2015’s top newsmaker opens up – UPDATED
UPDATED WEDNESDAY: It is not often that a community media platform gets to write 63 stand-alone stories on one individual’s activities over 20 months. Therefore, for consistently making fresh, controversial news, there can only be one choice for Jewish Report Online’s Religious Newsmaker of the Year. Rabbi Eliezer Berland, the man who in 2014 decided he wanted to settle in SA and in 2015, despite Israel (and Interpol) issuing arrest warrants for him and courts in the Netherlands deeming him due for extradition, has returned to SA and, he believes, to stay.
It is possible that, as long as the money keeps coming in, Rabbi Eliezer Berland may indeed have his wish. He has several hundred followers here with him. The authorities are making no noticeable moves against him – in fact he enjoys some measure of “diplomatic immunity” according to his Dutch lawyer, Louis de Leon, and the charismatic rabbi already has a school, shul and accommodation built between Johannesburg and Pretoria where at least 200 followers stay. He is said to be planning and building for thousands.
Dubbed the “Rabbinical Pimpernel” by Jewish Report’s senior sub-editor, which is certainly nicer (and possibly more accurate) than the world media’s “Rabbi on the run” or “Sex-pest rabbi” – Jewish Report has “owned” this story for the past 20 months.
RIGHT: Rav Berland in SA this morning, picture from Rabbi Berland blog
SA Jewish Report Online has been more widely quoted and referenced on this story than on any other in its history. The newspaper has colluded and co-operated with Jewish and mainstream media in more than a dozen countries on separate investigations that have resulted in the 63 individual stories – each of which could stand on its own legs as a news story.
The need for these collusions, which have included several Israeli publishers, has been the media-shy nature of Rabbi Berland and his Shuvu Banim Breslov Chassidic sect. It took many months of hard work and honest relationship-building to break through.
A Google-search of “Rabbi Berland” brings up an advert, Wikipedia, the Rabbi’s own website and then SAJR. This is followed by several hareidi media and then Israeli mainstreamers Haaretz, Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post. Add his first name, Eliezer, to the search and SAJR has three of the top seven spots, and is quoted in two others.
STORY CONTINUES BELOW PICTURE
Rav Eliezer Berland doing havdala last weekend – Picture courtesy RABBI ELIEZER BLOG
From the day Rabbi Berland arrived in SA with a band of followers in mid-April 2014, SAJR Online began building a contact base of those around the media-shy “Rabbinical Pimpernel” – which allowed us to be one step ahead of the pack. There wasn’t a single Israeli mainstream newspaper that wasn’t following us daily to pick up the news.
Prior to coming to SA, Rabbi Berland had spent time in Zimbabwe and in Morocco.
LEFT: Some of the Berlanders in Pick n Pay in Johannesburg in 2014
It is this that has kept our readership and those globally, in reading the unfolding stories, seeing the hundreds of photos we have published and dozens of on-site linked content material.
To date this story has generated over two hundred thousand words of copy on this website alone, tens of thousands of words in comments and other items of interest such as phone and video interviews, insider information sessions.
When the charismatic Rabbi Berland wanted his followers in South Africa, Israel and around the world to say a prayer for Israel during the Gaza incursion which he had penned on July 23, 2014, he managed to get his handwritten copy to the Jewish Report newsroom for us to publish while it was being printed and physically distributed locally and in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Berland’s colourful followers divided the largely homogenous Litvak Ashkenazi Jewish community of Johannesburg – and also caused a rift between SA Jewry and Israeli (particularly Sephardi) residents. During the winter of 2014 there were concerns and arguments about whether the followers should have been allowed to sleep in a freezing cold park in Glenhazel.
In the end, Israel managed to get SA to issue an arrest warrant for the rabbi (seemingly on spurious grounds) and, after botched attempts by the Hawks to issue a warrant first by the Hawks and then by the SAPS, to apprehend him, Rabbi Berland left SA for Holland – flying out of OR Tambo international airport on a commercial KLM flight.
