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Community fights fire on all fronts

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Jews across the Mother City watched in horror as an unseasonably hot Sunday, 18 April 2021, turned into an apocalypse. What started as a small fire on the slopes of Table Mountain quickly became a raging inferno lasting three days.

The flames engulfed the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant, a University of Cape Town (UCT) library, and other university buildings and heritage sites, before moving towards the City Bowl. As fire, smoke, ash, and wind wreaked havoc, many members of the community bore the brunt of the destruction.

Chabad on Campus Rabbi Nissen Goldman put duty first as the fire threatened his home, workplace, and a precious Torah scroll housed in the Isaac & Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT.

“I live about 600m from upper campus. We were out for the morning when someone sent a photo of the fire right outside Chabad House [Goldman’s home]. Our neighbour’s roof caught on fire, and other houses nearby burnt to the ground.” Miraculously, his home remained intact.

Goldman managed to procure an emergency vehicle to take him to the Kaplan Centre. “Thank G-d I had a key to the centre as well its beit midrash. We went through three blockades to get there. We had no clue if it was safe, we just went. It’s miraculous how the Kaplan Centre was untouched, as it’s on top of campus. It was full of smoke, but we managed to get the Torah out. It was really exhilarating – you had a feeling like you’re just ‘plugged in’, and you know you’re not running on your own power. You know you’re on a much bigger mission.”

Goldman also helped evacuated Jewish students find places to stay. Bram Freedman is from Vereeniging and lives at Kopano Residence. “At the first note of the severity of the fire, our warden acted quickly and made the call to evacuate,” he says. “We had about 10 minutes to pack essentials. I took my tefillin. People started contacting me, saying I could stay with them for as long as I needed. I decided to stay with my Muslim friend, even though I had received offers from about 30 Jewish families. This is because this particular friend was adamant in helping me out. He picked me up and welcomed me into his home. The whole family is so friendly and accommodating.”

Daniel Cohen, originally from Durban, is in his first year at UCT studying mechanical engineering. “At times like these, I feel very blessed to have such an amazing community,” he says. “Yesterday [Sunday], the smoke started spreading and they told me to grab anything valuable. Being in a rush, I grabbed only my laptop. From what I’ve gathered, my res hasn’t been damaged too badly, although there were videos of fire outside it. UCT is being very strict about letting people onto campus, so we haven’t been able to fetch our stuff.” Both students are grateful to Goldman and the community for their support.

On the other side of campus, the JW Jagger Library caught fire – home to a number of prominent archival collections. “The destruction is immeasurable,” says devastated library manager Michal Singer. “We adopted a policy of compassion in tackling research requests during lockdown. Today [Sunday], we saw that kindness directed back at us. While there were fire doors preventing the spread of the fire, the impact of the water damage isn’t to be underestimated. We will be undertaking emergency conservation efforts.”

Consultant Shelagh Gastrow, who drove fundraising for the modernisation of UCT libraries in the 1990s, says, “During our history, we as Jews have lived with the image of books burning. And although this wasn’t intentional, I think the horror is deeply ingrained – that burnt books are irretrievable. It’s a good time to realise what treasures we have in this country.”

Kaplan Centre director Adam Mendelsohn says, “It was surreal watching the fire grow”, as he lives a few kilometres from campus. “Archival collections are irreplaceable. This is our heritage that has been so carefully preserved for many years.” He says most of the Kaplan Centre archive is at the centre and is therefore safe, but “some Jewish-related material was stored at the Jagger Library, and we are uncertain of its condition”.

Analyst Nadine Shenker, who lives in University Estate not far from where the fire began, describes her experience. “On Monday, we woke up with tight chests – the fire was metres away. I kept running to see if it had jumped the highway, in between hosing down the roof and the trees in our garden. My neighbours were packing their cars. At that moment, I realised that the only thing that was really important was life. The air quality was worse and visibility was bad. We got a voice note to evacuate, and the sirens started blasting. We hurried to my dad’s flat in Sea Point. We came back to an untouched home and a fire truck stationed at the top of the road. The embers on the mountain looked like a Christmas tree. I felt relief and gratitude.”

