Antisemitism the second global pandemic, says WJC president
There are two pandemics in the world, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), told the South African Jewish Board of Deputies national conference on 17 October. COVID-19 is one, the other – antisemitism – has been with us for 2 000 years.
Speaking from the WJC’s headquarters in New York, Lauder said that he had witnessed these two “global viruses” coming to the forefront since attending an executive meeting in Johannesburg six years ago.
Described by the Jerusalem Post as “a rare voice of moral clarity in today’s world”, the American-born art collector has been the president of the WJC since 2007.
The WJC was founded in 1936 in response to the rise of Nazism and the growing wave of European antisemitism. It acts as the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people, and has international offices in six countries.
The WJC watches everything that happens around the world, including in South Africa, 24 hours a day, Lauder said. “We will be there for you if you ever need us.”
Today, the organisation is engaged in fighting the mighty wave of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. “I can promise you we will protect Jews everywhere. That’s why this organisation was formed in the first place,” said Lauder.
He said that the WJC was alarmed by the attacks on Jews in the streets of Paris, London, and Los Angeles, and mentioned that just more than two weeks ago, a bottle of water was thrown at a Swedish-based rabbi.
“These things shouldn’t happen at all,” he said. “Israel comes under constant assault through the United Nations and on social media, mainstream newspapers, and on college campuses.”
Lauder said the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa was an example of the “fabrications and complete falsehoods” that the world still believes because “unhinged hatred of Israel is simply the latest version of antisemitism”.
According to Lauder, Jews were hated for their religion during the Middle Ages. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, they were hated for their race. Today, we are hated for the national state of Israel.”
The former United States ambassador to Austria said such hatred was bizarre as Jews make up 0.2% of the world’s population. “Yet, Jews are the target of more than 50% of all religious crimes. These aren’t just isolated attacks. They have occurred in 89 countries.”
The WJC continuously notices baseless posts on social media being reported as truth by mainstream media, Lauder said.
“This was most evident with the attacks on Israel this past spring. If South Africa, France, Great Britain, or any other country other than Israel had been attacked by more than 4 000 rockets launched by terrorists, everyone would have hit back hard, and everyone would have every right to do so,” he said.
“Yet, the world’s press and social media charged Israel with crimes against humanity. That defies all logic. It’s ludicrous. It also gives you an idea of what the WJC is fighting every single day.”
Lauder said the WJC was seeking the people behind these “sickening” lies. “We will start making them uncomfortable. If I’ve learned anything about antisemites, it’s that they’re cowards. The only way to deal with bullies and cowards is to fight back even harder, and they get a taste of their own medicine. That is when antisemitism will start to disappear.”
So close yet so far – variant prevents machaneh
The announcement by youth movements at the beginning of November that they would be holding COVID-19-safe summer machanot was greeted with joy and hope for brighter times ahead. It was the light at the end of the tunnel for many young people and their families. After a tough two years, at least they could go to Habonim Dror or Bnei Akiva camp in December.
The movements’ leadership worked furiously to make camp come to fruition at such late notice, and many chaverim had signed up and paid. But when South African scientists announced the discovery of a new variant, the dominoes quickly came crashing down. On Monday, 29 November, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) notified the community that camp was officially cancelled.
SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin told the SA Jewish Report things changed incredibly fast. “The viability of hosting machaneh changed dramatically with the discovery of the Omicron variant. This necessitated urgent consultation between the youth movements, the SAZF, CSO [Community Security Organisation], and most importantly, the medical professionals who have been advising us throughout this challenging process.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the variant, and the available data suggests significantly greater risk in hosting mass gatherings such as camps,” he says. “While time may shed more light on this, a decision needed to be made urgently as to how to proceed.”
Rosenthal continues the story: ” We held multiple discussions with our medical board and team. Ultimately, we felt that it was the responsible decision to cancel machaneh. We have a responsibility to develop Jewish youth in South Africa, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to act in the best interests of our community and at this time, that responsibility is to keep our community safe.”
“The high probability of mass infection, the impact this would have on the movement’s leadership and CSO’s ability to host a safe and meaningful machaneh, and the risk of re-infection on returning to parents, grandparents, family, and friends, were the primary factors considered in the discussion,” he says.
“I’m devastated. We’re all devastated,” says Bnei Akiva Rosh Machaneh Yoni Rosenthal. “I’m heartbroken for our 550 channichim and 100 madrichim who were going to be inspired and uplifted on our campsite this December. At the same time, I’m so proud of our camp team for putting in such effort over the past few months. We truly turned a dream into a reality. We did everything that we could have possibly done to get ready for machaneh.”
