Biden’s daughter-in-law in SA for mom’s funeral
The daughter-in-law of United States President Joe Biden was on route to South Africa on Wednesday to attend her beloved mother’s funeral in Johannesburg.
Melissa Cohen-Biden, 34, who is married to the president’s son, Hunter Biden, was due to arrive in South Africa on Thursday morning, just hours before her mother, Zoe Cohen, was to be laid to rest.
Zoe, 72, passed away on Monday after a short illness.
Although Zoe was the machatenesta of the most powerful man in the Western world, she was a formidable woman of strength and inspiration in her own right.
The mother of four was a well-known and highly respected social worker for the Chevrah Kadisha for many years and had her own private practice where she specialised in adoptions and surrogacies.
Messages of support have continued to stream in on social media since her sudden passing. According to her legion of friends, Zoe touched the lives of countless people in her bid to marry babies and children with their forever homes, and helped hundreds of couples become parents.
According to her son, Garyn, a special place has been reserved for his mother at Westpark Cemetery to honour her lifetime achievements and contribution to the community.
Her friends this week said she was “a little woman with a big heart” who never had a bad word to say about anyone.
“My mother was a special angel who always put other people’s needs before her own. Even though she was small in stature, she was larger than life,” said Garyn.
He said Zoe insisted on fostering children at the family home every weekend. “We had children from Arcadia and the Princess Alice Adoption Home stay with us every weekend. We used to joke that my friends got confused between them and my real siblings. My mom felt it was important for these children to experience what it was like to be part of a family.”
She also adored animals, taking in strays and abandoned animals as well as the family’s own pets. ”Our house was sometimes called ‘Zoe’s Zoo’. This is where my sister Melissa got her love for animals,” said Garyn.
The Cohens adopted Melissa when she was three years old. “My parents had three boys and all of a sudden, there was a little sister. Melissa changed the dynamics and completed our home. We adored her from the minute she came into our lives,” he said.
Zoe was diagnosed with a brain tumour on 22 April. She had surgery 10 days later, and passed away within weeks from a host of complications.
A devastated Melissa visited her mother in Johannesburg while she recovered in hospital after surgery, and stayed for a week in the country with her father, Lee. She was accompanied by security guards wherever she went, and the visit was kept under wraps. She left South Africa with no idea that her mother would take a sudden turn for the worst.
“When Melissa was here, our mother was doing well. She couldn’t believe it when we called her to say that our mom was gone. They were very close. She is heartbroken.”
At the time of going to press, Melissa was on her way back to South Africa. The family waited for her to arrive before the funeral could take place on Thursday.
She left her baby, Beau, with Hunter in Los Angeles where the couple live.
Said Garyn, “Hunter would have loved to have joined her, but he stayed behind with Beau. He adored my mother. They got on very well from the moment they met. My parents visited Melissa and Hunter in America, and spent time with them there. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to meet Joe and Jill Biden at the time.”
Melissa’s brother, Dalan, and his wife, Amy, who live in Atlanta, joined the couple at the presidential inauguration. Their other brother, Joshua, lives in Canada and has yet to meet the Biden clan.
This will be the first time the four siblings will be together in a long time.
“It’s wonderful for us, but our mom will be missing,” said Garyn.
As tributes continue to pour in, clinical psychologist Mandy Rodrigues said Zoe was a “legend in the field of fertility”.
“Zoe has been a constant in all our lives in the field [of fertility]. How do you say goodbye to someone who has always been a wise, humble, and dedicated worker in the field you were passionate about? Someone who contributed so much time not only to making us more aware of adoption, but mentoring many of us. You always taught me to act within the confines of the law, no matter how many hearts were broken, and we shared so many cases over the years.
“I remember you as someone with integrity and so much wisdom and kindness. You always made the needs of babies and children in your care your number-one priority. Your name will always be linked to those of us you have blessed families with.”
The Cohen siblings and their father will sit shiva together at Garyn’s Johannesburg house, where, no doubt, they will reminisce about their colourful childhood.
According to the family, Zoe studied social work at the University of the Witwatersrand and worked at the Princess Alice Adoption Home for many years. She was in private practice for many years where apart from adoptions, she also did grief and trauma counselling. She often opened her home to women who had nowhere to turn, and placed thousands of abandoned children. She also worked with fertility clinics, and helped countless couples on the road to parenthood.
Due to COVID-19, the funeral will be restricted to 100 people, but it’s expected many will be turned away as her popularity knew no bounds, say her children.
