Statues and heroes: the dangers of erasing too much

Confederate flag and Old SA flag

Would a man die for a flag? Symbols evoke rage and happiness. Should images of a bad past vanish when times change? America’s Confederate flag and South Africa’s old apartheid flag easily raise tensions

WITS University’s faculty members have been warned to prepare for trouble, as universities brace for protests against university fee hikes for 2018, amidst vehement demands for “decolonisation” in academia and abolition of symbols of the country’s racist past. 

Symbolism contains potent energies everywhere. Recent displays in alt-right marches in Charlottesville in the United States of swastikas and anti-Jewish and anti-black slogans, evoked calls for removing confederate statues across America for celebrating people who defended slavery.

What about statues of anti-Semites? An Israeli organisation on Tuesday demanded New York City remove memorials to Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director-general of New Amsterdam (now New York), because of his anti-Semitism, saying he “targeted Jews and other minorities including Catholics” and tried prohibiting them from settling there. Yet New York has one of the largest, most successful Jewish communities in the world. Most Jews probably don’t even know of his attitudes and smoked the eponymous brand of cigarettes for years.

The potency of symbolism and stereotypes spills into literature and film. Should Shakespeare and Dickens be banned? Critics say the former’s portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. And Dickens’ fictional character Fagin, portrayed as a Jew in his novel Oliver Twist, is described as a “receiver of stolen goods.” Fagin has evoked much debate. In an introduction to a 1981 reissue of Oliver Twist, writer Irving Howe said Fagin was considered an “archetypical” Jewish villain.

A theatre in Memphis, Tennessee recently stopped showing the movie Gone With the Wind for being “racially insensitive.” The 1939 classic which won eight Oscars, tells the story of a Georgia plantation owner’s daughter during and after the civil war, based on a Pulitzer prize-winning 1936 novel. Considered a great American work, it is criticised for romanticising slavery. Celebrated writers, Roald Dahl and Graham Greene have been similarly fingered.

In South Africa, myriad symbols of our unhappy past, including statues, street names, the old flag and parts of the national anthem, remain all around us. Four people were arrested last weekend for disturbances at a Cape Town pub after complaining about the old South African flag hanging on the wall, symbolising apartheid. Some people call for Die Stem, the apartheid-era national anthem, to be removed from the current multi-language national anthem.

The Voortrekker monument near Pretoria – now renamed Tshwane – remains intact, with its dramatic frescoes portraying heroic-looking Afrikaners seeking freedom from English domination, fighting off assegai-wielding black warriors defending their land. Any attempt to tamper with this potent symbol of Afrikaner history would provoke violence. However, there have been numerous name changes of streets and towns from apartheid leaders to anti-apartheid fighters, which have been well received. At Cape Town University, in contrast, removal of a statue of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes provoked confrontations.

It is right for people to resist being bombarded with public symbols of oppression, particularly in public spaces. But what about private spaces? In the name of freedom of expression, should people be allowed to display whatever they want there? Such as a pub?

There are no easy answers. Where is the red line for “acceptable” content? Sanitising everything is dangerous – changing the past, rather than putting it into context. If we sanitise everything because of unsavoury aspects, we leech rich texture from history and culture, ending up with only the “party line” dictated by political correctness guardians.

Such was the Soviet Union. And in fascist societies, past and present, the only permitted symbols are those glorifying the regime and its leaders.

Politicians have a significant role to play. Exploiting symbols for populist, sinister goals is always tempting. For students, a university’s role is to teach them to discern the healthy red line. They battle amidst the tensions rampant in the country and the tricks of politicians.

(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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South African Jewry dwindles; not for the usual reasons

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Reminders of the heyday: Grand Wolmarans Street synagogue building in downtown Johannesburg, once a centre of Jewish life, is empty after Jews emigrated from the country and others moved elsewhere

WHEN asked how many Jews remain in South Africa, Jewish leaders usually fudge the question, though they know the community’s size is falling. No-one wants to be a prophet of doom, but for most of them the answer is not a happy one. The generally accepted figure is 60-70,000, roughly half of the community’s size in its heyday in the 1970s.

Jews have always been on the move, everywhere they have lived. Large numbers came to South Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s from Europe to escape anti-Semitism and seek a better life.

Now Europe has again become a place of anxiety. It is astonishing that after the terrible things that happened there in the last century, including the Holocaust, Jews are in distress again there and urged to move. History keeps replaying itself.

Three countries serve as examples: In Spain, Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Meir Bar-Hen warned last week after terrorist attacks in which 14 victims and five suspected terrorists died in Barcelona and Cambrils: “Jews are not here permanently”. The attacks were not aimed specifically at Jews.

“I tell my congregants: Don’t think we’re here for good… Better [get out] early than late.” He calls Spain a “hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe.”

