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Choir draws ire for singing about Gaza, Israeli apartheid

by dan pine

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A choir performing after a film about South Africa upset San Francisco Jewish Film Festival attendees when it altered song lyrics to salute Gaza and the Palestinian cause.

The incident took place at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater following the Aug. 10 screening of “Soft Vengeance,” which tells the story of a South African Jewish pioneer of the anti-apartheid movement.

The Vukani Mawethu choir performs at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.  photo/creative commons
The Vukani Mawethu choir performs at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. photo/creative commons
After the final credits, Vukani Mawethu, an Oakland-based choir specializing in South African music, performed. Attendees said the choir changed the lyrics in two songs, substituting “Gaza” for “South Africa” and suggesting that Palestinians are victims of Israeli apartheid.

One of the choir’s singers then invited the crowd to stand with raised fists (a sign of solidarity) during the final song, according to attendees.

“I had a visceral, physical reaction,” said Nancy Kornfield of Moraga. “My face got hot. It got worse when they asked us to stand and raise our fists. They called it the new anthem of South Africa. That’s when [one singer] referred to apartheid in Gaza.”

Kornfield attended the screening with a friend, Marianne Friedman of Piedmont. Friedman said she heard a smattering of applause after the Gaza reference, but no booing. A handful of attendees walked out.

“When it first happened, some in the audience applauded,” Friedman said, “which made me sick to my stomach. It was the wrong place and the wrong audience. It just made you realize how much anti-Semitism, and not just anti-Israel [sentiment], exists even in our backyard, and by our own people.”

Not everyone was unhappy about the choir’s action. On Facebook, one Jewish man who claimed to be in attendance commented, “Many of us appreciated what [the choir] had done.”

Lexi Leban, the festival executive director, who was in the theater, said she was blindsided by the choir’s actions.

“The group chose to use our invitation to make a political statement about Gaza and Israel,” Leban said. “We did not know of their intent to do so. Like many audience members, we were surprised by their actions. The festival has always championed freedom of expression and open dialogue about difficult issues, but in this instance [attendees] reported they felt manipulated by the performers to participate in an expression of political views contrary to their own.”

Leban said she sent an email to the choir’s director to express her displeasure, but hadn’t received a response as of midweek.

Berkeley-based “Soft Vengeance” director Abby Ginzberg was not in attendance, but had arranged for the choir to perform. She had seen the group before and thought it would be a good fit for the late-afternoon screening.

“To say I was surprised is an understatement,” Ginzberg told J. “It was totally the wrong place to introduce the subject. There were other [festival] films that raised the issue of relations between Israelis and Palestinians. My film is 100 percent about South Africa. I feel terrible about [what happened] and I feel worse because my film is about a spirit of reconciliation, healing and moving forward.”

J.’s calls to the director of Vukani Mawethu were not returned.

The incident recalled the festival’s 2009 screening of “Rachel,” a documentary about Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist killed in 2003 in Gaza protesting Israel’s presence there. Corrie’s mother was invited by the festival to speak, sparking outrage and charges of anti-Israel bias on the part of the festival.

Unlike that infamous episode, this latest incident occurred with no forewarning and outside the purview of festival organizers.

“We cannot predict everything our filmmakers and guests will say once they take the stage,” Leban said. “But we believe this community is strong enough and resilient enough to hear different viewpoints and move forward. We apologize to our guests who were upset by the actions of the Vukani Mawethu performance.”


Posted by landesl
08/15/2014  at  05:18 PM
Response to Vukani Mawethu

I wasn’t at the screening, but came for the following film.  I’m proudly Jewish, and I don’t feel upset about their lyrics.  I agree with them.  I do feel really upset when it is assumed that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.  Noam Chomsky this past week said that he didn’t think Apartheid was the correct word to describe Israel’s actions against the occupied Palestinians, because under apartheid in S. Africa, the white-run nation wanted the blacks to stay there so they could be exploited for labor; whereas in Israel the government wants to eliminate the Palestinians altogether.
I agree with this, too, and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.  It’s a painful truth.

