Messy business of Jews, their roots and land

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Hillbrow: Crime spot or wellspring of creative energy? This cosmopolitan, black Johannesburg neighbourhood is a no-go land for many whites, who fear it, although they once owned it. Now, white land ownership is coming under political scrutiny, as blacks demand the return of what colonialists ‘stole’ from them centuries ago

JOHANNESBURG northern suburbs Jews and other whites generally fear going to Hillbrow, believing they’ll be mugged. But anyone attending the Hillbrow Theatre – previously the historic Andre Huguenot theatre – last weekend to see the show Hillbrowification staged as part of the Dance Umbrella Festival, might have been impressed by a neighbourhood abuzz with pulsating street life amid Art Deco buildings, and the cosmopolitan mix of black immigrants and local black people. Undoubtedly problems of poverty and crime exist, but the energy is infectious.

Adult Jews remember a largely white Hillbrow in the 1960-70s which hummed elegantly with shops and cafes like the popular Fontana, and buildings such as Highpoint in which the first Exclusive Books was born. For residents, Hillbrow was a first step up for many poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who had started off in the humble Doornfontein neighbourhood to the south.

Few, if any, Jews remain in Hillbrow today. They sold up and moved north to the more suburban areas of Orange Grove, Sydenham and Highlands North.

That move was organic, driven by personal decisions and aspirations to own better properties. But this may change with the radical possibility threatening white property owners today, as the black EFF party wants government to seize white-owned property without payment, claiming it was stolen from South Africa’s original black inhabitants by white colonialists. An EFF motion in Parliament last month to review the Constitution to allow ‘expropriation without compensation’ (EWC) was supported by the ANC.

Rural land in Jewish hands today is small, compared to the 1960s when there were a multitude of Jewish farms; for example, the 30-mile strip between Ogies and Leslie in Mpumalanga was almost entirely Jewish farmland. Today, the effects of Jews losing properties would be felt mainly in cities.

The argument is often made that Jewish South Africans’ success in this country, whether in property ownership, business or elsewhere is not because they lived in a country that legally discriminated against blacks and favoured whites. Rather, they worked extremely hard throughout their lives and deserve what they achieved – including property they own – and they shouldn’t have to pay for what colonialists did centuries ago. Many will say Jews are inherently industrious and creative, and succeeded in whichever country they emigrated to from Eastern Europe, whatever the circumstances.

There may be some truth in that, but land is an emotive issue and the argument won’t satisfy black people who believe it was stolen from them. What’s to be done? President Cyril Ramaphosa says it needs careful consideration and there will be no ‘smash and grab’ – such as the Zimbabwean catastrophe, with rampant seizure of white farms.

The issue is complex, whether you support EWC or reject it. From whom should land be taken, and to whom it should it be given? For example, there are whites whose forebears arrived here in the 19th century and who are fifth generation South Africans. Must they still pay for what the colonialists did, as if they are not South African?

Furthermore, to whom should land be given? Which people qualify as ‘original’ South Africans from whom the colonialists stole land? South African history is replete with events where one group took land from another. Perhaps the only genuinely original inhabitants were the San – the so-called ‘Bushmen’ who are virtually extinct today?

What no-one can dispute is the need for major land reform. In a country with a majority black population, ownership of most land by whites is both immoral and a recipe for disaster. What does this have to do with Hillbrow? It is still a metaphor for the country, a reservoir of pulsating energy bordered by land largely owned or controlled by the privileged. Imagine if the pent-up energy crammed into those few blocks was released into bringing life to new places.

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



The leadership quandary: Trust me, I’ll make your nightmares real


What kind of leaders does the world and South Africa need? As the international scenario heats up with bellicose posturing by powerful politicians, the morality of leadership takes a knock. In post-apartheid South Africa, racial tensions still fume as politicians use them for their gain. In the picture, the anti-white leader of the EFF party Julius Malema explodes in an outburst

WHAT makes a leader? Morality, humility, wisdom? The question becomes increasingly relevant as the planet seems to be hurtling towards potential self-destruction. Ordinary people watch fearfully as international leaders threaten stability in ways not seen since the Cold War. For us in South Africa, the country seems rudderless, lacking any true national leader.

