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?
What really happened in Israel this week
It’s just gone 03:00 in the morning on Wednesday, 12 May. I’m hunkering down in a bomb shelter which doubles up as my study in Tel Aviv. I’ve checked a few times that the iron door and window are tightly shut. I can hear the sirens screeching overhead, followed by a pause, and then a massive explosion.
Just a few hours ago, I was outside on the streets, which are eerily quiet for this busy city.
An earlier night-time drive into neighbouring Holon was even more unusual. A main thoroughfare was cordoned off by police and firemen who were shouting into their cell phones and at each other. Half an hour earlier, a rocket had hit an empty bus and debris was lying everywhere. The glass windows of nearby shops had been completely shattered, and residents were coming to assess the damage. Four people are being treated in hospital, one of them a five-year-old girl.
It’s been chaotic since last Friday night, when clashes erupted outside the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. For five consecutive nights, the pattern has been pretty much the same. Muslim worshippers make their way into the Old City through Damascus Gate while outside, Israeli police and the army take up position. There’s even a section where the journalists stand. After the prayers, a group of youngsters inevitably start hurling water bottles, rocks, and glass at the officers who after a while, respond by charging into the crowd, arresting some of the protestors, and firing stun grenades. It’s predictable.
Hamas, the rulers in Gaza, are egging on the protestors. The announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he was postponing Palestinian elections – the first in 15 years – indefinitely, and blaming Israel for it, didn’t help. Neither did the fact that this is happening during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a heightened time of religious sensitivity. It also comes after the Supreme Court was meant, on Monday, to give a ruling on the evictions of about 70 Palestinians from houses in the contested East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah that Jews say they owned before 1967. The court has delayed the announcement of its decision.
But still, the result is the worst violence in four years, and it has quickly spread to other Israeli Arab localities. The city of Lod just outside Tel Aviv is in lockdown. The Israeli army imposed a state of emergency after troops had to evacuate some Jewish residents amid clashes between Arabs and police and after buildings, including a synagogue, were set alight.
At the time of writing, five Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed. The latter happened after Hamas fired an antitank missile at an Israeli jeep on Wednesday morning. One of the Israeli civilians killed was a pensioner who was too old to get to a shelter and who died alongside her Indian helper in their home.
Hamas has criticised Israel for trying to change the status quo in Jerusalem, but Israeli soldiers insist they are reacting only after coming under fire. They accuse Palestinian youngsters of shoring up stones, rocks, and homemade ammunition inside the Al Aqsa compound and attacking them with it.
But the international community is clearly more on the side of the Palestinians. Amnesty International has accused Israel of excessive force that I, as a journalist covering the protests, dispute. There are certainly some instances of the Israeli security forces manhandling and violently attacking protestors but on the whole, certainly outside Damascus Gate where I’ve been most of the week, it’s dangerous for the troops as they are provoked and hit with things that could seriously injure them if they weren’t wearing helmets.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wouldn’t give in to rogue elements trying to disrupt Jerusalem, and in his latest speech has threatened that Hamas will pay a “dear price”.
I’m on the phone constantly with my colleagues in Gaza. One lives in the Hanadi Tower, a 13-storey residential building in Gaza city, that collapsed on Tuesday after Israeli air strikes targeted an office used by the political leadership of Hamas. An hour before the strike, residents were warned to leave their homes by the Israeli Defense Forces and hence there were no reports of injuries. But my colleague is now homeless.
I also have an Israeli friend who phoned me in tears. Her son is among the thousands of soldiers who have been called up to the Gaza border. It’s not yet clear if Israel plans a ground offensive but all options are on the table. Five thousand additional reserve troops have also been making their way to beef up the army in the southern Israeli communities and help those maintaining calm in Israeli cities across the country – Haifa, Ramle, Akko, Beer Sheva, and others.
While between 80% to 90% of rockets fired from Gaza – and to date there have been more than 1 200 in total – have been shot down by Israel’s anti-missile defence system, the Iron Dome, many Israeli civilians are choosing to move to the north out of harm’s way – hopefully.
Several of those I interviewed blame American President Joe Biden for the flare-up. After he took office in January, Biden expressed little interest in pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He’s also been reluctant to get involved in the current conflict, but is being urged to do so. The clashes have caught his administration on the back foot. By comparison, the Trump administration showed unstinting support for Netanyahu and hostility towards the Palestinians.
“If Trump was in office now,” many Israelis tell me, “the Palestinians would be too scared to act like they are now. But they know Biden won’t do anything!”
Come tonight – and probably for the rest of the week – I’ll be sleeping in my bomb shelter, as will hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Gazans, too, will be hunkering down where they can find shelter. No-one wants another war; but then again no-one’s being asked.
Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family
Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.
The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.
Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.
“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.
“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”
Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’
“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”
Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”
By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.
“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”
He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.
Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”
He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.
Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”
Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.
“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”
Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.
“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.
“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”
To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit: https://givechak.co.il/yeonatan/en
Chief rabbi calls JSC questioning ‘racist and antisemitic’
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein this week was appalled at the “conduct of the commissioners of the Judicial Service Commission [JSC] in their questioning of two Jewish judges [over the past weeks]”. He described it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.
