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Europe terror raises concern of copycat attacks in SA

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South Africa may be physically far from the recent terrorist attacks that took place in France and Austria, but we still have to be extra vigilant. Terror is now a global phenomenon, says experts, and Jewish communities have to be on their guard.

“What has become clear is that there are no borders or boundaries in the world anymore,” says Jevon Greenblatt, the director of operations at the Community Security Organisation (CSO). “With social media and the speed of information, we can’t turn around and say what happens there doesn’t affect us over here.

“For example, the New Zealand mosque shootings motivated other right-wing radicals to emulate similar attacks.”

The series of attacks in Europe started when a teacher, Samuel Paty, was decapitated in the streets of Paris on 16 October, a few days after he showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson about freedom of expression.

On 29 October, three people were killed in an attack – including one woman who was decapitated – at the Notre-Dame church in the southern city of Nice. Later that day, in the southern city of Avignon, police shot dead an armed man after he refused to drop his weapon.

The attack in Vienna began on the evening of 2 November, when a heavily armed man opened fire on people outside restaurants at six locations, all near the street on which Vienna’s central synagogue is located. Four civilians were confirmed dead. Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack 24 hours later.

The resurfacing of the cartoons in France has led to mass protests, calls for a boycott, and tensions among world leaders. After the Vienna attack, French President Emmanuel Macron said among other things, “This is our Europe. Our enemies must know who they are dealing with. We will not give up.” Meanwhile, the United Kingdom raised its terror threat level from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’, meaning an attack is now judged to be ‘highly likely’, in light of events on France and Austria.

Says Greenblatt, “There have been protests against France in South Africa, as well as talks on the issue and sermons in local mosques, so we can’t say there hasn’t been a physical effect in South Africa. Locals are expressing their anger and displeasure with what’s happening, and that could be seen as a microcosm of sentiments globally.

“It could encourage someone who is radicalised or unhinged to listen to the call of ISIS to carry out attacks, and to look at French, Western, or Jewish targets in South Africa. These recent events in Europe were ‘very successful’ in that they’ve damaged France’s sense of safety and security, and now Vienna’s as well. The more ‘successful’ an attack, the more ‘inspiring’ it is for other jihadists to emulate. So there is no doubt that copycat attacks are a concern at global level.

“On top of that, we have ISIS in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique. Just recently, ISIS made a statement that what is happening in France, and the normalisation between Israel and Arab states, is an affront to Islam, telling fighters to go out into the world and attack in revenge. ISIS has an agenda, and will use every single opportunity to justify that agenda.”

Jasmine Opperman, a terrorism expert and analyst at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, echoes Greenblatt’s sentiments.

“South Africa has to end its self-constructed belief that we are different, that we are isolated, that we’ve never had this problem. We cannot say that anymore. We have ISIS supporters, fanatics on home soil, people feeling insulted [by the cartoons], and right-wingers communicating with international right-wing organisations,” she says.

“South Africa is the ideal setting for fanatics to execute an attack,” Opperman says. “This may be without any guidance or training – as can be seen in the ‘lone-wolf’ attacks in France – but based on personal beliefs. South Africa must pop out of its bubble of believing it’s immune to terrorism.” She says this especially true because of the presence of ISIS in Mozambique, although she doesn’t think that it’s in a position to direct activities in South Africa at this point in time.

Writing for Sky News, European correspondent Adam Parsons said after the Vienna attack, “What’s clear is that for the past few weeks, we have talked about a resurgence in terrorism in France. Now that tension has seeped beyond the borders. Few doubt that another attack will happen soon. What we don’t know is where.”

Opperman notes that the French attacks were “lone-wolf attacks that weren’t co-ordinated, with no reference to belonging to ISIS or al-Qaeda, even though on social media, these organisations celebrated the attacks as a victory for Muslims”.

“This is where the concern lies,” she says, “with developments in Europe, the divide between communities is getting bigger, and the opportunity for fanatics to execute attacks beyond a traditional terrorism framework is at play. The primary concern is that the scope of those willing to make use of violence has opened up, and we cannot ignore that, even in South Africa.” While she emphasises that an imminent terrorist attack on South African soil is highly unlikely, Jewish communities are always a more vulnerable target.