RIGHT: Jewish Report Online’s headline picture in 2014 when the website was the first to report on the rabbi’s journey
The Israelis had him arrested on his landing at Schiphol Airport.
He appeared before an extradition hearing but the Israelis could not produce an arrest warrant.
He was released on his own recognisance, his passport withheld and told to stay within the Schengen borders in Europe. On December 1, 2014 the Dutch court again announced it would refuse Israel’s request for the Shuvu Banim leader’s extradition.
Immediately after Berland’s arrest, a prominent Israeli lawyer, Sharon Nahari, was sent by his Shuvu Banim followers to Amsterdam where he recruited local Dutch lawyers, Louis de Leon and Herman Levenstein – the latter was deeply involved in preventing Holland’s parliament from outlawing shechita in 2012.
LEFT: JR Online followed the story for our users every step of the way
Jewish Report spoke to the rabbi’s lawyers in Holland and to the leadership of his Jerusalem yeshiva. We spoke to him through his closest confidants. After his first conditional release In September, Rabbi Berland said: “I’m done with Israel – It is the State of Hamas not of the Jews!” He also said that the “(Dutch) police said all the complaints about me are ‘bubba maisas’, there is nothing there.”
Eventually, however, the Israelis were able to put together an arrest warrant, get Interpol to issue an international Red Notice and Rabbi Berland’s extradition was ordered by the Dutch court and upheld on an appeal by a higher court.
The rabbi was not in attendance at the appeal hearing. He was under treatment in hospital, the court was told.
LEFT: Was this birthday picture posted on Rabbi Berland’s blog yesterday taken inside the compound? Clearly there are piles of bricks in plain sight
It was initially reported in mainstream media in The Netherlands that after the appeal had been turned down, the authorities went to the hospital only to find that Rav Berland wasn’t there. The bird had flown.
This account of events has, however, been questioned since the initial publication of this story and a reliable source from within the Shuvu Banim Breslov movement has disclosed, for the first time, a more correct time-line of the events leading up to the rabbi’s disappearance.
Although the above account was always given after initially being published in top-circulation Dutch daily newspaper “De Telegraaf” at the time. However, after the publication of this story on January 4, a reliable source in daily contact with Rabbi Berland told JR Online “the real story”.
After the appeal had been declined, he explained, there were still some legal processes that required finalisation before his extradition – which would have taken a month at least. “(Rabbi Berland’s) lawyer wanted to take the case to the high court and could have stretched it out for another year or two,” the source told Jewish Report on the record but on condition that his name was not published “and possibly set him free”.
Berland had ignored the advice, says the source: “The rav chose to be in SA nevertheless.”
But the rabbi-on-the-run was at it again. Nobody knows exactly when he came to SA, but he remained under the radar. After the Netherlands also had an Interpol Red Ticket issued, authorities worldwide searched for him.
For several months there was no news from him. Then, out of the blue, In August 2015, the elusive rabbi was found, claimed the largest Dutch daily newspaper, De Telegraaf. Berland was reportedly on a Caribbean island which has no extradition treaty with Israel. Petit Tobacco Island is so small that it does not appear on Google Maps. Telegraaf reported that to reach the small island in the Tobago Cays from the Netherlands, one would have to fly to London, Barbados, St Vincent and finally travel by boat. All at a cost of R50 000 per person!
Whether Rabbi Berland was or wasn’t on Petit Tobacco Island, remains a mystery. What is known, however, is that by October 11, enough empirical evidence had been gathered for Jewish Report Online to run: Rabbinical Pimpernel back in SA. He was indeed back in South Africa, and had been for some time.
And this time, Rabbi Berland, his followers and his local supporters and financiers were determined that he was here to stay. They came back to a purpose-built facility ahead of the High Holidays and armed with a plan to safeguard the rabbi diplomatically.
The interview with the rabbi’s Dutch lawyer published in December, clearly indicated that he was somehow diplomatically untouchable and was in South Africa to stay.
