Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Tag: Israel

Being Jew-ish

Jew-ish is a notion I stole from actress Chantal Stanfield when we were working on From Koesistes to Kneidlach (coming to Cape Town in December, save the date, at the Baxter). She was talking about her husband, who is Jewish, and Jew-ish, in the lapsed kind of way that I am. We are not religious (I am an atheist), we are not kosher, we are not Zionists, and we are as critical of the problems inherent in Judaism as we are prepared to acknowledge the good in it.

I have had struggles with my Jewish identity for all my life. It is confusing and unsettling and sometimes even achingly painful. I won’t even go into detail. How I have emerged, at the age of 52, is as a much more committed human, South African, vegan, than Jewish person. I am deeply opposed to the Israeli government and its Apartheid crimes against the Palestinians. I am deeply opposed to any human rights abuses, including anti-Semitism, and I am constantly shocked at any group’s ability to be selectively moral, or morally outraged. Crimes against humanity must all be condemned with the same force. Nobody gets to pick and choose, and none can be worse than another because of who is doing it, or who it is being done to.

So, at a funny birthday party on Sunday I got into a dangerous conversation with a man I did not know, a Jewish man of my age group or slightly older, a man with good hair, teeth, clothes and definitely a house and car and servants and trips overseas, who described the increasingly shrinking jewish community of South Africa as ’embattled’. He gave reasons for this condition on the growing Muslim anti-Jewish sentiment in South Africa, and the government’s anti Israel stance. And I was blown away. Embattled? A community that lives in the best areas of Cape Town (and Joburg), that is seen as one of the wealthiest segments of South African society, with the best schools, big businesses, and high profiles, is ’embattled’? A community that isn’t driven out and forced into the sea to become refugees if they survive. A community that isn’t locked in and shut out, and water rationed and policed. A community that is not at war. On the contrary, the Jewish community is far more able and capable of serving other genuinely embattled communities.

The Jewish community that I know has always fed on this sentiment, this idea, this feeling of being embattled. It is probably in our genetic make-up. And even I agree that it is understandable. Israel is built on that foundation; that Jews are only safe in their homeland. But there is this completely skewed notion that Jews are struggling and under threat here. A notion shared by many whites. And it is such a dangerous notion because it separates out from the truth, totally minimises those who are actually embattled, like the poor, and ends up justifying ‘survivalist’ behaviour.

While there were many prominent Jews or Jew-ish people in this country’s struggle for liberation, there have been much fewer involved in meaningful transformation. Unfortunately, the sentiment of the SA Jewish community as a whole has aligned itself more strongly to a conservative, religious and Zionist-at-all-cost way of thinking. And because of this Jews have become easier targets. The sale of Tafelberg, here on our doorstep, is a fantastic example. So few (300 or so) Jews actively campaigned against the sale to the Phyllis Jowel Remedial School, yet allowed Helen Zille jump onto the anti-Semitic bandwagon when there was such deep resistance to the sale by pro-social housing campaigners. I can’t help but feel that the Jewish community is its own worst enemy here.

I write this with a yortzeit candle burning its last. I am commemorating the death of my mother a year ago. I lit the candle for connection, for ritual, for her really. And there is a part of me that longs for a true, deep and meaningful connection with something Jewish; not religion, not even culture, but something else wrapped up in identity and belonging. But I am still the black sheep, and the South African Jewish community (on the whole) shames me.



War and the Swing to Conservatism

What happened? What happened to turn the passionately committed anti-apartheid children and youth that I was part of into fearful, hating racists who want all Arabs dead?

This new flare-up of war between Israel and the Palestinians has once again brought into sharp focus the disease that has swept through Jews in South Africa and many of my old classmates, and I do not understand it one bit.

I went to King David High School in the late 70s and early 80s. Yes, I was always considered to be an outspoken rebel, but my thoughts about apartheid were shared by all of my friends and many more who weren’t. Some of us went on to be even more outspoken, committed and involved in the struggle once we went to ‘varsity. We all knew that apartheid was evil and wrong, and even though we were white and had moments of fear about the future, the fear was never enough to turn us away from what we knew was the absolute truth. I certainly remember thinking how I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be black, disenfranchised, without power, without access and absolutely oppressed. We all did.

And now, these same friends have turned into paranoid, hysterical, ranting racists and Arab haters who believe, from South Africa (FFS), that their people are threatened and that Palestinians; refugees contained in virtual prisons, are what threaten Israel’s existence. How? How did this happen to those people I knew?

