Challenge to get Biden to focus on Israel, not back off the country
By the time Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, I had been living outside of South Africa for 16 years but recall the overwhelming sense of relief that most South Africans felt as the country finally joined the enlightened world.
When Joe Biden was declared president-elect on Saturday, “relief” was the term most widely used among those that supported him and among many who didn’t as well. Relief that the focus would now be on the daunting issues facing the United States and frankly the whole world, and not on the latest incendiary Tweet from the fragile ego of one person.
As Jews, we are of course most interested in the meaning of a Biden presidency for the US Jewish community and Israel, and Biden’s record over the past 40 years gives cause for great hope.
Who did Jews vote for? By most accounts, 77% of Jews voted for Biden and 21% for Trump. This resounding 56-point margin is in itself beneficial for the community. We voted with the winner and our influence will ipso facto be greater. The South African Jewish community should broadcast this fact loud and clear.
Who is a genuine person of faith? National Public Radio correspondent Barbara Sprunt observed wryly, “Church and golf – Biden and Trump return to their usual Sunday routines.” As a man of faith who reads the bible, not just brandishes it for photo opportunities, and who quoted from Ecclesiastes in his victory speech, Biden has deep respect for all people of faith. Even Evangelical Christians admit that their votes for Trump aren’t based on their respect for him as a Christian.
What’s good for Israel? As one reads the Israeli press, both before and after the election, one is struck by the Bibi narrative that Trump was better for Israel than any US president ever, and more than President-elect Biden will be.
He telegraphed his dismay by being one of the last world leaders to congratulate Biden. The question is, what does “better for Israel” really mean? Most American Jews, including this one, believe that the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem was sensible and overdue. The open agreements now with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan are certainly beneficial, even though none are on the frontline of the conflict.
But in the end, the most fundamental question of all regarding the Palestinians and Israeli democracy was not addressed for even one day over the past four years since John Kerry’s last futile trip to the region in the waning days of the Obama presidency. And, until it is, Israel’s international stature at the macro level and within an increasingly distant younger and progressive Jewish community in the US at a more esoteric level, will continue to wane.
Biden’s credentials on support for Israel are impeccable. Concern that some of the democratically elected Muslim members of Congress will dictate his foreign policy is foolishly playing into Trump/Bibi fear-mongering tactics. Biden stayed the centrist course on Medicare-for-all (against) and defunding the police (against). He will remain centrist on supporting Israel without giving Netanyahu and the Israeli right carte blanche on everything and anything. That’s what being authentically pro-Israel is all about.
The challenge Israel faces is to get attention! In the debates (one of which sort-of met that definition, the other of which was a shameful temper tantrum) the questions of foreign policy were few and essentially non-existent. The top four issues the Biden-Harris ticket has emphasised repeatedly are (1) the pandemic, (2) the economy as a result of the pandemic, (3) global climate change, and (4) racial justice.
In foreign policy, getting to a more sensible place with China and making Putin pay for his interference in 2016 which continued this year according to every US intelligence agency, are at the top. While every Israeli newspaper is analysing what this means for Israel, it’s safe to surmise that Israel is very low on the “do we have the bandwidth for this?” list of priorities. Those of us who care for Israel’s democracy are ironically tasked with getting the Biden administration to pay attention, not back off.
This is the eighth election since I moved to the US. As a Democrat, I was on the winning side four times with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and three times on the losing side with Gore and Kerry against Bush Jr. and Hillary Clinton against Trump four years ago.
Never once in the first seven, including four years ago, did I believe that it was a struggle for the soul of America, the continuation of democracy, and the existential threats to our planet. This time, all of those were on the ballot and as a global citizen, an American, a Jew, and a Zionist living in the swing state of Wisconsin that flipped blue, I kept saying shehecheyanu all weekend long.