In France last year, Paris’ Synagogue de la Victoire rabbi Moshe Sebbag claimed every French Jew is considering leaving because of anti-Semitism. French Jews number between 500,000 and 600,000. Many will not do so, because they fear the upheaval in their lives.

A recent Human Rights First survey said anti-Semitic incidents in France had risen dramatically in the last few years; and some 82% of Jews had experienced anti-Semitism, but not reported it. One leader said Jews in Paris and elsewhere feel “they can’t safely wear a kippah outside their homes or send their children to public schools, where Muslim children bully Jewish children.”

In Britain, an anti-Semitism survey shows British Jews feeling directly threatened by BDS’s anti-Israel activities; some 31% had “considered” leaving the country. And some 37% of respondents said they avoided “displaying outward signs of their Judaism in public.”

How does South Africa fit into this picture? The reasons Jews leave this country are starkly different from Europe. It is not anti-Semitism, which remains very low – indeed, displays of racism are generally confronted quickly and harshly by the media and government, and different faith groups live in relative harmony. Jews have little fear in identifying themselves publicly as Jews.

But there is increasing fear about the country’s future, as it teeters ominously under President Jacob Zuma’s corrupt and inept government. Uncertainty is rampant about future prospects, epitomised by the downgrading to “junk status” of its economy by respected international rating agencies. Questions are asked about how minority groups – such as the white Jewish community, Afrikaners and others – will be treated in future.

Many younger Jews, when asked, will say they are emigrating not so much for themselves, but for their children’s future, as they witness the decline in the quality of schools and universities, diminishing prospects for whites in finding jobs in the face of affirmative action policies, and other factors.

One local leader most familiar with the issue is Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, known as the “travelling rabbi”, who constantly traverses the country, taking care of 220 small Jewish cemeteries containing 30,000 graves, in rural areas and small towns where once flourishing Jewish communities no longer exist. In his address to a Jewish conference in Johannesburg on Sunday, he said one of the questions he is most often asked is how many South African Jews remain. The only answer he could give – rather glumly, as his expression at the podium revealed – is that “The numbers are down.”

That the numbers are declining is without doubt, and brings a sadness to people who remember the “old days.” The obvious question going forward is whether South African Jewry will manage to recalibrate itself as a smaller community in a country in tremendous and often traumatic flux, so as to remain part of the country and involved in its affairs. Or will it dwindle into a minor outpost of Jewish life?

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

Poets and populists: Ring the bells that still can ring

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Songwriters and demagogues: Leonard Cohen sang of what it is to be human. Populist politicians Julius Malema and Donald Trump speak in inflammatory rhetoric to seek power.

THE death of musician-poet Leonard Cohen and the ascent to power in the United States of billionaire-politician Donald Trump reflect the confusion of our era. Millions mourn Cohen, with his songs that touch the core of what it is to be human; it is hard imagining iconic pieces such as his “Hallelujah” ever being surpassed.

We don’t know what legacy President-elect Trump will leave. His attitudes echo rising right wing, fascist figures in other countries. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, racism and other social ills that were unacceptable in the last few decades, become respectable again.

Shocked Americans dismayed at his election win, look for a “silver lining”. Perhaps one aspect is that radical change is sometimes inherently good, as it moves people out of stale comfort zones and creates new energy. In the lyrics of his song “Anthem”, Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

It is hard imagining Trump as a bringer of light, but perhaps the crack in the political order was the left’s complacency and arrogance. In its enthusiasm for globalisation and multiculturalism, it neglected masses of ordinary local people worldwide who became poorer and jobless, while wealthy international elites were creaming it. Trump became the voice in America of those angry masses.

In times of social upheaval, minority ethnic groups always look around nervously for how they will be treated by the majority. Jews instinctively ask: “Is it good or bad for us?” Muslims in Western countries ask the same. Black people ask similar questions in white-dominated countries.

There is cause for concern: The rise of the new right brings racist stirrings, which goes hand in hand with anti-Semitism and hatred of other minorities. In countries where speaking publically against Jews has been taboo, open expressions of Jew-hatred have now become common. In France, Jews are emigrating in droves because of attacks on them.

Even in South Africa, which still clings to the memory of Mandela’s rainbow nation, the signs are worrying. Earlier this month, for example, graffiti at Wits university said “Kill a Jew!” and “Fuck the Jews!”; last month, a kippah-wearing student was called a “Motherfucking Jew!” by fellow students.

Despite such incidents, South Africa by and large has good inter-group relations. Anti-Semitism remains low compared to many other countries, and interactions between ordinary blacks and whites in the cities are generally friendly.

But racist talk from populist politicians such as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to speak for millions of angry, jobless blacks, could change things. His tactics are similar to Trump’s, but from a leftwing perspective.

