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Don’t panic, but behave responsibly

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The announcement of the new Omicron variant and its dire impact on overseas travel continues to dominate the news. With the sharp increase in infection numbers in Gauteng, the Board on 28 November convened a meeting of the national leadership of the major communal bodies together with Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, two experts in the field of communicable diseases who have guided and advised us throughout the COVID-19 crisis. At our request, Professor Schoub and Dr Friedland have prepared guidelines on how to reduce the impact of the impending fourth wave on our community. These can be found on our Facebook page. To watch last week’s “Midweek COVID-19 Update with Professor Schoub”, visit https://bit.ly/2VpwmKX. Those who have any questions for Professor Schoub can leave them in the comment section or email midweekcovidupdate@gmail.com.

Fighting the good fight

One welcome piece of good news over the weekend was that Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, had arrived in Israel in preparation for taking part in the Miss Universe contest. This was in spite of a sustained campaign by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) factions to prevent her participation, characterised by intimidation, defamation, blackmail, and misinformation. The Board saw it as essential to have a voice in this debate as the intent clearly is to target the only Jewish state in a way intended to deny and demonise South African Jews’ historical, cultural, religious, and familial ties to Israel. We engaged in the debates and obtained significant press coverage to offer an alternative narrative to the hate-filled position of those calling for boycotts.

The Board was also called on last week to respond to various statements by organisations like Africa4Palestine, the Media Review Network, and the Muslim Lawyers Association on the death in a terror attack of former community member Eli Kay. Using the language of demonisation and incitement that led to Eli’s murder in the first place, these factions brazenly celebrated and sought to justify the atrocity. In an opinion piece for News24, South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) Vice-President Mary Kluk pointed out how such dehumanisation is an inevitable stage in a process that if left unchecked, can easily have deadly consequences. While not inciting violence directly, the hate-filled rhetoric of the BDS lobby is fostering an environment in which such attacks become that much more likely.

As a former chairperson and long-serving SAJBD executive member, a much respected World Jewish Congress executive member, and in her capacity as director of the Durban Holocaust Centre, Kluk has for many years been at the forefront of defending Jewish rights while also promoting the kind of culture of respect and tolerance for diversity that’s so critical to South Africa’s future as a united, democratic, and non-racial society. To find out more about her career, see Wendy Kahn’s tribute in the latest issue of Jewish Life. A link to the article, as well as to Kluk’s News24 column, can be found on our Facebook page.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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We Remember campaign packs punch locally

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International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, 27 January, was designated by the United Nations General Assembly in November 2005 to commemorate Jewish and other victims of Nazi genocide during World War II. The date 27 January was chosen because it was on that day in 1945 that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the death camp whose very name today is synonymous with the horrors of the Nazi regime and the industrial-scale mass murder it perpetrated.

Over the past several years, the World Jewish Congress has run a #WeRemember campaign, in which individuals around the world are encouraged to write the words “We Remember” on a sheet of paper, take a picture of themselves holding the sign, and post it to social media using that hashtag. The global impact of this simple but powerful demonstration of solidarity and commemoration has been considerable, with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) successfully implementing the initiative on a local level.

We were moved last year when Clive Mashishi, a social-justice activist with whom we have worked extensively to bring relief to areas especially hard-hit by the COVID-19 lockdown, decided to use the #WeRemember model to educate the communities he engages with about the Holocaust and counteract the toxic antisemitic conspiracy theories that are taking root in certain quarters.

Among the most malignant of these conspiracy theories is that which holds that the Holocaust itself is a Jewish hoax that Jews, through their alleged secret control of world events, have somehow imposed on a gullible humanity. Last week, the United Nations recognised the dangerous and hateful nature of this phenomenon by adopting a resolution condemning it. Sponsored by Israel and Germany, the resolution declares that the Holocaust was real, and that “to deny or distort the historical facts is wrong on every level and dangerous to society, and needs to be to countered with education”. It further urges governments and “social-media companies to take active measures to combat antisemitism and Holocaust denial or distortion by means of information and communications technologies, and to facilitate the reporting of such content.”

Fittingly the resolution was adopted (with only Iran objecting) on the anniversary of the infamous Wannsee Conference, where on 20 January 1942, senior leadership of Nazi Germany met to decide upon and plan the annihilation of European Jewry.

Holocaust remembrance isn’t only about commemorating those who died, but also to the living victims of Nazism. Part of the SAJBD’s work in this area has been to assist local Holocaust survivors wishing to claim under various compensatory, hardship, and relief funds that have been set up for those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime. Over many years, this task has been carried out with characteristic dedication and thoroughness by Shirley Beagle, who continues to go the extra mile to ensure that our survivors are given all the logistical, technical, and moral support they need to negotiate this complex and often intimidating process.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater

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In our rush to get back to what was considered normal in a pre-COVID-19 world, I’m concerned that we might be “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

Where there is, of course, a great need to do away with restrictions so that we can rebuild our economy, relationships, and get on with things, it might be worth considering if perhaps we might want to consider holding on to some elements of the restrictions.

