Jewish organizations mourn loss of Mandela

Jewish organizations have expressed condolences over the passing of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid activist, saying that the world will miss a leader whose dedication to human rights resonated with Jewish values.

“Today, the entire world community mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela, a historic leader who transformed one of the most racist societies on earth into a democracy with a progressive constitution that respects the rights of all people,” said American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger.

“He proved that equal respect and treatment of every person is and must continue to be an achievable reality everywhere in the world. Nelson Mandela was a modern-day prophet for human dignity whose voice was heard around the world, and he inspired me and millions of other Jews with his message of quality for all,”

Mandela, who died on Dec. 5, was 95-years-old. Imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years before becoming the country’s first black president, he was one of “the most admired world leaders of our time, and he has been an example to all who aspire to positions of leadership,” read a statement by World Union for Progressive Judaism.

With his commitment to fighting on behalf of an oppressed minority, Mandela “came to embody courage in the face of severe injustice,” added Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Ultimately, Mandela, who has long been a source of inspiration for Jews worldwide, “will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s leading figures,” read a statement by B’nai B’rith International.

‘Catch A Fire’ ignites filmmaker’s memories of anti-apartheid dad

Shawn Slovo remembers how her Jewish parents, African National Congress activists, left home in the middle of the night to attend secret meetings. She recalls police regularly raiding their Johannesburg house and arresting her mother and father. All the while, she said, she resented “having to share my parents with a cause much greater than myself.”

Slovo grew up to become a screenwriter who honored her parents (and exorcised childhood demons) through her movies.

After her mother, Ruth First, was assassinated by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, she wrote “A World Apart” (1988) about their volatile mother-daughter relationship.

When her father, Joe Slovo, who was chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing, described the black freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso, she penned “Catch a Fire,” which opens Oct. 27.

If “A World Apart” is a tribute to the writer’s mother, “Fire” salutes her father — albeit indirectly — who died in 1995.The thriller recounts how Chamusso, a foreman at South Africa’s Secunda oil refinery, remained apolitical until he was falsely accused of bombing a section of the refinery. After he and his wife were brutally interrogated and tortured, the African became politicized and left his home near the factory to offer his services to Joe Slovo’s guerilla unit in Mozambique. Using his inside knowledge, he told the guerillas he could raze the coal-to-oil refinery and keep it burning for days. With Slovo he created his plan to sneak back over the border, with mines strapped to his body, to furtively enter the factory on a coal conveyor belt. Chamusso only partially succeeded in his mission; he was arrested six days later and spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island. But his solo act raised morale among blacks struggling to overthrow the apartheid regime.

“It sums up the spirit of Joe,” Slovo’s younger sister, Robyn, the film’s producer, said in a telephone interview.

Although Joe Slovo was one of ANC’s top leaders and a close friend of Nelson Mandela, “he was a man who more than anything was interested in ordinary people,” the producer said. “And Patrick Chamusso was an ordinary working man who was completely uninterested in politics until he was terrorized into action.”

The producer denies that Chamusso was a terrorist, or that “Fire” glorifies terrorism.

“There’s nothing equivalent in Patrick’s actions and events taking place in the world today,” she said. “Our film is about the struggle of a man to achieve the right to vote, and democracy in a police state that ran on race lines. It’s much more like the American War of Independence than the suicide bombings in the Middle East.”

Shawn Slovo believes the movie, directed by Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”), ties in to a filmmaking trend that would have pleased her father: The telling of an African story from the perspective of a black man rather than a white outsider (her father appears only briefly in the movie). Hollywood studios have released a number of such films this year, including Kevin MacDonald’s recent “The Last King of Scotland,” about Idi Amin. “Fire” has earned mostly good reviews, including one from the Canadian magazine Macleans, saying it “is certain to generate serious heat at the Oscars.”

For the screenwriter, the film is much more than an African espionage drama.

“The parallel for me is the way in which the political affects the personal, and how apartheid shattered and destroyed family life,” she said. “My engagement with the characters and the history has to do with my past, and my family’s past.”

In 1934, the 8-year-old Joe (born Yossel) Slovo immigrated to South Africa to escape pogroms in his native Lithuania. Four years later, he was forced to abandon school to help support his impoverished family, taking a factory job, which was where he first learned of the wage disparity between blacks and whites. He was further politicized while discussing Marxist politics with fellow Jewish immigrants who shared his ramshackle boarding house.

By age 16 he had joined the South African Communist Party and rejected Zionism in favor of his own country’s liberation movement. Even so, he considered himself “100 percent Jewish” and linked his work to the historical Jewish struggle for social justice, Robyn Slovo said.