Authentic leadership goes deeper than having a clean record. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been under police investigation for corruption, yet most Israelis still regard him as best choice for prime minister and vote for him, because no-one else in the political landscape seems able to ensure Israel’s security.

Israelis are anyway cynical about political leaders’ morality: President Moshe Katsav was jailed for rape in 2011; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was jailed for corruption a few years later; and Shas leader and cabinet minister Aryeh Deri was jailed in 1999 for bribery and breach of trust.

Ironically, one of Israel’s most outstanding leaders was an ardent right-winger, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who led the Likud to electoral victory in 1977 after three decades of Labour Party dominance. He was initially reviled by the left, but today is admired as a role model by people across the spectrum for common sense and propriety. He is the leader who made peace between Israel and Egypt with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, with whom he received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace.

In America, President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure in the White House and irrational tendency to change positions on major local and international issues, continues eroding confidence among Americans who believe he is unfit for the job, and creates disdain elsewhere. But he sits in the power seat and could lead the world into a hell from which it would take forever to recover.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin belligerently brags about the ability of his country’s nuclear weaponry to reach targets anywhere, particularly the United States, terrifying people who fear another nuclear arms race.

What about South African leaders? Obviously the historical giant amongst them was struggle icon and former President Nelson Mandela. He is history now, although the memory of his vision lives on, disappointed as the citizens may be at his country’s decline.

And the others? President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to prove himself; many people believe the task of reconstructing South Africa is too big for him. He succeeded in removing the poisonous President Jacob Zuma from office, but not yet the rot Zuma created.

On a much smaller, charismatic scale, we have Julius Malema. It may seem ludicrous to include him in a descriptive list containing the likes of Putin and Trump, but we are talking qualities not scale. One may not like his politics, but he makes enough noise on the national and even international stage to be noticed by people interested in South Africa. Whether his leadership brand will produce anything positive is unlikely because of his toxic anti-white racism, epitomised by his latest statement, “We are cutting the throat of whiteness,” referring to plans to remove Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip because he is white.

Sounds familiar? It is little different from apartheid leaders HF Verwoerd and PW Botha, whose target was blacks not whites.

Does a leader have to want the best for his people? Not necessarily. Hitler, as repulsive as he was, inspired Germans to move mountains, even if they were in the most depraved direction and eventually brought catastrophe down on them.

South Africa’s record on leaders is not a good one. Are there any potential Mandelas or Hitlers waiting in the wings? This country has a tendency towards great drama, and must beware of the likes of Malema, whose anti-white slogans could easily morph into anti-Indian, anti-Muslim or anti-Jew.

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


The BDS knee jerk: Almost a witch hunt?

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Is a Palestinian state alongside Israel possible? Dr Alon Liel (right), former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to South Africa and Turkey, and Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian Authority Minister, say yes. The picture shows them at a peace rally in Jerusalem in 2012, where Israeli and Palestinian flags were waved. Liel was in South Africa in February to promote his views.

SOUTH AFRICA’S Jewish leaders have work to do concerning ANC members’ negative perceptions of Israel, exemplified in Parliament last week during a speech by then minister of science and technology Naledi Pandor. Her speech formed part of the debate following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address and was meant to respond to the international co-operation objectives he’d announced. However, Pandor’s comments in this regard had nothing to do with foreign affairs and was instead used as an opportunity to slam Israel. Pandor was confirmed on Monday as  minister of higher education in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But how should Jewish leaders relate to Jews criticising Israel? For example, a group recently formed in South Africa calling for Israel to end the “occupation” of the West Bank. The group is called SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation). An unfortunate response in the Jewish community is a hunkering down whereby anyone, Jewish or not, who criticises Israel is labelled a BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) messenger.

