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Voices

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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