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Chief rabbis take on COVID-19

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“We have never had greater technological control of the human condition, and yet at the same time, one tiny little virus has brought humanity to a standstill. It’s dramatic.” So says Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.

He was in an online conversation with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein on Sunday, 13 September. The two of them unpacked the spiritual lessons we might glean from COVID-19 as we approach Rosh Hashanah.

Sacks points out that in Psalm 8, our true power in the universe is expressed in the words, “What is man that You are mindful of him?”

“We’re absolutely tiny, and we know now how tiny we are, and I don’t think previous generations really realised that,” he says.

“They realised there are us and the stars, but I don’t think they realised that there are billions of galaxies, each with a billion stars. We are terribly tiny, yet G-d has made us little lower than angels.”

Sacks says Judaism is effective at living with this paradox because it’s capable of listening to truth across multiple perspectives, unlike the Greek and Hellenistic faiths which inform much of Western society today.

“For Plato, the ultimate human situation was contemplating a harmonious world of truth,” Sacks says. “For Jews, the standard situation was at least two people having an argument.”

The pandemic has better enabled us to see the hand of G-d in our world, Sacks and Goldstein say.

Says Goldstein, “Our journey over the past few months has been a spiritual one. In the past six months, the world has gone through a trauma that has affected us medically, financially, and religiously. However, it has given us an opportunity to look at our lives through different eyes and see the presence of G-d in the human universe.”

One of the key lessons which have emerged over the past few weeks is the paradox of the human condition, they say.

“The Sages said that if human beings feel low, they should recall that all creation was undertaken for them,” said Sacks. “They are the crown of creation. But if they ever feel too arrogant, they should remember that even a gnat preceded them in creation.”

We see both of those things today, Sacks says.

“This year, the Templeton Prize [an international award for harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the questions of the universe and human’s place and purpose in it] went to an American scientist called Francis Collins for leading a project to map the human genome,” says Sacks. “He began the project as an atheist, and ended it as a religious believer. I find that fascinating. Here is a scientist who on purely scientific grounds looked at the human genome and realised that someone must have created it.

“It’s extraordinary to think that people discovered that in every human body there are one trillion cells, that in every cell is a nucleus, and in very nucleus a division, and in every one of those is a copy of the human genome consisting of 3.1 billion letters of genetic code.

“It’s fascinating to see an atheist be persuaded of faith from science alone.”

The rabbis believe that the pandemic has highlighted just how frequently we fail to appreciate what we have.

“We were in danger of taking everything around us for granted,” says Sacks. “It’s a huge mistake and reminds me of an exercise I used to use when speaking to audiences.

“I would take a piece of paper and put a black dot on it, hold it up, and ask what they see. They all said they saw a black dot, but I asked them to consider how much is really covered by the dot. You only notice the one dot, but take for granted the 99% of white paper.”

It speaks to how we take for granted all the good, but only notice the bad.

“In a pandemic like this, we’ve stopped and noticed the good again, the wonderful things we hadn’t seen before. We were getting blasé, things were getting too easy. Things won’t be easy for the next 10 years, and I hope we learn to foreground the background which we don’t typically notice,” Sacks says.

Goldstein says we also need to see the interconnectedness between people, something we might not have fully appreciated in the past.

“We cannot see ourselves as isolated. One of the things we’ve come to appreciate which teaches us this is the concept of prayer,” he says. “On the one hand, it’s private and personal, but on the other, it’s communal. We are individuals in prayer, but we stand together before G-d.”

Sacks illustrated this contrast by referring to earlier crises in world history, namely World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and the end of World War II in 1945.

“The responses to these two events were completely different,” Sacks says. “After 1918, the West tried to act as if the war and pandemic hadn’t happened. It wanted to be back where it was, living in an ‘I’ based society. The result was the ‘Roaring Twenties’, wild parties, and a very selfish society.”

The end result was the Great Depression, economic fallout, the growth of Nazism and fascism, and, a mere 21 years after the war to end all wars, the world was at war again.

“That is a key lesson of how not to respond,” says Sacks. “1945 was different. Britain enacted the Education Act, which ensured everyone had a secondary education, an act of major inclusion. America made legal provision to support those who had made sacrifices in the war, and its foreign policy offered loans to the shattered countries of Europe. People were driven by a sense of ‘we’.”

The end result was 75 years of peace, Sacks says.

“It’s that clear. If we go back to selfish society, we will have learned nothing from all this. We have to become more collectively responsible, developing a stronger sense of common good.

“I really believe that Jews are a good example of this. Everything holy in Judaism is communal. Davening is ‘we’, and even when we’re saying, ‘I’ve sinned’, we speak in plural and say, ‘we’ve sinned’.”

