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Board calls for practical implementation of hate-crime legislation

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This week, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) submitted written comments on the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill after its release for public comment by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services. We have requested an opportunity for the SAJBD to give an oral submission on the Bill in due course. As a steering committee member representing the Board on the Hate Crimes Working Group (HCWG), our representative, Alana Baranov, was also involved in the drafting of the HCWG submission on the Bill.

The genesis of this important piece of legislation goes back to 2016, when the first draft of the Bill was released. The Board, at its own behest and through the HCWG, has been involved in the process from the outset, including making previous submissions. While we have raised certain legal-technical concerns over aspects of the Bill, in general we have welcomed it as being aimed at giving practical effect to the prevention of racism and discrimination and providing for the prosecution and prevention of hate crimes and hate speech.

The SAJBD’s submission on the Bill focused on the specific concerns of the Jewish community regarding antisemitism. It further stressed that the Act must be so framed as to make its practical implementation possible, and to this end, recommended expanding the reach and effectiveness of current legislation and mechanisms for dealing with incidents of hate, such as the South African Human Rights Commission and Equality Courts. These institutions have been of critical value to the Board in addressing numerous antisemitic incidents that have arisen over the past two decades, including those involving senior office bearers in government and trade unions. It’s therefore vital that they are adequately empowered and resourced.

JSC drops ball a second time at Concourt interviews

Earlier this year, the way in which two Jewish candidates for Constitutional Court positions were treated during their interviews by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) generated much justified outrage. As previously recounted in this column, both were subjected to a barrage of irrelevant and inappropriate questions pertaining to their Jewish identity, association with the SAJBD, and views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Other candidates were also subjected to inappropriate treatment. In response, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution launched a successful challenge to that process in the High Court, resulting in the JSC being directed to re-interview the candidates.

Unfortunately, the second round of interviews, conducted earlier this week, amounted to “Groundhog Day” for the Jewish community. Following their stinging rebuke at the hands of civil society and the courts, one would have expected the JSC to steer clear this time round of offensive questions concerning a candidate’s Jewish affiliations, yet once again, a Jewish candidate was so targeted, specifically for his previous association with the SAJBD. The characterisation by one of the commissioners of the SAJBD as a “pro-Zionist body that is bullying their people and organisations who are objecting to the Israeli establishment in the Palestine region” was especially out of line. This was specifically referred to in our media release issued this week, and will be one of the key issues we will address with the JSC.

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

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Making us count on Election Day

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The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) this week focused on final preparations for the multifaith election observer team that will be taking part in the local government elections this coming Monday, 1 November 2021. The Board initiated this project as part of its education and awareness campaign for the 2009 national and provincial elections, and has run it every election since then. Its purpose is to bring together volunteers from a range of different backgrounds to assist the Independent Electoral Commission by monitoring proceedings at polling stations to ensure that everything is fair and above board as well as offering hands-on logistical assistance where required. Aside from its purely practical benefits, the project is a rousing example of participatory democracy, and the fact that Jewish leadership is heading it up is certainly to the credit of the community as a whole.

From the Board’s point of view, the observer-team initiative further helps us to realise a core aspect of our mission, namely to “work for the betterment of human relations between Jews and all other peoples of South Africa, based on mutual respect, understanding, and goodwill”. It enables people to join their fellow citizens in being an active, contributing part of the democratic process, and over the years, participants have found it to be an inspiring bridge-building experience. The participation of the observer team on polling day also marks the culmination of the Board’s #MakeUsCount pre-election awareness and education campaign, one of the flagship initiatives through which we seek to lead our community in identifying with, contributing to, and participating in our robust democratic culture.

I warmly commend our professional staff, in particular Charisse Zeifert and Alana Baranov, for putting together another very successful #MakeUsCount campaign in spite of the short notice and added pressure of simultaneously having to organise the Board’s national conference. Regarding the elections themselves, I urge you all to turn out on the day and make your cross, regardless of which party you might support.

New era for Jewish Affairs journal

Over the decades, the SAJBD’s core mission of representing the community and protecting its civil rights has been expanded to include preserving and promoting South African Jewish heritage. One of the most important vehicles for this is our archives, which comprise of a comprehensive record of the Jewish presence in southern Africa and are regularly used by academics, genealogists, and journalists. Another is Jewish Affairs, the community’s leading Jewish historical, cultural, and current affairs journal, which has been produced under the auspices of the SAJBD since 1941.

Last week, Jewish Affairs embarked on an exciting new era in its 80-year history with the launch of its new stand-alone website: www.jewishaffairs.co.za. I encourage readers to browse through this site, which provides free access to all material published since 2009, and consider signing on (likewise without charge) to the mailing list to receive regular updates on the latest posts.