Some Jews label anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism, and might justifiably point to the distasteful comments by ANC MPL Sharon Davids in the Cape Legislature last Friday, who said Premier Helen Zille is “too much in love with the Jewish mafia.” She added that the Democratic Alliance “fabricated” Cape Town’s water crisis deadline so desalination contract kickbacks could occur. A sub-text can be easily inferred, that such contracts would come from the world’s expert in water affairs – the Jewish homeland, Israel.

There may be some truth in parts of that. But how should Jews debate amongst themselves about Israel? Such as when the abovementioned South African group made up of born and bred Israelis, Jews who have lived there, and Jews who simply love Israel, says current Israeli government policy is wrong and it should withdraw from the West Bank – the most contentious Israeli issue.

Amongst the Israelis, the group includes the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa at the time of Nelson Mandela’s ascendancy to power, Alon Liel, who was also previously director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and who had a close relationship with the South African freedom icon. In a 2013 article in YNet he said: “I met [Mandela] just five days after assuming the position of Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. Even before I submitted my credentials, Mandela himself telephoned me at 6 am… and said, ‘I’ve heard Israel is changing its policy. Let’s talk.’”

When this group, which includes several South African notaries such as a judge of the high court, asked recently to engage with Jewish institutions, many Jewish community leaders – although not all – said no, and certain individuals were summarily labelled “BDS”. However, the Cape Board of Deputies hosted him, and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – which supports a two state solution to the conflict, thus implying an end to the occupation – met with him and his wife and issued a statement afterwards.

Liel and his cohorts are hated by the political right in Israel, amongst other things for alleged ties to the leftist organisation Breaking the Silence, and promoting boycotts of goods from the “occupied territories” to make it clear the settlements endanger Israel’s future.

Are they too far left for most SA Jews? Organisations who shunned them included the SA Zionist Federation, Johannesburg’s main Jewish community centre, and the youth movement Habonim – which was warned not to host him. Although his group repeatedly asserted its opposition to BDS – which advocates total boycott of Israel and supports its destruction – some Jewish leaders still accused him of representing BDS.

Shunning people like this group is misguided. SA Jews miss the opportunity to strengthen their views by debating contesting perspectives even if they disagree, and they push to the margins Jews reluctant to express themselves in the mainstream for fear of being ostracised.

Other, larger Jewish communities successfully incorporate wide-ranging debate on Israel. But SA Jewry is small. It is essential not to provoke people to leave because of their Israel perspectives. The last thing we need is an echo chamber of identical views.

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


South Africa: Send me!

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From a catastrophe to a new dawn? New SA president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to end corruption, fix government, give jobs to the youth and a host of other remedies, after the disastrous nine years of the Zuma presidency. In the picture, then deputy president Ramaphosa went jogging on the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town the dawn after Zuma resigned, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and met some of  his citizens.

FROM the perspective of their new lives in London, New York and other places to which South African ex-pats have fled over the decades during apartheid and after it, will the revived spirit of hope brought to South Africa by new President Cyril Ramaphosa inspire any of them to consider coming back?

South Africans overseas have often felt smug looking at the country’s decline during the catastrophe of former president Jacob Zuma, when it hurtled towards becoming yet another failed African state. They, after all, had been smart enough to leave and were far from Africa’s problems.

The huge emigration of many whites and others started during apartheid, particularly after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, continuing until Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his ascendancy to the presidency. Amidst the euphoria, emigration slowed as South Africa seemed again a place with a future. There was talk of expats coming back.

This country’s story is about cycles of betrayal and hope, betrayal and hope, again and again. Can it now return to the spirit of hope?

Today the newspaper headlines on the street poles proclaim “goodbye Zuma” and “a new dawn begins.” Addressing the nation from parliament, Ramaphosa quoted from a song by legendary musician Hugh Masekela – known as the father of SA jazz – about everyone lending a hand.

