Would the real journalist please stand up?

New York Times

Can newspapers meet today’s challenges? The media is criticised for sloppy journalism in an era when rampant racism and seething conflicts make every word important

CAN the media be trusted? The New York Times this week criticised its own editors for sloppy journalism regarding how they dealt with an op-ed on Sunday by a Palestinian leader jailed in Israel. It coincided with a well-known South African online paper, Huffington Post SA, being slammed for a racist blog post headlined “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” written by someone who it was later shown did not exist.

It’s tough to hold up high standards in journalism today, when fake news is everywhere and the onslaught of mediocrity and mob rule through social media has so shaken the industry. A story in the Israeli online paper YNET reports that only 26 per cent of Jewish Israelis have faith in the press, according an Israel Democracy Institute survey. This probably reflects low regard for the media today in many other places.

Both of the above cases relate to highly charged political contexts – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racism in South Africa – which should make editors doubly concerned with journalistic credibility.

Sunday’s NYT op-ed by Palestinian Marwan Barghouti criticised Israel and justified a mass hunger strike which he had organised by Palestinians jailed for security-related offences. It is perfectly appropriate to publish such a piece, it is part of the debate on the issues, and Barghouti is an important figure in Palestinian politics – some people have described him as a Palestinian “Mandela”.

However, the op-ed’s tag line described Barghouti as a “parliamentarian and leader” without mentioning that he was in an Israeli jail after being sentenced by an Israeli court to five life terms for murder and terrorism.

After an outcry, the NYT’s public editor responsible for monitoring its journalistic integrity, on Tuesday criticised the op-ed department, saying “skimping” on key background information on opinion writers – Barghouti’s terror activities in this case – discredits it. Papers need to “fully identify the biography and credentials of authors, especially details that help people make judgements about the opinions they’re reading.” Failure to do so suggests an inappropriate agenda.

Outraged Israeli officials said the way the paper referred to Barghouti was akin to calling murderous Syrian President Bashar Assad an eye doctor, because he had studied medicine.

The NYT admitted its mistake. An online clarification on Tuesday said the article had “…neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted….”

In the South African case, the HuffPost ran the anti-white racist blog from one “Shelley Garland” without being rigorous about determining who she was. It later turned out she didn’t exist; it was a race hoax performed by a self-described white man in Johannesburg which HuffPost had fallen for. The story went viral internationally when American right-wing papers spread it on social media to illustrate their view that people of colour posed a threat to white people.

The HuffPost editor initially defended the posting of the piece, but later removed it and admitted she didn’t know who Shelley Garland was and had not done sufficient checks to determine this.

It might be some consolation to the HuffPost’s editors that they are at least in good company with the NYT, when that illustrious paper also neglects journalistic obligations for which it is criticised. An editor’s job is a hard one and all papers sometimes make mistakes.

But that should not comfort them. Freedom of speech is essential and they can defend it in those terms, but in the current volatile environment, allowing a racist post onto a news and opinion website which proposes denying white men the franchise detracts from the seriousness of their platform, and suggests a political agenda. Would they have run the story if the headline had suggested that blacks, for instance, should be denied the vote for 20 years?

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

Deafened by the dark laughter of our times

Zapiro and Uys

South Africa in chaos: tragic or hilarious? Satirical performer Pieter-Dirk Uys and cartoonist Zapiro confront the identities and sensitivities of South Africa and its political turmoil, provoking outrage and praise

AS anxious South Africans take sides for or against President Jacob Zuma and his clinging to power, it is often artists who show the true nature of the dilemmas. Ever since the worst days of apartheid one of the best has been Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned and enraged apartheid leaders such as PW Botha. His latest show at Montecasino last week, Echo of a Noise, shines a light on the torment of having to choose who you are and what you believe in as an individual or society.

Illustrious cartoonist Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – in his latest work this week, shows how Zuma has ‘raped’ the country and handed it to his patron the Gupta family. The cartoon has evoked outrage as well as high praise for its use of violent sex against a black woman as a metaphor for the plight of this country. It follows a previous cartoon in 2008 about the president ‘raping’ the justice system, which resulted in serious threats by Zuma to sue him.

The racial monster is rising again – the truth is, it never left, but was hidden for a while under the spell of Mandela – exploited by Zuma’s rants against whites and ‘white monopoly capital’ to hide his government’s corruption and ineptitude. South Africans are questioning their identity and how to relate to fellow South Africans who may be different. Sadly, many know only to shout at each other rather than listen.

