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Eternal vigilance – the price we pay for democracy

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On Freedom Day, Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), at the invitation of the MEC for sports, arts, recreation, and culture, participated in a Freedom Day walk to Chris Hani’s house in Dawn Park, Boksburg. Many of us remember the national trauma occasioned by Hani’s assassination by right-wing fanatics back in 1993, and how close this came to derailing the negotiation process. Thankfully, good sense prevailed, and almost exactly a year later, on 27 April 1994, South Africa’s first fully democratic, non-racial elections were held. Appropriately enough, when new public holidays were introduced, the date chosen for what would be Freedom Day was 27 April.

The 1994 elections ushered in a new era of freedom and equality for the country. After many decades of racial discrimination, violence, and repression, the famous opening words of the Freedom Charter, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, were poised to be realised. Well aware that “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance”, those responsible for framing the new post-apartheid order instituted safeguards to prevent those hard-won democratic rights and freedoms from being eroded. They included a Bill of Rights in the new Constitution, which entrenched the rights of all to dignity and equality.

Regrettably, the manner in which two Jewish candidates were treated recently when being interviewed for judicial office clearly violated these rights. Both were subjected to a barrage of questions pertaining to their Jewish identity in a way that no other candidates were subjected to regarding their religious identity or affiliations. One was even pointedly asked about his level of religious observance, implying that this might have a negative impact on his ability to fulfil his judicial duties. The statement we released earlier this week drew attention to the prejudicial nature of this statement, which ran “contrary to the basic constitutional principles of protecting our citizen’s rights to practice their religion without fear or discrimination”. We further pointed out that no other candidate had been questioned about their religious practices.

It was also disturbing, to say the least, that questions posed to both candidates focused extensively on their association with the SAJBD. The SAJBD itself is the acknowledged representative elected body of South African Jewry mandated to uphold the civil and religious rights of the community, including combating antisemitism. We asked why it was that an organisation with the objective of protecting constitutionally sound principles of religious freedom and fighting hate would be so objectionable to members of the panel of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Equally disquieting were the barrage of questions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why was this issue brought up at all in this forum, and why was it that only Jewish applicants, not Muslim, Christian, or other, were grilled about it in this way? From the questions asked at the JSC interviews this month to Jewish candidates, one unfortunately has to ask whether the principles outlined in the Constitution apply equally to members of the Jewish community.

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

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Conflict and media bias pose greater risk for Shavuot

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As we count down the final days to Shavuot, we are also keeping an anxious eye on events in the Middle East, where after a long period of relative quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian front, there is again an upsurge in deadly violence. As in years gone by, Jerusalem and in particular the Temple Mount area provided the spark leading to a renewed wave of hostilities against the Jewish state, including a resumption of missile fire on Israeli cities from Gaza.

The media coverage of events has yet again been characterised by an uncritical acceptance of Palestinians’ claims while those of Israel have, as usual, been downplayed or ignored altogether. As ever, it’s Israeli retaliation rather than Palestinian provocation that the mainstream media appear to regard as a cause for righteous indignation. Working with the South African Zionist Federation, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is doing as much as possible to bring greater balance to the coverage, including arranging for local and international spokespeople to appear on various radio stations around the country.

Times of intensified conflict in Israel are always deeply disquieting for Jewish communities everywhere, not only because of natural distress over the danger in which the Israeli people find themselves, but because of the heightened risk of retaliatory attacks against Jews in general. In South Africa, we have always witnessed a sharp spike in antisemitic activity during periods of serious violence in the region. The SAJBD is carefully monitoring events, especially discourse in social media, to identify and, where required, respond to any antisemitic threats. We ask that members of our community assist us by keeping their ears to the ground, and alert us via sajbd@sajbd.org to any incidents that come to their attention.

In addition to concerns about the possible fall-out from the conflict, we need to be aware that yom tov is a time when we need to be especially vigilant against possible attacks. All those who will be going to shul should therefore be sure to comply strictly with the guidelines provided by the Community Security Organisation and their congregations, including not gathering outside one’s shul before and after services.

A second area where we need to be extra cautious is meticulous adherence to COVID-19 restrictions, which involves social distancing before, during, and after services. With winter upon us and infection rates starting to climb once more including within our own community, we have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to do everything we can to minimise any risk of contracting or spreading the disease.