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Posted by Torres de Paine
08/15/2014  at  06:13 PM
Enough, already!

I was one of the people who walked out after the first mention of Gaza in relation to S. Africa.
I am so tired of this sort of thing. It’s always Israel, Israel, Israel.
People who know nothing about the complexities of the conflict spout the same tired so-called “progressive” nonsense.
Wrong place, wrong time, bad
analogy. I am not a “hawk,“I support a 2-state solution, and I am sad about the whole situation: the deaths and attacks on both sides.

I am glad to learn that others were offended. Enough already!

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Posted by Jerry Rosenblum
08/16/2014  at  03:02 PM
Some Truth

I appreciate the “fair and balanced” reporting of Dan Pine.  I will point out that Pine refers to me as, “one Jewish man who claimed to be in attendance”.  Earlier in the piece he refers to two women who “were in attendance”.  Clearly they were there and I only claimed to be there.  Although why I would fabricate that claim is known only to Pine.  He also refers to me as Jewish, I am not and have never been Jewish.  Pine apparently also believes that names connote religious belief.  I am copying and pasting the original post that I put on Abby Ginzberg’s Facebook page since my personal religion is based on truth and accuracy:

Jerry Rosenblum Thank you for a brilliant film. And it was a treat to hear the choir. There were a number of audience members who were angry with the choir for giving a shout out to the Palestinians and residents of Gaza. As I was thanking the Choir members outside the theater, we were approached by a Film Fest Functionary who rebuked them for what they had done and spoke of numerous complaints and audience members moved to angry tears in response to the support of the Palestinians. He scolded them and told them that the Festival felt blindsided and that they should have given advanced warning. I assured the members of the choir that many of us appreciated what they had done and his speech was more about the fear of funders pulling money from the festival as happened with the Rachel Corrie screening. My friend said that someone sitting behind him remarked that she was a friend of yours and you would have opposed what the choir did.

The Choir members that I spoke with said that they would not have performed unless they could make the connection of Gaza to South Africa.  It would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic that many people refuse to see that connection.  Albie Sachs was willing to risk his life to end Apartheid.  It’s a shame that Abby Ginzberg does not have the courage to withstand the bullying that can be expected from the Big Money Zionist funders of the film festival, but fortunately she made a film about a true hero.
And another South African hero refers to Israeli treatment of Palestinians as Apartheid, I think he knows something about the subject.

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Posted by paul
08/16/2014  at  07:30 PM
Shame on you!

Shame on this choir! This people, they don’t know any thing. I grew up in Soviet Union where Jewish didn’t have any freedom for their religion and they could be throw in jail for their wish to leave the country where they were oppressed to go to Israel. Israel, isn’t Apartheid country. How can it be Apartheid when Israel is only democracy State in Middle East? How can it be that way when people in Israel has a choice to practice their religions? How can it be Apartheid when the Arabs serve in the Knesset and in the Supreme Court? Israel, is beautiful Land. Shame on you!

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Posted by Nancy Bess
08/18/2014  at  12:00 PM
Mr. Pine's article and some

Mr. Pine’s article and some of the comments I’ve read inform me of the misconceptions that can be spread about both Israel and Palestine—and about a brief choral performance at the Jewish Film Festival.  To read some of the comments, one would think that Vukani Mawethu Choir had “manipulated” the audience by showing support for a besieged and bombarded Palestinian population.  Whenever Vukani Mawethu sings the South African National Anthem, we ask (not demand) those present to stand with us and raise fists with chants that honor the freedom struggle in South Africa.  After the showing of “Soft Vengeance,” a film honoring the life of Albie Sachs, who fought apartheid in South Africa, we added solidarity chants for Palestinians.  Many thousands of Jews around the world, major Black South African leaders, and many others, joined by a recent statement of 500 South African Jews have voiced their opposition to Israeli policy in Palestine, pointing out its similarities with apartheid in South Africa.  It’s very clear that this dissent and protest is not aimed at Jews.  It is opposition to the Israeli government’s policy in Palestine.  As a Jew, I am tired upset at the mounting death toll in Gaza, not at the increasing criticism of Israel.  In this case, there is no solution that doesn’t begin with dissent from current policy.