The decision is a devastating blow to all of the Zionist Jewish youth movements. “Youth movements have an important place in our Jewish community, and I was encouraged that both Habonim and Bnei Akiva were planning end of year machanot,” says Habonim Dror manhig (leader) Wayne Sussman.
“Machaneh is crucial not only for the youth but also for future community leadership. It’s a transformative space, whether it’s at Mossel Bay for Bnei Akiva, Onrus for Habonim, or Glencairn for Netzer. I compare missing machaneh to a soccer player missing a season. In the lifespan of a madrich, they learn so many life skills. So, missing two machanot two years in a row will have a deep impact on every youth movement and our entire community.”
Sussman says that since the announcement was made, Habonim’s leadership has been “working every hour to see what of machaneh we can we salvage at this late stage. We will hopefully be having a bogrim [leadership] seminar so that at least our leaders can get the input they need from the best educators we have to offer.” This seminar will hopefully take place on the Habonim campsite, giving bogrim the opportunity to connect with the “home” of the movement.
Looking back, Rosenthal says, “The past few weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster, physically and emotionally. Our team has literally worked day and night over the past two months to turn the impossible into the possible. It became the norm to be calling each other into the early hours of the morning.”
Sussman has consoled many devastated chaverim and their families. “One child has been coming to camp since Shtilim [the youngest age group]. She knows that her father built something on the Habonim campsite, and has waited seven years to enter [the same] age group so that she could join the dots and connect to her father’s pioneering contribution to the youth movement. Now that opportunity has been taken away from her. This decision has an impact on family ties,” he says.
“Last year was a very dark hour for youth movements, but this may be an even darker hour,” Sussman says. “That’s why I’m so impressed by the leadership who have hardly slept over the past six weeks, trying to create a safe, transformative machaneh, and are now trying to salvage what they can. To get so close and then to have the opportunity snuffed out is truly devastating.” He notes that this decision could also financially cripple youth movements.
Says Rosenthal, “We need to hold our heads up high and be proud of our achievements. I believe that we have inspired our community over the past few months. I think it’s also important to emphasise the incredible work that our team and madrichim have done throughout the year. We engaged with more than 1 000 channichim and madrichim in Joburg and Cape Town over the past few months.
“We have learned that Bnei Akiva is so much more than just a December camp,” he says. “We are about people, not just a place. The incoming leadership has already started planning the best way forward, but I have no doubt that we will bounce back stronger in 2022.” They have been thinking of a few ways to continue engaging with channichim and madrichim, and will be in contact about plans for December.
“I have been humbled by the support of the community throughout the process,” says Rosenthal. “I also would like to thank Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and Uriel Rosen for their guidance over the past few months. I would like to thank the CSO, the SAZF, and our Bnei Akiva Foundation for all of their support as well.”
Says Rosmarin, “Though everyone involved appreciated the short and long-term impact, as well as the cost of cancelling machaneh, the risk of disaster coupled with the uncertainty was deemed by our medical team to be too high. Based on this, the very difficult recommendation was made to cancel machanot, a recommendation that was adopted jointly by all the movements and role players. We are extremely disappointed and saddened by this sudden turn of events, and will continue to support our movements through this difficult time.”
Rabbonim called on to recognise GBV in Torah
The scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) is as pervasive in the Jewish community as it is elsewhere. Because of this, the Union of Jewish Women (UJW) Cape Town and the Commonwealth Jewish Women’s Network (CJWN) have asked rabbis to help fight it by addressing the matter with their congregations. It’s rare that the GBV that occurs in the Torah is ever discussed.
The women’s organisations recently called on Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and all rabbonim to share the story of Dinah at this time. The United Nations has designated 25 November to 10 December 2021 as 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, and the women hope that addressing the rape of Dinah, which took place in a recent parsha would highlight the need for activism.
Dinah was the daughter of Jacob and Leah. In Parashat Vayishlach, Dinah is abducted and raped. “Shechem saw her; and he abducted her, lay with her and afflicted her” (Genesis 34:1-2).
“The rape of Dinah is a very difficult and complicated story,” explains local Jewish educator Adina Roth. “She is raped by the prince of Shechem and then her brothers mount a vengeance campaign against the people of Shechem, massacring everyone.
