Arms deals, peace deals: Trump treads holy ground

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Can deal-maker Trump clinch Mideast peace? In his foray to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity he brought massive arms deals in one hand and slogans about peace in the other. In the picture he listens to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (C) while visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017

PRESIDENT Donald Trump does not delve much into religion in his speeches in the United States, except to slam adherents of Islam. But during his past week’s jaunt to the Middle East and Europe to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there was much to do with religion that needed attention.

The political adage was apt: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Shouting reckless words to rally supporters while campaigning last year was one thing; it’s different now he’s in the power seat.

His speech in Saudi Arabia – the site of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest places – was significantly more moderate than his campaign references to that country, when he said it wants “women as slaves and to kill gays” and was behind the terror attacks of 9/11. Even though it has indeed been a major terrorism sponsor, his speech’s thrust was clearly about deal-making, with scant reference to human rights.

Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with 1,6 billion adherents, or 23 per cent of the planet’s 6,9 billion people. Christianity is the largest, with 2,2 billion adherents, nearly a third of the global population.

Trump was careful not to insult Islam. During his aggressive campaign he repeatedly and pointedly used the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ – which his predecessor Barack Obama refused to use – to describe Middle Eastern extremist groups, but while in Saudi Arabia he replaced it with ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘Islamists’, terms which are more ‘politically correct’.

The Saudis were receptive. Even his wife Melania, who stood out prominently at his side with uncovered hair in starkly ‘western’ dress that Saudi women are forbidden to wear, seemed naturally part of the proceedings.

The Saudi royal family’s red-carpet reception for him with parades and horses, elevated him to a dignity he entirely lacks in Washington. When he very publically signed the gigantic $110 billion arms deal with the Arab state, his stature rose even higher.

Then on Monday, when he jetted into tiny Israel, predictably intense political arguments raged among his hosts, unlike in Riyadh which presented a totally united front. Israel is, after all, a noisy democracy with divisions vociferously expressed, contrary to Saudi Arabia.

It seemed out of character when this narcissistic man known for his crude, abusive comments donned a kippa on Monday and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall – the kotel – a holy site for the relatively minuscule 14-million Jewish global population, who constitute only 0,2 per cent of the world’s people. Yet his Israel visit carried as much significance – in some ways more – as his other stops.

Trump brags he will make the ultimate deal to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is unlikely he understands the complexities. While symbolism such as visiting the kotel is important, he is short on substance.

Jerusalem, for example, with 883,000 residents – 37 per cent of them Arabs – is a key emotive element for all sides which has stymied previous agreements. Jews and Palestinians – and the Arab world – both want to control major parts and will not yield. Its Jewish population is becoming increasingly religious and their political clout grows rapidly towards the right, less disposed to concessions for peace. Disputes about sovereignty over the Western Wall precinct is one example.

Among Jerusalem’s Jewish residents over age 20, some 35 per cent are ultra-Orthodox, and rising. About 66 per cent of Jewish students in the city attend ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. The ultra-Orthodox birth rate is more than double the national average.

These complexities are matched by the Palestinian Muslim population.

Trump’s foray into Islam’s and Judaism’s heartlands is powerful public relations, shifting attention from his political problems in Washington. But the Mideast is a minefield which his bragging cannot paper over. Can he stay the long course?

(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

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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 )

Will this be the politicians’ year of the toxic tweet?

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Donald Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking of consequences before pressing the Twitter send button, causing embarrassment and outrage among allies and enemies

OF THE three state leaders most relevant to South Africans with Israeli links for this coming year, not one is particularly likeable or inspires confidence for a better world.

United States president-elect Donald Trump, with no political experience, is like a schoolboy constantly looking for what outrageous thing to say next, but who prides himself on straight-talking and how he will make the world’s global superpower, America, “great” again. South African President Jacob Zuma, and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are the opposite – veteran political street-fighters skilled in manipulative phraseology. They have both been in office a long time, are disliked by much of their populace, yet still wield enormous power.

After Trump has settled in at the White House, it’s anybody’s guess what the consequences for the world – and South Africa – will be. The checks and balances in US politics will prevent him acting only by whim, but he can set the tone. Last week he outraged the CIA by tweeting accusations that the US intelligence community was reminiscent of Nazi Germany because of leaks about compromising data Russia allegedly has against him. Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking before clicking the Twitter send button, and the CIA director made no bones about his contempt for the man, saying on Fox News: “Spontaneity is not something that protects national security interests”.

