Refugees: home is not where the heart is – a voice from SA Jews?

Migrants tel aviv (3).jpg

Equal pay, equal work? Israeli activists and African asylum-seekers protest outside Tel Aviv Museum of Art in April 2017 against special conditions on migrants’ salaries, designed to encourage them to leave the country (photo:Eliyahu Kamisher)

WHEN acrimonious debates arise in the Jewish world, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial intention to deport 38 000 African refugees from Israel back to Africa, voices from tiny Jewish communities such as South Africa seem very muted.

South African Jewry has long been in distress because of political chaos in the country, its attempts to find its place here as a minority group, and its rapidly shrinking size – it is less than half what it was in the 1970s and many of its best and brightest have left for safer shores. Given these internal problems, it appears there is little appetite for involvement in wider matters such as the migrants.

Jews are justifiably proud of Israel without having to trumpet its achievements to the world. However there are moments in a nation’s history when it must do something extremely public to affirm its core. This is such a moment. The status of ‘refugee’ is central to the Jewish historical experience, and Jews are being put in the position one generation later of making such a decision for others.

Some 72 percent of the migrants are Eritrean and 20 percent Sudanese who arrived between 2006 and 2012 to escape war and repression. Many live in south Tel Aviv. The Knesset gave Netanyahu the power to deport them or imprison those refusing to leave ‘voluntarily.’ There have been accusations from Israelis that they have contributed to rising crime in the area and other misdemeanors. Many Israelis want them out.

Does this little South African Jewish community have anything useful to say? The mandate of its representative organisations is to ‘protect the Jewish way of life’. Could this way of life include something about treating migrants? We have witnessed a myriad times in South African history, the effects on helpless people of governments shunting them off to inhospitable places.

Menachem Begin gave us the opposite example in 1977 when, in one of his first acts after becoming Israeli prime minister, he welcomed 66 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who had been rescued at sea, comparing them to Jewish refugees seeking refuge during the Holocaust. He granted them citizenship. Israel was praised for its humanity.

Refugees from war and disaster zones globally are more numerous today than any time since the Second World War, estimated at 66 million. Some Western countries have taken a number in, others have refused. The 38 000 in Israel constitute one-half of 1 percent of Israel’s population – currently no threat to its demography, although obviously the future is uncertain.

Netanyahu’s intention to eject them has evoked protest in the Jewish world. Nearly 800 American Jewish clergymen signed an open letter urging him to cancel the deportations; two former heads of the Foreign Ministry, Nissim Ben Sheetrit and Alon Liel have protested; and 147 Israeli academics, 35 former diplomats, and Israeli Holocaust survivors.

El-Al pilots have said they will refuse to fly deportees to Africa; the New Israel Fund, refugee support group HIAS and rights group T’ruah have joined; ADL’s national director and CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt has protested, as well as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Irwin Cotler, former justice minister in Canada who chairs the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal and has dealt with African migrant matters for over a decade, has lobbied against deportation. Netanyahu has accused George Soros, international humanitarian and philanthropist, of backing protests.

Are there any voices from rabbis, leaders or others here which might add a South African angle to the debate?

It would be interesting to hear the views of South African Jews – whether they agree with Netanyahu’s plan or not – on something that is not about running Israel, but about a moral issue.

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


South African Jewry dwindles; not for the usual reasons

Wolmarans Street Shul 1

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: )

The ultra-nationalists and John Lennon’s broken dreams


‘The other’ is not welcome here! Rabid nationalism epitomised by French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (above) comes half a century after The Beatles celebrated individualism and sharing of the world

A PIECE of popular history which throws light on today’s confusing world is the release 50 years ago in 1967 in England of The Beatles’ album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – soon to be re-released. It was followed in 1971 by John Lennon’s iconic song ‘Imagine’ with its key line “Imagine there’s no countries…”, positing a globalised world based on individualism, self-expression, feminism, gay liberation and similar values. Countries’ borders were less important.

Things have changed. Last year’s statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Conservative party conference epitomised the resurgence of identities defined by nationhood and rejection of ‘the other’: “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Other countries such as France are following. Its national election next Sunday will determine if ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen will become president. Her National Front party is accused of Holocaust denial; last month she caused outrage by suggesting France was not responsible for the round-up of Jews – perceived as ‘the other’, despite being citizens – who were sent to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Will France embrace hard right populism with its anti-immigrant, super-nationalism?

Human identities are a balancing act between competing sentiments. For South African Jews, Israel is a key part of their identity, epitomised by moving ceremonies this week for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzamut. The former mourns 23,544 men and women who died defending Israel and its pre-State Jewish population, and 3,117 terror victims. The latter celebrates Israel’s independence. This year also marks 50 years since the Six Day War in which Arab countries tried to obliterate the nation of Israel.

But there are other forces vying for SA Jewry’s attention in rivalry with Israel, such as dramatic local events crucial to South Africa’s future. These include what happened on Monday in Workers Day ceremonies around the country. Some descended into chaos. In Bloemfontein, President Jacob Zuma was booed out of a Cosatu trade union federation rally and departed in his twelve-car motorcade surrounded by bodyguards without delivering his keynote speech. People ask how long the ANC will survive before it implodes, and what happens afterwards? Will African nationalism and anti-colonialist rage dominate, and what will be the place of whites and Jews?