“What’s really disturbing is that Dinah’s voice is excised from the story. Her only moment of agency in the story is at its opening, when she ‘goes out to visit the daughters of the land’. It’s during this ‘going out’ that the rape happens. ‘Going out to visit’ is an unusual sentence in the Torah. It’s suggesting that she was sociable and curious about life, meeting other people and stepping beyond the tent, which was often the circumscribed space for women in the Bible.
“The story subtly suggests that her going out is what puts her in danger, leading to the implication that she’s partially to blame for what ensues. This narrative is enforced by some commentaries that suggest that Dinah exposed herself by showing her arms, or that she was like her mother Leah who also ‘went out’ of the tent to claim her husband Yaakov. So sadly the commentaries end up assigning blame to Dinah and perpetuating myths that women somehow ask for it,” says Roth.
Karen Kallman of the UJW Cape Town echoes this sentiment. “‘What was she wearing? Why was she out so late? Did she provoke him?’ are what is implied. The ‘16 Days’ is a fantastic opportunity to have conversations about respect, equality, and the role we can play in helping to end violence,” she said.
Ilona Lee of the CJWN says, “Dinah has no voice in this parsha. In what ways are women silenced in our world today?” She elaborates on questions that could follow from reading the parsha. “What does respect look like in a relationship? What are some of the expectations we have of men and women in society? What are the impacts of blaming victims of violence?”
Roth also points out that the rape of Dinah was not the only instance of GBV in the Torah. “One of David’s sons, Amnon, rapes his sister Tamar in a very disturbing story. It’s clear that she resists and begs him to leave her alone,” says Roth. “After the rape she cries and tears her clothes. Her utter distress is recorded in the Tanach. Thereafter we don’t see her again. What happened to her?” While that question cannot be answered, the community of today can ensure that women do not disappear from our narrative.
“What’s [also] important is that in this story it’s an Israelite assaulting her. It’s important to realise [that] we need to take responsibility for what happens in our Jewish communities, and for the patriarchy, abuse, and misogyny that comes from within,” said Roth.
Goldstein responded positively to the initiative, writing to rabbonim on 18 November. “I believe we have a responsibility to support this important message and lend our voice to the issues raised by the campaign. The UJW in Johannesburg has written to me to suggest we harness the collective influence of all our rabbis, and that we speak about the issue of abuse during our shul droshas and shiurim this Shabbos. As difficult as this subject is, I believe we need to address it head on. As leaders we can use our influence to bring these issues out into the open, and galvanise our communities to deal with them.”
Rabbi Osher Feldman of the Gardens Shul in Cape Town was one rabbi who joined the campaign. His Shabbos drosha on 19 November was entitled ‘What type of man are you? A protest against gender-based violence’. In the sermon, he stressed that GBV was not just something ‘out there’ but sadly very much alive in our communities. “The true definition of strength and power is not in our control over others, but in our control over ourselves. As Pirkei Avot puts it, ‘Who is strong? He who controls his own inclinations,’” he said.
Also in Cape Town on 25 November, the Western Cape government invited faith leaders to light candles in honour of those who had lost their lives to GBV. The Jewish community was represented by Rabbi Nissen Goldman.
Writing about this on Facebook, Goldman said, “Today I had the privilege and responsibility of addressing the Western Cape government as they launched the 16 Days of Activism campaign. They lit candles, and I doubt anyone realised it at the time, but the way each speaker placed their candle ended up forming a menorah.
“I thought it was a message for the occasion. GBV doesn’t just happen. Like most things, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” While not excusing the behaviour, he noted, “We need to be asking ourselves why this man felt the need to do this. Men are hurting others because they have been deeply hurt. And this is what needs to be addressed: trauma, from as early on as possible. This is where the menorah comes in. Its message is clear. ‘I reflect you. Look inside! The world needs you and your light, now go shine.’ If only men were taught that.”
Reconnecting with rescuers on that dark, stormy night
Many stories begin with the setting of a “dark and stormy night”. The difference, in this case, is that this story is true.
It was a cold and rainy evening in Johannesburg almost two decades ago when Kim O’ Hagan’s husband and son ran into trouble en route to a Shabbat dinner. Seventeen years later – in November 2021 – the family reached out to those who rescued them, bringing the story full circle.
Recounting the story to the SA Jewish Report, Johannesburg research director O’Hagan recalls how “the evening after my husband Simon’s 39th birthday [30 April 2004], Simon and my son, Liam, were en route to Liam’s grandmother’s house in Cyrildene for Shabbat dinner.