Masekela’s life is a metaphor for this country. He left after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, helped by anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and international friends such as Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, going to the UK, then to the US.

He married another South African icon, jazz singer Miriam Makeba. Masekela wrote well-known anti-apartheid songs, such as Bring Him Back Home, about the movement to free Mandela. He returned to South Africa in the 1990s after Mandela’s release and continued to compose and perform locally and on the world stage. The muso, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, died last month. A line from one of his songs, Thuma Mina, goes: “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around.” Indeed, he was.

There are not many Masekelas, and it is unlikely many SA expats will return, no matter how rosy the South African dawn sounds. They have put down roots elsewhere; their children were raised as Canadians, Americans or with other identities. And the changes in South Africa are not yet solid enough. Can Ramaphosa pull off this gigantic task of renewing the country? It is not yet certain.

One consequence of this past decade is that the ANC – Mandela’s glorious liberation movement turned government – has tainted itself by supporting Zuma. Its hands are dirty. Can Ramaphosa cleanse it? Whether he succeeds or not, the manner in which Zuma was sent off into the wilderness according to strict constitutional principles, shows South African democracy’s solidity.

Many expat South Africans look down their noses at this new multiparty African democracy from the comfort of their mature European and American democracies. But maturity is a relative thing. The parliament building in Cape Town from where Ramaphosa spoke so elegantly to the nation this week, is the same place in which the apartheid rulers formulated the brutal racial policies of their time, and also the place where Zuma sat as president while his cronies looted the country’s coffers. Has betrayal turned to trust again? Can expats in London see it or not?

Ramaphosa, when he was still deputy president, was jogging recently along the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and encountered some young Jewish women also jogging. A warm, happy selfie of all of them is circulating. Hopefully it will also reach the expats in London. He’s going to need that warmth and trust from everyone if he’s going to untangle the mess of this country.

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


Master stories and their multiple virginities

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Stories are slippery things: Who tells the real story of South Africa? Is it politicians like President Zuma, whose people spread smears about contenders like Cyril Ramaphosa? Or a homeless man in Johannesburg, one of 30 million South Africans living in poverty?

NIGERIAN poet and novelist Ben Okri wasn’t referring specifically to South Africa when he wrote: “To poison a country, poison its stories… A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves.” But he might as well have been, if measured by the toxicity pervading our body politic today.

As the ANC’s December conference to elect a new president approaches, rumours are heard that powerful politicians fearful of losing control might create such chaos, it would be aborted. The “poisoners” of this nation propagate carefully-timed smears such as the supposed extra-marital affairs of presidential contender Cyril Ramaphosa, with objectives so obvious that a child could see through them: Can you trust a politician who has an affair (even if Ramaphosa has admitted to one several years ago)? Previous ominous smears have said opposition to the ANC is a western plot for “regime change” rather than democracy at work. Or that former public protector Thuli Madonsela who revealed the curse of state capture, was a CIA agent.

But politicians will be politicians. Okri also said: “The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.” The next few months will be a roller-coaster of magician-like, dirty tricks as President Jacob Zuma fights Ramaphosa’s rising popularity.

Not only South Africa lives in almost surreal times; it is everywhere. No-one knows what to believe, as fake news goes viral through Twitter and Facebook. Historians fifty years down the line will try, with the benefit of hindsight, to penetrate the fog. But even historians always differ on the “real” story.

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. A moving memorial and museum containing names of the 3000 people killed was created at Ground Zero. But that story is far from finished or understood. Will future historians call it the beginning of the Third World War? Or the West’s wakening to the scourge of terrorism from which even America was not immune, and the beginning of the fightback? Or the grossness of powerful politicians whose reactions created more hatred and chaos rather than less.

Stories are told differently as events recede. Barney Simon, icon of South African theatre and co-founder of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, whose craft was story-telling, remarked: “A story has a thousand virginities.”

