A community newspaper in the face of scandal
I have been at the helm of the Jewish Report for a mere seven months and have already faced the dilemma that editors of many community publications face – the arrival of a few potentially scandalous or explosive issues and the dilemma of how to or even whether to cover them
If we were an ordinary newspaper like the Washington Post, our reporters would cover instances of abuse, infighting, theft, philandering, or corruption with the fervour of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein writing about the Watergate scandal.
That is endemic to the true spirit of journalistic integrity. My professor at journalism school in Chicago often implored us to be brave and said that one was only a good journalist when one had really ruffled the feathers of the public figures that were covered in the news.
But a community paper like the SA Jewish Report requires a complete paradigm shift. We are not writing about a world out there that we are exposing for behaving badly; by virtue of our involvement and connection to community members and leaders, we are a part of the community system.
This means we sometimes have a vested interest in protecting our structures from appearing scandalous to the outside world whether our community’s actions justify exposure or not. And sometimes, we have an interest in protecting Jewish individuals from being exposed to the rest of South African Jewry.
My esteemed predecessor, Geoff Sifrin, says that in the many years he was editor, he was, on some occasions, harassed with abusive phone calls and threats to shut down the paper.
Sometimes, he was accused of being part of the conspiracy of silence and at other times, he was told the paper was nothing more than a sensationalist, anti-Jewish tabloid. Sifrin says it was for him a very delicate balancing act where one had to make a judgement call in each case of whether to expose controversial or scandalous material.
Jewish newspapers like New York City’s The Forward which covers a Jewish community of some six million across a huge country, can cover scandals like the “mikveh peeping rabbi” in Washington, DC with a cool, calm distance.
For us, amid a tiny community of some 75 000, when trouble lurks, we are often asked by interested parties to be cautious and consider all the consequences and ramifications and all people affected, before exposing the issue.
This is not always a bad thing. In one particular institution where abuse of a sort occurred a long time ago, we were recently asked to hold off until the organisation has done their own investigations so that no-one is harmfully exposed on incorrect information or before the wronged victims have decided how they want to proceed.
This is where our dual role of being gatekeepers of information as well as caretakers with a sense of responsibility to the community has to be weighed against the pure and important goal of reporting the truth.
Our aim is not to just serve up juicy bits of impropriety for headlines, but instead to consider whether it is in the community’s best interests to know. But this does not mean we will be complicit in hiding facts when they should be exposed! That weighing up is by its nature a very subjective process and all I can promise is we will sometimes get it wrong.
My belief is that we make our decisions based on the assumption that the community has a right to know about misconduct within communal organisations and institutions, and about the misbehaviour of high profile community members when it affects others. But they don’t have a right to know about every spat within communal structures, nor about the misfortunes or improprieties of individuals. Sometimes it’s best to leave that to their lawyers.
Ultimately, a community paper has a vital role in fostering discussion and debate when issues should be raised and dealt with to create an evermore mindful and conscientious community. We hope that we play that part with both verve and integrity.
– Vanessa Valkin, Editor
Mother’s Day follows Lag B’Omer tragedy
This Sunday, there is one South African-born mother who won’t be celebrating Mother’s Day. Tanya Hevroni, who is the mother of three little girls, is mourning the senseless death of her husband who was killed in the Lag B’Omer stampede on Mount Meron last Thursday.
She, like so many other mothers, is now forced to come to terms with what it means to be a single mom.
She’s not alone. There are many more in Israel who lost their loved ones in this tragic incident in which 45 people died and more than 150 were injured.
It was a celebration that all those who went looked forward to, but went horribly wrong. Lag B’Omer is the one night when observant people can really celebrate during the counting of the Omer. It’s 24 hours in which people can marry, cut their hair, and do a whole bunch of things they can’t do between Pesach and Shavuot.
While I have always enjoyed celebrating Lag B’Omer, I knew very little about the annual gathering at Mount Meron. Since this largest peacetime tragedy in the history of Israel last week, I have unfortunately had reason to find out more. And the more I looked, the more the irony and horror of what happened emerged.