She is survived by her loving husband of 50 years, Lee, children Dalan, Garyn, Joshua, and Melissa, and eight grandchildren.
‘Wake up!’ say doctors, as third wave ramps up
Communal experts this week issued a stern warning to “catch a wake up” as the community has been hard hit by death, severe illness, and an unprecedented number of infections which continue to rise daily during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is extremely severe,” warned Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare Group. “In Gauteng, we are in the eye of the storm, with things set to get a lot worse than they are.
“We should all be doing what we can to prevent a single death, to prevent people from having to be admitted to hospital,” he said.
The death rate has risen at hospitals, and hospital stays are about 20% longer, exacerbating the shortage of beds, especially in Gauteng, which is leading the uptick in infections.
“As I walk through our COVID-19 units, I see people struggling to breathe, fighting to survive this shocking pandemic. Every day, we are reminded of the pain, the suffering, and the enormous loss that it brings,” Friedland said.
Issuing a plea to the community to be hyper vigilant, he said, “I want to be abundantly clear that there can be no place for a lackadaisical approach.”
Several doctors this week told the SA Jewish Report that the situation was dire, with one doctor describing it as a “battlefield”.
“Patients, some quite young with no comorbidities, are really sick, with the vast majority on one form of ventilation or another,” said Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.
“Some severely ill patients are being temporarily managed in casualty because there are simply no intensive-care beds available at other hospitals,” she said.
“We are seeing a fairly young cohort, some with no underlying conditions, who are becoming seriously ill. The variants are more virulent and transmissible. We have had quite a lot of patients who have had COVID-19 before or who have received the vaccine, and got it.”
“We treat more aggressively, but there’s still no magic drug. We’re doing everything we can to turn the inflammatory response around. It takes some longer than others,” she said.
“Sadly, some people over 60 believe that once they have had the virus or the vaccine, they are safe. They aren’t. A lot of families including couples and their children are being infected,” she said.
At the time of going to print, Hatzolah had 501 active patients with 64 patients requiring oxygen at home. At least 11.7% of the active cases include children and young adults under the age of 20.
“There are a higher number of younger people including children than in the previous waves,” said Dr Anton Meyberg of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.
Sadly, the majority of patients are still the elderly over 60, but doctors have noticed a rise in the number of patients between the ages of 40 to 60, many requiring hospital admission.
There appears to be a disproportionately higher number of cases within the community, with doctors putting this down to complacency and carelessness about observing protocols.
“There is more testing, but people aren’t following the rules,” said Meyberg, “People who have been vaccinated are becoming lax, and there is a large asymptomatic spread of the virus.”
The country technically entered its third wave on Thursday, 10 June. According to the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, a new wave starts when the seven-day moving average of new infections surpasses 30% of the previous wave.
More than 70% of the new cases are now in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where there is evidence of a resurgence after a period of recovery, and there are daily increases in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
According to experts, the next two weeks will be particularly severe in Gauteng as the numbers steadily increase. Cape Town is a few weeks behind, they say.
Private-sector hospital admissions have increased four-fold since April. More than 500 patients are being admitted a day in the private sector in Gauteng, which is putting enormous strain on emergency departments fighting to open as many beds as possible to make space.
According to Hatzolah Chairperson Lance Abramson, there were 263 active cases at the peak of the first wave, 333 cases at the peak of the second wave, and now there are more than 500 active cases “with no peak in sight yet”.
“There are a staggering number of active cases in the Johannesburg Jewish community,” he said.
“Ambulances are transporting multiple COVID-19-positive patients to hospitals daily, where it is sometimes difficult to find a hospital bed. Patients are sometimes having to wait in ambulances in the parking lots of hospitals. This is very challenging for teams on the ground,” he said.
The organisation is also looking after 64 patients on home oxygen where they are closely monitored, Abramson said.
The organisation’s nurses are seeing between 80 to 100 patients a day.
Interestingly, Hatzolah has had 238 patients on the programme who have had a vaccine. Of those, 171 had received the first Pfizer vaccine, and 83 had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, two the AstraZeneca, and one Moderna. Thirty eight patients have been fully vaccinated and of those, only one required hospitalisation and has since recovered, he said.
According to Dr Ryan Noach, the chief executive of Discovery Health, globally, vaccinations have materially slowed the progression of new cases and deaths. There are early signs of reduced COVID-19 infection rates among the vaccinated pollution in South Africa post 15 days after vaccination.
“There are signs that the first dose is working, with early data showing that there are less admissions post vaccination and fewer deaths,” he said.
Worryingly, he said, “The data points to the potential for a very severe third wave, and we’re seeing the beginning of it only now.”