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Posted by paul
08/18/2014  at  02:58 PM
Do you really want to go there?

Do you really want to go there? You don’t see what happen in today’s world. Did you know that Syria, recently killed it’s own 700 people? Do you know that Russian President Vladimir Putin, want to take the all world? You do not know what real Apartheid is. I grew up in Former Soviet Union where Jews didn’t have any freedom. In fact, we were denied to go to Israel for 30+years. In former Soviet Union, people called ,me dirty kikle. We Jews, have only one country, Israel. It’s the only democracy State of the Middle East. If our Jewish Community don’t stand up for Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish homeland than, our Jewish Community don’t stand for nothing. What do you know about Judaism? Do you know Torah or Halftara? Do you know how to chant the Torah and Halftarah? Do you know any Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino or Arabic? Do you know what Torah says about Israel? Torah says that, if somebody attack Israel than, Israel has the right to self defense. It’s not Israel who kill your glorious Palestinians. It’s Hamas. Hamas put the civilians in front of the rockets. Hamas tell them to stay in their homes. When Israel bomb Gaza, it’s self defense. And, before Israel goes to the war in Gaza, they call to every house and ask the people to evacuate. Hamas, doesn’t ask Jews to evacuate. Hamas bomb to kill the Jews. I will continue to love and to support Israel and IDF. I will continue to defend Israel. Hamas violate the Humans rights and not Israel.

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Posted by paul
08/19/2014  at  12:47 PM
My respond to Jerry Rosenblum

My respond to Jerry Rosenblum and Landesl. You seems forgot that Israel, is the only democracy State of the Middle East. We are talking about Israel and not what happen in the Palestinian Authority which has corrupted Government with their President.  President Abbas, doesn’t give a penny to the Palestinians. Israel does. In a good time and bad time, in time of peace and time of war, Israel, supply every thing to Gaza such as, food, water, medicine, money, technology and education, etc. You seems forgot that Jerusalem was found on the dunes in 1909 by Jews from Eastern Europe. There is no occupation. Israel was there 3,000 years ago. It is there right now. And, Israel, will remain the map for ever. What would the Arabs do without Israel? Who would supply them food, water, medicine, technology, education, money, etc? Where would we go if the Arabs would kick us out from Israel? There would be only one way, back to Europe. When any thing bad happen around the globe, Israel is always the first country to respond. For example, Haiti. When bad thing happened in Haiti, Israel opened IDF field hospital to help people. Israel helped the wounded Ukrainians awhile go to go to Israel for the medical treatment during the civil war that goes now. Yes, I will continue to love and support Israel and to love and to support IDF. Yes, I will continue to sing, AM ISROEL HI. And, yes, I will continue to wave my Israeli Flag because, I’M Pro Israel and Pro Peace. I’M Pro democracy of the State of Israel. Israel does have a right for self defense.

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Posted by Jerry Rosenblum
08/20/2014  at  12:14 AM
Desmond Tutu

My plea to the people of Israel: Liberate yourselves by liberating Palestine
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, in an exclusive article for Haaretz, calls for a global boycott of Israel and urges Israelis and Palestinians to look beyond their leaders for a sustainable solution to the crisis in the Holy Land.
By Desmond Tutu   | Aug. 14, 2014 | 9:56 PM | 15

The past weeks have witnessed unprecedented action by members of civil society across the world against the injustice of Israel’s disproportionately brutal response to the firing of missiles from Palestine.

If you add together all the people who gathered over the past weekend to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities – this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.

A quarter of a century ago, I participated in some well-attended demonstrations against apartheid. I never imagined we’d see demonstrations of that size again, but last Saturday’s turnout in Cape Town was as big if not bigger. Participants included young and old, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, blacks, whites, reds and greens ... as one would expect from a vibrant, tolerant, multicultural nation.