Related reads in this series:
Follow our series of articles
on the Top Reads of 2015:
- 04 Jan 2016: 2015’s TOP NEWSMAKER DIGS IN AND OPENS UP
- 01 Jan 2016: SHABBOS PROJECT, 3 STEPS TO GLOBAL REACH
- 28 Dec 2015:THE RISE OF JEWISH RIGHT-WING TERRORISTS
- 27 Dec 2015: #1 KRAWITZ STORY HAS HAD 11 736 READS
- 22 Dec 2015:TOP-READS AND ISSUES ON JR ONLINE IN 2015
As long as his financiers can pay for his followers to go back and forth every three months to renew their tourist visas and do not seek work in South Africa, they are probably able to remain legal. Rabbi Berland’s followers staunchly believe he is a once in a millennia rabbi whose insights have saved Israel and Jewry considerable grief. That it is his burden, as it was for every tzadik (notable holy teacher) who came before him, to suffer so that others can benefit.
They are peace-loving people, say the Shuvu Bonim. But they would kill for their rabbi, and they would die for him.
Whatever the outcome may be, Berland lacks the support of the local Beth Din and is therefore not allowed to practise as a rabbi in South Africa. Marriages he has conducted are only recognised by the Shuvu Banim themselves. So, too, britt milot, barmitzvot and any other religious requirements.
However, and for whatever reason, Rabbi Eliezer Berland has felt confident enough since early December to post pictures of himself in South Africa daily, and, last week, even to celebrate his 79th birthday with visitors from his Jerusalem yeshiva in public.
The name of the sect was changed from Shuvu Bonim to Shuvu Banim when the yeshiva became international – hence different spellings in earlier and later stories.
Follow the story on SAJR.co.za
- 04 JAN: 2015’s TOP NEWSMAKER DIGS IN & OPENS UP
- 04 JAN 2016: SON BRINGS 79 BALLOONS FOR BERLAND’S BIRTHDAY
- 11 DEC: INTERVIEW WITH BERLAND’S LAWYER – how he left Holland
- ANYDAY: FOLLOW R. BERLAND’S ENGLISH BLOG POSTED FROM SA DAILY
- 21 OCT: BERLAND FOLLOWERS BEATEN AT JOSEPH’S TOMB
- 22 NOV: R. BERLAND WANTS TO PLANT ROOTS IN SA
- 14 OCT: BERLAND: FOLLOWERS TO AVOID CONFLICT – Exclusive with inner circle
- 12 OCT: RABBINICAL PIMPERNEL IS BACK IN SOUTH AFRICA
- 05 AUG: FOUND ON A CARIBBEAN ISLAND – out of reach of Israeli police
- 07 JULY: BERLAND FLEES HOLLAND, NOT HOSPITALISED
- 11 JAN: DUTCH SHUL SHUT AFTER BAD CONDUCT OF BERLANDERS
- 09 JAN: 2015 Top Read HOW WE CRACKED THE STORY OF THE YEAR
- 01 DEC: R BERLAND OFF THE HOOK AGAIN IN HOLLAND
- 19 OCT:“SEX PEST” RABBI’S FOLLOWER DIES IN RITUAL
- 07 OCT:BERLAND FOLLOWERS EVICTED FROM CAMPSITE
- 17 SEP: EXCLUSIVE! Hear Rabbi Berland’s lawyer speak IN ENGLISH
- 15 SEP:HOW WILL WE BE JUDGED? Blogs Howard Feldman
- 15 SEP: “THEY HAVE NOTHING!” R. Berland speaks to the media
- 14 SEP: FOLLOWERS CELEBRATE AT KOTEL – Video
- 14 SEP: STOP PRESS: R. BERLAND A FREE MAN IN AMSTERDAM
- 14 SEP:PROOF POURING IN – RABBI BERLAND FREED BY DUTCH COURT
- 11 SEP: R BERLAND HELD IN HOLLAND, NEXT STOP: ISRAEL?