Uys, who developed a stage persona as an Afrikaans woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, needs no introduction here. In his current show he tells the story of his own life, on a set containing a single black plastic chair in which he sits for an hour and a half facing the audience, as a 71-year-old man, stripped of make-up and wigs, in the intimate way one talks to a friend.

He didn’t know when he was a child growing up in Pinelands near Cape Town that his mother, a gifted pianist, had come from Germany in the 1930s to escape the anti-Jewish tide before the war. She brought her piano with her. She married an Afrikaner, Hannes Uys, who believed in church, discipline and racial separation. Hannes was the church organist and a piano teacher. Pieter’s sister Tessa later became a world-renowned concert pianist, returning the piano to its origins in Berlin in subsequent years. Mozart’s spirit filled their house.

Their coloured domestic maid, Sannie, was a central character in his life, adding to the rich mix of identities he grew up with.

One day a visitor arrived for his mother, a childhood friend from Europe. He hears them speaking German as they drink tea. He asks the woman what the tattooed numbers on her wrist are – perhaps a telephone number? She smiles wryly and says yes, and perhaps he should call that number? She couldn’t begin to explain to such a young boy what had happened in Germany.

Uys recounts how his mother confided to a German friend who had helped her immigrate to South Africa, about how to make sense of the laws forbidding blacks to sit on park benches, work in certain jobs and live in certain areas, when similar laws against Jews were what she had fled Germany to escape. She suffered from depression and later committed suicide by jumping off a cliff at Chapman’s Peak.

Uys found apartheid South Africa both tragic and ironic and even made us laugh at its absurdity. Zapiro has similarly portrayed the multiple identities of the country with all their ironies and sensitivities, but very few people are laughing.

Hard choices face South Africans today about who they are, as they did when Uys was growing up. Will those who still believe in a great country eject Zuma and his evil and heal what he has damaged?

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

  • For a review of Echo of a Noise click here

Killarney to fortress Gupta: a walk to save SA

Gupta house entrance gate 2

Wealth and power amidst SA poverty: Guards patrol the entrance to the Gupta family mansion in Saxonwold. President Zuma is believed to be in the pocket of the family, acting for their and his interests and damaging the country

IT IS only three minutes’ walk from the intersection of Oxford and Riviera roads in Johannesburg’s Killarney neighbourhood, where beggars hold cardboard signs saying “No food, no job, please help”, to the Gupta family’s estate in the adjoining, elite Saxonwold neighbourhood, where menacing security guards and expensive cars are always present at the high walls. Government officials have been frequent visitors to the Saxonwold mansion for highly suspect reasons.



Zuma faces rising calls to resign

These are the stark, opposing South African realities: the former evoking shame, the latter producing widespread outrage at the Guptas’ capture of the country through their puppets President Jacob Zuma and his cronies. There were beggars and rich people here decades ago during apartheid – the blacks were workers from townships and the whites, residents of Killarney and Saxonwold. Today the country has a black government and president, but the inequalities remain and the poverty has increased, albeit with the racial divide somewhat blurred.

During apartheid, Killarney’s blocks of flats were inhabited largely by Jews, some of them high-profile leaders in business, politics and the arts. The population today is more diverse, as a large Muslim population has moved in, as well as other groups. The Saxonwold mansions are mostly owned by ‘old’ money, people who have been wealthy and rooted in the neighbourhood for many years.

South Africa’s current crisis shows Zuma as a tinpot dictator – a president gone ‘rogue’, says ANC stalwart Barbara Hogan – doing things that serve his interests and the Guptas, and threaten the country’s well-being. Such as last week’s dead-of-night Cabinet reshuffle to include people who will do his bidding, allow him to raid the Treasury and strengthen his patronage network. In response, S&P Global Ratings agency has cut South Africa’s investment rating to junk status, and Moody’s has also put the country on watch for a possible downgrade to junk.

Although this country’s history is riddled with angry citizens’ protests through the apartheid era – protest is almost part of South African culture – people don’t know what to do now as the ‘enemy’ is less clear than it was then. Marches are planned, but they alone won’t bring down Zuma. He could ignore them, and his supporters could easily mobilise counter-protests.

Legal actions in Parliament and the Constitutional Court, or decisions by ANC internal structures are necessary to force him out. There is a high prospect of all of them being pursued, as the national outcry against Zuma grows. But a display of disgust en masse is essential for citizens to express themselves and begin healing the country.