“A communal emphasis is what the world needs right now.”

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BDS boycott ‘creating divisions among ordinary South Africans’

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“I felt targeted because I’m Jewish. It’s antisemitic,” said a businessman affected by an alleged boycott of companies purported to support Israel.

A group of 300 South African hardware stores supposedly cancelled contracts with “SA-based suppliers and companies that have relations with or who have shown support for Israel”. The executive director of Africa4Palestine (formerly Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa), Muhammed Desai, last week described the boycott as “heartwarming”.

“Many people have been pressured by their community to be part of a boycott and cause harm,” said this businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This affects ordinary South Africans because it destroys long-term business relationships.”

Although there has been an impact on his company, it seems not many businesses have felt the impact of the boycott. Other suppliers listed by Desai told the SA Jewish Report that no contracts had been cancelled. “None of our relationships or sales into any of the hardware stores in South Africa have been compromised,” said one supplier, who asked not to be named.

“I can state categorically that this has had no impact on our business,” said another supplier who wanted to remain anonymous. “Our order book is full.”

“As the ‘rainbow nation’, this is just aggressively encouraging divisions that were never there before,” said the first businessman. “People are making business decisions based on religion rather than good business principles. These enforced divisions are what worry me more than anything. What happened to the South Africa that we know? This radical stance is completely nonsensical,” he said.

Desai went on to declare, “Today, standing with Israel, having ties with Israel, or serving in the Israeli military have all, correctly, become similar to, in the past, having stood with apartheid South Africa or with Nazi Germany. To stand with Israel today is now synonymous with saying, ‘I stand with Germany’ during the Holocaust or declaring, ‘I stand with South Africa’ during apartheid.”

He said Africa4Palestine welcomed “this ethical position as a morally sound example to other stores in South Africa and the African continent to emulate so that we can truly create apartheid-Israeli-free zones. Your efforts have served as another great blow to those who believe they can support the Israeli regime on the one hand, and take money and profits from principled and moral South African people.”

If the language of boycotting Jewish businesses and creating “Israeli-free zones” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn said, “In his congratulatory letter to the boycotters, Desai compares Israel to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The irony of his use of Holocaust terminology is also not lost on us Jews. Nazi Germany also came to our minds when we read this letter. We remember that the Holocaust began with the boycotting of Jewish businesses.

“We aren’t fooled by his couching of words or references to those who ‘have relations with or who have shown support for Israel’ and those ‘standing with Israel, having ties with Israel’. What he actually means is Jews. According to the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre study in 2019, 90% of South African Jews support Israel, so invariably, what Desai is calling for is the boycott of Jewish businesses.

“The delight that he takes in potentially destroying these Jewish businesses is gut-wrenching, not least because of the fragile and precarious economic climate in South Africa. Will Desai and the BDS organisations rejoice in the jobs lost by these businesses?

“His so-called victory of boycotts of Jewish business won’t have an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All these threats achieve is attempted intimidation of local South African Jews who hold an opinion different to BDS. The South African Jewish community won’t be intimidated. It’s effect will be only to harm South African businesses trying desperately to survive and retain jobs,” Kahn said.

“Our Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion. There’s no rider that excludes Jews and people who have a connection to Israel. Nor does it call for the destruction of livelihoods of people for daring to believe differently.”

Desai issued a statement saying that the accusation of antisemitism was “a deliberate misrepresentation”, but then reiterated that “we welcome South Africans shunning, boycotting, and ending relations with suppliers and companies that are trading with, have links to, or are supportive of Israel”.

In response to the SAJBD’s statement on the matter, published on Facebook, Africa4Palestine’s Bram Hanekom wrote, “The 300 hardware stores can buy the things they need from other South African owned and ethical businesses.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public diplomacy at the South African Zionist Federation, noted that “the boycott of Jewish businesses has a long history in the BDS movement going back more than a decade, with Jewish businesses or those with Jewish management frequently targeted. What’s more, commercial boycotts against Israel have been a complete failure internationally. Since the boycott movement started, trade between Israel and South Africa has actually increased on average.

“BDS has many other failed boycott attempts,” he said. “One that comes to mind is the failed Woolworths ‘tomato’ boycott, which also produced zero results, other than a pig’s head placed in the kosher section of a supermarket. BDS may be trying to intimidate smaller Jewish businesses, but as yet, it hasn’t shown any signs that it has the capability of undertaking a full-fledged boycott campaign.”

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SAZF takes on Judge Desai for his conduct

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The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has predictably come in for some heavy criticism by the anti-Israel lobby for lodging a complaint against retired Judge Siraj Desai with the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC).