As the fire spread to the City Bowl, residents picked up and ran. Vet Reena Cotton, whose home backs onto the mountain, says, “When it was apparent the fire was coming our way, we packed the cats, birds, and dogs in the car to get them to a safe place. They were all extremely traumatised. We phoned our children to ask if there was anything they wanted us to take, and packed those items, as well as a change of clothing and a few precious things.

“When you know the fire is coming, you can’t relax. I went out every hour to watch first the smoke, then the flames grow and get closer,” she says. “At 04:00, we were told to evacuate, so we went to where our dogs were and walked them on the Sea Point promenade at 05:00. We spent another sleepless night at friends.” Their home was saved but “the damage to the vegetation and wildlife is devastating. The community spirit and generosity of strangers is magnificent.”

Architect Roxanne Kaye says, “Living right on the mountain means we have had to evacuate before, but this was by far the worst. On Monday morning at 04:00, our doorbell rang with panicked instructions to leave. We grabbed passports and documents, but before we could pack more, we were told we had to go. When we got to my sister, we could see the fire skimming the back of our road.” Their house and other homes were saved, “but it was a close call”.

Charly’s Bakery owner Jacqui Biess co-ordinated volunteer efforts in Vredehoek. “It was absolute insanity. Residents described flames behind their houses as metres high. We had to get fire engines to different places, and phone people to evacuate. This morning [Tuesday] I woke up, heard the helicopters, and just burst into tears, because I knew it was going to be okay.”

Four United Herzlia Schools (UHS) campuses sit in the shadow of the mountain. “As the fire was getting closer, the roads alongside Herzlia Highlands Primary were evacuated,” says UHS education Director Geoff Cohen. “At 06:20 on Monday morning, we made the call to keep the UHS City Bowl campuses closed. There was a huge amount of smoke. In addition, the traffic from getting 1 000 pupils to school would have got in the way of the firefighters. We asked the district commander his advice yesterday afternoon [Monday], and he said the fire was still unpredictable, so we kept the schools closed again on Tuesday.” Amidst all this, “We decided to evacuate the schools’ Torah scrolls. It was an easy decision – they’re a symbol of who we are.”

Photographer and videographer Chad Nathan captured the scene across the city. “I’m fascinated with fire fighters – I see them as real life superheroes,” he says. “It was literally just me on the [closed] highway. At one point, it was very intense – I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see – that’s when I thought I had better get out of there. It was really sad seeing people evacuate their homes. And I saw some people refusing to leave.”

Says Shenker, “I will forever be grateful to the fire-fighting heroes. Let’s hope we can rise from these ashes stronger, more mindful, and more protective of our planet.”

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1 Comment

  1. Ian Schwikkard

    Apr 26, 2021 at 1:54 pm

    Good article

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New Miss SA caught in anti-Israel crossfire

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Newly crowned Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, is looking forward to taking part in the Miss Universe pageant later this year despite the sinister forces trying to prevent her from going to Israel, where the competition is to be held.

The graceful beauty has found herself in the middle of controversy just a few days into her reign following calls by local anti-Israel lobbyists to boycott the 70th Miss Universe competition, due to be held in Eilat in December.

The 24-year-old Bachelor of Law graduate from the University of Pretoria is bracing herself for further calls by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions activists as the glittering pageant draws closer.

This week she told the SA Jewish Report that the Miss South Africa pageant had transformed her life and she looked forward to repeating this at Miss Universe.

“I found it empowering with so many positive things to take away from it. I also met nine other talented and wonderful fellow Miss South Africa 2021 sisters who made the journey so incredibly amazing. I look forward to repeating this at the Miss Universe pageant in December – to challenge myself once again, to learn and to meet women from around the globe who want to give back.”

She said she wouldn’t be the woman she is today had it not been for the women who had invested in her. “It’s only natural that I pay it forward. I aspire to be an empowered woman who inspires other women.”