At law school, he met First, daughter of Russian Jewish communists, and Nelson Mandela, with whom he helped found the ANC’s military wing in 1961. Slovo was abroad, two years later, when Mandela and others were arrested and sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island.Shawn was 13 that year, and she was desperate for her parents’ attention as her father vanished into exile; in retaliation for his disappearance, First was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where she attempted suicide to avoid cracking under psychological torture. With her father labeled South Africa’s most wanted man and “Public Enemy No. 1,” Shawn was taunted at school, where even her Jewish best friend ostracized her. (Robyn and another sister were hounded as well.)

“A 13-year-old doesn’t understand politics; she just wants her parents,” the screenwriter said. “But I also felt guilty, because how could I complain about their absence when they were fighting for the liberation of 28 million blacks?”

After her mother’s suicide attempt, the family was allowed to immigrate to England, where Shawn Slovo insisted upon attending boarding school because she felt unsafe at home.

“It was also a rebellion, a reaction to the past turbulence,” she said. She entered the film business because “it was as far away from my parents’ work as I could get.”

During the rest of her childhood, Joe Slovo was mostly abroad in ANC training camps, reachable only through an intermediary or a fake name and address.

In the early 1980s, when she was in her 30s, she began to confront her parents about their devotion to politics over family. Joe declined to answer her questions, in his avuncular, matter-of-fact way: “His response was always, ‘This was in the past, let’s put it behind us and move forward,'” the screenwriter recalled.

‘Memory’ Shapes Life and History

"The Persistence of Memory" by Tony Eprile (Norton, $24.95).

Tony Eprile opens up the complex terrain of a changing South Africa in "The Persistence of Memory."

This is an ambitious novel, a novel of many ideas. Eprile is a gifted storyteller who delves into the inner life and family, and also politics, social commentary and warfare. The literary thread that links these different kinds of stories — whether accounts of sensual meals, embarrassing school episodes or brutal battles — and propels the narrative is suggested by the title: the way that memory, the act of remembering, shapes life and history.

Eprile writes luminous sentences, and he leavens his serious subject matter with humor. Although "The Persistence of Memory" is a first novel, it is not a first book. Eprile’s collection of stories, "Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Tales," was published in 1989 to much acclaim.

For the novel’s narrator Paul Sweetbread, memory is his homeland. Sweetbread has the gift of perfect memory, but his total recall is in sharp contrast to the selective recall of most of the people around him. In school, his classmates, with names like Colin Goldberg, Sedgewick Schwartz and Ophelia Birnbaum "have no objection to repeating their parents’ histories: to be a lawyer or chartered financial accountant like Dad, to play tennis and attend afternoon teas like Mum. History, memory, is plastic here in R.S.A. You remember it the way you would have wanted it to be, not the way it was."

He’s also something of a misfit — an overweight, sensitive boy (and then man) who is obsessed with food. He gets into trouble in school for asking more questions than his teachers were prepared to answer. After high school, Sweetbread enters the South African army, where he has a hard time with the rigorous regimen and the taunts of his fellow recruits and commanders. He is relieved to be appointed as cook for his unit, and dark humor ensues. On the border, where they are engaged in the secret war with Angola and Namibia, he witnesses and remembers unjust events. Later, he appears before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and reports on what he has seen.

Throughout the novel, memory is manifested in different forms: through the psychoanalysis Sweetbread undergoes as a child after his father dies, the photography and filmmaking he takes up (and takes quite naturally to) in the army, through food and its sensory connections, and through the amnesia of those who prefer to forget. He also writes of libraries as "the greatest of human inventions, a vast repository of collective memory far greater than any single mind could hold."

"The world’s first libraries were the savannas and deserts of Southern Africa; the first writing, tracks in the sand."

During the war, Sweetbread encounters bushmen, who are excellent trackers, with their visual memory of how stones, sand and pebbles have shifted.

"Tracks are a form of recorded memory," Eprile said in a telephone interview from his home in Bennington, Vt.

Do memories add up to truth?

"I don’t think any one person has a monopoly on truth," he said. "We best get truth from being open to not only our own memories but to the memories of others. Perhaps this is an imaginative leap, to try to have empathy for viewpoints you might not agree with."

Eprile, 49, was born in South Africa, but he promptly points out that his own story doesn’t play into the book. He wanted to create a character who came from a more typical middle-class South African Jewish background than his own. Eprile’s father was from an Orthodox family in Scotland; he came to cover the 50th anniversary of Johannesburg in 1936 and stayed. His mother escaped from Germany, also in 1936.

While he was growing up, Eprile’s parents were very active in anti-apartheid efforts; his father was editor of the country’s first mass-circulation newspaper geared toward the black population. When the police, who were suspicious of his father’s many contacts, raided their house, young Tony and his brother went to school with their briefcases filled with their father’s sensitive papers. Soon after that, in 1968, the family left South Africa and traveled to several places before arriving in the United States in 1970 and then settling here permanently in 1972.