I am devastated by this. I know it isn’t everybody. I have friends and family in Israel who are deeply opposed to the war and are desperate (and vocal) protestors for peace. Just like we were in those days. But I am scared and shocked by how few of us there are, and that most of those old friends have turned into the oppressors we feared and hated and fought against.


Cultural Boycott of Israel; the elephant in the room

Hiddingh Hall at UCT’s Orange Street Campus was packed to the rafters for GIPCA‘s debate; Great Texts/Big Questions – Cultural Boycotts, with a specific look at the call to boycott Israel. I panicked at the sight of many, familiar Jewish faces, thinking that things were going to get very hectic, and that I was going to get hysterical, but no; it was a polite, luke-warm affair that left me totally dissatisfied. My biggest concern is that none of the panel could stay on track. For the boycott were Zackie Achmat and UCT’s Andrew Trench, and against the boycott were Dennis Davis and William Kentridge. I am going to assume that all who read this will know who these people are. And in order for me to put my very own point across I am going to write it as an open letter to Dennis Davis, whose argument I found corrupt and disingenuous, albeit couched in his usual passionate ‘public speak’.

Dear Dennis Davis

I need to explain very clearly why your argument against a cultural boycott is flawed and nonsense. The best way I can do this is to tell you about what happened to me, here in South Africa, when I was a young person terribly opposed to the apartheid regime. I think it would be fair to say that I knew I was not alone in my condemnation of this government. There were many white people (even you) who were. But it was perfectly clear to us that a cultural, academic and sports boycott was absolutely appropriate and necessary. Until such time as these pursuits could be practiced by all South Africans and enjoyed by all South Africans, we accepted as a matter of course that we should also be deprived of those things. I certainly had no expectation that anyone outside of this country would consider me and my fellow activists and grant us special treatment. Although I had no illusions that a cultural or sports boycott could topple a government I was absolutely of the belief that it would help to. And yes, I believed that all those things I was missing, like international acts, and real Levis and proper cricket, was because of the apartheid regime. I knew what the problem was.

You spoke about the complexity of Israel and why that should make a difference. You spoke about the many Israelis who do not support occupation. It is my belief that these are the very people that would totally understand, respect and even support a call to boycott, for the reasons stated above. If they feel punished and deprived then it is because they live in a country whose elected government has created this need for this boycott. To hold the dissenters up as the reason for cultural engagement is nonsense, and it mocks their own legitimate call for a boycott. You disrespect them and their views by saying that they need our cultural engagement.

Then off you went and threw up the paranoid and hideous excuse that Israel is the only country fighting for sovereignty against threats by Iran to wipe it out. You said that this is another reason that makes Israel special. I still don’t know why you said that and what it has to do with anything, other than to throw the normal stinky red herring in the direction of the usual suspects who come up with a contrary argument. Sorry, but this one is truly offensive and meaningless.

Finally, you said something unforgivable. You said that while you are very opposed to the occupation you wanted to remind people that Israel wasn’t that bad. There were worse places, you said. We should boycott them, you said. Boycott China, and Libya, you said. I really hope that you were kidding, because if you weren’t then you stooped beyond the lowest point. I want you to know that you, Dennis Davis are not the person who can decide that Israel is not that bad. It’s not your call to make.

Finally, you think that those many, poor, complex, non government supporting Israelis need us. They need our help to work from within. Here’s what I think. That is arrogant, self-righteous and patronising.

I don’t really know what you were trying to say, or why you don’t support a boycott. Lots of huffing and puffing.

For me it’s fairly simple. The principle of the cultural boycott is to help, in even the smallest way, the toppling of the current regime. We are outside. We want to show our moral alignment. We want to send a message that we won’t engage, exchange, or co-create until people are free. Especially us South Africans, because we remember the how and why of our own boycott. There are no exceptions, excuses or justifications. You are either for the regime or against it. Let the dissident Israelis fight from within. We can take a stand right here.

Finally, I’d like to write a few words in response to William Kentridge. I found your defense of exhibiting in Israel (in retrospect) very hollow. Unless you made a huge, public noise to the contrary William, I suspect it is safe to assume that the Israeli government thought you were on their side. Did you make a huge noise?

Real Rose

When all is said and done, it is absolutely blatantly obvious when a piece of theatre or storytelling is amazing. Rose, written by Martin Sherman and performed by Fiona York at The Kalk Bay Theatre is just that; a performance that crept up on me (it had time to; it was two hours long) and had me sobbing and sniffing onto my sleeves again.