- 11 SEP: RABBI BERLAND’S LEFT SA? & THE STAR STORY
- 10 SEP: COPS BOTCH R. BERLAND ARREST ONCE AGAIN
- 09 SEP: BERLAND TAKES ILL AS FOLLOWERS POUR IN
- 13 AUG: Israel calls on SA for R. Berland’s arrest & return
- 28 JULY: See Breslov R. Berland speak live on TV tonight
- 23 JULY: PDF: prayer for israel in Rabbi Berland’s own hand
- 23 JULY: PDF in Hebrew: Rabbi Berland’s prayer for israel printed
- 23 JULY: In Hebrew: podcast on israeli radio
- 23 JULY: BERLAND: Bibi Quit! You’re not doing anything!
- 18 JUNE: Followers forced to sleep in park
- 18 JUNE: Cold comfort as Rabbi Berland’s flock freeze – Reader
- 2 JUNE: All the latest on the Breslovs in South Africa
- 2 JUNE: Who is Reb Nachman Breslover from Uman
- 2 JUNE: Who is Rabbi Eliezer Berland?
- 21 MAY: Berland may be off in three weeks’ time
- 14 MAY: The Rabbi who keeps being mis-identified as R. Berlov
- 14 MAY: Berlands to settle& build new Yeshiva in Zim?
- 13 MAY: Berland’s Zim funder, JR EXCLUSIVE: WHO IS YARON YAMIN?
- 11 MAY: What it took to accuse Rabbi of harassment – Reader Comment
- 08 MAY: Chareidi world divided over Berland – Reader Comment
- 06 MAY: Rebbetzen Tahila Berland flies into Johannesburg
- 05 MAY: See Rav. Berland’s FACEBOOK PAGE and ENGLISH WEBSITE
- 04 MAY: First video of Yaron & Berland leaving Zim
- 30 April: First video of Rabbi Berland in Johannesburg -Reader
- 30 April: Minutes before the Hawks came calling
- 30 April: The Big Breslev Brouhaha Continues
- 29 April: “The day I was called a Nazi” – Reader
- 28 April: Breslev: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – TOP READ
- 27 April: 8-Page feature article in MISHSHPACHA – PDF
- 25 April: Uproar in Johannesburg Jewry: by Ant Katz & Robyn Sassen
- 24 April: Religious leaders must be consistent – Reader
- 24 April: Breslov ‘shopper’ says thanks to SA Jewry
- 24 April: Sackstein roasts Sevitz over Breslovs & Pesach
- 23 April: Fugitive Rabbi, followers, cause uproar
- 23 April: Did you hear the one about…?
- 23 April: Vid of R. Berland & Co’s Purim bash
- 23 April: Secrecy & silence leave community confused
- 23 April: Ant’s speculative op-ed and what to expect
- 23 April: “Chasidic kids need stable environment” – Reader
- 23 April: “Kids need stable environment” – Reader
- 19 April: “Some One” posts dissenting view
- 14 April: Chief Rabbi: Don’t shelter Berland
- 14 April: Goldstein call
Rav Eliezer Berland with followers this morning, Picture courtesy RABBI ELIEZER BLOG – the arrow pointing at Rabbi Berland was inserted by Jewish Report Online.
Is this what the residential compound looks like or is it taken elsewhere?
Teen vaccinate, or not teen vaccinate? Not a question, say doctors
As the news broke that South Africa would allow children aged 12 and up to get vaccinated with a first Pfizer shot, some parents were thrilled but others expressed fear, uncertainty, even anger.
“As the daughter of a polio survivor and the mother of an asthmatic child, I feel strongly that we need to get vaccinated, not just for ourselves, but for others,” says Vanessa Levenstein, a copywriter at Fine Music Radio in Cape Town. “My son, Sammy, is 14 and my daughter, Safra, is 17, and this past Shabbat, we all said how grateful we were that the vaccine was now available to them. I feel we are privileged to have it.”
Her husband, Jonathan Musikanth, an attorney, agrees. “We look forward to giving our children some sort of normality again,” he says. Levenstein adds, “We’re living in a society with huge social inequalities: someone living in a crowded Manenberg flat cannot self-isolate if they get infected. The only way to stop the spread is through the vaccine roll-out. ‘If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am I?’ The words of Hillel still ring true.’”