Last week, the SAZF lodged a complaint with the JCC against the judge, who recently took up the position of the Legal Services Ombudsman.

The SAZF said Desai’s actions and conduct over many years was plainly in breach of the code of judicial conduct and “entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer”.

This was a bombshell complaint against Desai, who is a well-known social activist and respected jurist described by many as the “people’s judge”.

The detailed complaint against him spans many years from 2009 till the present, highlighting Desai’s actions and conduct connecting him to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and the pro-Palestinian movement.

The SAZF said that Desai’s alleged misconduct included his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his judicial office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his judicial office to promote a partisan political cause.

Desai, who served the legal profession for 43 years, retired as a Western Cape High Court judge last year, and almost immediately accepted the ombud position having been appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The objective of the ombud is to advance and safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa But more importantly, it’s to ensure fair, efficient, and effective investigation of complaints of alleged misconduct by legal practitioners.

Former Judge Rex van Schalkwyk of the Rule of Law Project told the SA Jewish Report, “This isn’t about whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Did Judge Desai conform with the ethics that constrain him as a judge? Having looked at the complaint, there is at least a case that needs to be answered. Judge Desai must give an explanation about his conduct. It’s legitimate for this issue to have been brought to the professional body of the JSC [Judicial Service Commission] and to be dealt with specifically in accordance with the principle of law not in accordance with the political issues which will cloud the complaint.”

The SAZF has been lambasted for the complaint, which it lodged on 10 June, by members of Africa4Palestine and the South African BDS Coalition. They have set up a Facebook page called “Hands off Judge Desai”.

The anti-Israel lobbyists described the complaint as “spurious” and “baseless”, and called it a “vengeful attack”. Africa4Palestine criticised the “questionable” timing of the complaint, saying that it was an attempt to distract from its complaint lodged against the country’s outgoing Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Last Friday, 11 June, the JCC appeal panel said it was continuing its deliberations on Mogoeng Mogoeng’s appeal against a misconduct finding for his remarks about Israel brought by Africa4Palestine.

Earlier this year, the JCC found that Mogoeng had contravened the code of judicial conduct with comments made during a webinar in June last year and subsequently at a prayer meeting where he declared that he would never apologise for the views he expressed. In the webinar, hosted by the Jerusalem Post, he said he believed South Africa would do well to consider adopting a more objective stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said “hatred” of the Jewish state could “attract unprecedented curses upon our nation”.

In his March ruling, Judge Phineas Mojapelo stressed that “judges are to stay out of politics”.

The South African BDS Coalition said the SAZF’s complaint against Desai was in “retaliation for the failure to secure a seat at the Constitutional Court by Judge Unterhalter” accusing him of being an “apologist for Zionism”. Earlier this year, the SA BDS Coalition demanded that Unterhalter not be selected to the Constitutional Court for his association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Rolene Marks, SAZF’s legal forum spokesperson said, “At issue here, is the role that judges play in our society. The reason that there is a judicial code of conduct is that judges need to be seen not to be promoting political causes since they may have to rule on them at some stage. However, it’s clear through his comments that although Judge Desai is entitled to his views in terms of freedom of speech, he is bound by the judicial code of conduct, and his actions fall outside of that.”

According to the SAZF, last year, Desai while being interviewed on an Iranian YouTube channel, made “inappropriate comments” likening Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela.

“To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights, and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions,” the statement said.

It added that Desai also made “several other shocking remarks” during the interview regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States – an important trading and diplomatic partner of South Africa – as the “great Satan” which demonstrated that Desai had “engaged in conduct incompatible with his status as a judge of the high court.”

According to the SAZF, Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby.

In 2009, Desai was part of a South African delegation of pro-Palestinian activists that was to take part in a protest known as “the Gaza Freedom March” organised by the Palestine Solidarity Alliance. It was during this time that the Cairo Declaration was signed which was a call for a global movement for Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel. The SAZF said Desai “lent his stature as a judge to the drafting and issuing of the declaration”.

In 2015, he gave an order in a review application brought by pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist organisations and activists against the City of Cape Town. There is allegedly no record in the judgment of him having disclosed his interest in BDS to the parties in that case, according to the complaint.

In 2018, Desai welcomed Hamas during its visit to South Africa and said, “We hope to make an intellectual contribution to the resolution of the Palestinian issue, but we take our leadership from you, you are the leadership on the ground.”

“This, despite the fact that the Hamas charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the state of Israel. Using the prestige of the judicial office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the judicial code of conduct,” said the complaint.

“Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the judicial code,” said the SAZF. “It’s therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account.”

Desai told News24 through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, that he was “unapologetic in his stance in condemnation of apartheid Israel”.

