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Capitol revolt anniversary ‘reminder of danger of extremism’

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On the anniversary of the storming of the Unites States Capitol, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international Jewish non-governmental organisation combatting hate, has called on the world to “take extremists at their word” and hold them to account.

“It’s frightening how these extremists have grown more organised,” ADL Chief Executive Jonathan Greenblatt said in a special ADL webinar on the anniversary of the 6 January insurrection.

“They’ve shifted from large public rallies to small local school board meetings, to attacking the integrity of medical professionals, and intimidating town council members and what not,” he said during the webinar that formed part of ADL’s “Fighting Hate from Home” webinar series.

Based in the United States, ADL fights all forms of hate, is the first point of call in America when acts of antisemitism occur, and is now at the forefront of the battle against the insurrectionists and violent vigilantes who stormed the Capitol.

“What we saw a year ago is what I would describe as the most predictable terror attack in American history because they told us they were going to do it,” said Greenblatt.

“It could have been far, far worse were it not for the remarkable law enforcement officers who did such an extraordinary job of preventing these individuals from capturing, kidnapping, and potentially killing our elected representatives during an event that has no precedent.”

The ADL has been tracking extremists for many decades, and has helped identify many of the perpetrators involved in the insurrection.

According to Greenblatt, although hundreds of the perpetrators of the attack on the Capitol have been arrested and others are being prosecuted, it isn’t enough.

“To see men barging through the building wearing ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirts, spouting insane antisemitic QAnon conspiracies, and brandishing weapons reminds us as Jews not only about our vulnerability, but our society’s vulnerability,” said Greenblatt. “This is because we know better than most what can happen when extremism really runs.”

The ADL recently filed a federal lawsuit to hold two violent groups accountable for the role they played in planning and carrying out the uprising. Greenblatt said this lawsuit was aimed at taking down the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and more than 30 individuals, and holding them to account for their role in planning and executing the terror attack.

“What we’re doing in this case is particularly important,” said Eileen Hershenov, the ADL’s senior vice-president of policy. “We’re never going to get rid of extremism and hate completely. We have to push it back to its fringes.”

“Last year, the ADL launched its Protect Plan, a comprehensive framework to address the threat of domestic terrorism while safeguarding civil liberties. We were really pleased to work with the White House to advise it on our perspective and to see it release its national strategy on countering domestic terrorism,” said Greenblatt.

The ADL also launched a comprehensive Repair Plan to fight hate online. “We have asked for a whole-of-government approach for the administration and Congress to take steps,” said Hershenov. “We have also recently worked with the secretary for homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, on many of the initiatives that he, we, other civil society organisations, and government are putting together to fight the ongoing threat of extremist violence.”

Mayorkas was sworn in to his current position by Vice-President Kamala Harris in February last year.

“I think back to the time when I first moved to Washington DC to join the Obama-Biden administration in 2009,” said Mayorkas. “If someone then had told me that 11 or 12 years later, we would have an insurrection at the Capitol, that people would storm the Capitol, break into it, threaten the life of our vice-president and our leader of the house, and that, in the aftermath, this country wouldn’t come together in unanimity to condemn it, I don’t think I would have believed it.”

Mayorkas said his department of homeland security was focused on equipping and empowering local communities to “identify ideologies of hate and false narratives, their connectivity to violence, and to prevent that threat from ever materialising, and should it unfortunately materialise, to respond and prove resilient in the face of it”.

He said his department needed to lead by example, ferret out domestic violent extremism within its own ranks, and educate people entering government about the special responsibilities they hold as public servants and representative not only of the American people, but also of the values and ideals that define the country.

His department is spreading information about what it knows to alert the landscape of law enforcement and, more generally, create public awareness.

“We’re also equipping local communities with the capability to prevent threats from occurring and respond, should they occur,” said Mayorkas. “We’re doing that through our grant programmes to faith-based organisations, non-profit organisations, and state and local municipalities, so they have the tools to address the threat that’s real and hasn’t diminished this past year, but has certainly held steady, if not grown in severity.”

“Anyone who has been paying attention to extremist activity across the country or to the chorus of disinformation and hatred rampant across media and social media will tell you that what happened at the US Capitol in January was in some ways the most predictable act of political violence in American history,” Hershenov said.

Washington DC Attorney General Karl Racine remembered watching television with his team and talking to Metropolitan Police Department officers who rushed to the Capitol to help save America’s freedom. “We committed that we would do everything we could every single day until I’m no longer attorney general to continue to fight against hate,” he recalled.

Racine said the ADL had done an unbelievable job of identifying the defendants. “Our investigation continues. There may be more defendants. We’re going to go where the evidence takes us, and we’re going to hold them financially accountable. Bankrupting these organisations and individuals is my objective.”