What does this mean? On the street, for example, immigrants to this country from Eastern Europe or elsewhere – such as Jews, Italians, Greeks and other communities, some of them refugees – often arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s with nothing but a suitcase and a story. Many were unable to even speak the language. Forced to reinvent themselves, their families now tell stories of resourcefulness and success – within a generation many children of these people were educated professionals. The same can be said for many later immigrants from the Congo, Somalia, Nigeria and other African countries, many of whom have established businesses and enterprises small and large.

So, are the master stories South Africans are telling about themselves, healthy or poisoned? Is it still triumph over apartheid and inspirational attempts by blacks and whites on the ground to overcome racism? Or the epic of great reconciler Nelson Mandela which made us the darlings of the world – though some young people call him a “sellout” for negotiating with the apartheid government to avert a civil war? Or a tale of intense disappointment at the country’s decline to junk status economically, socially and politically so soon after the Mandela euphoria? Stats SA says one in two South Africans – about 30 million people – live under the poverty line, more than ever before. Is this fixable, and who can do it?

It is not clear whether this country will drown in its poisonous stories, or negotiate the current mess and thrive heroically in its healthy ones. Okri never gave us a crystal ball.

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


Sick men hold the doomsday nuclear button

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Does the world’s fate lie in the hands of psychologically sick people? Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un? Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud might have revealed some startling facts

SIGMUND Freud is probably frowning in his grave while world citizens watch despairingly the rising momentum towards nuclear war between the United States and North Korea, driven by politicians holding nuclear buttons he would have had much to say about. Two at least are psychologically dysfunctional.

US president Donald Trump, wanting to appear smarter than everyone, throws tantrums when anyone disagrees; North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in total control of his people and military, wants to appear more macho than everyone – a gang leader daring others to take him on. North Korea is “begging for war” says US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Freud, a neurologist who founded psychoanalysis, was born to Jewish parents in Austria. He fled to London in 1938, aged 82, to escape the Nazis. His secular Jewish identity influenced his intellectual and moral outlook, and psychoanalysis’s rationalist values.

Can religion and rationality reconcile? Last week, an eminent Orthodox rabbinical delegation representing 90 per cent of the Orthodox Jewish world met with the Pope, presenting the document Between Jerusalem and Rome, calling on Catholics and other faith communities “to assure the future of religious freedom, to foster the moral principles of our faiths, particularly the sanctity of life and the significance of the traditional family,” and to strengthen the “moral and religious conscience.”

It marked the five-decade anniversary of the radical 1965 Vatican statement Nostra Aetate, devised by Pope Paul VI to guide Catholics in relations with non-Christian communities, heralding a sea change in attitudes towards Jews and denouncing anti-Semitism and treatment of Jews as the people who had rejected the Messiah. Pope Francis said Nostra Aetate “represented the Magna Carta of the Church’s dialogue with the Jewish world.” Despite irreconcilable theological differences, the Church and Jews were trying rationally to construct a better world together, “blessed with peace, social justice and security.”

Freud had a “rationalist” approach to morality, evoking scepticism among religious leaders about psychoanalysis. But the thread of psychoanalysis runs through many places. Pope Francis admitted recently to a French sociologist and author of an upcoming book that he regularly consulted a female Jewish psychoanalyst in the 1970s in his native Argentina when he was 42 and working as a Jesuit official. “She helped me a lot,” the Italian newspaper La Stampa quoted him as saying.

He said people with straitjacket points of view bother him, even singling out “rigid priests… It’s a form of fundamentalism… Whenever I run into a rigid person, especially if young, I tell myself that he’s sick… in reality, they are persons looking for security.”

Although the Catholic Church used to mistrust psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy, it has softened on the subject. Vatican guidelines applied in seminaries training future priests, today appreciate psychologists’ help in assessing candidates’ suitability.