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Jacob Zuma’s race-baiting is designed to boost ANC fortunes after its dismal performance in government

Zuma doesn’t shoot from the hip like Trump, but his vacuous utterances are laden with tired slogans as he looks towards the African National Congress’ December conference to choose a new president. His race-baiting and repeated accusations that the country’s ills derive from white monopoly capital are dangerous, as he plays victim against the “wit gevaar”. As if he and the ANC have done a sterling job – which they haven’t.

His expedient attacks on the political opposition aim to boost the ANC’s fortunes among the electorate, such as slamming Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane for visiting Israel last week and being photographed with Netanyahu against a South African flag. Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa tweeted the picture, labelling their Jerusalem meeting as “excellent”. Maimane fell naively into Zuma’s trap by not anticipating negative exploitation of his trip, which first went public through Twitter.

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest scandals have predictably provoked a Twitter fire-storm

In Israel the country’s Twitter universe has gone into overdrive, threatening Netanyahu’s power because of his alleged deal-making with mass circulation daily Yedioth Achronot for favourable coverage in exchange for financial benefits. Netanyahu is a fighter and won’t resign easily, however, and the agendas of groups such as the West Bank settlers are heavily invested in him staying in office. But most Israelis are tired of him, not just for ideological hypocrisy, but his profligate lifestyle – police are investigating alleged bribery by wealthy friends.

Politics doesn’t progress in a straight line, and nothing is certain. An old Yiddish expression says: Men tracht un G-t lacht (English translation: “Man plans and G-d laughs”).

The way things turn out this year could hinge on a fascinating new phenomenon – how the ubiquitous 140-character Twitter messages which have assumed disruptive power that most politicians don’t yet appreciate, are being used with abandon by presidents and prime ministers themselves. Democracy is manipulated these days not only by potential fascists, but the “mobocracy” of social media. A tweet from a careless or mischievous source goes viral in seconds, influencing millions regardless of its veracity in this era of “post-truth” politics.

Trump’s tweets – many of them definitely post-truth – are taken seriously, bizarre as they are. As are those of Netanyahu and Zuma’s acolytes.

It is likely that a year from now, as we enter 2018, these three state leaders will have impacted heavily – either from their actions or how they exit the stage.

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

The potency of “place” for Jews

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Will they break decades of Jerusalem policy? US president-elect Donald Trump and proposed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman (above), intend moving America’s embassy to the Holy City, with major symbolism and dangers

THERE is huge symbolism in US president-elect Donald Trump’s declaration that he will relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the epicentre of Judaism’s beliefs and holy also to Muslims and Christians. Jerusalem itself is one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Arab conflict which has blocked peace negotiations, particularly regarding control over the Western Wall and the Temple Mount precinct.

The move is supported by Trump’s choice for American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, an Orthodox Jew and outspoken supporter of the settlement movement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week moving the embassy would be “great.”

Previous US presidents have refrained from moving their embassy to Jerusalem for political reasons, while declaring it was a long-term goal. Israeli security officials fear relocation now would provoke belligerent reaction from the Arab world and East Jerusalem’s Arab neighbourhoods. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it would lead the PLO to revoke its recognition of Israel, demolish the possibility of a two-state solution, and indicate American acceptance of “Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.”

Symbolic acts such as relocating the embassy have few practical implications – it could operate effectively from either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – but are often more powerful than practical deeds. Depending on the context, they may provoke terrible bloodletting, or comforting, reassuring feelings. The rapid rise of militant nationalist politics in many countries worldwide today has a lot to do with symbolism – people will fight and die for their flag.

But there is another side to the symbolism of place. A contrasting but equally powerful deed relating to Jewish sites and experience is occurring in Hungary, where the Budapest Festival Orchestra has an inspiring plan to perform in the many towns and villages in Hungary now devoid of Jews but where a synagogue still stands, “bringing music and life to them and recalling the memory of the annihilated Jewish communities”. Hungarian Jews were almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust – about 500,000 from a population of 800,000. Two years ago, conductor Iván Fischer and the BPO, which he co-founded in 1983, formulated the programme.

These old synagogue buildings are mostly derelict, have been ransacked or are used for other purposes. In some cases they have remained locked since the German occupation.