He said more than 50% of adults 70 years and older require admission to hospital.
“Hospital admissions in wave three have reached the level of admissions at the peak in wave one. There are currently 2 012 Discovery members admitted to hospital, of which 526 are in intensive-care, and 275 require ventilation.
“A large number of people are showing evidence of reinfections. Discovery members who contracted COVID-19 in the first wave have again contracted COVID-19 in the second wave. Three members have now tested positive three times,” Noach said.
On 13 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that two million Johnson & Johnson (J&J) doses would have to be destroyed because the United States regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, found that the main ingredient with which they were made wasn’t safe for consumption.
As a result, South Africa has no J&J doses to administer at present, setting the country back in its vaccine roll-out in the midst of a third wave. The good news is that, according to the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, J&J will replace all the doses within the next two weeks, with 300 000 due to land within a few days and another million to be released by Aspen’s Eastern Cape plant next week.
In the meantime, doctors have appealed to people to be hyper vigilant and maintain all non-pharmaceutical measures.
Archbishop’s anti-Israel stance “endangering Anglican Church”
They have had a longstanding friendship and worked closely together, but when Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein saw Anglican Church Archbishop Dr Thabo Makgoba describe the situation in the Middle East as “evil” and place all the blame on Israel, he refused to stay silent.
In a hard-hitting open letter in the Sunday edition of City Press (6 June 2021), Goldstein told the archbishop that he was “making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church”. He explained that by supporting Hamas, “you are not only perpetuating the suffering of Palestinians and working against peace in this painful conflict, you are on the wrong side of history and in neglect of your most basic moral duty to protect the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which is your parish.
“For while you castigate Israel for defending itself against violent extremists, know that the very same violent religious ideology drives extremists right here on our borders, and their intended victims are your Christian congregations.”
This isn’t the first time the chief rabbi has commented on the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s (ACSA) sharp turn away from Israel. In 2019, he condemned its resolution to support “well-directed Boycott, Divestment, Sanction actions” against the Jewish state.
The letter to which the chief rabbi was referring was written by the archbishop to his constituents on 1 June 2021, titled “A pastoral letter on the tragic situation in Palestine and Israel”. Makgoba compared Israel’s policies to apartheid, and wrote among other points, “The current state of affairs is unjust and evil. We therefore call for an arms embargo to be placed on all fighting forces in the region, just as there was a United Nations arms embargo on South Africa. We also call for other pressure, including sanctions, to be imposed to bring all the parties around a conference table to negotiate a just peace. The current imbalance of power means that the Palestinians are suffering disproportionately.”
But the chief rabbi methodically explained why the accusation of apartheid was “a defamation of the Jewish state, disrespectful to the victims of apartheid, and a dangerous lie, which brings to mind the Christian blood libels against Jews in medieval Europe”. He explained how attempts to establish a Palestinian state have repeatedly been turned down by Palestinian leadership, and emphasised the genocidal essence of Hamas’s ideology.
“Over the past year alone, about 4 000 Christians in Africa have been killed by Islamist extremists – Islamists who share Hamas’s ideology. More than 4 000 churches have been burnt to the ground. Archbishop, these people were murdered because they are Christian. Where is your voice in defence of your own parishioners? Not only are you silent on this issue, you publicly support the allies of the perpetrators of these horrors,” Goldstein wrote.
The chief rabbi told the SA Jewish Report he felt it was urgent to speak out because “the militant extremism of Hamas is the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and it’s a threat to people around the world, including Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims. Hamas wants the genocide of all Jews, just as other extremist groups want the conversion and murder of all Christians. This is a struggle for human dignity, decency, and moderation. Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in this fight for freedom.”
He says it’s even more urgent now because “violent extremists are wreaking havoc in Africa and globally. This includes those on our doorstep in Mozambique. I wanted to appeal to him, to other Christian and Muslim leaders to stand together in unity against the violent extremism that is encroaching, which is a threat to us all.
“It’s important to speak the truth and say it as I see it,” Goldstein says. “To accuse Israel of being ‘evil’ demands a response. Silence is acquiescence. How can we be silent in the face of these accusations, when we know they are false? It’s about speaking up in the name of truth and justice. It’s not about personalities or emotions. It’s the moral responsibility of any human being, especially a religious leader.”
Goldstein doesn’t think this debate will have an impact on his relationship with the archbishop.