Like the Friday night curfew. And perhaps the requirement for that extra space between people and their neighbour in shul. But Friday night curfew, for certain.

There was a simplicity to life in the days, or rather nights, when curfew was imposed. For a short time, Shabbat meals started promptly, and there was no danger of having to consider eating one’s own arm just to stay alive while waiting for guests to walk to Glenhazel from Morningside. Or for the final salad to be made just as people are about to pass out from starvation.

That was also a time before curfew when one couldn’t feel confident that the meal would end before midnight. I recall, with some embarrassment, occasions when in desperation and panic, tears streaming down my cheeks, I found myself begging our host to end the meal before I took my own life with the help of a dessert spoon just so that I could rest.

The meal would invariably and uncomfortably hurry towards conclusion and in no time at all, we would find ourselves on the pavement with assurances that we should do this again sometime. Soon.

The walk home on those evenings was never pleasant as I endured lecture after lecture on the appalling nature of my behaviour. But we were on our way home.

There are other aspects of lockdown that might be worth considering holding on to. Social distancing in shopping malls, extra space in shul, and the need to hug people that you don’t want to hug. It’s all good and well when both parties are close and are in a hugging relationship, but the awkwardness around hugging uncertainty isn’t something I have missed at all over the past few years. It would be a great pity for that to become a concern again.

Masks, on the other hand, need to go. The longer we wear them, the deafer I find myself. More and more, I catch myself leaning forward and pulling down my own mask when trying to hear what someone with a covered mouth is saying.

It makes no sense, but I’m convinced that COVID-19 or lack of listening practice has contributed to the fact that I currently hear about 30% of what people are saying. As a consequence, I have taken to filling in the gaps of the missing 70%, which has made people a lot more interesting than they used to be. You wouldn’t believe some of the things that they didn’t say.

There is little doubt that we’re ready to move on. COVID-19 in South Africa is very last year. But like every good fad, it might be worth holding on to a few of the gains before trashing them with the losses.

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Getting on board with 2022

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In memoriam: George Szemere

I start this week’s column with a tribute to Holocaust survivor George (Stern) Szemere, who passed away in Johannesburg last week. George was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940, at the start of World War II. In the final year of the war, his father was one of those taken by the Arrow Cross to the Danube River, told to jump into the icy water, and then shot. George went into hiding with his mother and sister, and survived. In 1958, he left Hungary and subsequently settled in South Africa where he married.

Shirley Beagle, who assists Holocaust survivors with claims under various compensatory and hardship funds, only discovered George fairly recently. Just before the holidays, he was admitted to Helen Joseph Hospital and Shirley was concerned with his welfare. Through our network of Jewish Community Service doctors, we found Jewish doctors to monitor and visit him. I attended his funeral over the weekend. In spite of it being very small, it was dignified and moving.

How Lalela boosted a nation’s spirits

Coming near the end of another trying year, Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane’s success at the Miss Universe pageant in Haifa, Israel, came as a much-needed boost to national morale. Mswane represented our country with grace and courage, and was rewarded by being placed third out of 80 participants.

However, perhaps even more impressive was how she stood her ground not only in the face of an extraordinarily vicious campaign of bullying, intimidation, and invective on the part of the local Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, but also the opposition of high-ranking government members. All manner of pressure was brought to bear on her to withdraw from the event, but in the end, her right to choose and the wishes of the majority of South Africans prevailed. The Jewish community supported Mswane throughout this process, and it was a pleasure for our leadership, together with hundreds of other South Africans, to be part of the enthusiastic crowd at OR Tambo International Airport welcoming her home.

Latest COVID-19 guidelines

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has taken the lead in convening regular meetings of the national communal leadership to discuss issues, share information and best practice, and plan and co-ordinate our response. To ensure that decisions are based on reliable and up-to-date information, we have included medical and other experts in the discussions. On Sunday, a Zoom meeting was held to brief communal leaders on the medical and legal considerations regarding mandatory vaccination. Professor Barry Schoub and Neil Kirby from Werksmans Attorneys set out the scientific and legal framework for the question. Based on this information, each organisation will assess the situation from their perspective and decide how to proceed. A recording of the meeting is available. I encourage those seeking information to write to midweekcovidupdate@gmail.com.

Solidarity with Beit Yisrael Shul in Colleyville, Texas

On behalf of South African Jewry, the SAJBD sent messages to Jewish communal organisations in America and to the American Embassy expressing our support after four members of the shul were taken hostage by a gunman in an antisemitic attack. We are immensely thankful that they all escaped unharmed.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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