Simmy Ziv-el grew up in Pretoria, attending Carmel School, and was the national Mazkir Klali and Rosh Machaneh of Habonim in 1976 and 1977. He lived in Israel for 13 years before he and his family relocated to Milwaukee. For the past 30 years, he has worked in global Education Assessment companies.
Israel’s path from dream to fear and back again
The dream was simple: Israel’s victory in the 1967 war would lead to victory over war itself.
Many back then believed that the trajectory of the Jewish people would undergo an enlightened shift after the 1967 Six-Day War. The Golan Heights, as well as Judea and Samaria and the Sinai Peninsula, were now in Israel’s hands. Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, which had previously held these territories, now demanded their return. Many saw this desire on the side of the Arabs as an opportunity for the Israelis: for the first time in history, we held solid bargaining chips that if acted upon wisely, could be traded in as part of a peace agreement. The dream was simple: Israel’s victory in the war would lead to victory over war itself.
Peace was thought to alter not just Israel’s fate but also the fate of the Jewish people. Israel would cease to be an isolated state, rather becoming an integral part of the Middle East, and once completely integrated, would also be fully accepted by Europe and the entire West.
By taking destiny into our own hands, Jews’ two-millennia-long estrangement from humanity would finally come to an end, and we would be accepted into the family of nations.
However, it appeared there was another way to reap the benefits of victory. Israel could settle the land rather than exchanging it for peace. Many felt this would transform Jewish history from the bottom up. According to this perspective, a nation isn’t connected to itself when it lives outside of its own land. In other words, there will be a crack in the nation’s soul if the nation’s present doesn’t unfold in the same places as its history.
The early memories of the Jewish people were forged in places like Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, and Nazareth, and Israel’s triumph in the 1967 war allowed Jews to return to these areas of the historic homeland. This would establish a living link between the past and the present, and was seen as a process allowing the Jewish people’s wounded and traumatised psyche to heal. It was thought that repairing the nation and settling on ancient soil would also cure the future.
The conflicting ideas behind these two dreams is noticeable, yet they were both supported by a fundamental agreement. Both parties felt that by properly leveraging wartime victory, they could alter the future of the Jewish people.
They had one more thing in common: they were both proven incorrect.
This isn’t a statement to be taken lightly. Israel’s inability to achieve peace by no means fell solely at the feet of the Jewish state. In fact one could argue successfully that continued Palestinian rejection of any two-state solution on offer is what has led to the status quo. Regardless of one’s view, as time passed, these dreams began to fade and more and more Israelis broke free from these two beliefs.
So, what happened to the dreams? To begin with, both the Israeli left and right shifted. Many on the left gave up hope that a peaceful diplomatic solution to the Middle East’s problems was on the horizon. The right was likewise altered. The majority of the right no longer thinks that settlement, even if it fulfils prophecies, will result in tomorrow’s redemption.
There’s another distinct difference – the “blame-game”. Ever since the Second Intifada, many on the left have talked less about peace and more about the harm done by the occupation. Also ever since the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the right has talked less about redemption and more about the security threat.
Essentially, in spite of your views on settlement, solution, peace, and security, which traditionally placed you on one side of the aisle or the other, today’s divisions are often based on who is deemed more responsible and essentially to blame for the conflict.
The left’s prevalent position today is that if Israel remains in the territories and continues to govern over a Palestinian civilian population, it will suffer three consequences: moral degradation, diplomatic isolation, and demographic loss.
Most demographers anticipate that the day will soon come when Jews will no longer form a majority in Israeli-controlled territory. Hence, once the Jews become a minority in their own land, it will cease to be their land.
The right frequently responds to this demographic argument with denial, citing alternate demographers which estimate that the Jewish majority isn’t in jeopardy. Even if that’s true, and Palestinians account for “just” 40% of the country’s population, it would be difficult to designate such a country as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
In other words, the desire to cling to the land of Israel defies the self-definition of the state of Israel. One is inclined to admit that this argument possesses tremendous weight.