Zuma never cherished South Africa’s democracy and nationhood, and the country should celebrate the shaming of a man who has robbed it for personal enrichment. Hopefully, its citizens will regain their optimism individually and collectively.

Israel’s nationhood, in contrast, seems solid, despite vulgar arguments in its body-politic. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University shows both its Arab and Jewish populations are optimistic and have a sense of national identity. It found 71 per cent of Israelis (73 per cent of Jewish respondents and 61 per cent of Arabs) were either “very” or “quite” optimistic about the country’s future, and over 80 per cent said they were “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israelis. Not surprisingly, Jewish respondents took greater pride in Israeli identity (86 per cent), but even 51 per cent of Arab respondents described themselves as “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israeli.

The clash between aggressive nationalism and those individuals attempting to cross boundaries is ugly, however. Ultra-right protesters heckled a 4000-strong alternative Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony in Tel Aviv on Sunday – held for the 12th consecutive year – featuring bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. They called Israeli participants “traitors.”

Wherever it is in the world, the cosmopolitan counterculture of The Beatles and the ultra-nationalism epitomised by Theresa May and Marine Le Pen cannot ever happily exist together. South Africa’s and Israel’s place in this universal tussle will never be simple, but the ride is certainly interesting.

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

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: )

UN Resolution 2334 – wise counsel or anti-Israel vitriol?


Do settlements prevent peace? An Israeli bulldozer demolishes a house in illegal West Bank settlement Maale Rehavam near Bethlehem in 2014, after Israel’s High Court ruled the state must remove the structures, which were on privately-owned Palestinian land.  Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

THE kneejerk response of some Jews and supporters of Israel to last week’s UN Security Council resolution declaring Israel’s West Bank settlements a violation of international law was to scream “anti-Semitism!” and “the UN hates Israel.” Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu called the resolution “shameful” and lashed out against its supporters.

The uncomfortable truth is that Resolution 2334 is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel. Most countries that voted for it are Israel’s friends. The Security Council’s permanent members, the United States (which refrained from vetoing it, effectively allowing it to pass), Britain, France, China and Russia, as well as non-permanent members spoke together with a crystal-clear message: For the community of nations, the settlements are illegal.

Predictably, the South African government, which has full diplomatic relations with Israel as well as a long history of comradeship with the Palestinians, called the resolution “long overdue”.

One of the bitterest fights within the Jewish world today, reflected also in South African Jewry, is about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Many passionately pro-Israel Jews are unable to defend the country when it is accused of apartheid because Palestinians live under an occupation which has lasted half a century, with a full panoply today of humiliating checkpoints, separate roads, different legal systems and so on. Jewish bodies such as the SA Jewish Board of Deputies valiantly proclaim support for a two-state solution – which corresponds with the government’s line – but are left helpless to defend Israel when illegal settlements proliferate in the West Bank and threaten to make that solution impossible.

A significant proportion of Jews worldwide are dismayed by the impunity with which a relatively small group of ultra-nationalistic, religious Jewish settlers who have a lock-hold on Israel’s government, call the tune and sabotage any possibility of peace by creating new, illegal settlements on land needed for a future Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s claim that the settlements are not the obstacle to peace reflects the complexity of the situation, but does not help Jews who try to defend Israel in the world at large.

Anyone who understands Israel’s context knows ending the settlements will not automatically end the conflict. The Middle East is in turmoil, close to half-a-million Syrians have been killed in that country’s 5-year civil war, and the Palestinians have squandered numerous previous opportunities to get their state, opting instead for terrorism. The rise of Hamas in Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal is a prime example. A change in Palestinian attitudes is demanded by Israel and its friends. But those same friends regard the settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Settlement supporters take the opposite view, seeing them as today’s authentic Zionism, part of the battle against an anti-Semitic world which wouldn’t care if Israel was eliminated. They accuse anti-settler Jews, such as the peace-seeking Jewish organisation J Street, of being naïve fools who if allowed their way would end up helping Israel’s defeat by its enemies. US president-elect Donald Trump’s proposed US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an avid settler supporter, likened J Street to the “kapos” – Jews who under the Nazis helped implement European Jews’ extermination.

Settler supporters are mistaken, however, when they declare that Resolution 2334 will spur a new drive to expand Israel into the territories, such as Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, who says “No decision will cause Israel to stop building on its own land.” Israel cannot forever thumb its nose at the massive global constituency which rejects the settlements.

Resolution 2334 does not say the final Israel-Palestine border should be the June 4, 1967 “green line” between Israel and Jordan which existed before the Six Day War, which is unacceptable for Israel’s security. In 1969, Israel’s legendary diplomat Abba Eban warned that withdrawal from all the territories his country occupied in June 1967 would be a return to “Auschwitz borders.”

But the UN sees that line as the starting point and won’t recognise changes unless agreed by the parties in negotiations. Such changes have already been agreed repeatedly in previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, where major settlement blocs will become part of Israel in exchange for Israeli land elsewhere going to Palestine. Jerusalem is the thorniest issue, with its holy sites, but even there workable formulas are possible.

The UN resolution has no short term practical implications. No settlements will be dismantled because of it. But in the long-term countries and organisations may refuse to deal with the settlements, citing the resolution.

Israel is an incredible success story, of which Jews are justifiably proud. Resolution 2334 is a wake-up call from its friends. A wise Israeli leader might see opportunity here to shift direction. But wise leaders are in short supply.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: