Choir draws ire for singing about Gaza, Israeli apartheid

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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

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.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.