Mswane was crowned Miss South Africa on Saturday, 16 October, at the Grand Arena, GrandWest, in Cape Town. Calls for her to boycott the Miss Universe pageant started even before she took possession of her new car or settled into the luxurious Miss SA Sandton apartment.

The Miss South Africa organisation said it wouldn’t get involved in a “political war of words”.

Stephanie Weil, the managing director of Nine Squared Communications & Events, which owns the rights to Miss South Africa, told the SA Jewish Report she had nothing further to say.

Mswane who comes from the rural village of KwaSokhulu in Richards Bay in KwaZulu Natal is an inspiring role model. She said she hoped to make an impact on unemployment through her initiative #BeReady, which offers services and training to youth to equip them to start their own enterprises.

Last week, Mandla Mandela, the grandson of the late former president, Nelson Mandela, called on Mswane to snub the Miss Universe competition.

In a statement that he shared on Instagram, Mandela accused Israel of being an apartheid state and claimed the country “violates the fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people and commits crimes against humanity”.

He called on countries to “bolster efforts” to isolate Israel and cut all ties, and urged all African countries to withdraw from the Miss Universe pageant.

Former Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, criticised Mandela’s calls for a boycott in a video posted on various social media platforms.

“All I can say is: how dare you?” Idan said in the clip, addressing Mandela. “How dare you, as a man, try to tell an organisation for women and women empowerment what to do? This is an opportunity that millions of women dream of having, to go on the world stage and represent their people, their nation, and their culture. Not governments, not politics, and definitely not your political agenda.”

Idan also criticised Mandela for using the term “apartheid” to “attack Israel”, arguing that the word has been used against Israel by “radical Islamists, terrorist organisations, and the Iranian regime, all of whom hate women and women’s rights”.

“Please allow Miss South Africa to go and experience Israel up close, on the ground, and let her be the judge for herself,” she said. “I’m positive, just like me, she will be shocked to see that the Israeli government consists of Muslims, Jews, Arabs, [and] Christians. Those people not only get to vote on policies, but they’re also part of the Knesset, have political parties, and some of them are even Israeli ambassadors to the world.”

Idan concluded her video by telling Mswane, “I hope that you will enjoy your trip, and learn not only about Israel, but about other beautiful countries. This is what the Miss Universe pageant is about.”

Idan, who is Muslim and was the first Miss Iraq in 45 years, received death threats and was forced to leave her home after posting a selfie on Instagram with former Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant with the caption “Peace and love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.”

Mandela responded to Idan’s video with another rambling statement in which he questioned her “blind spot” support for Israel and her “lack of moral fibre” and asked, “Don’t Palestinian women also have human rights?”

Idan told The Algemeiner, “I’d like to warn beauty queens to prepare for an army of bots that will probably harass their social media posts while they’re in Israel with hashtags ‘end the occupation’ and ‘free Palestine’. They shouldn’t worry, those aren’t even real people but fake accounts used by a few propagandists to intimidate them. This is a cheap tactic to silence them. Just keep doing what you are doing. Stay confidently beautiful.”

Reeva Forman, the honorary life vice-president of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), said Mandela shouldn’t be allowed to undermine the empowerment of South African women. “He must cease his attempts to undermine the empowerment of women, to harness it for his long-standing hateful anti-Israel agenda,” said this former model and 1983 Businesswoman of the Year.

Forman said his call to boycott the pageant “should be dismissed as eroding the aspirations of South African women who wish to shine on the international stage”.

The SAZF said that Israel regularly hosted international sporting and cultural events, including Eurovision and the Giro d’Italia, and that more countries in the region are signing peace agreements. “Furthermore, FIFA has recently spoken of hosting the World Cup in the country. Israel is a thriving multicultural democracy, and accusations that it’s similar to the former South African government are beyond ridiculous. In fact, one of Israel’s recent entrants to Miss Universe is a woman of Ethiopian descent,” the statement read.

Forman said that Israel had also actively been involved in the fight against gender-based violence in South Africa, supporting women’s shelters and organisations teaching young girls how to defend themselves against attack.