What if the people of Killarney – joined by others from elsewhere – took an initiative, assembled in Riviera road at the traffic lights where the beggars stand, and marched to the Guptas to picket at their gates, televised by the media?

The faces in the anti-Zuma protests shown on television, such as Saturday’s memorial to struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada, came from all parts of the society, religious and secular. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, leftists, rightists, rich and poor. Human rights  and political organisations have joined, for example the Helen Suzman Foundation which said Zuma’s action has “endangered the country’s economic and financial situation” and created “a constitutional crisis.”

The mandate of religion-based organisations like the SA Jewish Board of Deputies is to look after community interests, not get involved in politics. But many Jewish organisations have a long history of political action during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women and the United Sisterhood. Jewish individuals were active in the Black Sash, Operation Hunger and other NGOs. Now would be a good time for a new generation of activists to come forward. The country needs them.

During apartheid most people were afraid of protesting the brutal regime, except for a brave few who made huge sacrifices such as Ronnie Kasrils, Albie Sachs and others. Now there is little official danger, although the possibility exists of violence between Zuma opponents and supporters – the ANC Youth League has already threatened force against Zuma’s critics.

What should expat South Africans in Canada, Australia, the UK and other places be saying to friends and relatives living here? Should they urge them to leave, as this country threatens to become another ‘Zimbabwe’? Some might leave. But for the majority who stay, getting involved is crucial.

Whether the march from Killarney through the beggars’ intersection to the Gupta mansion happens or not, it is a metaphor and a message for what South Africans must do to reclaim their country.

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

Struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada: a man of balance

Kathrada 1 (2)

Anti-apartheid struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada holds a sign from the apartheid era saying only white people may use a lift in a building. Blacks had to use a separate lift allocated for “Tradesmen, non-Europeans, prams and dogs”. Kathrada died Tuesday morning

STRUGGLE veteran and South African hero Ahmed Kathrada’s death on Tuesday came just a few days after the furore about Western Cape premier Helen Zille’s controversial tweets saying that colonialism had not only brought oppression to Africa, but had also brought some good things, such as the principle of an independent judiciary and other pillars of a functioning state.

The two events are vastly different, but throw light on each other.

Kathrada, one of the accused in the Rivonia Treason Trial in 1964 who was jailed by the apartheid regime for anti-apartheid activities, and who spent many years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, brought some sanity to today’s climate of political correctness, a censorious atmosphere in which many things cannot be mentioned or debated because of the emotional reaction they provoke.

Apartheid is over, but what legitimacy do whites have here now? What are they allowed to say amidst the increasingly strident anti-colonial, anti-white rhetoric? The rageful reaction to Zille – a white politician who led the Democratic Alliance to becoming the official opposition in Parliament – illustrates the problem.

The argument over colonialism draws in other minority groups. South African Jews, for example, who came as immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s to escape Jew-hatred and poverty, at a time when the British Commonwealth was thriving. Are they also colonisers or do they belong here as Africans? The silencing of white voices and the refusal to allow rational public discourse on these issues is cause for serious concern.

Kathrada was a gentle man who dismissed hateful rhetoric against whites or others. In June 2012, he attended the funeral of world-famous Jewish palaeoanthropologist Phillip Tobias, with former president Thabo Mbeki and struggle veterans Tokyo Sexwale and advocate George Bizos. He saluted Tobias as a true son of Africa.

Consistent with his belief in human dignity and his love of Africa, Tobias had been a leader in the campaign to bring the Khoisan woman Saartjie Baartman’s remains home from Europe. Born in 1789, she had been taken there by colonisers and her naked body displayed for decades in the UK and France as a freak for people to gawk at. After she died in 1816, parts of her body were preserved in bottles and remained on display in a museum in France. After a request by President Nelson Mandela to the French government, these remains were brought back to South Africa in a box draped with a South African flag in 2002, and buried on Women’s Day in her birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

Kathrada also confronted issues unpleasant for South African Jews, including those who blindly supported Israel no matter the topic. He participated in Israel Apartheid Week organised by BDS, alongside trade union federation Cosatu and individuals such as SA Communist Party Secretary-General Blade Nzimande and ANC National Chairperson Baleka Mbete. The event riles Jews who believe applying the apartheid label to Israel is false and anti-Semitic, which Kathrada certainly was not.

