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Community urged to be cautious as wave gathers speed

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The Omicron variant is hitting the Johannesburg and Cape Town Jewish communities, with numbers rising rapidly but very few hospitalisations. Those hospitalised – at this point – are mainly unvaccinated.

However, many organisations have taken precautions to stem the tide to avoid a repeat – or worse – of what happened before. The machanot and Rage festival were this week cancelled, among many other private simchas.

The number of new infections in the community have increased rapidly over the past two weeks, says Darren Kahn, the executive general manager of Hatzolah Medical Rescue. There have been 272 new cases recorded this week, with 387 active cases in the community.

“To date, thankfully, there has only been one hospitalisation and we have two long-term patients on oxygen from the third wave,” he says.

“The current numbers are fast approaching our original planned numbers, and the wave is just beginning. The Hatzolah team is working around the clock to ensure the community is well cared for.”

Though Kahn said responders were fearful of a return to the COVID-19-positive numbers experienced only a few months ago, many experts believe this variant will be far milder than any we have had before if you have been vaccinated.

“We all enjoyed a couple of COVID-19-free months, but it’s unfortunately time to start being more careful again. We urge the community to go back to the basics: get vaccinated, wear a mask, keep a social distance, and sanitise. Let’s do this and get through the next wave together.”

To date, Hatzolah has vaccinated more than 30 000 people at its vaccination site.

In Cape Town, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Community Security Organisation (CSO) sent out an alert to the community on the morning of Wednesday, 1 December, with the subject line: “COVID-19 warning: fourth wave is on our doorstep!”

“CSO Cape Town has seen active cases on its COVID-19 Wellness Monitoring Programme surge from 0 on Friday, 26 November, to 28 cases on Tuesday, 30 November. While little is known about this new variant, we do know that its reproductive rate is at the same level as it was at the peak of the previous waves.”

After meeting medical advisors, Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein says shuls’ safety protocols haven’t changed. “This is rather just a call to reinforce what we have done so well since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “The message we need to communicate to our community is that there’s no need to panic and that, working together, our shuls will be safe places for them to attend, even at this time.”

Meanwhile, the Ballito Matric Rage festival was cancelled after one day, when 32 attendees and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

But Ronen Klugman, the founder and director of Plett Rage, says that the festival will go ahead from 3 to 7 December, with about 900 people attending. “We’re not cancelling because we’re the last line of defence against this disaster of the new variant. Kids are already arriving – I can see them on the beach – and if we cancel, it will make the situation much worse. They will scatter, and spread all over this town, and there will be no control,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

But with the festival in place, “The only way they can get into events is if they go through our testing centre. We have the responsibility to stick to our robust plan. Everyone is vaccinated, so that’s our first buffer. They have to take a PCR test before they leave. They present their vaccine certificate and PCR test on arrival. Then they go for a rapid antigen test. They get an AR band with a chip that only works for one day. Then they get tested again. If anyone tests positive, we implement contact tracing and take any contacts out of the festival.”

Local virology expert Professor Barry Schoub told Sky News, “All the cases [of the new Omicron variant] so far have been mild to moderate cases, and that’s a good sign.”

Dr Efraim Kramer, a leading international expert in emergency medicine with a specialty in mass gatherings, told the SA Jewish Report, “At the moment, we’re still groping [for information about the new variant] because tests are being done in a laboratory. We’ll find out in the next one to two weeks exactly what its transmissibility is and what kind of clinical profile it has.”

Dr Carron Zinman, a pulmonologist at Netcare Linksfield Hospital, told the SA Jewish Report that there had been differences in the symptoms of people who had presented with the new variant.

“They are saying it’s presenting atypically. In general, people are complaining of loss of taste or loss of smell. The GPs are seeing a lot of extreme fatigue with nothing else. In terms of my patients in hospital, one came in with something unrelated, not knowing she had it. So, it’s behaving differently, and the bloods are looking different as well.”

Zinman believes the Omicron variant is the reason for most of the positive tests at the moment, and thinks the new variant is more contagious.

Kramer agrees with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who said on Sunday that South Africans need to learn to live with the virus. “The days of trying to run away from it, trying to evade it, being in lockdown, and those kinds of things are gone,” Kramer says. “It’s here almost to stay, and every time we think it’s gone away, another cousin arrives.

“I don’t think there’s anything mysterious anymore about COVID-19. The president said we were staying at level 1. His statement was exceptionally positive in what he said, and exceptionally positive in what he didn’t say, if you read between the lines. In the meantime, we’ve kept the country on level 1, so we carry on.”

