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Antisemitism – a continuously mutating virus

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Eighty-six percent of viewers of a recent SA Jewish Report webinar said they thought antisemitism in South Africa was getting worse but the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) maintains that incidents are still low compared with other parts of the world.

The Board points out that spikes in antisemitic incidents correlate with conflicts in Israel, such as the recent May Gaza conflict, when it recorded 33 antisemitic incidents in one month compared with 37 incidents for the entire year in 2019, or 69 in 2020.

And it admits that political elites within our government have “been captured” by a small number of senior advisors feeding pro-Palestinian and often false news to top echelons, resulting in the ideological equation of Israel with apartheid and genocide. Anti-Israel sentiment is also driven by political expediency, particularly in the Western Cape, where the Palestinian cause resonates with voters.

“Hatred for Israel constitutes 90% of antisemitism in South Africa,” SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn told a webinar titled “Antisemitism: Mutations of the Eternal Virus” on 11 July. Kahn said the majority of antisemitism in the country was fomented by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, where anti-Israel activity thinly disguises anti-Jewish sentiment.

“Jews have a reason to feel anxious, however statistics show that we’re not dealing with a massive antisemitism problem,” Kahn said. “We’re dealing with a threat to our relationship with Israel [which research shows about 90% of South African Jews have], and there’s lots of intimidation and harassment because of this association.”

“Studies have shown that amongst black South Africans, Jews are largely an unknown quantity,” said Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies & Research and associate professor of history at the University of Cape Town. Mendelsohn points out that although there are some traditional antisemitic association of Jews with money or anti-Christian sentiment, there is also some confusion of Jews with Muslims. And most South Africans are focused on local issues. “Elites can drive the conversation,” he said, “but it’s unlikely that programmatic antisemitism [as was witnessed in the country in the 1930s and 1940s] will emerge again.”

Though antisemitic incidents have traditionally taken place in the public sphere, such as graffiti; marches; Israel Apartheid Week; boycotts of stores, products, academics, and performances; and most recently, the discrimination shown to Jewish candidates for the Constitutional Court, antisemites changed tack in 2021, increasingly using social media to launch personal attacks.

“There has been increasing hatred and threats on personal groups,” Kahn said. “Children have been targeted on WhatsApp groups; health professionals have been targeted on their forums; Jewish businesses and business owners have been harassed; and rallies moved into our backyard [such as the demonstration by pro-Palestinian supporters outside Beyachad in Johannesburg].”

“We are certainly in a Gutenberg moment,” said Professor Henry Abramson, the dean of the Lander College of Arts and Sciences in Flatbush, New York, who has a YouTube channel on Jewish history. “We are at the nexus of change in terms of information technology and antisemitism.”

Abramson was referring to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed images and sentiments to circulate much more widely than before.

“Social media allows people’s most venomous thoughts to penetrate the brain space, and people to connect with each other. In the United States, it’s bringing our democracy to a standstill,” he said. “We haven’t figured out what the ‘paper-bag’ moment is for social media [in terms of censorship].”

Abramson, who gave participants a tour of antisemitism through the ages, pointed out that antisemitism is by its nature “plastic”, mutating to fit different cultures, circumstances, and issues.

“If the Jews didn’t exist, antisemites would invent them,” he said, quoting philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. “Antisemitism is becoming more and more divorced from reality. It’s a powerful way for people to view the world, particularly if they view it in a threatening way.”

The most recent iterations of antisemitism appeared in the early 18th century, when it became distinguished by racist notions of the Jews as a parasite race involved in a global conspiracy to bring down healthy society. These notions, dominant among the Nazis, are still prevalent.

Today, right-wing antisemitism in the United States has the notion that Jews are replacing white workers with African American workers, hence the “Jews will not replace us” slogan of the white supremacist Charlottesville rally in Virginia in 2017. It’s associated around the world with fear of the information age, inequality, and a sense of deprivation. On the left-wing, Jews are blamed for not being progressive and globally orientated enough, which fits into criticism of Israel. There are also variants of antisemitism associated with COVID-19, identifying Jews with the origin and perpetuation of the virus.

The bottom line is that antisemitism doesn’t have to make sense. It’s often contradictory.

“[In South Africa], we need protection for minorities against hate that goes beyond incitement to violence,” Kahn said, pointing out that unlike absolute freedom of speech in the United States, South Africa has the notion of protected speech in its Constitution. These concepts are being explored in the Hate Crimes Bill currently before Parliament and the Promotion of Equality and Unfair Discrimination Act.

The Board has called on the community to educate, engage, and report offensive social media and other media. “We don’t have to retreat,” said Mendelsohn. “We should be assertive, and support the constitutional, liberal elements of our society.”

Court has been an effective way for the Board to fight antisemitism. Many cases against unrepentant antisemites are being fought via this channel, but the Board stresses that such cases are brought only in extreme circumstances or as a last resort. Education campaigns are also effective in changing sentiment.

“Our constituents must have religious and cultural freedom,” says Kahn. “We will fight against threats for having a relationship with Israel. We will fight for the right to buy Israeli products in stores. We are continuously engaging behind the scenes to prevent the closure of the South African embassy in Israel.”

The Board warns of increased antisemitism with the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Durban World Conference Against Racism. The United Nations-mandated conference was held in Durban in 2001, and is recognised as the origin of the BDS movement. Kahn describes it as “one of biggest hate fests globally with long-term implications”.

“We need to learn the lesson of a UN-constituted forum holding such a conference,” she said. “We need to know what it meant to Durbanites, to global leaders, community leaders.”

Lastly, in Abramson’s words, “During the nine days [of the month of Av], we are duty bound to consider the cause of our downfall. Sages say it’s baseless hatred. Our task is to reduce the number of people who are ‘they’ and expand the number of people who are ‘we’. We need to build bridges of understanding and humanity.”

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Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special

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With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.

The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.

The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”

The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.

“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.

The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.

“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.

Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.

“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.

Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”

The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”

For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.

“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”

JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.

This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.

“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”

The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.

“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”

The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.

Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”

Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”

Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”

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Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs

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ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.

The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.

Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.

“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”

Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”

On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”

Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”

ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.

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Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity

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Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.

Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.

He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.

Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”

Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”

They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”

Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.

Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.

“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”

Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”

Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.

When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.

Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”

Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.

“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”

Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”

Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”•            The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco

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