Coincidentally, tensions between faith and rationality are superbly portrayed in a play currently running in Johannesburg directed by Alan Swerdlow, entitled Freud’s Last Session. It portrays an imagined fierce conversation between an old, sick Freud approaching death from mouth cancer, and CS Lewis, a much younger Oxford professor of literary scholarship and firm believer in Christianity and G-d. In the argument between these two great intellectuals, Freud claims morality itself is something brainwashed into people by their parents. When his cancer becomes too much to bear, he will commit suicide. Lewis protests that only G-d gives life and only He can take it away.

Whatever one thinks of Freud and Lewis, rationality and faith, one thing is certain: Some of the leaders the world has mistakenly put into the most powerful positions on earth, could do with serious interventions, whether rational or faith-based. Untold millions of people could die if these men’s pathologies are given free rein.

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


Statues and heroes: the dangers of erasing too much

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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: )


Charlottesville and Joburg: The impact of a blunt instrument

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What does it take to talk? Is it possible for the Ku Klux Klan to re-emerge as a force to silence all in their way? Can South Africans get past their racial history?

IT has seemingly again become a trend to stifle arguments with blunt instruments. It might appear to be stretching a point to contrast recent horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States, with post-apartheid South African discourse. But as our world increasingly sinks into hatred and intolerance, driven by populist leaders who care only for themselves, trends stand out which are weakening the post-Second World War ideal that people of different cultures and creeds can respect one another, and talk together.

Last year’s election of the lying, tweeting Donald Trump as United States President, with his contempt for ‘the Other’ – Mexicans, refugees and so on – epitomises this. His reaction on Sunday to violent demonstrations by alt-right, anti-Semitic hooligans in Charlottesville, in which a woman demonstrating for peace was killed by a car driven headlong into the crowd by a militant racist – a blunt instrument – confirmed it; he refused to immediately condemn the alt-right, since they were part of the constituency which elected him.

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history and political travails, and the damage President Zuma inflicts, this country is doing relatively well in inter-group tolerance. Remnants of Mandela’s dream remain, even if somewhat sullied. But an illustrative incident occurred at a Jewish-organised Limmud conference session last week in Johannesburg when a young black woman on a panel declared to the audience of mainly white Jews that she was going to be “brave”, and then pronounced vociferously: “There is no rainbow nation!” All whites were inherently guilty, and blacks had to separately re-examine their attitudes towards whites. The session’s topic was “The Tarnished Rainbow: South Africa in 2017”.

Audience members were angered by her bluntly lumping all whites together. In the auditorium were white veteran political activists, participants in projects of cultural engagement, helping the marginalised and poor, and so on. One white person countered her by saying her generation of young blacks had scant personal experience or knowledge of the role some whites played in demolishing apartheid, and their sacrifices.

Then a youngish white man spoke up, saying he agreed the country had racial demons to overcome because of its history. He then said politely but pointedly: “I am white and doing my best. What else do you want me to do now? Will it help, or atone for white sins during colonialism and apartheid, if I give away all the money in my bank account, give up my job and car, and go and sweep the streets?”

The audience waited for some constructive response. Instead, she angrily retorted that his very question exposed his racism, because he seemed to believe black people just “sweep the streets.” A ripple of annoyance ran through the audience. One white woman muttered that the country’s black middle class numbered 6 million today, larger than the white one.

But the interaction showed something important. This young panellist’s ignorance and anger notwithstanding, many South Africans are trying to talk to each other. Indeed, she herself had come to the Limmud forum, to challenge a white audience and be challenged.

Turning back to the thugs in Charlottesville, Virginia, it seems incredible that after all the years since World War Two and the Holocaust, people still needed to protest against unmitigated Nazism from closed-minded people with no desire or willingness to talk. People who carried flags with large swastikas on them. At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville on July 8, a sign held by a white-hooded participant read: “Jews are Satan’s children… Talmud is a child molester’s bible.”

Despite how much anger there is in South African society, a sign like that would not be permitted.

