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A year of unprecedented challenge

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At the beginning of 2020, no-one could have predicted the unprecedented set of challenges that South African Jewry would shortly be confronted with, both to the lives and livelihoods of its members and the viability of its communal institutions.

It was only in early March that the first official COVID-19 case was confirmed in the country, but thereafter, the infection rate began rising with frightening speed, turning the world as we knew it upside down and forcing us to adapt our personal and professional lives to the new reality.

As the community’s representative body, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has striven to provide the responsible and forward-looking leadership that these troubled times so urgently require. On 11 March, the very day the first coronavirus case in our community was announced, we convened a meeting of the communal leadership from Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, and Cape Town to plan and co-ordinate our response together with experts in the field of infectious diseases. Thereafter, the forum met regularly to determine how to respond to ever-changing circumstances, making crucial decisions about such issues as when to open shuls and schools and how to educate the community in terms of safe practice.

Space doesn’t allow me to list the many services, projects, and initiatives that the SAJBD, on the national and regional level, has since implemented. I limit myself to commenting on the phenomenal level of co-operation and coordination between all our organisations in meeting the crisis. To all those organisations, as well as the many individuals who contributed so much time and effort to serve the community, thank-you and yasher koach.

Throughout 2020, even during the hard-lockdown months, the SAJBD continued to fulfil its core mandate. Much of this work revolved around addressing antisemitic incidents that came to our attention. All such cases have been thoroughly investigated and appropriately dealt with, whether through a process of conciliation and education or, in more serious cases, by instituting civil or criminal proceedings against those responsible. In the closing months of the year, we appeared in court three times, with successful outcomes on each occasion.

In a first-ever criminal conviction for antisemitism in South Africa, Matome Letsoalo was found guilty of crimen injuria and sentenced the following week for threatening comments tweeted in 2018. This was followed by the court granting a restraining order against Jan Lamprecht, against whom a crimen injuria charge lodged by the SAJBD is pending.

This year, we finally received an apology and public acknowledgement of guilt from former Western Cape Congress of South African Trade Union leader Tony Ehrenreich for his threats against the community in August 2014. This brought to a successful conclusion six years of working tirelessly with the Human Rights Commission to ensure that Ehrenreich was held accountable for his threats.

Normal life has largely been resumed but COVID-19 is still very much with us and hence various safety protocols and restrictions remain in place. In wishing our community a peaceful, safe, and restful end-of-year break, I urge everyone to be vigilant and act responsibly at all times so as to minimise risk to themselves and those around them until the pandemic is finally behind us.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Second waves and second chances

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The closing weeks of 2020 brought with them the long-anticipated onset of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa. Over the December period, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) continued to co-ordinate meetings between the communal leadership and medical experts to assess the situation and plan and advise the community accordingly.

We have since participated in several national initiatives aimed at co-ordinating the efforts of civil society and faith communities in responding to the serious challenges of the day. Last week, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn participated in an African National Congress civil society engagement with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and other cabinet members titled “COVID-19 response and vaccines: the role of progressive civil society”. On Sunday, together with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Kahn, and SAJBD National President Mary Kluk, I attended a meeting with Ramaphosa to discuss how the religious leadership can assist government, particularly in terms of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

It hardly needs to be emphasised that all members of our community need to continue to do their part in minimising risk to themselves and anyone they come into contact with. Once again, I urge people to make full use of the guidelines and regular updates by Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and other medical experts on the SAJBD Facebook page and website to ascertain how best to conduct themselves in terms of vigilance and safety practices.

Restorative justice

Last month, we were able to resolve a long-standing hate-speech case between ourselves and former student leader Mcebo Dlamini for remarks he made at the University of the Witwatersrand, on PowerFM, and social media in 2015. Successful mediation was facilitated by the SA Human Rights Commission at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. We are satisfied with the outcome of this matter. As SAJBD National Vice-President Zev Krengel put it, Dlamini’s recognition that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive, together with his genuine apology, enables us to heal from the hurt he caused.

It should never be forgotten that South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian, bitterly divided, and conflict-ridden country to the robust multiracial democracy we have today was accomplished because South Africans, without forgetting the injustices of the past, were prepared to work together in building a better future. Expressing regret for one’s previous conduct, sincerely apologising for it, and undertaking to mend one’s ways going forward has thus assumed a great deal of importance in our society, and this is particularly true when it comes to racist behaviour. Once said, offensive words cannot be unsaid, but a heartfelt apology goes a long way towards removing their sting, and makes reconciliation possible.