Kramer encourages people to go to shul. “There hasn’t been a single COVID-19 case in 20 months in people going to shul. Probably 99% of the people coming to shul are vaccinated,” he says.

If people want to go on holiday, they can as long as they take COVID-19 into consideration in everything they do, Kramer says. “The only mandatory aspect of that lifestyle is that people must get vaccinated so that if you do get it, you don’t get it severely. Our community is highly compliant in terms of COVID-19 vaccination. That’s fantastic as it means that life can almost carry on for them.

“If they want to go on holiday, they must go on holiday. If they want to get married, they must get married. We can’t knock people around anymore. We’re going to have a generation of dysfunctional kids if we carry on this way. People must do what they want to, they must just be careful.”

Kramer has criticised the “political panic” around Omicron, saying, “They believe that by closing doors, they’re going to keep it out. What they don’t know is that it’s there already. They just don’t know who’s got it, how many have got it, and how quickly it’s going to spread.”

“Closing borders doesn’t make scientific sense,” Schoub told Bloomberg TV. “What we have to recognise is this measure is politically motivated, which is highly damaging to countries like South Africa that depend on the tourist industry.”

Kramer says unvaccinated people shouldn’t be named and shamed. “We don’t know why people haven’t been vaccinated. It could be because they choose not to, because they’re scared to have it. It could be that they’re allergic to the preservative in the vaccination and they’re not allowed to have it because they’ve been anaphylactic before.” But he warns, “The people that are landing up in intensive care are the ones that aren’t vaccinated.”

Asked if the vaccines we have protect us from the new variant, Zinman says, “All of that needs to be worked out. I think that you have to accept that there’s got to be some protection from the vaccine, because the vaccines to date have shown efficacy against all the variants.”

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“We could do much more together,” Israeli ambassador tells Ramaphosa

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Israel’s new ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, rubbed elbows with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented his credentials to him on Tuesday, 25 January, at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Tshwane.

Ramaphosa was courteous and smiling as Belotsercovsky told him about how the relationship between their countries could improve and how Israel could help South Africa.

“We believe there’s tremendous potential in us working together,” the Israeli ambassador told Ramaphosa. “Together, we can share dreams and together, we can fulfil them.”

Belotsercovsky said that South Africa was a shining example of a peaceful and dignified transition under the enlightened and courageous leadership of Nelson Mandela. He said the country’s democratic transformation took place with an independent judicial system and a free press.

But most importantly, he said, it was achieved through dialogue and “Israel is looking forward to upgrading our bilateral dialogue. There’s so much we can do together in the future in science and technology, education and training, food security, and climate change.”

He used the example of South African and Israeli scientists working together to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak as an example of successful co-operation.

Israel’s government is based on “a rainbow coalition” Belotsercovsky said, which represents an excellent example of partnership between religious and secular Jews and Arabs, people of European and African origins, politicians and technocrats, all united in the task of fulfilling the dreams of the next generation.

He went on to tell the president about the phenomenal ways Israel is already using its technology and knowhow to work successfully in South Africa, and said he hoped there was much more they could do together.

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Legal amendment puts Lithuanian citizenship in reach

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Thousands of Litvak Jews around the world stand a much better chance at getting Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry since the law was amended last week.

A bill to amend Lithuania’s Law on Citizenship was unanimously passed in Lithuania’s Seimas (parliament) last Thursday, 20 January. It will have far-reaching positive implications for future applicants, many of whom had unsuccessfully tried and lost hope of obtaining citizenship.

This follows a year of extensive lobbying efforts from many quarters. It involved various iterations of a draft bill which was revised and redrafted several times, according to those involved, leading to last week’s vote, in which 110 members of parliament from across Lithuania’s political spectrum supported the bill.

Lithuanian Ambassador to South Africa Dainius Junevičius said the bill clarified that anyone who was a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania before 15 June 1940 was eligible for reinstatement of their citizenship on condition that there were no decisions adopted on their loss of citizenship.

This is a huge relief to many whose applications were rejected by the Lithuanian migration department, some pending indefinitely with others being placed on hold.

The application jam stemmed from a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision a few years ago which opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher, and which dramatically slowed down applications, causing enormous frustration.

In addition to what was always accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants were also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940.

This was a dramatic departure from the original position, which never required proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.

“This was a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It also had far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutienė from Next Steps. Her company assists South Africans and others to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report many of her clients’ applications had been declined by the migration department because of this.

In some cases where families had applied at different times using the same source documents, some had been granted citizenship, while others had been rejected.

However, this will soon change, said an elated Degutienė, who believes last week’s vote will pave the way forward for many South African Jews to successfully apply for citizenship.