It would be naive, of course, to think that all is perfect – far from it. There is as much to worry about in South Africa as anywhere else. But perhaps Donald Trump’s American South can learn something from this country about how people still manage to talk today, even across chasms.

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



The Golem still lurks in our Brave New World

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Will unrestrained gadgets save or kill mankind? Religious sources celebrate humans’ creative genius, but warn about the monster hiding in the shadows

WHAT do religions say about the technological tsunami flooding our lives today? Is the increasingly rapid ‘disruptive innovation’ an angel or devil? Leading Johannesburg techno-gadget expert Arthur Goldstuck raised some ancient but relevant Jewish perspectives at a conference in Johannesburg last weekend.

The Limmud conference is an annual weekend gathering held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban attended by hundreds of people, with speakers and facilitators addressing myriad themes ranging from theology to politics, music, spirituality, history, technology and other topics.  It is part of an international network of similar conferences taking place in Jewish communities worldwide.

Sketching technological changes from 100 years ago to the present and into the future, Goldstuck left his audience fascinated, but also unnerved. A century ago, individual innovations appeared occasionally which we take for granted today, such as the portable electric drill; colourful gift-wrap created by Hallmark, which replaced brown paper wrapping; Converse All Stars athletic shoes; and others.

In 2017, however, every device and industry is constantly being technologically disrupted – or re-innovated – at increasingly speedy rates, with everything being connected via the Internet and other means, and building on each other. We can hardly keep up. And technology is all very well, but can machines make moral choices?

Facebook, for example, connects almost the entire world, except China where it is not allowed; in this era of instant innovation, new products and information reach millions within seconds. Some 2 billion people – 1 in 5 of the world’s population – and 17 million South Africans are on Facebook.

The benefits are manifold, but the spreading of ‘fake news’ is also one of the dangerous outcomes; and the idiocy of people like US President Donald Trump carelessly using facebook and Twitter to spread his political rantings, could just as well start a war by accident.

The next major innovative platform will be Virtual Reality devices, allowing one to experience events taking place around the corner or a world away. Soon, unmanned robots will proliferate as waiters in restaurants, as bank clerks, teachers and so on; they will be caregivers in hospitals and homes which will sense minute amounts of germs and report them to medical staff – Japan, with its elderly population, already uses 20 000 robots as caregivers.

By 2019, artificial intelligence devices should be pervasive. These would include, for example, devices fixed to peoples’ brains doing routine ECGs and electronically sending results to each individual’s doctor. Autonomous, self-driving cars already exist. By 2022, farmers will insert chips into livestock – such as dairy cows – in the field, to monitor temperature and other aspects, transmitting them to the farmer’s house to inform him which cows are ready for milking.

These devices do not only perform jobs previously done by humans, but accumulate masses of information about people’s movements, likes, dislikes and behaviour. Despite the benefits, this is potentially dangerous and invasive: Where is it stored; how is it used? It could be employed for nefarious purposes. Someone could hold you to ransom with such information. Hospitals’ patient records could be captured and only released for a payoff – this already happened recently in UK hospitals.

Could such technologies become an existential threat to humankind, outsmarting people? What if ‘intelligent’ devices behave negatively rather than positively? Such a technological scenario was predicted decades ago in Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, ‘Brave New World’ in 1932. How do religious traditions view all this? What role for faith groups in restraining them?

Drawing on Jewish sources, Goldstuck referred to a legendary man-shaped creature made of mud created by the Talmudic scholar, mystic and philosopher the Maharal in the 1500s – the notorious Golem of Prague which has entered popular language as a saboteur of the foundations of a good society. Legend held that the Golem was given ‘life’ when a parchment containing holy words was placed under its tongue; if the creature became dangerously destructive, it could be ‘switched off’ by removing the parchment.

Could the Golem be an archetype for modern Artificial Intelligence? How would one switch it off?