“Mandla Mandela is no poster child for women’s rights, specifically his well-publicised failure to honour his commitments to previous relationships, along with other public indiscretions. We encourage Mandla to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, who visited Israel himself and brought home a message of peace and dialogue to all concerned,” she said.

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Teen vaccinate, or not teen vaccinate? Not a question, say doctors

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As the news broke that South Africa would allow children aged 12 and up to get vaccinated with a first Pfizer shot, some parents were thrilled but others expressed fear, uncertainty, even anger.

“As the daughter of a polio survivor and the mother of an asthmatic child, I feel strongly that we need to get vaccinated, not just for ourselves, but for others,” says Vanessa Levenstein, a copywriter at Fine Music Radio in Cape Town. “My son, Sammy, is 14 and my daughter, Safra, is 17, and this past Shabbat, we all said how grateful we were that the vaccine was now available to them. I feel we are privileged to have it.”

Her husband, Jonathan Musikanth, an attorney, agrees. “We look forward to giving our children some sort of normality again,” he says. Levenstein adds, “We’re living in a society with huge social inequalities: someone living in a crowded Manenberg flat cannot self-isolate if they get infected. The only way to stop the spread is through the vaccine roll-out. ‘If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am I?’ The words of Hillel still ring true.’”

The SA Jewish Report asked parents on Facebook what they thought, and a mother responded, “The judgement and anger towards people who don’t want to be vaccinated is extreme and frightening.” For this reason, she asked to be quoted anonymously.

“My children are healthy and have been exposed to COVID-19 and didn’t have any symptoms,” she said. “I don’t feel that I need to vaccinate them against something that I feel isn’t dangerous to them. They didn’t have any symptoms, so I don’t feel I need to protect them from dying. The fact is that nobody in the world knows the long-term effects of this vaccine. I’m not willing to risk it.

“It’s all well and good saying we should do it for herd immunity, but I won’t allow my children to get vaccinated to protect others when they don’t need the protection themselves,” she said. “Also, I don’t feel that 12 year olds are old enough to make a decision about this. My kids would agree.”

Asked how she felt about her children navigating a post-COVID-19 world unvaccinated, she said it was “a huge concern”.

“I’m concerned that their freedom will be taken away because of this. However, is that a good enough reason to go against what I wholeheartedly believe to be the truth about the vaccine?” she asked. “I don’t believe that by not vaccinating kids, I’m putting anyone else’s life in danger.”

Johannesburg pulmonologist and parent Dr Anton Meyberg told the SA Jewish Report, “This is definitely a scary and emotive time in our lives as parents. It’s one thing to vaccinate ourselves, the adults, but now we are being asked to trust science with our own children. Whereas we know that children definitely don’t get as sick as adults, they definitely can still get sick [from COVID-19]. And some get severe multisystem inflammatory syndrome while others can suffer from ‘long COVID’.

“There are so many myths and misconceptions about vaccination and they need to be dispelled,” he says. “As a doctor on the frontline, it’s a ‘no brainer’ to me that my daughter and children over the age of 12 should be vaccinated. As parents, we have the responsibility of safekeeping and caring for our children, and vaccinating them allows us to do this. No doubt by vaccinating our teens, we’re protecting their parents and grandparents, but we’re also making sure that schools can remain open and our children can lead almost normal lives.

“The most documented side effect in children after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, mainly in boys 16 to 30 years of age, is myocarditis [inflammation of the heart muscle],” Meyberg says. “Males aged 12 to 17 are more likely to develop myocarditis within three months of catching COVID-19 at a rate of 450 per million infections. This compares with 67 per million after the vaccine. The condition is self-limiting and easily treatable, and it’s crucial to avoid exercise for up to a week post vaccination in order to decrease the chances of its occurrence. Widespread vaccination is a critical tool to help stop this pandemic. The question shouldn’t be if you’ll vaccinate, but rather when.”