He and Greenblatt urged everyone to turn the television off and be part of the civil process by volunteering in their community or going to their local schools and parks to elevate humanity over hate.

“This isn’t being a Republican or a Democrat,” said Greenblatt. “It’s not about being a conservative or a liberal. It’s about being an American, and agreeing to things that hold our democracy together like decency, humanism, and respect.”

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App ups the game for KDVP leaders

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Dannica De Aguiar, Amira Karstaedt, and Aerin Cohen leave King David High School Victory Park with a combined tally of 24 distinctions, but they also leave behind an app to help the school’s future matriculants.

Amira Karstaedt

Aerin Cohen

 

The app they created, called EVE, was introduced by the student representative council (SRC) last year.

“It serves as a platform for students to stay up to date with any important information, to express concerns, and share ideas,” says De Aguiar. “Ultimately, this app was developed by students for students, to meet their needs.”

As head girl, De Aguiar’s main role was to lead and support the SRC, while Karstaedt was its chief whip.

Cohen, the school’s deputy head girl, came up with the idea for the app when she noticed that students needed a platform to express their needs and have their voices heard.

“EVE was created to make the normal school day easier and happier, as well as to provide an easy way for students to communicate new ideas and concerns,” says Cohen. “We found a platform that allowed us to develop and distribute our own app.”

The student leaders, in turn, responded to the submissions from students on the app and took necessary action. EVE is also the place where students can access timetables, find out about the school’s upcoming events, and order from the tuck shop.

“EVE was constructed for the well-being of students,” says Cohen. “Therefore, in addition to a holiday countdown that boosts morale and motivation, EVE provides details of how students can reach out to [counselling service] Hatzolah Connect.

“This app has great potential for growth and I hope that one day, EVE will be developed professionally to serve many more schools and their students,” she says.

EVE is being further developed by Victory Park’s deputy head girl and boy and SRC of 2021/22.

During De Aguiar’s time as head girl, she represented the students and the ethos of the school as best as she could, and ensured the smooth running of numerous procedures.

Together with the SRC, she oversaw a variety of portfolios. “We had the opportunity to run initiatives, committees, and introduce [activities],” she says.

Karstaedt was involved in assisting various portfolios to execute their ideas, and ensured that each SRC member was heard and supported. She helped to organise the Fempower virtual event along with the rest of the school’s executive committee, which she describes as “a memorable and inspiring project”.

As mayor of the Johannesburg Junior Council, a prominent youth-led, non-profit organisation, Cohen was responsible for ensuring that fellow councillors had the support, guidance, and motivation they required to reach their goals.

“It was my role to encourage and organise to make sure that all councillors had the opportunity to learn together while serving the community around us,” she says.

Two Grade 11 students are elected to represent the school on the council each year. “I was honoured to be elected with my best friend, Paris Obel, who served as head of arts and culture,” says Cohen.

Deciding to run as mayor, Cohen went through multiple rounds of impromptu and prepared questions and speeches before the council voted her into the position. “I was up against some of the most brilliant minds and inspirational young people. I suppose I just really believed in myself and in my ability to turn passion into real, tangible change.”

De Aguiar considers receiving the Aileen Lipkin Sculpture for Good Fellowship her biggest success in her final school year.

“This award was voted for by my peers, and is awarded in recognition of commitment to the values of integrity, tolerance, and respect as well as commitment to the school,” she says. “This award is special to me because although good marks are something to be proud of, they don’t define you as a person.”

Karstaedt won the Israel Quiz in 2020, and achieved full colours in creative writing.

“My path to success in the 2020 Israel Quiz was gradual, requiring endurance and dedication,” she says. “But being able to expand and refine my knowledge of Israel’s history, culture, and geography during the three years I participated in the quiz was a rewarding and enjoyable experience.”

Her passion for creative writing has been a constant in her life, and was further consolidated when she became a member of the Writing Club in Grade 8.

“I especially love writing poetry,” she says, “and am thankful for the many opportunities that I received throughout high school to share my poems with others and listen to some of the exceptional pieces written by my peers.”

Karstaedt and De Aguiar put their good results down to hard work in a matric year in which they wrote mid-year exams at school during the third wave, and having early morning lessons and bi-weekly webinars.

“I worked hard to obtain the results that I expected of myself, and that motivation played a significant role in my approach to completing assignments, studying, and writing exams,” says Karstaedt.

“You need to focus in class, practice at home, and put in the hard work to prepare for your exams,” says De Aguiar.

She says 2022’s matrics should expect a tough year, but they should accept the challenge and rise to the occasion.

“In the end, you’ll be rewarded for all the effort. Most importantly, make sure you remember to have fun and enjoy the year.”

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi

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It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar

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As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.

Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.

The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.

A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.

Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.

Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.

Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.

The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.

Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.

In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.

And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

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