Another Jewish struggle veteran, Denis Goldberg‚ a Rivonia trialist who was sentenced alongside Kathrada, said emotionally after his passing: “We went through facing the gallows together‚ absolutely certain we were going to be hanged.” Goldberg went to prison in Pretoria; Kathrada went to Robben Island.

Kathrada had the balance to see through false rhetoric from whatever source, but with a humanity that made people listen. Last year he called on President Jacob Zuma to resign because of his violation of the Constitution‚ the theft of state assets and negation of “the values we stood for.” Sadly, Zuma is still in office.

What would Kathrada say about the meaning of freedom in South Africa today? One aspect is knowing you are welcome, no matter your race, ethnicity or religion.

This country has not yet come to terms with its multi-cultural identity and the role of minorities in it – whites, Jews or others. You can’t undo centuries of colonialism and apartheid in one generation. It is legitimate that black South Africans are seeking their African identity, as Jews seek their Jewish identity after their own centuries of persecution. Inevitably, ‘outsiders’ sometimes get offended.

If the new post-apartheid South Africa is to succeed, all sides need to aim at everyone being considered part of this diverse nation, despite the history. The silencing of figures such as Zille doesn’t help this cause. Kathrada and people of principle like him who had much to say about building this new country, will be sorely missed.

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


Minorities in South Africa: Where has all the passion gone?


SA Jews have engaged widely in broader society, but as a tiny minority fear the future under Jacob Zuma’s government. Many are withdrawing or leaving. In the picture, pioneering choreographer Sylvia Glasser meets in 2003 with black dancers she trained though her company Moving Into Dance     (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

WITH the rising political chaos in South Africa as the populace reels under the corrupt, inept rule of President Jacob Zuma’s government, it is impossible to know what the country will look like ten years from now. A realignment of its politics is underway, as the once-great liberation movement the African National Congress appears to be close to breaking apart under the pressure of its warring internal factions.

All South Africans are feeling the anxiety, including minority groups such as the Afrikaners and Jews, who feel particularly threatened since they are largely excluded from the inner circles of power. The sense of powerlessness of minority groups is profound as they watch people well-connected to Zuma’s government sell this country down the river with incompetence and corruption.

When criticism of the government and Zuma is voiced too loudly by white people, accusations of racism tend to be hurled back at them, silencing many well-meaning citizens who don’t have the stomach for the fight. It is a form of “disenfranchisement” of minorities by what has become a majoritarian government rather than a democratic one. For many minorities, the response is to withdraw into separate laagers, to look after their own interests as best they can.

Looking at it through a Jewish prism, a high profile Jewish conference which took place last weekend, drawing some 5000 participants – the annual Sinai Indaba held at the prestigious Sandton Convention Centre in northern Johannesburg – illustrated the degree to which mainstream South African Jewry is withdrawing from engagement with the country.

The conference which featured international speakers on numerous topics, was lauded as a great success by many, and anybody who attended would have been struck by the speakers’ high quality and thought-provoking presentations about Judaism and Jewish-related topics. But the speakers and programme contained almost no reference to what it means to be Jewish in the specifically local South African context, the here-and-now of a country drowning in poverty, inequality and corrupt politics.

But South Africa is where most Sinai Indaba participants actually live. They face complex challenges about what it means to live in a rapidly changing, troubled society with an uncertain future. Jews constitute only 0.13 per cent of the population of 55 million. It is common knowledge that many have given up on this country over the years and have left, or are in the process of doing so. The Jewish population has shrunk from about 125 000 in the 1970s to some 70 000 today.

But for the ones who are staying, a meaningful understanding of their place here as part of a tiny minority which is growing ever smaller, is crucial to how they operate as citizens. Local rabbis, lay leaders and individuals grapple with it constantly.

South African Jews have in the past played a significant role in the social and political affairs of the country. Iconic names in politics, law, welfare and the arts spring to mind, such as parliamentarian Helen Suzman, jurists Arthur Chaskalson and Issie Maisels, underground activists Joe Slovo and Dennis Goldberg, Nobel Laureate in Literature Nadine Gordimer, choreographer Sylvia Glasser and many others. Jewish organisations and individuals have engaged intensely in the society over the years, often at personal risk during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women, the United Sisterhood and others. But now their older members complain that they are being replaced by fewer younger people, whose interests lie elsewhere.

The latest government debacle last week, with potentially disastrous consequences, is about Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s failure to put in place proper mechanisms for paying social grants on April 1 to some 17 million of the poorest, most vulnerable South Africans who depend on these meagre amounts to keep going. The disgrace of it should stir all people, including Jews, Afrikaners and others into urgent action to demand that those who created the crisis be brought to book. But the chances are that Dlamini, who is in Zuma’s close circle, will somehow be let off the hook, and the protestors will be sidelined to once again question where the country is headed.