Shortly before this disaster struck, there was the most incredible joy at the site of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai’s grave. I find the idea of this euphoria turning into terror and then devastation hard to absorb. I can’t even imagine how those survivors are going to live with this. Also, most of them were involved in the stampede that killed people, creating what has been dubbed “Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster”. How do they live with that?
Lag B’Omer marks the day Rav Simon bar Yochai died, but it also falls on the day that ended a plague that killed thousands of Torah scholars who had studied with – among others – Rabbi Akiva. I have to admit the fact that we are living through a pandemic (or a plague, call it what you will), which has mostly now been stopped by mass vaccination in Israel, gives me the shivers. This event was the very first mass gathering in Israel since the start of the pandemic, and it was allowed only because of the huge success of the vaccination drive.
Then, I read that 110 years ago, in 1911, 11 people were killed and 40 wounded when they fell from a balcony on Mount Meron on Lag B’Omer. They were said to have fallen about seven metres when the railing around the grave collapsed. It’s way too similar to the events of last week. Back then, it clearly wasn’t safe, and neither was it safe now. Especially not for 100 000 people dancing and singing. Apparently, there was supposed to be a limit of 15 000, but this wasn’t implemented because, it seems, there isn’t a specific body or authority that controls the site.
Every year except 2020, for about 600 years, observant Jews have flocked to this site on Lag B’Omer. Was it a tragedy waiting to happen? And why did it happen this year? We can search for reasons and try to make sense of it, but I’m not sure those answers are forthcoming. I guess it’s a matter of police work and your belief system.
However, I cannot imagine Lag B’Omer on Mount Meron will ever be the same celebration. Maybe I’m wrong. The tragedy will certainly have an impact on hundreds of people being able to view Lag B’Omer as a celebration again.
In fact, it will take Israel a long time to get over this massive loss.
I don’t believe anybody meant for it to happen. However, blame is being thrown around. People apparently need to find a culprit, a reason, a bad guy. They can’t blame terrorism or crime. And so, many are blaming the Israeli government. Some blame secular Israelis and others the Haredim themselves.
Do we always have to have someone to blame? Is having someone to blame and potentially charge with a crime going to help bring back these people? Will it make anyone feel better?
I don’t believe so. It certainly isn’t going to bring Tanya Hevroni’s husband back.
While I don’t pretend to know her, I have a good idea that she will step up to the plate and continue to be an outstanding mother to her girls. That’s what mothers do.
And as we celebrate mothers this weekend, I know many mothers who would always get out of a sick bed and do the impossible for their children. Their love knows no bounds.
While we may not all be mothers, we have all had a mother in our lives. And we know the love of a mother. She is the one who was always there for us, even if she had a full-time job. She is the one on whose shoulders we cried when our hearts were broken. Hers was the hand we held that made us feel supported. She was the one who made sure we ate well, kept clean, brushed our teeth, and slept enough.
Her love was and always is unconditional. Being a mother is no easy task, but it’s the most gratifying and precious job in the world. And, having lost my own mother, I know that nothing in the world will replace the person who nurtured my siblings and me, held us when we needed it, and gave everything of herself for us. For my own mother and every mother out there who knows this love, we at the SA Jewish Report salute you!
Some are more equal than others
In this country, we have a Constitution that most experts around the world believe to be one of the finest. Apparently, every genuine right that a person could think of was considered in writing it, and is somehow included. And if it wasn’t originally included, it has since been considered and brought into law.
Sounds incredible, right? However, considering the corruption in this country, could it possibly be too good to be true?
No, the Constitution is as sound as we have described, however, it’s only as good as its implementation. In the past few weeks, we have witnessed the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interview people for positions as judges in various courts. One would imagine that, more than any other body, the JSC would be exemplary when it came to upholding the Constitution and ensuring any prejudice was not allowed.
Well, that hasn’t been our experience in watching Jewish legal beagles cross questioned by the JSC in areas that have no bearing on their positions as judges, but rather point to potential antisemitism and violation of the Constitution. Frankly, it’s extremely troubling.