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

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Malema not such a tweet about Jewish survival

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I fully intended to be outraged at an Economic Freedom Fighters tweet that quoted Julius Malema. He was speaking at an election event that was live tweeted by his party. “No one will force anyone to vaccinate. I’m vaccinated because I believe in science, and [the] trials for COVID-19 were run on white people, and that was unusual. Even Jews are vaccinated, and those people don’t play with their lives.”

Perhaps it’s rude to refer to anyone as “those people”, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. And as one of those very people, I do find it hard to find fault with his statement. Because Jews don’t, as a rule, play with our lives.

It’s not to say that Jews can’t be warriors, soldiers, and members of the Community Security Organisation who bravely leopard crawl across the soccer fields of Jewish school campuses. It’s not to say that we can’t compete in well-co-ordinated trail runs through the mountains outside Plettenberg Bay when the moment demands it of us. Or, throw caution to the wind and run without a full reflector vest moments before sunrise.

It doesn’t mean that some of us have been known to walk to shul without our orthotics and even to miss repeated sessions with our biokineticist as if we hadn’t a tight hamstring in the world. Or (G-d forbid) neglect to take our Crestor (to lower bad cholesterol), knowing full well that given our genetics, it could result in it bordering on or dangerously slightly above the recommended level. (G-d forbid).

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that we value life, and that we don’t play around with it. Whereas Malema might not have considered the extent of his comments, and probably didn’t stop to wonder why it’s the case, Jews might well be more sensitive to survival than others who haven’t been persecuted for centuries. The reality is that Jews have spent generations trying to prevent people from annihilating us simply because they could.

The consequence of our history shouldn’t be understated. In a conversation that I had some years ago with music legend Johnny Clegg, he recounted a story from his childhood in Zimbabwe. He told me there were six children in his class, which didn’t go unnoticed by a teacher at Hebrew school. She told them in no uncertain terms that each of them represented and bore the responsibility of a million Jews that had perished in the Holocaust. Each would have to metaphorically carry them on their shoulders. This was too much for Clegg, who decided then and there not to have a Barmitzvah.

The other consequence is the anxiety that Jews live with. Partly interbreeding and partly survivor genetics, we are tuned to nuance, to a shift in tone, and to medical issues. We see our survival not just in terms of our own ability to live another day, but in terms of the understanding that we hold the key to Jews surviving as Jews in a world that might not always want us. But always needs us.

The tweet might have been clumsy. It might not have been politically correct. It might not have what we expect or want from a politician. But it was pretty darn accurate.

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Don’t vote, don’t complain

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The conversation would go something along these lines. “Mrs Feldman,” they would say, on seeing my late grandmother, “You are looking too wonderful!” A pregnant pause would follow as she contemplated the horror of what had been said. “Really?” she would finally answer, lips pursed, eyes narrowed, “You should only know how terrible I feel.”

And then, just to prove her point. Or to make them suffer, she would tell them. Complaint by complaint. Ailment by ailment, punctuated with a detailed description of her matching medication. At a family function, my grandmother would find desserts “too sweet” and the band too loud. She was never happy with where she had been seated, and there was always someone who didn’t greet her appropriately.

She wouldn’t have it any other way. Because complaining made her happy.

Whereas our generation might not complain about the same things, we’re hardly different. Social media is a complainer’s dream, where at a whim and at any time, we have the ability to slate, moan, and denigrate anything or anyone we choose. The “Hello Peters”, Google Reviews, and Facebook groups all provide fertile environments for anyone having a bad experience or simply a bad day. Because like it or not, complaining makes us happy.

It does, however, have its limits. And there are conditions attached to our ability and right to complain. We might, for instance, not be happy with the state of our roads, or the water pipes or electricity, but we forfeit the right to complain about them if we choose not to vote in the forthcoming municipal elections. No one will stop us, and maybe no one will even know, but electing not to participate in the choosing of representatives for our neighbourhoods and cities renders our complaining voices silent on a moral level.

The refrain of, “There’s no one to vote for” isn’t only inaccurate, it’s also lazy. The options might not be perfect, but each presents an opportunity for change and improvement.

The decision not to vote is a vote for the status quo. Which means that it’s affirmation that things are just as they should be. It means that the roads are pristine, that our water sparkles and is reliable, and that our lights switch on with the predictability and consistency of high school Charidy callers. It means that everything is just as it should be. Because, why else would anyone choose not to choose?

In conversations with the leaders of the Democratic Alliance, Action SA, and the African Christian Democratic Party, each told me the same thing: this election is all about service delivery. It’s about selecting the party and person who has the highest chance of getting the job done.

It might be true that there’s no perfect party and no perfect candidate, but then it might be worth choosing the one that’s the least imperfect of them all. Failure to do that will result the loss of the right to complain about all the things we love to complain about.

Which would make our grandmothers very unhappy.

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