The SA Jewish Report asked parents on Facebook what they thought, and a mother responded, “The judgement and anger towards people who don’t want to be vaccinated is extreme and frightening.” For this reason, she asked to be quoted anonymously.
“My children are healthy and have been exposed to COVID-19 and didn’t have any symptoms,” she said. “I don’t feel that I need to vaccinate them against something that I feel isn’t dangerous to them. They didn’t have any symptoms, so I don’t feel I need to protect them from dying. The fact is that nobody in the world knows the long-term effects of this vaccine. I’m not willing to risk it.
“It’s all well and good saying we should do it for herd immunity, but I won’t allow my children to get vaccinated to protect others when they don’t need the protection themselves,” she said. “Also, I don’t feel that 12 year olds are old enough to make a decision about this. My kids would agree.”
Asked how she felt about her children navigating a post-COVID-19 world unvaccinated, she said it was “a huge concern”.
“I’m concerned that their freedom will be taken away because of this. However, is that a good enough reason to go against what I wholeheartedly believe to be the truth about the vaccine?” she asked. “I don’t believe that by not vaccinating kids, I’m putting anyone else’s life in danger.”
Johannesburg pulmonologist and parent Dr Anton Meyberg told the SA Jewish Report, “This is definitely a scary and emotive time in our lives as parents. It’s one thing to vaccinate ourselves, the adults, but now we are being asked to trust science with our own children. Whereas we know that children definitely don’t get as sick as adults, they definitely can still get sick [from COVID-19]. And some get severe multisystem inflammatory syndrome while others can suffer from ‘long COVID’.
“There are so many myths and misconceptions about vaccination and they need to be dispelled,” he says. “As a doctor on the frontline, it’s a ‘no brainer’ to me that my daughter and children over the age of 12 should be vaccinated. As parents, we have the responsibility of safekeeping and caring for our children, and vaccinating them allows us to do this. No doubt by vaccinating our teens, we’re protecting their parents and grandparents, but we’re also making sure that schools can remain open and our children can lead almost normal lives.
“The most documented side effect in children after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, mainly in boys 16 to 30 years of age, is myocarditis [inflammation of the heart muscle],” Meyberg says. “Males aged 12 to 17 are more likely to develop myocarditis within three months of catching COVID-19 at a rate of 450 per million infections. This compares with 67 per million after the vaccine. The condition is self-limiting and easily treatable, and it’s crucial to avoid exercise for up to a week post vaccination in order to decrease the chances of its occurrence. Widespread vaccination is a critical tool to help stop this pandemic. The question shouldn’t be if you’ll vaccinate, but rather when.”
Jeffrey Dorfman, associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University, says “the arguments for vaccinating children are very strong in countries such as South Africa and the United States where there’s still a lot of COVID-19 transmission and the potential for more waves. Children may be at lower risk of severe COVID-19 disease than adults, but not zero. In the United States, more than 63 000 children have been hospitalised since August 2020, and more than 500 have died. More than 4 000 have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which is dangerous.
“Additionally, the vaccines in use prevent many COVID-19 infections – not 100%, as we all know about breakthrough infections, but even for the Delta variant, vaccination prevents about 70% of infections based upon current studies,” he says. “That’s enough to matter to the people around children who are vaccinated, and may be enough to stop or reduce school outbreaks. Vaccination will certainly reduce the risk of a child bringing a COVID-19 infection home to vulnerable adults. It’s certainly not unheard of for children to bring an infection home from school resulting in the death of a caregiver, and this is tragic and preventable.
“Additionally, I know of cases of children who were asymptomatically infected and had to move away from vulnerable grandparents,” he says. “It was scary for the people involved. The children had no symptoms and were tested only because they had a COVID-19 positive contact. Were the contact not known, they would have continued to live with the grandparents, who would have been at risk. Even children who have had COVID-19 can have it again, and a large study from Kentucky in the United States shows that vaccination further reduces the risk of COVID-19 re-infection. We aren’t going to get on top of COVID-19 unless we use the tools at our disposal. As a society, we can’t afford serious lockdowns and have to use less disruptive tools. Vaccines should be high on everyone’s list.”