I am considering here only issues pertaining specifically to the Jewish community and Jewish people who underwent JSC scrutiny, not any of the others.
When Judge David Unterhalter was interviewed two weeks back – or should I say interrogated, as that’s how it felt to me as I watched – it followed a very distressing antisemitic complaint by the South African Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Coalition. While we have discussed this complaint at length, in a rough summary of it: BDS smeared the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ (SAJBD’s) name, and by virtue of his connection with it, Unterhalter’s as well.
This obviously got to the JSC, and during the “interview”, individual members intimated that by virtue of the fact that Unterhalter had been on the SAJBD for some months, it somehow meant he might not be “constitutional” or “support equality”. The line of questioning was ugly. It also unfairly painted the SAJBD as an organisation opposed to human rights rather than one that fights to enable South African Jews to live a prejudice-free life in South Africa.
I wondered if this was only because of the BDS complaint. And why was it even allowed by a body that should be the absolute upholder of the Constitution? I mean, we’re talking about the initial selection committee for Constitutional Court judges, no less. The line of questioning was uncomfortable and frankly, unacceptable. It’s true, everyone vying for these positions gets put through the question-firing committee, but some questions don’t fall into the appropriate category, and Unterhalter got those.
Fast forward to last Friday, and Advocate Lawrence Lever underwent his interview for a position as a judge in the Northern Cape. He has been acting as a high court judge for five years already. After answering “no” to having been on the SAJBD, he was tackled about what it meant to have an allegiance with the board, as if it (once again) was some dubious organisation. All this was pointed, as it had been with Unterhalter, to South African Jewry’s allegiance with Israel, the Jewish state. And by virtue of having any allegiance, it meant that they (or we) support human rights violations. Talk about a leap of judgement! Talk about tarring and feathering us all…
But with Lever, it didn’t end there. He was then questioned about whether he observed Shabbos. The question led to the idea that if he was shomrei Shabbat, itcould get in the way of him doing his job as a judge properly because he might not be willing to work on a Friday night or Saturday. Astonishingly, no Christian, Muslim, or person of any other faith faced this line of questioning. Again, I come back to the fact that we’re talking about seats for judges on our judiciary, and these questions were, in my opinion, unconstitutional.
As Jews, we have the right to observe our religion, and we have the right to have a body that protects us. We also have the right to an affinity with another country. It should never be allowed that we – or anyone else – should be demeaned or not given a position because of this.
Now, I cannot say categorically that Judge Unterhalter wasn’t shortlisted for Constitutional Court judgeship because of antisemitism or because of his allegiance with the board. Although I know that some people have questioned my saying that I believe it was also due to the fact that he was white, privileged, and didn’t have that many years as a judge behind him, it certainly didn’t work in his favour.
As for Lever, well, we’ll see.
The point is that, with our incredible Constitution admired throughout the world, we should never be subjected to this, especially in the name of the JSC. If the Constitution was properly implemented, this would be stopped immediately and only questions that are fair and reasonable would be allowed. Surely those who bring up these kinds of questions should be censured?
I must say that as we consider what Freedom Day means to us this week, it’s sad to think that 27 years ago, we celebrated the rainbow nation. This amazing concept meant all South Africans were equal, and race, religion, gender, etcetera weren’t going to get in the way of our beloved country. Perhaps we need to rethink how we implement our Constitution, and what we’re all doing to recreate that rainbow nation so that we can build the country of our dreams.
I, for one, want to live in a country where we’re all equal before the law, Jewish or not.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!
Fiery message in the embers
It’s one week before Lag B’Omer, and it seems to me that all we are hearing about right now is fire.
Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in Parktown was severely damaged by a fire last Friday, and Cape Town was burning from Sunday until late Tuesday this week.
It has been said that Johannesburg firefighters didn’t have the infrastructure to contain the hospital fire with speed, hence the extensive damage. There were also disparaging words about the hospital not having an emergency plan, and its fire hydrants not being in working order.
