with separateness from others, and ultimately separation between communities based on law.

Many items in the bill are quite reasonable for any nation proud of its identity. But vehement opposition to its initially proposed text honed in on a seriously objectionable clause, in paragraph 7(b), “to allow a community, including one composed of a single religion or nationality, to establish its own separate communal settlement.” This could permit, based on law, rejection of Israeli Arab citizens, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, from multiple Jewish settlements countrywide, and cause other groups with different identities to experience similar discrimination based on their religion, nationality or other criteria.

This is not South African apartheid, where power relationships and cultural issues were different. But enemies of Israel, and many friends, will see the trend as going in that direction –legalization of racism and ethnic chauvinism.

Fortunately, there are enough sane voices in Israel in the judiciary, politics, and even the Likud and the president himself, who see the terrible potential consequences of the trend towards this inward-looking mindset. This is not the Israel for which thousands of Jews fought, to have it turned into a place where separation of communities can be legislated based on religion, nationality, and similar defining characteristics.

All of this is not to say that communities should not be allowed to nurture their own identities, which already happens in a positive way in numerous places and helps build a strong society. Democracy has to be flexible enough to allow and encourage this. But to enshrine separateness in this kind of law opens potential deep chasms of division and is anti-democratic.

The fight-back from democratic forces resulted in revision of the wording of the most problematic section of the bill to read: “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.” Meaning that establishing Jewish settlement is not to be based on discrimination as a basic value, but authentic realization of Zionism.

Zionism has often been called the “liberation movement” of the Jewish people. Like all liberation movements it is idealistic, and interpreted in complex ways. But what happened to the Universalist vision of Zionism and the state of Israel? Critics of the overall thrust of the proposed bill protest that it relates only to Israel’s Jewish nature, contrary to principles of Israel’s declaration of independence. Israeli democracy is unmentioned, nor the spirit of equality that has attracted Jews worldwide to identify with it as a source of enlightenment to themselves and the world.

Jews have prided themselves on how Israel has sustained the diversity of its society and democratic vibrancy despite never-ending attacks on it; other countries have reacted to such threats by becoming militant dictatorships. It seems an abrogation of that vision to defend a bill such as this, which does not acknowledge the one-fifth of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. Yet this is happening at the hands of an Israeli government.

South African Jewry is especially qualified, having lived for decades in a society where communities were separated based on law, to sound warning bells about the direction in which Israel is heading. Will anyone here do it?

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