Minority groups are asking what their future is here. For example, how many Jews will be left in South Africa in ten years’ time and what kind of community will it be? If current trends continue, it will be smaller than today. Will it be engaged meaningfully in the broader society, or live in a tiny bubble of its own, insular and inward-looking?

There are no easy answers, except to say visionary leadership is needed. There are no obvious candidates in place, but nature hates a vacuum.

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

Is a Zuma statue the ultimate conceit or just for the birds?


Should taxpayers’ money be spent flattering a failed president? Statues of public figures are supposed to honour great men and women. Building one to stroke a corrupt man’s vanity raises deep concern.

AMONG the astounding revelations in the debate on the recent State of the Nation address was the plan of North West provincial premier Supra Mahumapelo to build a 6-metre bronze statue of President Jacob Zuma in Groot Marico, which the Democratic Alliance says will cost R6m in public funds. Zuma was arrested in the area in 1963 by apartheid forces and held under the 90-day detention law.

Zuma’s critics have already dubbed it the “Nkandla of the North”, with reference to the lavish amounts of public money previously spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla, in Kwazulu-Natal. He was ultimately forced by the Constitutional Court and the public protector to pay back some R7m to the state for this.

It illustrates the dissonance in South African politics that public officials still want to splurge taxpayers’ money on a vanity project like this, when poverty-stricken local inhabitants can hardly feed themselves, the unemployment rate is at 27 per cent, and South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

What are political statues, aside from spots for pigeons to rest? They are emotive symbols people have fought and died for. Ideally they should be unifying, but are often the opposite, being built by history’s victors, not the vanquished. The 2015 University of Cape Town student protests, for example, successfully demanded tearing down arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue on the campus as a symbol of oppression of Africans.

Dictators, of course, build statues to themselves to remind their people who is in charge. Last year Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe unveiled a 4-metre statue of himself with arm raised and fist clenched while the country and its people suffered their worst economic crisis in years.

At their best, statues convey universal values like freedom and reconciliation, as expressed by the figures of Nelson Mandela located in many far-flung places. One of the largest and most elegant is at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, his arms outstretched symbolising his embrace of the whole nation and one leg in front of the other indicating a country on the move. It replaced a sculpture of former Prime Minister JB Hertzog who served from 1924-1939, which was relocated.

There was humour and controversy when the sculptors, André Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren, cast a tiny bronze rabbit inside Mandela’s ear to leave a trademark as a substitute for their signatures. Sombre officials demanded its removal, but the sculptors were pardoned because “their intentions were honourable”. Mandela would probably have laughed at the incident.

Other Mandela statues stand in front of the South African Embassy in Washington DC; facing Big Ben in London near Westminster Palace; and looking towards the Peace Palace in The Hague’s international district. Last year the Palestinians inaugurated a 6-metre bronze statue of him in Ramallah donated by Johannesburg city, which angered some South African Jews. Former mayor Parks Tau said Mandela would have been “proud”.

His image has also been commercialised – some say cheapened. Such as that of him dancing in Sandton’s upmarket shopping mall where tourists take pictures without grasping the depth of his struggle.

Statues to political ideals may be inspirational, like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, commemorating the United States’ sixteenth President, a founder of American democracy who ended slavery. At 8-metres tall, he stares across The Mall to the Capitol. In January, new US President Donald Trump made sure of being photographed in front of Lincoln before his inauguration, brazenly implying he was as great a man.

There are also many sad statues to failed dreams like Russian communism. Prior to the Soviet Union’s breakup, figures of ideologue Vladimir Lenin were built everywhere, one of the best-known in Moscow’s October Square. Karl Marx stands on Revolution Square at the Bolshoi theatre.

What does Zuma offer compared to these towering figures, aside from the descent into corruption and the decline of his country? It is unlikely a Zuma statue will ever find its way beyond the pigeons in Groot Marico.

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

Titan clash: Judges go head to head with corruptors, ideologues


Can the law hold up against power? Israel’s Supreme Court will decide on the legality of a controversial Knesset bill passed by the powerful settler lobby to legalise illegal settlements. Courts elsewhere face similar confrontations with politicians.