A third mother expressed mixed feelings about vaccinating her teenage sons. However, after reading a letter by Johannesburg family physician Dr Sheri Fanaroff, she has decided to go ahead with it. In the letter, Fanaroff laid out all the questions and concerns to show that “the risk of getting COVID-19 infection far outweighs the risk of vaccination in teenagers. I can say without hesitation that I will be relieved to have my own teenagers at the front of the queue to get vaccinated this week so that they can return to a more normal lifestyle.”
She explained amongst other points that “vaccination reduces the risk of teenagers dying: the virus was the fourth leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 and the sixth leading cause for those aged five to 14”.
Fanaroff also explained that “vaccination reduces the risk of severe infections, hospitalisation, and the need for oxygen and intensive care in teenagers. Recent figures from the US show that the hospitalisation rate among unvaccinated adolescents was ten times higher than that among fully vaccinated adolescents.
“There’s no biological reason or proof that a COVID-19 vaccine can interfere with the progression of puberty. There’s also no biological mechanism whereby hormones associated with puberty can have an impact on immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines. There’s no evidence that the vaccine has any impact on fertility.”
During the health department briefing on Friday, 15 October, acting Director General of Health Dr Nicholas Crisp stated that based on the Children’s Act that allows children aged 12 to 17 to consent to medical treatment, children in this age group don’t require their parents’ consent to have a COVID-19 vaccine. Teens can register and consent to being vaccinated without permission.
SA warmly welcomes Palestinian foreign minister
Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi Pandor, warmly welcomed the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the State of Palestine Dr Riad Malki to South Africa last week – hospitality certainly not offered to Israelis.
Malki was in the country from 7 to 9 October, and was hosted by Pandor on 8 October for bilateral talks, according to a media statement made by department of international relations and cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela.
In reiterating their commitment to each other’s causes, “both sides agreed to exert joint efforts aimed at reversing the decision to admit Israel as an observer member to the African Union”, according to a joint post-talks communiqué. The ministers also agreed to a planned a state visit in which South Africa would host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
South Africa is also going to host a conference for Palestinian heads of missions in Africa this year to deliberate Palestine’s policy towards Africa.
“South Africa attaches great importance to its relationship with Palestine, which is underpinned by historic bonds of solidarity, friendship, and co-operation. South Africa’s support for the Palestinian cause conforms with the basic tenets of its foreign policy,” Monyela said.
“The international community has an obligation to find a comprehensive and just resolution to the Palestinian issue,” he said. “South Africa calls for international support and increased efforts for the just cause of the Palestinian people to address their legitimate demand for an independent state alongside a peaceful state of Israel. The visit aims to further strengthen the relationship between South Africa and Palestine.”
In their joint communiqué, the ministers “expressed their satisfaction with the cordial relations that exist between the two countries, which is to be further augmented by Abbas’s visit and the Palestinian leaders’ conference to be held in Cape Town in November this year”.
The South African government committed its support for initiatives that would refocus the international agenda on Palestine and the Middle East peace process. South Africa reiterated its support for a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The two ministers agreed that “they would continue to work to achieve peace for the Palestinian people”, and “in the absence of sustainable peace in the region, there could be no global peace, stability, and economic prosperity”.
In their communiqué, the ministers insisted that “security and stability in the Middle East is being undermined by continued occupation of Palestinian territories and the aggressive actions of the Israeli regime”. Having said that, they called on the international community to “further strengthen their support for the return of all parties to the negotiation table without pre-conditions”.
They agreed to “exert joint efforts aimed at reversing the decision to admit Israel as an observer member to the African Union”. They also expressed support for “the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action” which they say “remains a clarion call for anti-racism advocacy and action worldwide”.
The Durban Declaration was the document that emerged out of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, also known as the infamous “Durban Conference” held in South Africa in 2001.
According to the Embassy of the State of Palestine in South Africa Facebook page, Malki also met with a group of African National Congress leaders in Pretoria, and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) groups Africa4Palestine, Palestinian Solidarity Alliance, and the South African BDS Coalition, amongst other meetings.
