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Controversial post leads to mayhem for Mevrou & Co

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STAFF REPORTER

Mevrou & Co. is a small company based in Cape Town that prints uniquely South African expressions on high quality cotton t-shirts. Its social media platforms are peppered with irreverent humour and satire in South African languages. Its shop even has an entire section devoted to the “Jew Crew” and owner and founder Catherine Raphaely is Jewish.

But on Sunday, a new post asked the question, “What do Afrikaners and Jews have in common other than small gene pools, nowhere to run, and concentration camps?” The next image answered this with “We are realisties [realistic] and have a dark sense of humour!” The following post elaborated: “We thought you should know that all Jewish schools across the country have been closed due to coronavirus until Monday 23 March.” (The post was made before the president’s announcement that all schools would be closed until after Easter.) It then went on to highlight South Africa’s particular challenges in dealing with coronavirus, and suggested that all schools should close as soon as possible.

The post was also published in Afrikaans. It was met with a wave of outrage from social media users of all backgrounds, and the English version was taken down by Instagram. But Raphaely told the SA Jewish Report that there was no need for this response.

“We were trying to get an important message across about coronavirus. What we were saying is that Jews and Afrikaners have troubles in common, and perhaps that’s why we are both realistic. Then we went on to say that the Jewish schools are closed, and why can’t the government close all the schools across the country and follow their example – which has now been done.

“The post isn’t a joke, and this is the misunderstanding. Maybe that’s what has caused the problem as people expect [a joke] from us. They couldn’t get past it and misconstrued the post. I tried to explain this, but my explanations fell on deaf ears. So I gave up! In addition, I was in the middle of being evacuated as a result of the Lion’s Head fire.”

Raphaely is adamant that she won’t remove her post. “I don’t feel we should take the post down because people don’t understand it, and don’t want to listen when we try to explain. I know what I meant, and I actually feel it’s abundantly clear. We wrote facts … we didn’t joke about it. We should not self-censor due to people’s sensitivity. We won’t be bullied by people either. I feel very strongly about that.”

Her message to the Jewish community is, “Well done for closing your schools! And also, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly. I have been aggressively bullied and even threatened with physical violence. This is disgusting and shameful, and I’m embarrassed that these people are Jewish.”

When community member Leora Hessen saw the post, she said, “I was truly astounded and kept trying to find the punchline.” She responded by sharing the number tattooed on the arm of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, who was deported to five different concentration camps. “I was lucky enough to have my grandmother with us into my 40s. I suppose I feel overprotective over her, other Holocaust survivors, and victims. And now they’re no longer here, it’s our duty, as third-generation survivors, to keep their memories alive and their dignity intact.”

Another social media user, Nuriyah Gallow, saw Hessen’s post and reacted to it with deep concern. A Muslim mother of three, Hessen’s words “really hit home for me. Tears literally welled up and something compelled me to do something. The fact that Leora could recite that number sent shivers down my spine, and it reminded me that there are people who are affected to this day by the traumas of the Holocaust era.”

In response, Gallow decided to make her own t-shirt with the word “regretively” on it, a misspelled word the brand had used in its explanation to outraged Instagram users. She is selling these shirts, and donating the profit to the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre. She says she took this on because “I wanted to create awareness. It’s about being ethical, being human, standing up, and having a voice.”

The response was overwhelming. “I have so many orders! Thank you to everyone who has ordered and who has said a kind word. I’m just doing what I think I’m supposed to do.”

In response to Raphaely’s explanation, Gallow says, “I don’t agree that the Holocaust should be referenced in such a way. It’s extremely anti-Semitic. There are other ways to get a message like that across. I also don’t think Jews and Afrikaners would respond faster than the next person. No matter your religion, race or language, I can assure you everyone has been through trauma.”

Gallow would like to go to the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre and to visit Auschwitz one day. To the Jewish community, she says, “Sorry you had to be taken back to a time and place that hurts. I hope this brings people of the Jewish community together. Jewish or not, we’re all outraged. Companies have a social responsibility to use their voice for positive and good.”

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) Director Stuart Diamond said, “Community members reported the post to our leadership. The Cape SAJBD made contact with the owner and unpacked her intention behind the post. She was reminded that to South African Jews, the scourge of the Holocaust will never be forgotten and is a sensitive topic, especially as Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day] approaches (21 April). Further to that, while the Cape SAJBD promotes an interfaith and intergroup ideal, we don’t advise any group speaking on behalf of another.

“While various parties recommended that she delete the post, Instagram took action and removed the English version of it after it was reported to the platform. She subsequently apologised on the platform. To some, her apology may be lacking sincerity. She elected not to remove the Afrikaans post, and still backs the sentiment.

“[Raphaely] has been offered the opportunity to visit the Holocaust & Genocide Centre in Cape Town, but declined. Unfortunately, at this stage, the centre is closed in an attempt to mitigate against the spread of coronavirus.”

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