Reversing “Shfoch Chamatcha Al Hagoyim” – Images from South Africa

April 22, 2011 at 11:04 am, by


I have always found the following passage, read each year during Passover, rather alarming: “Shfoch Chamatcha Al Hagoyim” meaning, literally, “Pour out your wrath unto the gentiles.” I recently learned that one of the reasons Jews traditionally open their door to let the prophet Elijah in was to make sure that they kept the ears of nosy neighbors out as they read this saying.

Hagadah featuring “Shfoch Chamatcha”

This year, after moving to New York, we had to purchase a new Hagadah for our apartment. This Hagadah, or “telling,” is the text read during  the annual ceremonial Passover dinner known as the “Seder.” In this Hagadah, “Shfoch Chamatcha” had notably been omitted, swept into the cycle of PC verbal laundry and came out as a sweet-smelling line about the Egyptians being the sons of God too.While I appreciate the desire to cleanse the text of its racist undertones, I feel that turning a blind eye to the fact that this is a part of our history goes against our Jewish nature. Aren’t we the ones who must “never forget?” And indeed, we once were a people who had a fair amount of wrath toward our non-Jewish neighbors, sometimes justifiably so. How do we reconcile such differences? Should we look away and hope history vanishes from sight? Should we engage in a tradition of hatred and vengeance? Neither of these seem appropriate.

So, the day after Passover, I visited the Museum of Modern Art, in search of a little spiritual soul food to wash down my breakfast of Matzah and leftover Charoset. The museum was showing a small but very interesting exhibit of South African prints, from 1965 to the present day.

The prints range from graphic, bold political posters about apartheid and war, to etchings depicting personal sorrow that are done in a haunting, expressionistic style, as well as some more post-modern pieces dealing with the meeting of cultures in the Colonial and Post-Colonial eras.

Amanzi Amthatha Remembered, 2001_

One of the prints shows a scene where a boat has capsized. Created in a highly stylized manner invoking the ghosts of African masks, the print shows the expressive face of a man floating over a flat oblong boat. Within the boat, one can see hands outstretched, printed in black on white and white on black. With Passover on my mind, I recall the image of the Israelites escaping through the Sea of Reeds as it closes down to wash over and drown the Egyptians. It makes me wonder: Must the success of one nation always lie with the destruction of another?

William Kentridge, Casspirs Full of Love, 1989

Among the most striking images are those of the South African artist William Kentridge. His work, “Casspirs Full of Love,” receives its name from messages that parents sent their children during a military operation in South Africa in the 1970s, when it deployed armored cars called “casspirs” to defend its northern border.

In his characteristically scratchy, expressive style, Kentridge depicts a haunting image of a cabinet full of heads, their faces frozen, eyes shut, with expressions of subtle sorrow and pain. The cabinet is vertical, and reminds us of a kind of coffin, while around it are messages and the words “Casspirs Full of Love” in a flowery script, scratched into the surface of the piece. The image is haunting for its cruel beauty, invoking the memory of the love of parents tied up in the loss of war.

One of the most horrifying plagues brought upon the people of Egypt was the death of the firstborn, after the Egyptian pharaoh again and again refused to allow his slaves to go free. In Africa, corrupted governments hold their people hostage as thousands are killed and tortured. This is not something that is limited to the 1970s. One must only look to Darfur to see that in our own times, people are being killed solely because of their ethnicity and their desire to be free. Should we rejoice in the bloodshed of those victims of Pharaoh’s ignorance and prejudice? Should we revel in the blood of the firstborn?

Perhaps most graphic, almost grotesque, is the series “Disasters of Peace” by Diane Victor. This title clearly references Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War,” a series of prints created in the early 19th century dealing with death and brutality in a war between the French and the Spanish.

Victor also documents pain and suffering in her series, this time in contemporary South Africa. Every etching is meticulously rendered, merging realistic images with the fantastic, terrifying and surreal.  In one, a little girl stands outside a car as large hands reach out to snatch her. Tiny tribal stick figures run by holding spears and a thin panhandler dominates the right-hand side of the image, his face cut off dramatically by the format. In a print labeled “Another Can I Trust the Government,” men dance around with their eyes blindfolded, reveling in ignorance and wearing prisonlike uniforms, as others gaze at the spectacle.

In “Long Arm of the Law,” the motif of blindness and idea of blind justice are mocked, as the Justice Minister wears a decorated robe and pulls a KKK hood over his eyes. He holds a hand to his heart as, instead of administering justice, he feeds fish in a tank at his court bench. “Made to Measure” is a particularly gruesome image of a black baby girl realistically drawn lying prone and naked, her head shattered, while next to her is another baby, drawn white but for his black outline and large, dark penis. His intestines and skull have been exposed, and on the face of his skeleton is the image of a rabbit head. Off to the side is the child’s game of Hangman, turning to a real hanging, and, on the bottom, a shadow of a man chases a rabbit. Looking at the image, I could not help but think of the cruelty of Pharaoh, as he cast the sons of the Israelites into the Sea of Reeds. Now, it seems it is the daughters who are in jeopardy, as the female infant quite clearly does not “measure up” to the deathly, white, male image seen next to her. The series continues with debasing pictures of nude refugees covering their genitals and bearing a remarkable likeness to pictures of holocaust survivors in death camps.

This idea of connection between prejudice now and then is further explored in “Why Defy,” a print depicting a series of faces and what should be done to make them better (change the nose, for example), as a flat iron looms over them as though to squash them and a skeletal female creeps into the right of the plane. These images recall memories of Nazi charts describing the faces of inferior nations and juxtaposing them to the more “correct” Arian facial features. In “Glass Houses and Fence Sitters,” men and women literally “sit on the fence,” referencing  proverbs about people not taking action and why they should not get involved in the face of suffering. One man has his back turned and does not look. He is holding tools perhaps for digging a grave, even as a skeletal figure vomits on him, showering him with his own affliction.

The suffering depicted in these scenes is both repulsive and heart-wrenching. And indeed, Victor’s work clearly shows that one can, and often does, turn a blind eye to disaster. As genocide, bureaucracy, famine and disease take their turn plaguing Africa, it is sometimes easier to look away.

  Coming back to the question of “Shfoch Chamatcha,” how do we balance the need for justice for one people against that of another? Can we find a way to overcome the natural human impulse toward cruelty and bloodshed? This Passover, I pray that we can find a way to pour out compassion to the nations who need it and justice, not wrath, for those struck down and defeated by innumerable plagues.

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