On a wooden bench (she is sitting shiva), Rose tells the extraordinary story of her life; a Jewish peasant girl growing up in a village in the Ukraine where she feels like she doesn’t belong, to her escape as a young girl to meet up with her brother in Warsaw. She tells of her time during the war, in the Ghetto, her rescue and final convoluted trip to Palestine that ended up in America, with a second husband, and the feisty creation of an interesting, unusual life.

Punctuated with delicious humour, strange little details, and of course the terrible facts that Rose has trouble ‘remembering’, this is an engrossing story told absolutely brilliantly.

Again, I wasn’t sure about whether I was going to like this one. At the heart of the tale sits a Jewish holocaust survivor story. As I have said before, been there done that. But the character of Rose navigates an original take on this, making its horrors fresh and personal. I was also uncomfortable about how the whole Palestine/Israel issue would be handled. It is no secret that I have very strong anti-Israel occupation of Palestine feelings. Well, I don’t want to give the story away, but this was for me the most moving, tragic and brilliantly resolved moment of the whole thing.

Rose sneaks up on you, and her mannerisms, cowardice. quirks, bravery and foibles become totally endearing. You want a happy life for her, but what you get is a real life, told in the simplest, truest way.

It is always interesting for me when somebody who isn’t Jewish plays someone who is. It is an interesting debate. It’s not like a specifically black character. There is the issue of colour. It wouldn’t be believed. But can you tell whether someone is Jewish? Fiona York does a brilliant job because she plays the person, not the characteristics. I had one or two moments where I found her accent a bit weird, and her pronunciation of chuppah made the u sound like ‘cup’ instead of ‘hoop’, but I am nitpicking as only a Jewish somebody could. (If my fingers weren’t typing they would be making hand gestures.)

If I could be like Fiona York when I am in my later years I would be so happy. I aspire to be her, and do her kind of work.

PS. It is going to be so, so interesting to see if this production is accepted by the Jewish grapevine here in Cape Town. Of course it should, but will it be politically challenging?

Ugly trouble in the Holy Land

I’ve started getting email invites to the Limmud Conference 2011. Last year I was “the alternative voice” and I presented a talk (to which 10 people came). I have not been invited to participate this year and it comes as no surprise. The bald reality is that my kind of thinking, while occasionally seen as necessary in order to prove the existence of the lunatic fringe, is not welcome or encouraged. And I cannot tell you how depressed this makes me.

I am not in a good way about South African Jewry at the moment. Two debates have made me shudder with revulsion, one of them being the hooha about UJ severing ties with Ben Gurion University. The response by South African Jews has been beyond any rational thought.

I am forced to acknowledge that while I believe in human rights, most Jews who support the Israeli government do not. I am forced to realise that the huge majority (probably 90%) of South African Jews have paranoid, anti-Muslim feeling. I am forced to understand that it is an absolute reality that most South African Jews are conservative, Apartheid-style apologists. And lastly, I am confronted with the horrifying reality that there are many of them and terribly few like me.

I think what gets me the most is the assumption by other South African Jews that I should share their opinions, narrow minded bigotry and self righteous excuses. What gets me is that there is the assumption that Jews should stick together and support the Israeli government (no different from the ideology that instructed all whites to support the Nats under Apartheid).

The saddest thing is, in contrast, that there are many, many Israelis, in Israel and abroad, who absolutely do not support the current government and its racist policies; who are vocal and active in their dissent, powerful in their arguments and dedicated to doing right. But here on the Southern tip of Africa, that pro-government, Zionistic, paranoid, aggressive, militant, anti Palestine/Arab/Muslim mentality is the most common and pervasive. And it freaks me out.

peace now

I have been wanting to write this post ever since the war in Gaza started but I wanted to make sure that my reaction was not hysterical and knee jerk; it is very, very important that I am clear here.

I am not going to fall into the ‘tit for tat’ trap of ‘who started it’. I am going to control my irrational emotions and try to express my horror at the absurdity of what is happening.

I have only one point to make that is different from everything that has already been said, and it’s one that I would love to say to all of Israel, and Jews around the world. See what you look like. Understand how you are seen. There is no doubt that Hamas have been rocketing Israel and breached a cease fire. But the force of Israel’s retaliation is totally out of control and out of all proportion, and instantly, the Palestinians are the victims. They are. Hundreds of women and children have been killed and injured. There is a humanitarian crisis that puts the welfare of over a million people in a tiny, closed off area at risk. And even though it is possible that Hamas did not have the support of all Palestinians and other Arab nations to begin with, that is a turning tide. The deaths on either side are, about a hundred to one. It is absolutely impossible to believe then, that Israel are fighting a war of survival. They must stop. It is out of control.

I write this as a human being, South African and Jew.

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