Local political analyst Steven Gruzd says the visit shows that South Africa’s support for the Palestinians “continues to be vocal and loyal. The hot issue, however, is the granting of Israel’s observer status at the African Union. The two pledged to work together to overturn it. Relations with Israel will remain tense. There has been no change from South Africa towards the [Naftali] Bennett government.”
He says the visit “reinforces ties [with the Palestinians] and puts South Africa squarely in the Palestinian camp. It has shed all pretensions of being an ‘honest broker’ in this conflict, and for a long time, has chosen sides. The key thing to watch is what happens at the African Union. Israel has its fair share of African opponents, but also many African friends. Will they stick their necks out for Israel? We will see. South Africa has been lobbying against the [observer status] decision, and has influenced southern African states to oppose it.”
Gruzd maintains there’s “virtually no chance” of Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid being invited for a similar visit. “Relations remain tense, and South Africa won’t be seen to reward Israel for its policies and practices,” he said.
Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), says, “The SAJBD believes that for South Africa to play a meaningful role towards a peaceful outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it would need to engage with both Israelis and Palestinians. Without speaking to the Israeli leadership, it’s not possible to truly understand the situation and to gain trust in order to bring the parties to the negotiating table.
“The dogged campaign by South Africa to exclude Israel from the African Union is antithetical to our international-relations policies of conflict resolution through negotiation and talking,” she says. “This action only seeks to push peace building and the attainment of a sustainable two-state solution even further away.”
“The South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] has noted the comments of Minister Pandor and Palestinian Minister Malki. It seems the entire focus of the engagement was to undermine Israel’s admission as an observer to the African Union,” says SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “We believe this is a foolhardy and hypocritical approach to international relations.
“Israel has had a mutually beneficial relationship with African states for more than 70 years. It has been at the forefront of efforts to help solve some of the most important developmental challenges on our continent, including in the areas of health, agriculture, youth development, water, education, and energy,” Polovin says.
“The admission of Israel as an observer to the AU, alongside more than 70 other countries, is a historic and welcome development. The South African government remains out of step with the rest of the continent who are moving swiftly ahead with relations with Israel,” he says.
“The new Israeli government’s prime minister and foreign minister have been warmly welcomed in the major capitals of Europe, the United States, Africa, and the Arab world. It’s not Israel, but South Africa, that’s the odd one out. We would encourage the South African government to take the opportunity to reach out to Israel to engage for the mutual benefit of both nations and as a means of making a positive, proactive contribution to finding further peace in the region.”
Unterhalter’s bid for Concourt thwarted again
It was a case of action replay for esteemed Judge David Unterhalter this week at the re-run of the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Constitutional Court judge interviews. The internationally renowned lawyer was yet again grilled about his brief charitable association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) during the pandemic.
Never mind his years of pro bono work, mentorship, and dedication to academia, as well as his global expertise gleaned from serving on the World Trade Organisation’s Appellate Body, it appeared to many commentators that his gender, race, and possibly even his faith stood firmly in his way of being included on a shortlist for possible appointments to the apex court.
He was again excluded from the latest JSC shortlist for two vacancies.
The JSC was forced to re-run its highly controversial and heavily politicised April 2021 Constitutional Court interview process after the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) challenged its lawfulness in the High Court.
Casac accused several members of the JSC, including Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, of “political grandstanding”, and argued that “party political considerations and political agendas should play no role in the JSC’s decisions and processes”.
During the first round of interviews, Unterhalter was interrogated about his association with the SAJBD after his candidacy was vehemently opposed by the South African Boycott Divestment Sanctions Coalition and the Black Lawyers Association.
Unterhalter briefly assisted the SAJBD with the upliftment and welfare of the Jewish and broader community during the direst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. He resigned from the SAJBD because he recognised that it sometimes litigates in the Constitutional Court which might cause conflicts.
The issue was raised yet again this week. JSC commissioner Advocate Thandazani Griffiths Madonsela, one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s candidates on the JSC, rehashed the now stale objections to his candidacy and persistently probed him about his time at the Board.