Jeffrey Dorfman, associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University, says “the arguments for vaccinating children are very strong in countries such as South Africa and the United States where there’s still a lot of COVID-19 transmission and the potential for more waves. Children may be at lower risk of severe COVID-19 disease than adults, but not zero. In the United States, more than 63 000 children have been hospitalised since August 2020, and more than 500 have died. More than 4 000 have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which is dangerous.

“Additionally, the vaccines in use prevent many COVID-19 infections – not 100%, as we all know about breakthrough infections, but even for the Delta variant, vaccination prevents about 70% of infections based upon current studies,” he says. “That’s enough to matter to the people around children who are vaccinated, and may be enough to stop or reduce school outbreaks. Vaccination will certainly reduce the risk of a child bringing a COVID-19 infection home to vulnerable adults. It’s certainly not unheard of for children to bring an infection home from school resulting in the death of a caregiver, and this is tragic and preventable.

“Additionally, I know of cases of children who were asymptomatically infected and had to move away from vulnerable grandparents,” he says. “It was scary for the people involved. The children had no symptoms and were tested only because they had a COVID-19 positive contact. Were the contact not known, they would have continued to live with the grandparents, who would have been at risk. Even children who have had COVID-19 can have it again, and a large study from Kentucky in the United States shows that vaccination further reduces the risk of COVID-19 re-infection. We aren’t going to get on top of COVID-19 unless we use the tools at our disposal. As a society, we can’t afford serious lockdowns and have to use less disruptive tools. Vaccines should be high on everyone’s list.”

A third mother expressed mixed feelings about vaccinating her teenage sons. However, after reading a letter by Johannesburg family physician Dr Sheri Fanaroff, she has decided to go ahead with it. In the letter, Fanaroff laid out all the questions and concerns to show that “the risk of getting COVID-19 infection far outweighs the risk of vaccination in teenagers. I can say without hesitation that I will be relieved to have my own teenagers at the front of the queue to get vaccinated this week so that they can return to a more normal lifestyle.”

She explained amongst other points that “vaccination reduces the risk of teenagers dying: the virus was the fourth leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24 and the sixth leading cause for those aged five to 14”.

Fanaroff also explained that “vaccination reduces the risk of severe infections, hospitalisation, and the need for oxygen and intensive care in teenagers. Recent figures from the US show that the hospitalisation rate among unvaccinated adolescents was ten times higher than that among fully vaccinated adolescents.

“There’s no biological reason or proof that a COVID-19 vaccine can interfere with the progression of puberty. There’s also no biological mechanism whereby hormones associated with puberty can have an impact on immune responses to COVID-19 vaccines. There’s no evidence that the vaccine has any impact on fertility.”

During the health department briefing on Friday, 15 October, acting Director General of Health Dr Nicholas Crisp stated that based on the Children’s Act that allows children aged 12 to 17 to consent to medical treatment, children in this age group don’t require their parents’ consent to have a COVID-19 vaccine. Teens can register and consent to being vaccinated without permission.

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SA warmly welcomes Palestinian foreign minister

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Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi Pandor, warmly welcomed the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates of the State of Palestine Dr Riad Malki to South Africa last week – hospitality certainly not offered to Israelis.

Malki was in the country from 7 to 9 October, and was hosted by Pandor on 8 October for bilateral talks, according to a media statement made by department of international relations and cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela.

In reiterating their commitment to each other’s causes, “both sides agreed to exert joint efforts aimed at reversing the decision to admit Israel as an observer member to the African Union”, according to a joint post-talks communiqué. The ministers also agreed to a planned a state visit in which South Africa would host Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

South Africa is also going to host a conference for Palestinian heads of missions in Africa this year to deliberate Palestine’s policy towards Africa.

“South Africa attaches great importance to its relationship with Palestine, which is underpinned by historic bonds of solidarity, friendship, and co-operation. South Africa’s support for the Palestinian cause conforms with the basic tenets of its foreign policy,” Monyela said.

“The international community has an obligation to find a comprehensive and just resolution to the Palestinian issue,” he said. “South Africa calls for international support and increased efforts for the just cause of the Palestinian people to address their legitimate demand for an independent state alongside a peaceful state of Israel. The visit aims to further strengthen the relationship between South Africa and Palestine.”