It’s fascinating to observe how the right and left have become mirror images of each other. The right no longer believes that settling the land will bring redemption, but says withdrawing will bring disaster. The left no longer believes that withdrawing from the territories will bring redemption, but says remaining there will bring disaster. The left and right have undergone similar processes: they have both moved from dreams to fears.
However, new processes have begun to form, the Abraham Accords for one. Those at the centre of the “dreams and fears” debacle seem to have found mutual ground by attempting to replace paralysis with pragmatism.
Though this is based less on a romanticised vision of peace or redemption and rather economics and mutual agreement of the military threat Iran poses to the region, this too, if acted upon wisely, could lead to Israel becoming a fully integrated and accepted part of the Middle East.
As divided as Israeli politics appears, one finds a basic consensus in the needs, desires, and demands of the everyday person on the street regardless of their affiliation.
So, perhaps the dreams aren’t dead but in a process of renewal. Maybe they’re less philosophical and more based on realism, which could be argued is a positive step. Maybe the romantic dreams lie not in political ideology but in the daily exchanges and normalisation between Israeli and Arab citizens from countries that currently constitute the Abraham Accords, and in the hope that more will join soon.
- Samuel Hyde is a political writer based in Tel Aviv, Israel. As an op-ed columnist he has been published in publications both within Israel, the United States, and South Africa focusing on topics such as Israel’s political climate, antisemitism, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Jewish world, conflict resolution, and Jewish pluralism.
Sexual abuse: we dare not stand idly by
As the devastating testimony of victims in the Chaim Walder case emerged a few weeks ago, I felt strongly that, as a community, we need to use the justified outrage it provoked in the Jewish world as a catalyst to renew our resolve as the South African Jewish community to fight the horrifying phenomenon of sexual abuse in all its forms.
As Jews, we have a specific mitzvah, a clear halachic obligation directly from the Torah: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” We cannot be passive while lives are being destroyed by sexual abuse. We cannot be silent while predators remain a threat. We dare not stand idly by.
Practically what this means is that we must support and work with the institutions we have established as a community that are specifically geared towards helping victims come forward and report abuse.
That includes state-designated child-protection organisations such as the Chevrah Kadisha’s Community Social Services division in Johannesburg, and Jewish Community Services in Cape Town. It also includes organisations like Koleinu SA, which offers a helpline and emotional and psychological support to victims of abuse.
In addition, in 2017, I established the Abuse Review Board as a place of last resort to assist victims with their cases. Headed by advocate Liza Segal accompanied by other experts in all areas of abuse – medical, social, and legal – the Abuse Review Board is an additional safety net to pursue every reported case to the fullest extent of the law so that no victim is unprotected and no case is swept under the carpet.
We have the institutions required to combat sexual abuse and we must make use of them. In recent community-wide communication regarding the threat of abuse, I have included the contact details of these organisations and how to make use of them.
“Not standing idly by” means taking seriously our halachic obligation to report abuse. We cannot waver. As Hashem says to Joshua when he becomes the leader of the Jewish people at a time of great danger and challenge, “Chazak veematz” (Be strong and courageous).
Strength and courage. This is how, as a community, we must confront this threat. We need to be brave enough to talk about these dark issues in public – in our shuls and schools, in our homes. It’s with this in mind that I convened a community webinar this week on the issue of sexual abuse. Though the subject is deeply disturbing, the most effective way to prevent and address sexual abuse as a community is to talk openly about it. Through empathy and understanding, we give strength and courage to victims to come forward and report abuse.
We especially need to help our children understand this phenomenon, equipping them with the knowledge and awareness to identify predatory behaviour, recognise unsafe situations before they develop any further, and know what steps to take to prevent abuse and how to report it if it happens.
“Be strong and courageous” means not feeling intimidated, helpless, or despondent, held back by self-defeating fear and anxiety. We have to be proactive, which means peering into darkness, acknowledging the problem, and doing something about it – lifting up our voices and using the institutions set up for this very purpose.