IN THREE countries close to South African Jews – Israel, South Africa and the United States – a monumental fight is raging between defenders of the law and powerful politicians attempting to subvert it. Protagonists are public figures holding high office including presidents, judges and political leaders. The effects will ultimately be felt by ordinary people.

South Africans cheered last year when the constitutional court’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng ruled in a landmark case that President Jacob Zuma failed to uphold the constitution of the republic. He had refused to implement the public protector’s instructions to compensate for benefits he received from state money spent upgrading his private homestead Nkandla. The chief justice’s finding affirmed that the law applied equally to all, despite the president’s contempt for it, and Zuma had to pay back some R7m to the state. In parliament last week the Economic Freedom Fighters party aptly labelled him a constitutional “delinquent”.

In the United States in the last two months, judges stood firm against the new president, Donald Trump, ruling that his executive order signed immediately after taking office barring entry to people from seven Muslim-majority countries be put on hold until its constitutionality was properly tested. Trump’s response – consistent with his narcissistic temperament – was outrage towards the judges, who were doggedly teaching him the limits of his power. He had to abide by their rulings.

In Israel, a battle is raging between proponents of constitutional legality and the settler movement, which succeeded last week in passing in the Knesset the Regularisation Law, driven by Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. Dubbed the Land-Grab Law by its detractors, it would allow private Palestinian land in the West Bank to be expropriated by Israel to retroactively legalise settlements which were built there illegally. The settlers will not gain ownership of the land but will be allowed to remain.

The Law’s illegality is so blatant that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin publically condemned it, since Israel has not established sovereignty over the West Bank. This principled stand by Rivlin, who actually supports settlements and reportedly believes in a binational state with equal citizenship among Arabs and Jews as the solution to the conflict, echoed that of Israeli attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, who said he would not defend it before the Supreme Court, which is where it will inevitably land up.

Rivlin said: “Israel has adopted international law [and cannot] apply and enforce its laws on territories that are not under its sovereignty. [Doing so] will cause Israel to be seen as an apartheid state, which it is not.”

The word apartheid is usually applied to Israel by rabid Israel-haters such as the BDS movement and similar groups. South African Jews who lived through apartheid are highly sensitive to its use, claiming it is totally inappropriate for Israel. Now, alarmingly, Israel’s president has himself warned the country by reference to this word. The extremists among the settlers don’t seem to care, however.

Legally, the case against the Regularisation Law is clear and the Supreme Court will almost certainly declare it unconstitutional. But extreme rightwing political forces will not buckle so easily, and the settler lobby is threatening to undercut the Supreme Court’s authority by passing a law enabling the Knesset to override the Court in certain cases. Fortunately, other eminent rightwing figures in the government have said they would oppose this, such as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon: “We have no other Supreme Court and it must not be harmed.”

What’s in a name? The law’s proponents call it the Regularisation Law; but those who call it the Land-Grab law have a point. Hopefully, the principled Israelis in positions of power who are defending the country’s commitment to legality will prevail.

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

A blind eye in exchange for Israel support is risky


Donald Trump leads the greatest democracy, John Vorster was an apartheid Prime Minister. Support for Israel from both, but at what price?

FALLOUT for South African Jewry from Donald Trump’s controversial presidency in the United States has not been felt directly thus far. It is experienced more as general anxiety about the rise of nationalistic demagogues with open or disguised anti-Semitic leanings in many countries and fear about the future. For Jewish interests specifically, this challenges attitudes towards Jews’ and Israel’s situation in the world.

South African Jewry, with its history of passionate Zionism, is internally divided similar to other Diaspora communities about Israel’s place in Jewish life: Is it primarily a Jewish sanctuary in an untrustworthy, hostile world, or a society representing the best universal Jewish values? Some people cling to idealistic Zionism as the Jewish people’s liberation movement in the process of creating a flourishing Jewish state which must do whatever it takes to survive; others support Israel as a Jewish state with every right to exist, but criticise it for various human rights considerations. Israel’s complex situation means neither side is always correct.

To what extent should support for Israel outweigh other considerations? If someone practices objectionable policies yet backs Israel – as Trump says he does – should he be embraced? Jews who are appalled at Trump ask why Israel is so supportive of him when he represents much of what Jewish history tells us should be rejected. His polarising effect on South African Jews was illustrated by the anger against this column for criticising Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recently for showing such warmth to Trump and publically calling him “my friend” after his inauguration.