The Board criticised the JSC interview process describing it as “Groundhog Day for the Jewish community”.
“Once again, a Jewish candidate for the Constitutional Court, Judge Unterhalter, was targeted for his association with the democratically elected representative body of the Jewish community,” it said in a statement, adding “Once again, bias was evident.”
The Board maintained, “In a series of four questions, Commissioner Madonsela’s political agenda was distinctly evident, particularly his comment, ‘It seems to me that the fundamental premise of the objection is the assertion that the SAJBD is a body that is pro-Zionist and that is in fact bullying all their people and organisations who are objecting to the Israeli establishment in the Palestine region’.”
Unterhalter denied this, saying, “Members of the Jewish community in this country, as in many other countries, hold a very wide variety of views about Zionism and the state of Israel. That’s why people who are Zionists subscribe to organisations that bear that name and seek to pursue that particular political agenda.
“The Jewish Board of Deputies is a body that existed long before the state of Israel was ever created, and has its roots in the 19th century in this country, where it’s simply founded to look after the interests of a particular community, in this instance the Jewish community, and largely to take care of its welfare as many community organisations representing many different parts of our society do,” said the esteemed judge.
Unterhalter said that it was on this premise that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were “peculiarly large demands” placed on the welfare not just of the Jewish community but also in respect of its charitable work with other communities, he accepted a position on the Board thinking that it could be of some service to the community and the work it did.
The SAJBD said the depiction of the Board as a “bullying” organisation was “a baseless and highly offensive smear against an organisation whose mandate is to protect South African Jews’ civil rights”.
“If anyone should be accused of bullying, it’s Commissioner Madonsela, whose factually inaccurate, prejudicial, and irresponsible assertions have no place in an interview to assess judicial competence. The SAJBD objects strenuously to this vile characterisation of our organisation.”
It said it found it “indefensible” that a person’s association with a body that protects Jews’ human rights in South Africa could preclude them from public office.
Advocate Mark Oppenheimer said the question from Madonsela about Unterhalter’s affiliation with the SAJBD “showed an extreme prejudice against the Jewish community”.
“It tries to insinuate strongly that Zionism is an unconstitutional project, and that it’s a sinister belief system and anything even adjacent to it taints one so thoroughly, that one cannot sit as a judge on the Constitutional Court. I think that borders on a blood libel, and the question should have been interrupted by the chair.
“It’s clear that that series of questions which were there during the first series of interviews were inappropriate, and it’s also clear from the Judicial Services Act that judges have every right to participate in charitable work which Judge Unterhalter was doing when he was at the SAJBD.”
Oppenheimer said many of the other questions faced by Unterhalter were pertinent, addressing his career.
“Anyone watching the interviews would be awed at the breadth of the work that he has done,” he said.
Casac’s Lawson Naidoo told News24 that it was crucial that the JSC explained its reasons for excluding Unterhalter and Advocate Alan Dodson.
There are currently no white judges on the Bench.
Their exclusion from the shortlist has raised eyebrows in the legal fraternity over whether the JSC is taking seriously its responsibilities in terms of Section 174(2) of the Constitution, which says that the judiciary must broadly reflect the demographics of South Africa in terms of race and gender.
Said Oppenheimer, “There’s an impression that has been created by the JSC that your race, gender, and possibly your faith can be factors which can permanently exclude you from the Court. It would be a pity to exclude eligible Jews from the apex court, given the fact that they have played such an important role, which should not be forgotten.”
Unterhalter and Dodson, both internationally renowned legal minds, were pressed about their race and gender.
After a full day of interviews and deliberations, the JSC reaffirmed its April 2021 shortlist, producing exactly the same list as it had done before.
The list of candidates on the shortlist include Constitutional Court Justice Rammaka Mathopo, former Free State Judge President Mahube Molemela, and High Court Judges Jody Kollapen, Fayeeza Kathree-Setiloane, and Bashier Vally. Their names will be forwarded to President Ramaphosa to select two to fill vacancies.
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