In closing, I wish you a chag Shavuot sameach. May it be a safe, peaceful, and fulfilling yom tov for all of us.

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

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Friends can do no wrong

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I keep trying to muster up notable outrage at the South African government for its one sided and biased approach to Israel. I keep trying to shake my head in disgust and pen witty and wonderful one-liners that will hurt it more than it will hurt me. I keep trying to be disappointed that it’s quick to point out Israel’s faults, but falls silent when Hamas rockets fall. But I haven’t managed so far. And the reason might be that I no longer care.

For all the right reason, I want to be bothered by the uneven response. I’m a South African, I adore all the people of the country, and I continue to invest in its growth and success. I’m, however, also acutely aware of how little standing we have and how irrelevant we have become on the international stage. In some ways it’s like we’ve undertaken a 12-step programme to discredit ourselves globally and we’ve finally reached our goal. Sadly.

South Africa’s obsession with Cuba hasn’t helped. Embracing a country whose citizens are denied basic democratic rights is perplexing, especially given that that is the very thing it accuses Israel of doing. The harbouring of Omar al Bashir when a warrant for his arrest for war crimes was known to the African National Congress (ANC), something that South Africa accuses Israel of, is another. Then, the refusal of the government to voice horror at China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims when it maintains that Israel is somehow guilty of “ethnic cleansing” all illustrates the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the government. Add to that the murderous silence when it comes to treatment of Zimbabweans, and the pattern isn’t difficult to see.

Very simply, friends of the ANC can do no wrong. And Israel can do no right.

What has exacerbated the situation is the ANC’s lack of understanding of the facts. Just as the ANC was captured by the Guptas and anyone else willing to open their wallets, so too has it been captured by the “anti-Israel” lobby.

Just as it was quick to share the country’s wealth with those who didn’t deserve it, so too has it shared our apartheid history and allowed those not entitled to it to use it. And because “apartheid” doesn’t apply to the Israeli context, facts needed to be changed so that it does. Misinformation, untruths, and emotional manipulation are all employed to make sure that an ill-fitting glove is made to fit.

I would love the ANC to stand for truth and integrity. I would love it to be able to play a meaningful role in some way internationally. I would love it to be the voice of reason that calms Hamas, limits death, and reduces terror. I would love nothing more than for it to be the organisation that it has the potential to be, and not what it is today. Until that time, as much as I would like to care about its utterings, I really don’t.

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Welcome to new Cape Council executive director

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This week, we officially welcomed on board our new South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) Cape Executive Director Daniel Bloch. Bloch comes from a background in the events and media industry, and has worked with many international companies as a team leader and decision maker on various projects. In terms of his Jewish communal background, he is a graduate of Herzlia High School and recently served on its governing body. He is also a long-serving member of the Marais Road Shul (aka the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation). We congratulate him on his appointment, and look forward to working with him going forward. At the same time, we thank and bid farewell to outgoing Cape Director Stuart Diamond, who is taking up a new communal leadership position in the United Kingdom. It has been a pleasure working with him these past few years, and we wish him all success in his challenging new position.

Confronting global antisemitism

This week, SAJBD National President Mary Kluk was one of the speakers at the 16th World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly, titled “5th WJC International Meeting of Special Envoys & Coordinators Combating Antisemitism”. The assembly is the WJC’s highest decision-making body, attended by the leaders of Jewish communities from all around the world. Kluk, who represents our community on the executive committee of the WJC, spoke about recent trends and developments regarding antisemitism in South Africa, and how the SAJBD has gone about addressing it.

The Board has always maintained close links with international Jewish communities and organisations. By involving ourselves in forums such as these, we are able to forge mutually beneficial working relationships with our overseas colleagues in addressing such common issues as combating antisemitism, promoting inter-religious contacts, and encouraging cultural and intellectual exchange.

Judicial appointments in SA (continued)

The Board continues to bring to wider attention in the media and in other relevant forums the manner in which two Jewish candidates were treated by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) during their recently-held interviews for judicial positions. This has been done by commenting in the mainstream media, conducting radio and television interviews, and writing opinion pieces for online publications. Notwithstanding the JSC’s denial this week that it did anything wrong, we believe that the questions put to the candidates were inappropriate and discriminatory, and therefore in contravention of the constitutional right of all South Africans to equality and freedom of belief and association. We continue to pursue the matter with relevant State bodies.

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

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