Support for Trump comes at a price. This is already apparent in Israel’s muted reaction to the omission of any reference to Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Trump’s administration said it is better not to single out Jews in order to be “inclusive” of others who suffered. But Jewish individuals and organisations – such as the Anti-Defamation League – were shocked and saw it as a case of disguised Holocaust denial. Netanyahu’s silence on the matter, however, was deafening.

American white supremacist Richard Spencer, ideologue of the so-called “alt-right,” said not mentioning Jews or anti-Semitism was an important step in the “de-Judaification” of the Holocaust. The White House press secretary called critics of the statement “pathetic”.

Israel seems scared to criticise Trump. Is Netanyahu prepared to give up recognition of Jews’ central place in the Holocaust, hoping Trump will be his friend, allow more settlement building in Judea and Samaria and sabotage the two-state solution?

There are unfortunate echoes of this sort of policy in South African Jewish history. Israel openly criticised apartheid in the 1950s and 60s, building alliances with post-colonial African governments. But after African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur war under pressure from the Arab lobby, it drew closer to the apartheid regime in Pretoria. In 1976 it invited Prime Minister John Vorster – a former Nazi sympathiser – to visit. At a state banquet, Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin said both countries faced “foreign-inspired instability and recklessness”.

Israel was not alone in its ties to South Africa. Despite international sanctions against the country during apartheid, numerous states, including those who condemned the racist system, maintained ties with South Africa in various areas, sometimes open, often covert. Israelis have often complained about the hypocrisy of singling out only Israel for criticism.

Many South African Jews were deeply embarrassed by Vorster’s Israel visit, seeing it as a grave diplomatic error. Others justified it by saying Israel had been unfairly branded a pariah state in international forums and needed support, even from another pariah state such as South Africa. Negative reaction about this perceived closeness to South Africa – including military cooperation – was a reasonable price to pay, they argued. Until today, Israel still faces an abiding coolness towards it from post-apartheid South Africa, despite having diplomatic relations.

Rightwing Jewish and Israeli leaders seem to risk repeating this by ignoring Trump’s threats to important progressive global alliances and his offensive attitudes towards women, the LGBTI community, immigrants and Muslims which are causing a furore in his own country – including among a huge number of Jews – in exchange for support for Netanyahu. And given Trump’s intemperate nature, this support could change whenever it suits him.

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

Villains, victims, untold stories of refugees and officials


Finding individuals among masses of migrants: A refugee and his tormentor in an Australian refugee detention centre in the play “When Swallows Cry”

WHEREVER they live today, most Jews have family memories of forebears arriving in a new country as immigrants or refugees after escaping from places such as Nazi Germany or Eastern Europe where they would be killed or persecuted if they stayed. The Jewish psyche instinctively understands a refugee’s feelings when a country’s doors are closed to him because of colour or religion.

A famous South African incident is the Stuttgart, a ship which arrived in Cape Town in October 1936 with 537 German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. It prompted displays of Afrikaner hatred for Jews by the anti-Semitic Greyshirts organisation who protested their arrival, saying Jews were unassimilable, of questionable morality and a threat to Afrikaners. Fortunately, the refugees managed to disembark.

Today’s flood of refugees fleeing war-torn Middle Eastern or African states pose dilemmas for many countries which are leery of granting them entry, as Islamist terrorism shakes the world. Last Friday US President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the United States, echoing populist sentiments among Americans.

Who are the refugees and the immigration officials implementing the order? The many human faces of the conundrum are portrayed powerfully in a play currently on at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre called “When Swallows Cry”, by playwright Mike van Graan.

In the opening vignette set in Somalia, the son of a white Canadian mining magnate at whose mine near Mogadishu striking workers were killed, has gone there as a volunteer teacher to help heal the damage people such as his father have caused. The father and others had used their money to ensure the country was run by a tyrant helpful to them. Civil war rages, with terrified people trying to flee. The teacher is held hostage and beaten by Muslim insurgents who threaten to turn him over to radical Islamist group Boko Haram to get a ransom to rebuild a devastated village. The Canadian’s capturer films him with a cellphone and posts it on Facebook so his friends and relatives back home will see him describing the devastation ruthless colonialists have wrought.

The second scene is an American immigration entry point, where a distraught Muslim Somalian with a valid visa is being interrogated. Officials find a Koran in his baggage and demand to know what he intends doing in America. On their data-base they find his family name is identical to someone listed as a terrorist threat. He says he doesn’t know the man, pleading to be allowed admission, promising that all he wants is to make a safe new life away from his blood-soaked country. After they decide to put him on a plane back to Somalia, he grabs an official’s gun and shoots himself in the head, choosing to die rather than go back.