Our Gauteng Council chairperson, Professor Karen Milner, stressed the importance of taking a restorative approach to justice wherever possible whereby the offender acknowledges what he or she has done wrong and expresses genuine remorse. Dlamini met these criteria, and was a successful example of what’s possible with this approach.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

The holiday that couldn’t happen

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I was fortunate to go to Umhlanga in the last week of November on a celebratory holiday after finishing matric. For the few days I was there, I walked on the promenade, saw friends, and spent time relaxing after weeks of hard work. Admittedly, my friends and I felt invincible although still quite shocked at the amount of people walking on the beaches without masks. Even so, our numbers were dropping, we felt safe, and things finally seemed a bit normal.

However, the week after I came home, things began to change. Following the general complacency that overcome our country, case numbers began rising. My friends contracted the virus, holidays were cancelled, and a lockdown was imminent. Our desired invincibility proved false. It was, for lack of a better word, a disaster.

It’s not natural for us South Africans who haunt the Cape Town and Umhlanga promenades for weeks every December to stay home. We are used to holidays filled with parties, dates with friends, chills on the beach, and a general social jaunt that goes on into early January.

Those plans were put on hold when the president broke down on television, announcing new lockdown regulations and begging South Africans to act responsibly in these life-threatening times. We were forced off the beaches and into bed by 21:00, with no alcohol or late-night takeaways to keep us going.

Those fortunate enough to experience a bit of a holiday before the implementation of the lockdown rules should consider themselves lucky to have been able to visit a beach or sit at a bar for sundowners.

Those who didn’t get to escape their homes remain bored, scared, and honestly, a bit jealous. And who wouldn’t be? We’ve had a hard year, the least we deserve is a bit of a getaway.

Unfortunately, our desire to escape reality for a bit left us in a desperate situation. Instead of hotel pools and lunch dates with friends, we have Netflix shows and FaceTime calls. Instead of walks on the promenade and braais with family, we have socially distant teas and early nights. New Year’s Eve was spent in our homes, many of us barely staying awake before the clock struck 12 to ring in what is hopefully a better year (it wouldn’t take much, really).

To ensure that 2021 is better, it’s imperative to act responsibly. As young people, it’s often in our nature to do what we want, regardless of the repercussions. We search for the next bit of fun, and are determined to get it, no matter what gets in our way. We can’t act that way now.

We must act responsibly to ensure that in December 2021, we can have a happy holiday.

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Voices

But he is good for Israel

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The happenings at the Capitol building left most sane people winded. And whereas many were quick to blame 2021 for letting us down so spectacularly and so early into the year, it clearly had little to do with the calendar and everything to do with the former president of the United States, Donald Trump.

Instead of accepting his loss with a hint of dignity and a smattering of grace, Trump chose to cry “Foul!” In doing so, he set off a chain reaction that would not only result in the death of four people but would give his detractors the perfect opportunity to say, “I told you so.” Which they wasted no time at all in doing. And who could blame them, given that they had spent the past five years screaming that this was going to happen.

And happen it did.

Soon after the events, I found myself in a public argument with journalist Richard Poplak, who tweeted, “Yes, but he’s good for Israel”, referring to Trump. I responded with, “You have to be pretty obsessed to try and turn the focus towards Israel. Besides, I’m pretty sure that those white males dressed as Vikings aren’t Zionists.” Whereas I loved the smartness of my answer, the point that he was making was a valid one.

He knew that too, which is why after a series of tweets he wrote, “My tweet points out a prevailing moral failure of many in our community during the Trump era. If this is a time for reflection, no one is better poised to lead it than you.”

I’m uncertain that “no one is better poised to lead” than me, but I will nevertheless give it a try. Because maybe some introspection is required. Although I wasn’t a Trump supporter and publicly stated that I wanted both Biden and Trump to lose, I still hoped that Trump would lose less badly (in other words, to win). It might have been more to do with my thoughts on Biden, but it would nevertheless be disingenuous not to own it. Whereas I have also mentioned numerous times that I abhor many aspects of Trump’s personality and a lot of what he stands for, indeed, he was good for Israel as well as the Middle East (in my view).

I respected how he tried to engage with North Korea as well as his stand against Iran. Although he might not have succeeded in terms of China, I do think his effort was a decent one.

What I liked most about Trump was that I didn’t. Like him. To me, he represented a rare opportunity for nuance and complexity, something that’s largely absent in the world of politics.

Over the last while, we have distilled our view of politicians. We either love them or hate them. We either see no good or we see only bad. Trump awarded us the opportunity to see both in one politician. Through his behaviour, however, he has robbed us of even that.

Whereas I don’t agree with some of Poplak’s views on Israel, he nevertheless raises a point that we should consider. Did Trump’s support for Israel indeed blind us to the reality of what he always was? And if this is the case, what does it say about us and how do we treat the next one that comes along? Whereas I have no clear answer, I know that it is worth thinking about.

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