In their joint communiqué, the ministers “expressed their satisfaction with the cordial relations that exist between the two countries, which is to be further augmented by Abbas’s visit and the Palestinian leaders’ conference to be held in Cape Town in November this year”.

The South African government committed its support for initiatives that would refocus the international agenda on Palestine and the Middle East peace process. South Africa reiterated its support for a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The two ministers agreed that “they would continue to work to achieve peace for the Palestinian people”, and “in the absence of sustainable peace in the region, there could be no global peace, stability, and economic prosperity”.

In their communiqué, the ministers insisted that “security and stability in the Middle East is being undermined by continued occupation of Palestinian territories and the aggressive actions of the Israeli regime”. Having said that, they called on the international community to “further strengthen their support for the return of all parties to the negotiation table without pre-conditions”.

They agreed to “exert joint efforts aimed at reversing the decision to admit Israel as an observer member to the African Union”. They also expressed support for “the Durban Declaration and Plan of Action” which they say “remains a clarion call for anti-racism advocacy and action worldwide”.

The Durban Declaration was the document that emerged out of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, also known as the infamous “Durban Conference” held in South Africa in 2001.

According to the Embassy of the State of Palestine in South Africa Facebook page, Malki also met with a group of African National Congress leaders in Pretoria, and Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) groups Africa4Palestine, Palestinian Solidarity Alliance, and the South African BDS Coalition, amongst other meetings.

Local political analyst Steven Gruzd says the visit shows that South Africa’s support for the Palestinians “continues to be vocal and loyal. The hot issue, however, is the granting of Israel’s observer status at the African Union. The two pledged to work together to overturn it. Relations with Israel will remain tense. There has been no change from South Africa towards the [Naftali] Bennett government.”

He says the visit “reinforces ties [with the Palestinians] and puts South Africa squarely in the Palestinian camp. It has shed all pretensions of being an ‘honest broker’ in this conflict, and for a long time, has chosen sides. The key thing to watch is what happens at the African Union. Israel has its fair share of African opponents, but also many African friends. Will they stick their necks out for Israel? We will see. South Africa has been lobbying against the [observer status] decision, and has influenced southern African states to oppose it.”

Gruzd maintains there’s “virtually no chance” of Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid being invited for a similar visit. “Relations remain tense, and South Africa won’t be seen to reward Israel for its policies and practices,” he said.

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), says, “The SAJBD believes that for South Africa to play a meaningful role towards a peaceful outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it would need to engage with both Israelis and Palestinians. Without speaking to the Israeli leadership, it’s not possible to truly understand the situation and to gain trust in order to bring the parties to the negotiating table.

“The dogged campaign by South Africa to exclude Israel from the African Union is antithetical to our international-relations policies of conflict resolution through negotiation and talking,” she says. “This action only seeks to push peace building and the attainment of a sustainable two-state solution even further away.”

“The South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] has noted the comments of Minister Pandor and Palestinian Minister Malki. It seems the entire focus of the engagement was to undermine Israel’s admission as an observer to the African Union,” says SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “We believe this is a foolhardy and hypocritical approach to international relations.

“Israel has had a mutually beneficial relationship with African states for more than 70 years. It has been at the forefront of efforts to help solve some of the most important developmental challenges on our continent, including in the areas of health, agriculture, youth development, water, education, and energy,” Polovin says.

“The admission of Israel as an observer to the AU, alongside more than 70 other countries, is a historic and welcome development. The South African government remains out of step with the rest of the continent who are moving swiftly ahead with relations with Israel,” he says.

“The new Israeli government’s prime minister and foreign minister have been warmly welcomed in the major capitals of Europe, the United States, Africa, and the Arab world. It’s not Israel, but South Africa, that’s the odd one out. We would encourage the South African government to take the opportunity to reach out to Israel to engage for the mutual benefit of both nations and as a means of making a positive, proactive contribution to finding further peace in the region.”

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