“Simon was doing a favour for my brother, Jonathan Selvan, by delivering his work vehicle [a fully equipped Peugeot Boxer with shelving in which one could stand up] to Cyrildene. I can just imagine Liam, who was 2½ years old at the time, excitedly sitting next to his dad in front of this huge vehicle. My daughter, Erin, and I had driven ahead in a separate car.”
There was a light drizzle, and the streetlights weren’t working. “On turning the corner into Houghton Drive, some of the shelving slipped, and Simon stopped the vehicle and stepped out to check what had fallen.” It was at that moment that he fell into a manhole.
“He recalled the event by saying, ‘I stepped on to the pavement, but the pavement wasn’t there’. The manhole was rectangular and luckily, not very deep. He smashed his shoulder and fractured several ribs, but fortunately didn’t hit his head. He was in excruciating pain and unable to get out to rescue Liam who at this point, was still strapped into his car seat.”
Simon tried unsuccessfully to flag down passing motorists who were unlikely to have seen him in the dimly lit area and even less likely to take a chance and stop on the side of the road.
“In the meantime, a couple was returning home and had driven into their driveway on Houghton Drive,” continues O’Hagan. “On seeing the commotion, the woman, who I was to learn was journalist Tanya Farber, rushed to rescue Liam from the car seat. Her boyfriend (now husband), Jeremy, made contact with me and my family in Cyrildene.
“By this stage, Simon had forced himself out of the manhole, clearly fighting the pain in a desperate attempt to get to his little boy. Netcare responded, and Simon was given morphine so that they could mobilise his shoulder and place him on a stretcher. He was then taken to Milpark Hospital, operated on, and discharged several days later.”
The family were grateful to be safe, and moved on with their lives. But tragedy struck when Simon died suddenly in 2006 of unrelated causes. Liam was four and his sister Erin was six.
“I have tried to instil memories of their father by relating stories to them and reminding them of the people their dad knew, and who played an important role in their dad’s life,” says O’Hagan. “Liam has even less of a concept of his father than Erin due to being younger at the time. So those memories become that much more important as one goes through life and begins to comprehend the part of your life that’s missing.”
In that context, the dark and stormy night when Liam and his father were rescued has become even more pivotal. “Liam says that he has few memories of his father, and the few memories that he does have become all the more significant,” says his mother. “Considering that he was 2½ years old, he clearly didn’t understand the gravity of the situation that night. Liam remembers seeing lights out of the front windscreen and being held by a really friendly lady. He says he has no doubt he enjoyed the attention! Liam questions what his dad would think of him now, and he suddenly thought to himself that this was a really big moment in his life that he has never really looked back on. He was curious as to how far back he could remember, and this was in fact one of his earliest memories.”
So, out of the blue a few nights ago, “Liam suddenly asked me if I knew the name of the people who had rescued him that night. We had never really discussed it before. It took me a few minutes to think, and I told Liam, but he didn’t tell me he was going to try to contact Tanya.
“Having told him that Tanya was a journalist, he started by looking on LinkedIn and Facebook. He found her email address and decided to email her. Part of Liam’s thought process at the time was that because of the many losses he had suffered recently [we recently lost Simon’s brother, Liam’s uncle, to COVID-19], he decided it was important to reach out to Tanya.”
The first O’Hagan knew of Liam’s email was when he read her Farber’s response. “We were both so deeply touched and the emotions took us right back to that night.” The two parties decided to meet, and “Liam, Erin, and I are all excited to meet Tanya and Jeremy as we feel that they are part of our connection with Simon. We were so touched by Tanya’s warmth and her memories of the night, as well as those of her husband, and her sister, Yael.
“Yael spoke to Simon while he was in the manhole. That’s something so special that I needed to hear, because by the time I got to the scene of the accident, my only vision was of Simon’s desperate struggle to get out.”
She has no doubt that they will maintain their new connection. “When someone dies, although their intentions are good, few people maintain contact. I have always tried to keep Simon’s memory alive by keeping up relationships with people who have touched our lives,” says O’Hagan. “The wonderful thing about our community is the connections we all have. It doesn’t matter who the hero was on the day, but the fact that Liam reached out, that there are such special humans out there, is what makes me proud to be part of this wonderful Jewish community.”
Farber says the reconnection has also been extremely meaningful. “I remember at the time understanding Simon’s panic of being stuck in the manhole while little Liam was stranded in the car. But it was only when I became a parent myself not long afterwards that I truly understood the depth of it,” she says.
“Receiving the email from Liam all these years later was a life-affirming experience for me. He and his family are incredibly special people. It has reminded me how strangers’ lives can intertwine in ways we don’t expect, and yet invisible connections persist.”
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