Other Jewish sages approved of technology and innovation, seeing them as part of human creativity, but said the privacy of a person’s inner life is sacrosanct – meaning that Facebook’s collecting and using of such private information may cross a forbidden red line. With personal privacy being so crucial, including the ability to make moral and practical choices, trust in technology is lacking, even as people rely on their smartphones for more and more of what they do.

The sages foresaw the potential dangers of this techno-Golem centuries ago, as seductive as it is. How to control it may be one of the biggest challenges of our times.

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



Terror victims’ dignity: Should bloody pictures go viral?


Halamish 3

When to show blood on the floor? Israeli officials examine the murder scene of members of the Salomon family in Halamish by a knife-wielding Palestinian. Controversy abounds about whether publishing pictures of the edge-to-edge blood-soaked floor by the IDF violates victims’ dignity (photo: ZAKA)

WHAT’S in a picture? The violence at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the terrorist attack in the West Bank settlement Halamish on Friday raises questions about how much blood and gore should the general public see through photographs when civilians are killed.

The morning after the Halamish attack, in which Yosef Salomon and his two adult children were stabbed to death by a Palestinian with a knife during Shabbat dinner, the IDF released photographs of their kitchen floor, drenched edge to edge in thick blood. Another picture showed the attacker lying face down on the bloody floor.

An Israeli official posted it on Twitter, captioned, “This is the terrorist lying on the floor… full of the blood of three innocent family members…”

Arguments for and against such pictures’ release are many-sided. In this case, there was some discomfort in official circles and among ordinary Israelis.

A major humanitarian consideration is preserving the dignity and privacy of victims and family. From a policy viewpoint, Israel also wants to avoid creating an image of Israelis and Jews as “victims.” An Israeli official quoted this week in a national paper referred to the famous Holocaust-era Warsaw Ghetto photograph of a Jewish boy with his hands up, watched by a German soldier: “[Pictures of Jews being humiliated] makes our enemies happy, and demoralises us.”

People arguing that such pictures evoke sympathy for Israel and discredit the terrorists’ cause are only partially correct, since a myriad pictures are also published by Palestinians of their victims of Israeli attacks; it depends who is seeing them, and from what perspective. For some, the attackers are terrorists; for others, heroic martyrs.

Dramatic war photographs have sometimes had major effects on public perception of a conflict. Think of the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked and screaming down a road in June 1972 after being burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack during the Vietnam War. The war’s moral imperative was never the same after that. Or the picture in September 2015 of a three year-old Syrian boy’s miserable body washed up on a Turkish beach, becoming a symbol of the refugee crisis and the world’s ignoring of Syrian atrocities in which 400 000 have died in the six-year war, many of them civilians. The photograph went viral, shifting some attitudes towards migrants.

In South Africa, the image during the 1976 Soweto uprising by photojournalist Sam Nzima of the dying, bloodied 13-year-old Hector Pieterson shot by apartheid security forces, was published worldwide and became an emblem of the anti-apartheid struggle. Later, South Africa’s social problems shot to the headlines in May 2008 through the image of 35-year-old Mozambican Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave being set on fire in a village street during xenophobic attacks on foreigners by locals, causing an uproar about the society’s moral values.

After a terrorist attack in Israel, the IDF is often in charge of the site, with a say on what images are released. But it cannot control photojournalists working for global media, or civilians’ pictures taken on smartphones and tweeted out to the world.

Newspaper editors are themselves caught in a dilemma. They cannot publish only sanitised images giving no sense of the horror. Yet they cannot fill their pages with gory pictures which will make readers recoil. The balance is difficult to find.

In the Halamish case, the IDF had control of the scene, which was in a fenced-off West Bank settlement. Arguably, the violation of the family’s dignity with images of the Salomons’ bloody kitchen floor, could have outweighed any positive result of their publication. Yet, in the emotions of the moment, one can also understand the rage which led to the opposite decision.

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

  • Read a review of the photo-exhibition Refuge  by Muslim photographers Hasan and Husain Essop, from arts critic Robyn Sassen