“Less than a year ago, I was telling a story of a ridiculous court ruling which was applied to an unlucky Litvak family whose application for Lithuanian citizenship was rejected. Now I’m so happy to announce that the law has been amended, and this particular family, as many more, will be free to receive their passports.”

Degutienė and many others including politicians and lawyers in Lithuania and members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies campaigned tirelessly for the amendment.

“I was really frustrated about the grey zone in the citizenship legislation which was used by Lithuanian institutions to create rules and obstacles that made many South African Litvaks ineligible for a Lithuanian passport,” said Degutienė. “The only way to solve this impossible situation was to change the law as any other solution would have been too temporary, and we would have had to depend on court procedures which are lengthy and costly.”

She said it had been a tough road.

“Not many colleagues or competitors believed I would succeed, but now as you see, if you put all your heart and effort into something, sooner or later it results in positive developments.”

Said Junevičius, “As we welcome this move by the Republic of Lithuania, removing many barriers to apply for the reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship, we anticipate deepening connection with ancestral land and fully expect an exponential growth in economic relations and tourism.”

The director of AccessEU, Nicole Marcus, said this week, “AccessEU looks forward to overturning the negative decisions and restoring our 100% success record. Over the years, we’ve experienced changes to the requirements and process, at times becoming very difficult if not near impossible, and at other times easing somewhat. We urge everyone who is eligible to use this opportunity to apply for Lithuanian citizenship before any new interpretations might close the doors once again.”

Before the bill becomes law, Lithuania’s president will need to sign the bill into effect, and this is expected to happen soon.

Once enacted into law, the effect of this amendment will be to remove the requirement that one’s Lithuanian ancestor must have actively maintained their Lithuanian citizenship until 14 June 1940. That requirement was strictly enforced by the migration department since December 2020 following the Supreme Court decision in November 2020, when an application for citizenship with no supporting Lithuanian documentation was brought, causing serious ramifications for many other applicants.

Many applicants were refused citizenship on the basis that their Lithuanian ancestor had naturalised prior to 15 June 1940. Now the prospects of success for those applicants have been revived.

According to insiders, many hundreds of applications are believed to have been waiting for years for a decision following various procedural and then interpretative changes. Hundreds of applications which are currently held in suspense pending queries from Lithuania’s migration department which had been almost impossible to satisfy will now need to be reconsidered.

The migration department will probably take some time to work through the backlog, and applicants shouldn’t expect immediate results. They should keep in mind that the change in the law doesn’t mean that every applicant will be successful as each application will depend on its own supporting documentation which varies from one family to the next, insiders say.

Applicants are still required to prove that their Lithuanian ancestor left Lithuania after 16 February 1918 (the Republic of Lithuania’s initial date of independence) and must still prove with Lithuanian documentation that they held Lithuanian citizenship and departed from Lithuania.

One of the questions still being asked is whether those whose ancestors arrived in South Africa prior to 1918 will be able to apply for a passport.

“The answer is no,” said Degutienė. “This law does not extend the right of applying to those who emigrated earlier than the State of Lithuania was established, and it’s unlikely this will ever change.”

Degutienė said the amendment wouldn’t have been made possible without the help of Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dalia Asanavičiūtė. “Without her persistence and resilience against huge pressure from the migration department and opposition, and her deep understanding and respect for Jews, this change would never have been possible.”

Junevičius said the amendment was a very positive development, and would probably ensure the success of many pending and future applications.

He encouraged prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania, saying that amongst other things, the country offered a broad range of international study programmes taught in English in its 19 universities and 22 colleges at a highly competitive price.

Nearly 8 000 students from 127 countries in the world including South Africa and Israel studied in Lithuania in the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Junevičius said. “The reasons to choose Lithuania as your study destination are multiple, but the main ones are high quality world-class education for an affordable price in an attractive European country.”

As for business opportunities, Junevičius said that for the past 20 years, Lithuania had been the fastest growing economy in the European Union in terms of gross domestic product per capita, with a “highly favourable business environment” with top rankings and ratings.

“Things here get done quicker and better because the doers – from students and engineers to the go-to advisors at Invest Lithuania – are agile, ambitious, and driven by big ideas. And when it comes to big ideas, we don’t dabble, we explore, from gene and cell therapy to the latest in machine learning.”

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Terror accused in court

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Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie appeared in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 26 January 2022, where live broadcasting of proceedings and the setting of a court date were discussed. The twins are accused of terrorist activity targeting Jewish institutions in South Africa, amongst other targets. They have been in custody since their arrest in July 2016.

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