“We have been friends and colleagues for many years. He was appointed the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa a year or so before I became chief rabbi. We had a lot in common, both being relatively young appointees at the time. We’ve worked together, marched together against state capture and corruption, and interacted on many forums. South Africa is blessed to have a very strong culture of interfaith co-operation. We meet and discuss, and I don’t see this as a breach of that. I see this as having a public debate. It was the same with my letter to the president [Cyril Ramaphosa], much of this has been discussed in private meetings, but I’m putting it out there because we are debating for the good of the country.”
It’s the same reason Goldstein called on the Muslim Judicial Council and Jamiatul Ulama South Africa “to join me in imploring our communities to be tolerant of each other’s vastly differing political and religious views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. This call, made at the end of May, was rejected by those organisations.
“We can have a different view, and we can all agree to disagree, but religious leaders need to show respect, peace, and tolerance,” Goldstein said. “If religious leaders don’t stand together, then these negative forces will divide us.”
The chief rabbi feels that by condemning Israel, “the archbishop is hurting the very people he is trying to help. Israel is a bastion of freedom and dignity in the Middle East for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to worship in freedom. By supporting Hamas, the archbishop is leaving the Palestinian people to suffer under the jackboot of violence and dictatorship. Hamas doesn’t believe in negotiation, so by supporting extremism, he is pushing the option of peace further away.”
Goldstein hopes that his letter “will provoke real debate within the Anglican Church. I have heard from Anglican rank and file members that they aren’t aligned with the views of the archbishop. In addition, millions of Christians who support Israel should be able to do so without being intimidated or threatened.”
He also hopes that this debate “will lead to a time for reflection for all religious leaders” and that they will continue to meet and keep the channels of communication open, as has been the case for many years.
“What I hope will be on the agenda for the interfaith movement is commitment across the board for religious leaders to preach tolerance, peace, human dignity, and to support forces in the world to do the same,” he says. “I hope all religious leaders will oppose in every way the violent extremism that is gaining ascendency, particularly in Africa. We can agree to disagree without denigrating each other. We must call out violent extremism with one voice. This is a wake-up call that we need to take a stand.”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 9 June, the archbishop said, “Nothing in my letter suggests that I support violent attacks by one community on another or that I question the right of Israel to live in peace and security and that of the Palestinians to self-determination.”
SA Jews face vitriolic antisemitism online
Like Jews around the world, Cape Town business owner Aimee-Leigh Koff was horrified at the wave of misinformation online as Israel was subjected to a rain of rockets from Hamas. So, she wrote a Facebook post about how Israel has the right to defend herself. In response, she was subjected to a torrent of antisemitism and abuse.
“The most racist and ruthless nation is Israel those dogs. May G-d send a decease (sic) to those thiefs (sic) and may they die in the gutters. And you my dear may the skin from your face peel off. Remember Hitler left a few Jews in the world to show how evil Jews are. You Jewish animals forget that Jews were not wanted all over … Jews are known to be stingy and greedy people,” were just some of the comments that a Mahida Khan Moolla wrote to Koff.
Abdul Gafaa Sadick chose to subject her to the age-old antisemitic trope of the blood libel: “We don’t support you or your products made with the blood of innocent children and babies,” he wrote.
These were just some of the hundreds of messages sent to Koff by South Africans across various platforms. They hounded her with antisemitic messages, verbal abuse, and calls to boycott her business, which sells beauty products. They also pressurised a large online retailer to stop selling her products. A few days later, they went after her sister, sharing her profile on public platforms. The abuse was so bad, Koff got a message from a concerned citizen saying, “You must be careful … you could be in danger.”
“It was extremely traumatic,” Koff told the SA Jewish Report. “I was scared for my safety and felt helpless. I was scared to go out, and still am.”
She has since consulted lawyers, a counsellor, and private investigators. “It was extremely stressful for my family and my boyfriend, even though he isn’t Jewish.
“I have broad shoulders. I’m stronger than them,” she says. She doesn’t regret posting about Israel, but does regret that her privacy settings weren’t on. “Why do I need to feel scared about being proud to be Jewish?” she asks. She says she is still being cyber-bullied and getting hate mail on a daily basis.
Medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Dylan Rendel, was taken aback when a fellow medical student posted on the class Telegram group encouraging classmates to go to an anti-Israel protest at the Israeli embassy. Rendel asked that the group “refrain from posting any political related things on this group which may be sensitive to others on here. This is a class group for medicine.”
From that point on, he was subjected to a campaign of abuse and defamation by fellow medical student. In response, someone called Imraan Mansoor said he wanted to punch Rendel. An anonymous Instagram account sent Rendel a private message saying, “I know that you’re currently studying at Wits, and I just want you to know on behalf of MANY that are in solidarity with Palestine, be careful when you get into your car, we know your number plate.”