However, in spite of everything, not one person was injured in the fire, and the hospital team managed to get each of about 800 patients out safely and to other hospitals. Some might say it was miraculous.
In Cape Town, the fire raged for days and seemed to be stretching further and further into suburbia and the City Bowl. It gutted beloved iconic Mother City landmarks like the Windmill on the side of the M3, and University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Jagger Library, which forms part of the UCT Libraries Special Collections.
A ministerial home was gutted, as well as so many other houses. About 4 000 students in residences were evacuated, and many others who live and work on and around the mountain.
Firefighters didn’t sleep as they focused on their mission to put out the fire. Helicopters flew backwards and forwards with sea water, dropping it onto the fire to try and douse it. Firefighters’ nerves were frazzled, but they kept going until they finally succeeded in putting out the fire late on Tuesday. The problem was, the firefighters explained, every time they thought they were gaining control over the fire, it kept reigniting.
Amidst the mayhem, all sorts of people did incredibly brave deeds to save human and animal lives, precious items, and memorabilia. Read our story on page 1.
The young Rabbi Nissen Goldman rushed into the Kaplan Centre of Jewish Studies on UCT campus, close to the Jagger Library that burned down. He risked his life to save the Torah housed in Kaplan Centre.
Across town the following day, Herzlia’s director of education, Geoff Cohen, evacuated four Torah scrolls from Herzlia Highlands Primary. The whole school was closed on Monday and Tuesday as the fire was way too close for comfort, and smoke hung over the school like a pall, dropping ash everywhere.
You can, of course, think what you want, but I believe there is something very symbolic in these fires. Fire in Judaism is an extremely powerful symbol. Remember, G-d convinced Moses of his existence when he spoke to him from a burning bush.
We light fire to welcome the Sabbath, and we light up to end the Sabbath and begin a new week. We light candles to remember those who have left us, and we speak of our eternal flame being the light within us, our souls. This flame is also believed by many tzaddikim to be Torah, which is believed to keep Judaism alive.
Now, in Judaism there are two types of fire, the fire that burns, which is the unruly fire as experienced in Cape Town and at the Johannesburg hospital, and then the fire that gives light (as in domestic fire). Wildfires, while they may be caused by humans, are uncontrolled and forces of nature. They take with them everything in their path, burning the good, the bad, and the ugly. By destroying iconic landmarks and a massive library filled with historic books, there is a message for us about protecting the old, but also letting go what we can’t save because we don’t have total control. Could it be that it’s a message to let go of the old and make way for the new?
Or to preserve what you can, but remembering that lives are so much more important than belongings or things. Even iconic buildings aren’t as important as lives.
It’s astonishing that with all that could have gone wrong with both fires, there were no deaths. And in the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, not one of the many sick people – some of whom were in intensive care and on ventilators, hooked up to drips, and unable to walk – were injured or harmed because of the fire.
It’s mind-blowing that in spite of what sounded like fiery mayhem, they were all safely transported and accommodated in another ward in another hospital. Read our story on page 4.
In both fires, there were people who risked their lives to save others. I’m always amazed at how in times of crises, heroes emerge. Sometimes it’s those you least expect who step up to the plate to help. And of course the firefighters and medical staff who put their own lives in jeopardy for other people were simply incredible. Kol hakavod!
Crime and weddings
Fires and crime seem to be on the increase all over Johannesburg and Cape Town. We have to take every precaution to prevent it happening to us. I know that’s easy to say, but we have to ensure we have adequate security and use it at all times. (See page 3.) And we have to make sure our protection against fire is up to date and ready just in case we need it. There are people who can advise us on this. Take their advice, and safeguard yourself and your families.
In this edition, we also look at how many weddings have taken place this year where COVID-19 protocols have been mostly ignored. Now, I would never want to dampen the happiness of newlyweds, but we would all hate it if one of these weddings became a super-spreader event. We have put the COVID-19 wedding protocols on our website. Take a look at it, and let’s be responsible. Again, take precautions to avoid distress and trauma.
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