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Op-eds

Songs to live (or die) by

  • Sifrin Geoff HOME
What is it about words sung that have the power to inflame? Traditionally, the Yom Hashoah ceremony is built around song. Songs sung by women, by chazzonim, by the crowd. Arguably, the most potent kind of song is the anthem. It is invested with the power of ideology; it can make people change the world for good or for bloodlust. We, as South African Jews, have a particularly complicated relationship with our anthems – Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, Hatikva and the Partisan Song, which have always been part of the Yom Hashoah programme.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Apr 26, 2018

The singing of the South African anthem still evokes nervous glances from white people in the crowd, looking to see if the black people present are offended that they don’t know the anthem’s words – as if this casts their patriotism into doubt. The lyrics employ five of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s 11 official languages – isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. These were incorporated into the anthem as an attempt at South African reconciliation after apartheid. Still, most white adults only know the English and Afrikaans parts of it; they generally will surreptitiously hum along to the main refrain.

The African part was composed as a hymn in 1897 by Methodist school teacher Enoch Sontonga. It became a symbol of anti-apartheid defiance. The title means “G-d bless Africa”. Sadly, most white South Africans still cannot speak any African language or even understand what black people are saying to each other.

The Jewish world has its own very special anthem, in some ways a Jewish counterpart to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Called Partizaner Lid (the Partisan Song), it is a defiant Yiddish song considered an anthem of Holocaust survivors. It is about Jewish resistance and survival: after numerous attempts to destroy them by the Nazis and others, the Jews “are still here”. The lyrics were written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, a Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto who was inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Should Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, be sung at such events? Some say it is essential – to celebrate the fact that the horror of the Holocaust was followed by the joy of Israel’s creation. A few people have reservations, however, saying that including it inappropriately politicises the event, since the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish trauma, not an Israeli one. Hitler targeted Jews of all stripes – Zionist and anti-Zionist, religious and non-religious.

Another white ethnic group experiencing similar issues to the Jews about anthems and belonging are the Afrikaners, who during apartheid passionately sang their own anthem, Die Stem van Suid Afrika (The Call of South Africa). Many Afrikaans farmers may soon be singing another national anthem – Australia’s – following a statement by its home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, that he would fast-track visas for white SA farmers because of the “horrific circumstances they face”.

What’s in an anthem? Is it still a unifying symbol for which people will live or die? When Israeli writer David Grossman told bereaved Israelis and Palestinians on Memorial Day this month that “fortress Israel” is not yet a home for Jews because it is not “stable and relaxed” – among other things – it raised questions for South Africans about their own country. Are South Africans relaxed and feeling at home after the political earthquakes that have numbed and traumatised their society during apartheid and after it?

Grossman’s son, Uri, died as a soldier in the 2006 Lebanon War, fighting for his country and, by implication, for its anthem’s words. Words, which in Israel too, are sullied by controversy: not all Israelis will sing it.

The passion and patriotism of anthems inspire people to do great things, but equally, evil. Don’t forget: the Nazis too had their anthems.

  • Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog sifrintakingissue.wordpress.com

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