Judge David Unterhalter was grilled about his short association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his interview with the JSC. He was being interviewed for a position on the Constitutional Court. Similar queries were directed at judicial candidate Advocate Lawrence Lever who is standing for a position in the Northern Cape, including if he observed Shabbat.
“The Jewish candidates were the only ones subjected to questions relating to religious identity and practice,” said the chief rabbi. “The direct implication of their questions was that a Jewish judge who is a Zionist or observes Shabbat would be disqualified from holding high judicial office.
“This violates the letter and spirit of our Constitution. It’s morally and legally repugnant for officers of the JSC to discriminate against any candidate on the basis of their religious identity. They should all be ashamed of themselves,” the chief rabbi said.
He called on JSC commissioners including the minister of justice to retract and apologise for their comments. “And I also call on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on their entire process. Racist conduct can never be condoned,” Goldstein said.
The SAJBD also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.
“Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny,” said SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn. “Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.
“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices, except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid,” said Kahn. “It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board. Nearly all Jews in South Africa have some association with [it]. One wonders why a body mandated with protecting constitutionally sound principles of religious freedom and fighting hate would be so objectionable to members of the JSC panel,” she asked rhetorically.
“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.
“From the questions Jewish candidates were asked at the JSC interviews this month, one would question whether those bent on pursuing an antisemitic agenda are beginning to influence key decision-making bodies unduly. We call on all South Africans to stand up and protect these constitutional values, and reject all forms of discrimination.”
Rabbi Greg Alexander, the co-chairperson at the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), didn’t hold back on his opinion of the interviews. “There is little doubt that there was flagrant discrimination at the recent JSC hearings. This is specifically concerning the two Jewish candidates being interviewed.”
“Had such religious or cultural questions been asked of others of another faith, it would undoubtedly have sounded an alarm and disgusted those observing,” said SACRED co-chairperson Rabbi Julia Margolis. “However, we now face a doubly-disgusting situation in that such questions arose in the first place, and secondly, that only one religion, faith, or culture appears to have been deliberately targeted.
“This suggests that the very foundation of South Africa’s democracy is under threat, and one cannot help recalling the late Nelson Mandela’s voice: ‘I have fought against white domination, and I will fight against black domination.’ The determination of the late, great statesman to fight for absolute equality and against discrimination of any kind should be brought front and centre at this time. Those who raise such blatantly discriminating questions should be publicly shamed for doing so.”
“There does appear to be some prejudice in the questioning from the JSC,” said Mark Oppenheimer, an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar. To question a Jewish advocate about their observation of the Sabbath “is a weird thing to ask, given that there have been many Jews on the courts over the years, and you wouldn’t ask a Christian whether they could do their job given that they might go to church on Sunday, or a Muslim who needs to go to prayers on a Friday. So there is either antisemitism or anti-Zionism, or a great deal of ignorance. With Judge Unterhalter, it’s unclear if this was an excuse to try and block him, or whether it was the reason he wasn’t nominated further.”
Writing in Business Live, Tony Leon, the former leader of the opposition, said, “In the dismissal of Unterhalter’s claims for judicial advancement, his membership of the ‘suspect class’ of his race was fused with his religious affiliation. Thus, the JSC interviewers gave little airtime to Unterhalter’s credentials, which include being the first South African ever appointed to the appellate body of the World Trade Organisation, where he served as chairperson for two years.
“Courtesy of a bile-ridden tissue of vitriol against him authored by the Qatar-funded Boycott, Disinvest and Sanction outfit, Unterhalter landed up spending much of his time offering his views on Zionism (not in the remit of the court) and his one-time membership of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies,” continued Leon. “According to BDS, the century-old Board, whose leadership is democratically and transparently elected, is akin to the Broederbond. Mere membership of this community body rendered Unterhalter unfit for higher judicial office in the view of BDS, a matter the JSC seemed to endorse.”
The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant judge’s position in the Northern Cape. It also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court bench. Both are to be referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for candidates for appointment to the Constitutional Court.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Manoim said, “It’s a great honour to be able to serve. I’ve been in public service for a long time – on the Competition Tribunal for 20 years as a public regulator – and I wanted to be able to continue serving.”
As a human rights lawyer before 1994, Manoim said he hoped to bring “the perspective of a lawyer who has worked with and without a Constitution”. He also wants to emphasise the importance of institutions in society. “We as a country must ensure our institutions work properly and independently, and we must work to protect them,” he said.
He said it was important for people who had the opportunity to serve in public office, to do so. “It’s easy to criticise society – and we do have many problems. But we must get our hands dirty and contribute towards solutions. As an optimist, I think we can solve our problems – we always have. So we must put ourselves in whatever role we can be useful in. This community has people with a wide range of skills and talents. We must get involved in whatever sphere we can to make a real difference.”
Banner6 days ago
What really happened in Israel this week
Featured Item6 days ago
SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates
Israel6 days ago
SA olim hunker down under a rain of rockets
Featured Item6 days ago
Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance
Featured Item6 days ago
Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel
Voices6 days ago
Conflict and media bias pose greater risk for Shavuot
Voices6 days ago
Friends can do no wrong
Israel6 days ago
Skies between SA and Israel could open soon, says Israel’s COVID-19 chief