On December 1 a fundraising concert was held in the magnificent Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, which was restored in the 1990s through support from prominent Jews living elsewhere in memory of their forebears. The solo pianist was illustrious pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, who played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 and Chopin’s G minor Ballade, among other pieces. The synagogue is one of the world’s largest, with a capacity of 2700 people, adorned with candelabra, gold leaf, wood, marble and rich ornament, in Byzantine and Romanesque styles. In 1859, the year it opened, Franz Liszt played the organ.

The BPO’s website says: “What’s our purpose? We would like to reduce prejudice and tell the story of how Christians and Jews used to coexist peacefully here… Music brings people closer to each other and purifies memories.”

The plan resonates with a similar story in a 1988 novel, The Magic We Do Here, by late author and Holocaust scholar Lawrence Rudner, in which a Jewish actor travels through Poland to places where Jews lived before the Holocaust and performs in town squares and streets, re-enacting their lives in front of todays’ non-Jewish Polish residents.

Nationalistic Jews would say moving America’s embassy now to Jerusalem symbolises the confident return of Jews – in the form of the state of Israel – to where they once lived. Others say it is a premature, provocative act making peace less likely, and should only happen in the framework of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Symbolic deeds can be reconciliatory or aggressive. The consequences of the American embassy move, and the BPO’s performances in old Hungarian synagogues, are likely to be vastly different.

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

Is Malema South Africa’s Trump?

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Sounds of populism: Julius Malema (right) is greeted by cheering supporters during launch of the EFF manifesto at Orlando Stadium, Soweto, in May 2016

BY the time this column is read by many people the American elections will be over and the next United States president will have been chosen – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The contempt for Trump by many is epitomised by Israeli peace activist and politician Uri Avnery, who said even if Trump had not said all the reckless things he has uttered, there was one overriding reason to reject him: “A sound. A sound I carry in my ears since my early childhood in Germany. The sound of hysterical crowds screaming after every sentence of the Leader.”

Jewish history tells where populist leaders can take people. Ironically, this column appears on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938, paramilitary forces and German civilians, motivated by the charismatic Adolf Hitler, vandalized synagogues, Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed Jews.

In South African politics, the Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema evokes the sounds Avnery talks about when he addresses masses of his red-garbed followers, or when he and his party members behave like thugs in Parliament. On Monday he addressed EFF supporters after his appearance in the Newcastle Magistrate’s Court, charged with contravention of the 1956 Riotous Assemblies Act for calling on black people to illegally occupy vacant land around the country. In June this year he told supporters that white people can’t claim ownership of land because it belongs to the country’s black African majority.

He said: “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people‚ at least for now… The rightful owners of the land are black people. No white person is a rightful owner of the land here in South Africa and the whole of the African continent.”

Predictably, other political parties reacted angrily: The Democratic Alliance said Malema’s violent language had no place in South Africa’s constitutional democracy; Freedom Front Plus chairman Pieter Groenewald said Malema’s comments are “hate speech” and created the potential for civil war.

At this point in South African politics, when a wide spectrum of people are desperate to get rid of President Jacob Zuma, Malema’s conduct is tolerated for political expediency, because he is also demanding Zuma’s ouster in a dramatic way.

His aspirations reach sky-high. One hears wry comments about “President Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office. A 2014 performance by celebrated satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” featured a Malema–like doll receiving advice from Hitler on his path to power. The show traversed South African history, providing disturbing analogies between early 1930s Germany and South Africa today. Uys commented: “Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the Jews.’ Hitler appealed to millions of Germans who had no jobs after the First World War. Malema appeals to millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Black anger against white domination and land theft is justified. One only needs to go back to the Natives Land Act of 1913 which allocated about 7 per cent of arable land to blacks, leaving the more fertile land for whites and introducing territorial segregation into legislation for the first time since Union in 1910. Or apartheid’s Group Areas Act which allowed blacks to live only in designated black areas. To rectify these immoral laws’ consequences requires a legal and fair land restoration process. Malema’s utterances, however, are racist and if followed up could indeed provoke civil war.

Donald Trump’s offensive comments in the American presidential race about Mexicans, Muslims, migrants, women, and others feeds into the resurgence of jingoism and bigotry worldwide. The sounds evoked by hysterical, cheering followers of populists like Malema and Trump ultimately threatens everyone.

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