I asked the crowd to chant with me: “We are opposed to the injustice of the illegal occupation of Palestine. We are opposed to the indiscriminate killing in Gaza. We are opposed to the indignity meted out to Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. We are opposed to violence perpetrated by all parties. But we are not opposed to Jews.”

Earlier in the week, I called for the suspension of Israel from the International Union of Architects, which was meeting in South Africa.

Subscribe to Haaretz for the latest on Israel, the Mideast and the Jewish World

I appealed to Israeli sisters and brothers present at the conference to actively disassociate themselves and their profession from the design and construction of infrastructure related to perpetuating injustice, including the separation barrier, the security terminals and checkpoints, and the settlements built on occupied Palestinian land.

“I implore you to take this message home: Please turn the tide against violence and hatred by joining the nonviolent movement for justice for all people of the region,” I said.

Over the past few weeks, more than 1.6 million people across the world have signed onto this movement by joining an Avaaz campaign calling on corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation and/or implicated in the abuse and repression of Palestinians to pull out. The campaign specifically targets Dutch pension fund ABP; Barclays Bank; security systems supplier G4S; French transport company Veolia; computer company Hewlett-Packard; and bulldozer supplier Caterpillar.

Last month, 17 EU governments urged their citizens to avoid doing business in or investing in illegal Israeli settlements.

We have also recently witnessed the withdrawal by Dutch pension fund PGGM of tens of millions of euros from Israeli banks; the divestment from G4S by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and the U.S. Presbyterian Church divested an estimated $21 million from HP, Motorola Solutions and Caterpillar.

It is a movement that is gathering pace.

Violence begets violence and hatred, that only begets more violence and hatred.

We South Africans know about v

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Posted by Michael Harris
08/20/2014  at  10:13 PM
There is apartheid in Gaza

Indeed, there is apartheid in Gaza. There is gender apartheid enforced by the extremist Hamas government. There is religious apartheid, with persecution of the Christian community there. There is even apartheid among the Muslims—Hamas gets to build tunnels for rockets and to launch terror attacks, but ordinary civilians are used as human shields for rockets aimed at 6 million Jewish civilians (and almost 1 million Arabs as well).

One can express solidarity with the victims of Hamas terror on both sides, without resorting to slurs and canards such as “apartheid”. Reading this article, it appears as if the choir was expressing solidarity not only for Palestinian civilians, but with Hamas on which the blame falls for the current conflict.

Shame on Vukani Mawethu.

I’ll accept that the SFJFF organizers were blindsided by this—as long as Vukani Mawethu is never again invited to perform at any of its events.

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Posted by Jerry Rosenblum
08/20/2014  at  11:55 PM
The ignorant parroting the ignorant

Like many other news websites, Common Dreams has been plagued by inflammatory anti-Semitic comments following its stories. But on Common Dreams these posts have been so frequent and intense they have driven away donors from a nonprofit dependent on reader generosity.

A Common Dreams investigation has discovered that more than a thousand of these damaging comments over the past two years were written with a deceptive purpose by a Jewish Harvard graduate in his thirties who was irritated by the website’s discussion of issues involving Israel.

His intricate campaign, which he has admitted to Common Dreams, included posting comments by a screen name, “JewishProgressive,” whose purpose was to draw attention to and denounce the anti-Semitic comments that he had written under many other screen names.

The deception was many-layered. At one point he had one of his characters charge that the anti-Semitic comments and the criticism of the anti-Semitic comments must be written by “internet trolls who have been known to impersonate anti-Semites in order to then double-back and accuse others of supporting anti-Semitism”—exactly what he was doing. (Trolls are posters who foment discord.)

The impersonation, this character wrote, must be part of an “elaborate Hasbara setup,” referring to an Israeli international public-relations campaign. When Common Dreams finally confronted the man behind the deceptive posting, he denied that he himself was involved with Hasbara.

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