"Anyone who has left his or her country is inclined to think, ‘What would I have been like had I stayed,’" he said, adding, "Maybe there is a phantom Tony Eprile."

Eprile has been back to South Africa, most recently in 1992, and he follows events there quite closely.

He presents South Africa as "a kind of mirror for Americans to see an exaggerated version of certain issues and trends in America itself." Among the parallels he points out is that between the Vietnam War and the war with Namibia, also known as "Nam."

Eprile’s father died in 1993; his mother lives in a South African Jewish enclave near San Diego. And while he feels at home with the accents there, it’s not his community. Eprile, who teaches writing, said he feels most at home with "writers who are misfits," and then added, "fiction writers are misfits."

South African Jews Fear for the Future

South Africa’s main Jewish group is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and concerns about the community’s future — as well as its past — are dominating the organization’s efforts.

One of the issues causing the concern is the widely held conviction among South African Jews that their government is pro-Palestinian — particularly rankling to a community that has always been strongly pro-Zionist — and that the Jewish community is being sidelined.

The Jewish community’s perceived lack of support for the anti-apartheid cause is also under scrutiny.

These issues came to the fore at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ recent conference, held in honor of the group’s centenary.

Russell Gaddin, newly elected president of the board, discussed his concern that the community is being pushed into a "smaller and smaller" role in national politics.

Securing a meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki took the board "many, many months of urging. I feel that as representatives of South African Jewry, we should have been granted a meeting on request," he said.

"Perhaps we were a little bit spoiled by former President Mandela, who was defended by Jews" — in his trials by the apartheid government — "and had Jewish doctors and advisers," Gaddin said.

The Jewish community’s small size — 75,000 — as compared with the roughly 1 million Muslims in South Africa, may account for some of the perceived neglect.

But ties between the ruling African National Congress and anti-Israel groups also could be to blame, some say.

"Why, when there are so many pressing issues in South Africa such as crime and the Zimbabwe situation, does Israel continually come up for debate in Parliament?" Gaddin asked, voicing the community’s feelings of insecurity on the matter.

Fueling the concerns, the Jewish leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, Tony Leon, talked about the meeting earlier this year between the country’s deputy foreign minister, Aziz Pahad, and the anti-Israel Lebanese militia group, Hezbollah.

After the May meeting, Pahad commended Hezbollah and pledged to continue contact between it and the South African government, Leon said.

But delivering the keynote address at the opening of the conference, Mbeki reassured the community that the government would not tolerate anti-Semitism.

He paid tribute to the "many patriots from the Jewish community who played a role to free our country from racist tyranny" and added that Jews were also among those prominent in rebuilding the country.

Mbeki addressed another issue: the viability of the community and its institutions after large-scale emigration that has seen it drop to around 75,000 today from 118,000 in the mid-1970s.

Since South Africa’s transition to democracy, emigration has been fueled by rising violent crime as well as by affirmative action. Many young people leave after finishing college for job opportunities abroad.

A resolution passed at the conference addressed the issue, calling on the board to "pay urgent attention to finding ways of reducing emigration."

Mbeki expressed his concern at a survey conducted by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research in conjunction with the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, which found that 60 percent of the community did not see a long-term future for Jews in this country and referred to their "pervading sense of unease" toward an increase in anti-Semitism.

"Let me say clearly and unequivocally," he said, "that our government would be pleased to spend as much time as may be required to address the concerns of our Jewish community with its representatives."

Mbeki said the government supported the "road map" for peace and would "continue to do everything in its power to facilitate this outcome with both the Israeli government and the Palestinians."

Commenting after the speech, the past president of the board, Mervyn Smith, said there is no doubt that there were "major issues concerning the lack of easy access to the South African government, which the Jewish community no longer enjoys," but said the president’s speech was "remarkable for an open invitation he issued to the community to come and talk about issues that concerned it."

In honor of the centenary, the World Jewish Congress held its first-ever meeting in South Africa after the board’s meeting.

The board also engaged in some soul-searching by highlighting an issue that attracted more criticism to it during the past than any other — its failure to speak out against the apartheid system.

Addressing the conference, Smith said the community’s leaders had displayed a lack of moral leadership and that in his view, the Jewish community of South Africa had failed "the struggle" — as the fight against apartheid is sometimes called here.

In addition, the failure to speak out had its effects in present-day South Africa, he said.

"Because we were not connected to the struggle, we failed to develop meaningful contact with future black leadership which would have stood us in good stead today," Smith said.

While the South African media is also perceived by the community to be anti-Israel, leading Jewish journalist Jeremy Gordin warned against "shooting the messenger," saying that Israel was not always right.

But the board’s media team gave examples of slanted reporting and steps that were taken to combat Islamic fundamentalist views.