Most importantly, we need the courage and resolve to tackle it together, as a community, with a sense of common purpose – an unwavering, collective commitment to righting this evil and stamping it out altogether. These two Torah teachings must be our guiding light: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” and “Be strong and courageous.”
In my personal capacity, I pledge to continue to do everything possible to raise these issues publicly so that as a community, we can entrench a culture in which victims feel supported to speak about instances of abuse and take action.
Sexual abuse is a crime which thrives under cover of darkness, in secret, and in silence. Now is the time to shine light into the darkness and break the silence. Lives depend on it.
Olim face a ticking tax time bomb
This week, another full plane of South African olim touched down at Ben Gurion Airport. It follows more than 550 people who made aliyah last year, the largest number in decades.
Changing countries is a stressful and admin-intensive exercise. Though most of the process around aliyah is well understood, the South African tax requirements seem to be a major knowledge deficit.
A recent study by a private wealth manager in Israel has revealed that many South African olim have neglected to change their tax residency status with the South African Revenue Service (SARS). This oversight could have serious financial implications. For many years, these taxpayers have been able to remain below the radar. However, with the widespread sharing of financial information by revenue authorities around the world, those days are over. Rectifying the situation with SARS is required before it closes in.
Where you are tax resident matters
South Africa operates a residence-based system of tax. Consequently, South African tax residents are required to pay tax on their worldwide income and capital gains. Ceasing to be a South African tax resident will also trigger an exit charge.
Unbeknown to many, changing your physical residency or citizenship doesn’t automatically change your tax residency. Determining your tax residency and the timing of any changes is complex. It requires understanding Israeli and South African tax law, the double-tax agreement between the two countries, and will depend on the taxpayer’s unique circumstance. Numerous factors such as where you have a permanent home, your social and economic ties, and the time you spend in a particular jurisdiction all need to be considered.
SARS requires taxpayers to submit proof formally of a change in tax residency status. Failure to do so may result in significant back taxes, penalties, and interest.
SARS is now honing in on ex-South Africans, even those who left many years ago, who haven’t officially tax emigrated. The introduction of common reporting standards globally has resulted in tax authorities and international financial institutions sharing information about taxpayers. When SARS is alerted to foreign income earned by an ex-South African with an inactive or incorrectly coded tax number, SARS can raise an assessment on this undeclared income at any time.
Benefits of tax emigrating
After officially tax emigrating from South Africa, only South African source income and capital gains will be subject to tax in South Africa. Consequently all foreign income and capital gains won’t be taxed in South Africa. There are also generous exemptions for dividends tax, interest, and capital gains on South African shares for non-residents.
Another important benefit is that cashing out of South African retirement savings can be tax free due to the favourable double-tax agreement between Israel and South Africa. Surprisingly, given the financial risks in South Africa, international research has shown that the vast majority of ex-South Africans haven’t withdrawn their retirement savings after emigrating. This presents a big opportunity for those who haven’t yet done so.
How to rectify your situation
Former South Africans who haven’t yet officially tax emigrated should do so sooner rather than later, and while they still can. Currently, SARS offers a voluntary disclosure programme through which tax emigration can be backdated and potential penalties on exit charges avoided. This generous remedy isn’t available if SARS has already identified a violation.
Another concern that makes doing so urgent is that there’s speculation among tax practitioners that SARS is seeking to remove the ability to “backdate” a tax emigration. This could result in much higher exit charges, back taxes, interest, and penalties for former South Africans going forward.
Consulting a South African tax professional is vital to help you backdate your tax emigration without penalties, pay exit tax on the asset base you had when you left South Africa, and make sure you’re in good standing with SARS. But we don’t know how long this will remain possible.
- Michael Kransdorff is a Harvard educated international tax practitioner and Laura Sassoon is a Chartered Accountant and former senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand.
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