The third vignette, a harsh refugee detention camp in Australia, shows two black Zimbabweans who came on a leaky boat after walking from a devastated Zimbabwe to Kenya. Their family members died en route. A white Australian officer beats them mercilessly. They plead to be allowed in, but the assault becomes more ruthless. The officer loses his restraint and screams about his family who had been white farmers in Zimbabwe and whose land was violently seized, forcing them to flee. In uncontrollable rage he shoots the refugees.

Van Graan graphically depicts how there are villains, victims and untold stories on all sides. In art, as in life, people cannot be tarred haphazardly with the same brush like a homogeneous mob. The Greyshirts tried to do that with the Stuttgart’s Jews. Trump’s sledgehammer approach is doing it with Muslims and will only cause more hatred.

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

  • For a review of “When Swallows Cry” click here

Risky politics as Netanyahu flatters pit bull Trump

bibi-and-trump-4THE WARM congratulatory message Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu sent US President Donald Trump after his inauguration last Friday – “Congratulations to my friend, President Trump” – highlighted the schism between Netanyahu and a major portion of world Jewry disgusted by the new president; for them, his message was cringeworthy. He was definitely not speaking for the whole of Jewry, nor the whole of Israel.

Trump expresses admiration for Israel, bemoaning its “unfair” treatment in the conflict with the Palestinians. He will discover the conflict is infinitely more complex than he imagines, and cannot be solved with his famous simplistic bombast. He is referred to as the great deal-maker in entertainment and hotels, without political experience. But he resembles an unpredictable pit bull begging the question: Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?

How will he react if the parties refuse his deal-making? The Middle East is not a hotel. When he comes up against the unceasing incitements from both sides – Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s settlement construction on Palestinian land – will he remain Netanyahu’s “friend”?

Trump’s election typifies the rise of nationalistic right wing leaders worldwide with xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes – although Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and would be outraged to be called anti-Semitic. His bellicose use of the “America first” slogan evokes memories of other populist leaders in history who pounded the table with such refrains while leading their countries to ruin.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism which often speaks out on other forms of discrimination, pressed Trump last year to drop the slogan because of its tainted legacy from the America First Committee, the isolationist movement created in 1940 after Hitler invaded Poland. The America First Committee urged neutrality towards Nazi Germany, and even doing business with it because it didn’t threaten America directly. One openly anti-Semitic leader, aviator Charles Lindbergh, said Jews were a threat because of their control of the media, and that he was backed by a silent majority of Americans denied a voice by a hostile press. Trump, however, ignored the ADL plea.

At the over 500 000-strong anti-Trump women’s march in Washington on Saturday – part of two million demonstrators countrywide reported by AFP and CNN – a keynote speaker was Gloria Steinem, a founder of the 1960s feminist movement and daughter of a Jewish man whose family were immigrants from Germany and Poland. She challenged Trump’s assertion that he represents “the people” of America, saying: “I have met the people and you are not them!”

Trump supporters have mentioned a possible master registry of Muslim immigrants in America in response to radical Islamic terrorism. But the ADL’s head, Jonathan Greenblatt, said Americans must reject all forms of discrimination regardless of which minority group it targets. He pledged that “if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim… As Jews we know what it means to be forced to register.”

The Jewish world – as with broader society – is deeply split on Trump. Many conservative Jews in the United States and Israel back him, particularly in the Orthodox segment, hoping he will strengthen the Israeli right. His ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an Orthodox Jew on the far right of Israel’s political spectrum who opposes the two-state solution and strongly supports the settlement movement.

How will Trump react if anti-Semitism continues rising in the United States? Will he censure its perpetrators when many – the nationalists who hail “America first!” – will probably be people who voted for him? Will his recent nasty comments on the media’s negative coverage of him eventually translate into the old slogan that “the Jews control the media”?

Netanyahu did nothing diplomatically incorrect in congratulating Trump on his inauguration. It is normal diplomatic protocol. But his message’s obvious warmth was jarring to millions who believe Trump is a potential fascist.

Some argue Netanyahu is simply playing realpolitik and sees in Trump the opportunity to strengthen Israel. But many Jews are asking: Does Israel not endorse the humanistic values which two million women marched for on Saturday in defiance of Trump?

Nobody knows if Netanyahu’s warm words towards Trump will help the Israeli PM’s cause. They may return to haunt him when the pit bull turns vicious.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)