Demagogues like Malema use any means to gain power. He has not publically expressed anti-Semitism, but his insistence that “white monopoly capital” is the root of the problem could easily be tweaked to “Jewish (or another group) monopoly capital”.

Trump may turn out to be less catastrophic than the doomsayers predict. In politics, yelling recklessly from the sidelines is easy, but once a person gets his hands on the steering wheel, things look different. And the many checks and balances in US politics make it hard for any leader to go completely off track.

But for Malema, the political safeguards in South Africa are less robust, giving him freer rein. Just look at how President Jacob Zuma has got away with his rampant corruption and other shenanigans.

There are no prophets to tell us the future. One thing for sure is that we’re in for an interesting few years ahead – like Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future”, which ends with the words: “Things are going to slide in all directions…”

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

Whiteness and Jewishness smoulder in South Africa and France

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The cover of Ferial Haffajee’s provocative new book on race and whiteness in South Africa asks penetrating questions about the country’s future

Raw nerves for Jewish South Africans will be touched by two new books published in France and South Africa, highlighting their uneasy identities as both Jews and whites. They are indicative of the confusing, scary times in which we live.

In France, popular Jewish author Eliette Abecassis’ novel “Alyah” probes the struggle of her wounded country still reeling from terrorist attacks, to protect her as a Jew. She asks: In the light of the growing anti-Semitism in France, can one still be both French and Jewish?

In the story, based on the author’s experiences, a Jewish teacher of French literature enters her classroom in a secular Paris school where most students are second- and third-generation North African immigrants. Abecassis’ parents also emigrated from Morocco in the late 1950s. A 15-year-old student immediately confronts her: “Teacher, are you a Jew-girl?… If you are a Jew-girl, does that mean you are a Zionist?”

She is shocked, as other students chime in aggressively: “She’s a Zionist! We will eliminate her!”; “And the Jews”; “There’s no difference!”; “It’s true, they are killing our brothers the Palestinians!”; “We’ll get rid of them all!”

French Jews have long viewed France as home. But the second intifada in Israel in 2000 caused a rift between the Muslim and Jewish communities of migrants from North Africa, who once had a cordial relationship. The former sided with the Palestinians, the latter with Israel. Ethnic antagonism multiplied and Jews were attacked.

Alyah

Eliette Abecassis’ book asks whether it is still possible to be both French and Jewish

Through fear, Abecassis removed all external signs of her Jewishness in public places. She felt France betrayed her: “Until a few years ago, I did not understand that I was actually an exile in my country. France was my country, my culture, the definition of who I am and how I think. I thought our leaders would insure our security… The phrase ‘Jew and French’ was still possible. It almost exuded pride.”

Anti-Semitism is pushing Jews to leave France. Abecassis would like to continue writing in French and teaching French literature, and consider France her homeland. But she tells an intimate friend: “In 10 years, I will not be in France”.

He replies: “Then in 10 years, it will no longer be France.”

In South Africa, a book by Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, probes the sensitive race issue and “whiteness” in the country today, particularly white privilege, through stories from mostly black, middle class contributors. It is titled provocatively: “What If There Were No Whites in South Africa?”

One contributor, Milisuthando Bongela, a Rhodes alumnus who runs a feminist stokvel, tells of eavesdropping on a meeting in a Johannesburg cafe of “Jewish business people” who were discussing the production of teacups.

“Pure green jealousy settled inside me at the thought that these grown white men had the luxury of convening a business action about crockery,” he said. “And that they were probably going to make a lot of money from it. I tried to check the jealousy in me to understand why it was so buoyant, so relentless… The difference between them and me is that they inherited the peace of mind to craft and contemplate teacups on a Wednesday afternoon. I inherited the responsibility of discovering, addressing and solving a race, gender and class disparity I did not create.”

Non-racialism is a complicated, elusive South African ideal. Haffajee said in an interview: “When I grew up, that was what we staked our identity on, a non-racial future, which meant that… the eventual outcome of where I see you goes beyond the amount of melanin that you have in you. I see you for what you are as a human being.”

But things are in many ways going in the opposite direction. Negative racial stereotyping is growing. Recognising the racial problems of South Africa, the inequality and staggering unemployment among blacks, she notes ominously: “There is a substantial narrative, and it is largely but not only white, that is waiting for South Africa to fail.”

The subtext, obviously, is the notion some whites hold that blacks cannot run a country. The next five years, she says, “will separate out those with a pessimistic take and those of us who want our country to succeed.”

As we approach 2016, the bogeymen of racial and ethnic animosity are taking on more openly expressed forms than they have for a long time. For this country, the question begs itself: If there were no whites, would South Africa still be South Africa? The road ahead differs depending on one’s answer.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on December 9, 2015)