With the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), Rendel opened a case with the South African Police Service to investigate who sent the threat. He says that Wits has been extremely supportive, shutting down the Telegram chat and fully investigating the matter.
Cape Town estate agent Lisa Osrin added a “frame” to her Facebook profile expressing support for Israel but online trolls decided to attack her. The frame said, “I stand with Israel”.
“I got a lot of hate messages, but it’s not only me,” says Osrin. “I got a million messages from people saying the same thing happened to them. Teachers in Johannesburg – who teach Muslim kids – have put up frames supporting Israel and got really nasty messages.”
One Zakariya Baker sent an email with the subject line “conduct of employee”, supposedly “reporting” Osrin’s support of Israel. The same person shared a photo of Osrin with the caption, “Here is a South African who openly is expressing support for an apartheid state. Do you miss the good old days? For anyone interested, this person is an agent for [property company]. Do with this information what you will.”
Osrin says that while the experience was “unnerving”, she isn’t worried about her safety. “I haven’t seen any Jews behave in the same manner.” She says her workplace has been “100% supportive”, and that her non-Jewish boss also added a frame supporting Israel.
Photographer Chad Nathan shared a balanced post about Israel on Instagram, written by a friend, and immediately faced a backlash online. “Let’s make sure he gets the attention he seeks. We might not be able to get rid of them just yet over there. But here we could!” wrote Abdullah Sonday, sharing an image of Nathan’s profile.
Says SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn, “We know that whenever there is a crisis or war in Israel, diaspora Jewry is affected. There was a significant increase in antisemitism in South Africa during the Gaza conflicts in 2008/2009, 2014, and 2018. I have no doubt we will see this trend in our 2021 statistics.
“They are using intimidation as their tool of choice,” says Kahn. “We have been assisting students at schools, university students, professionals, and business people who have been subjected to toxic posts on their WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Each scenario has to be handled differently according to the circumstances. We aren’t attempting to shut down conversations, but rather ensure that the discussions take place in more appropriate forums.”
Says Cape SAJBD Executive Director Daniel Bloch, “The social media assault is abusive and intense, designed to attack the individual on both a personal and professional basis. We cannot advise the community whether or not to express themselves and what platforms to use – that’s a personal choice. However it needs to be aware that social media is a platform for hate speech, and people need to be prepared for a variety of responses.”
The Community Security Organisation’s Jevon Greenblatt says, “There has been a global increase in online antisemitic content. In South Africa, we are witnessing an increase in cyber-bullying. There are numerous reports of South Africans sharing online antisemitic content, and we are reviewing the evidence.
“Words turn to actions, so when antisemitism is allowed to exist and flourish without consequence, acts of intimidation and possibly violence against Jews are likely to follow. We are already seeing this in the United States and across Europe. In at least three instances in South Africa, we have seen cyber-bullying resulting in physical threats. These are all being investigated.”
His advice to anyone being harassed is “to report any antisemitic incidents immediately, with as much information as possible. If it’s a threat or physical assault, a case must be opened with the police. Ensure that your social media profile has the necessary security activated. Be very careful of letting others know your family’s location, including your children’s school. This should be discussed with your children too.
“Although the conflict may have come to an end for now, the global tremors of antisemitism are likely to continue,” says Greenblatt. “We must ensure that we continue to build and strengthen the overall security of our community. This takes time, good people, and resources. It’s human nature to think about security only when there is a known threat, however this is usually too late. It’s incumbent on each of us to empower ourselves with the skills, knowledge, and actions to remain safe.”
Nicole Rosenbaum, who made aliyah from South Africa in 2020, got caught up in an online debate about Israel on 24 May 2021. She’s unafraid to ask hard questions, and says anti-Israel supporters are usually unable to answer them. Instead, many turn to empty slogans or antisemitism.
Responding to some of Rosenbaum’s points, a Nazeem Hartey Jumbo (who appears to be from Cape Town) said, “I’m starting to wonder if the Holocaust was a blessing!” Responding to Jumbo, a Sarah Achmad (whose Facebook profile says she lives in Cape Town) said, “Me too. They never learnt their lesson.”
- To report antisemitism, cyber-bullying, intimidation or threats, email email@example.com (Johannesburg) or call, text or WhatsApp the Cape SAJBD’s #ReportHate Hotline on 079 994 5573, or complete its #ReportHate tool here: https://bit.ly/3hH1ZbU
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