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Kacev heads up Jewish education network that will benefit SA

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The former director of the South African Board of Jewish Education, Rabbi Craig Kacev, has been selected as pedagogical director of a new project called the Global Jewish Education Resource Centre, in partnership with Israel’s Diaspora Affairs ministry.

For the first time, there will be one organisation liaising with Jewish schools throughout the world, creating a global Jewish education network.

The initiative includes a global educational and professional network that will work with experts and providers across all continents and in different languages. It will pioneer the development of educational content, training of teachers, support of school leadership, building of virtual platforms to share ideas and initiatives, and the provision of professional consulting services to individual schools.

The need for this initiative was recognised during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many communities in the diaspora were struggling to cope with the closure of schools and the transition to virtual learning while facing a shortage of Jewish Studies teachers and high-quality curriculum resources.

The initiative will include the creation of connections and dialogue between Jewish school students, teachers, and principals around the world. The initiative is in partnership with Herzog College, Israel’s leading academic college for teacher education in the religious sector. It’s renowned for its expertise in teacher training, professional development, and designing innovative digital content.

Kacev made aliyah earlier this year. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Israel, he says “this new initiative, in response to the impact of the pandemic, has goals uniquely linked to what schools have experienced over the past year and a half. It also seeks to capitalise on the past for the benefit of Jewish schools in the future. The initiative seeks to make a difference in areas of leadership, teachers, and content, with a focus on enhancing Jewish learning.

“That said, it’s also intended to respond to current trends such as distance learning, social and emotional needs, project-based learning, and other areas where schools need support. Herzog College brings a team of high-level educators doing research and teaching in many spheres, and we hope to ensure that schools around the world benefit from this expertise. We don’t claim to know everything, nor do we intend to be an organisation that forces solutions on schools. This is intended to be a platform that provides support. Working with as many partners in the field, it aims to serve each school in its areas of need.”

Kacev says he took the role on “with much trepidation. The responsibility is substantial, and the pressure to bring an offering that adds value to as many Jewish schools as possible around the world isn’t to be underestimated.”

As director of pedagogy, he will be guiding the educational team on the approach and content that it will use in teacher education, content development, and student engagement opportunities.

“While we will start with a few offerings, this will grow rather quickly. There are many existing organisations developing content or offering services to the field. I hope to work with as many of these as possible to bring their expertise to a larger audience, and then have the Global Resource Centre bring its added offering to the field. We are also hoping to develop more cost-effective models for schools to access high-quality content.”

Kacev says he was drawn to the role because, “having dedicated myself to Jewish education for the past 25 years, this is where I wanted to remain. Now, I will be able to bring all that I learned along the way to Jewish schools across the globe. I have a sense of many of the common needs across the Jewish educational world, and I’m learning about the specific needs in each country. I believe that I bring a broad and deep understanding of Jewish education, together with the experience of working on a large scale. One quickly learns that if systems are developed correctly then even if the platform or organisation is huge, the customer feels that their needs are being met. We hope to achieve that on a substantial scale for schools and especially Jewish educators around the world.”

On the importance and uniqueness of this project, he says, “There are many providers in the field and many countries have umbrella organisations serving their Jewish schools. But there is no one organisation that is looking to provide a global address for all that’s available while developing meta-curricula, worldwide teacher networks, and looking to harness the substantial expertise in the field for the benefit of all. This is also an initiative that Israel is investing in, and will continue to invest in with substantial funds, together with philanthropists around the world interested in Jewish education.”

At a ceremony last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich signed a 38 million shekel (R160 million) agreement with Herzog College to lead the two-year project.

So, how soon will the project reach Jewish schools in South Africa? “Whatever part of the offering goes live after the chaggim in October 2021 will be available to all Jewish schools around the world,” says Kacev. “Teachers will be able to find content, get assistance in finding specific content, join worldwide networks on many topics moderated by experts in their fields, and join the ongoing online courses. As the project develops, there will be specific initiatives together with Jewish schools in South Africa based on their needs and requests.”

Regarding the specific challenges facing South African Jewish schools that the project can assist with, Kacev says, “South Africa, like many other places could benefit from ongoing teacher education, opportunities for educational leaders to share with colleagues and learn from experts around the world, and high-quality curriculum content and materials. The extent to which the Jewish schools stand to benefit from the initiative will depend on their proactive use of the resource centre.

“That said, I have a special place in my heart for South Africa, and hope to ensure that they do benefit from all that the initiative offers. There will also be opportunities for schools to benefit from additional investment in our area of responsibility if there is partner funding from the community. We hope to find that sort of support over time, as has been the case in Europe and South America to date.”

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