“My concern lies with the France attacks. That is to say, we could have individuals in South Africa, not associated with Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but due to hatred or feeling insulted by the cartoons, deciding to take action against the Jewish community or European embassies or personnel. We need to understand that a classic counter-terrorism approach won’t deal with these fanatics. For most of the time, we won’t even know about them. Hence, South Africa cannot ignore these developments. South Africa has to take note and put action in place.”

Examining the context of the recent attacks, Opperman says, “In Europe, for the past few years, we have seen a divide setting in. In Austria, antisemitism has been in drastic increase. Right-wing extremist groups are active on propaganda channels inciting individuals to take action. And that leaves Europe more vulnerable. In addition, Macron’s response to the Vienna attack creates even more of a divide of ‘either you’re with us or against us’. It could antagonise Muslim communities and create the opportunity for more fanaticism.”

Greenblatt says the CSO isn’t going to raise the threat level in the Jewish community because, “For 26 years, we have put mechanisms in place for basic security for our community. Every day, we are operating at a level where we understand that this can happen at any stage.

“This is just a slightly more sensitive time that could lead to a local reaction or inspire a copycat attack. We can’t say it won’t, and we have no information to say it will. But we always work with facilities and the community to be aware and vigilant.

“Our processes are aligned to what’s happening in the world. The fundamental principles of security are simple, and actions as small as locking a door or gate, proper access control, community protectors on duty at key times, and reporting any concerns to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 can make all the difference in preventing an attack.”

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An aliyah flight of biblical proportions

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It was an aliyah flight that came together as if guided by the hand of G-d. The South Africans, presently the pariahs of the world thanks to the COVID-19 variant discovered here, were told about it just less than 24 hours before. And it wasn’t just any flight they were joining, but an historic aliyah of Ethiopian Jews who had been waiting decades to come to the Jewish state.

“We were like the Jews leaving Mitzrayim,” says oleh Rabbi Craig Kacev, who read the Megillah in the middle of Addis Ababa Airport on Ta’anit Esther (The Fast of Esther). He spoke to the SA Jewish Report from Haifa, where he and his wife are in quarantine at the same hostel where 286 Ethiopian olim are isolating.

“It was fascinating and exciting to see first-hand the effort Israel makes to continue the ingathering of the exiles,” he said. “There was such joy in witnessing history.”

Liat Amar Arran, the director of the Israel Centre South Africa, says the flight was a “miracle”.

“We had a group of about 20 people who wanted to make aliyah, but there were no flights. Everyone told me to wait, but I said people have jobs lined up, or no place to live here, and I’m not giving up. Then this Ethiopian flight was approved – one of only five aliyah flights from around the world.

“Shai Felder, the head of the aliyah department, said he could try and organise a bigger plane from Ethiopia to add our olim, but he wasn’t convinced it could happen, and he said I might need to give up. I said I’m not giving up, I’m counting on this option,” says Amar Arran.

“I told the South African olim to go for COVID-19 tests as they might be able to get on a flight tomorrow. At this point, we were just praying. Everyone said I was crazy, that you couldn’t do this so last minute. I said I would rather wait till the last minute and try. Well, 12 people had COVID-19 tests, and there were 12 seats available on the plane. It was due to many good people working together that they got on that flight.”

“Getting to Israel was never certain,” says Kacev. “We were asked if we were willing to take a chance and have our COVID-19 tests last Wednesday [24 February 2021] in the hope that we would get on this flight. We did the tests, and late on Wednesday, we were told there was space on the flight going the next day. We had been living out of suitcases for weeks already in the hope that we could go, but from that point, it was still a complete whirlwind – but was also beautifully organised.

“We arrived in Addis after 20:00, and had to wait until 03:00 for the next flight. It was Purim night, so I leined the Megillah in the airport, which was packed, but we found a quiet spot.” Kacev says that while the Ethiopians had cell phones and were living a modern life, they also brought a lot of traditional food with them on the plane, as well as musical instruments.

“When we arrived in Israel, there was such rejoicing, with music playing, flags waving, sweets for the children – it was such a simcha.” The welcoming committee included Israeli ministers, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, and even former shaliach to South Africa Danny Adeno Abebe, who himself made the long walk to Israel from Ethiopia as a boy. As the new spokesperson for the ministry of absorption, Abebe told the SA Jewish Report that he was thrilled to see both Ethiopian olim and South Africans finally touch down on Israeli soil.

“It was so nice to see well-known and familiar faces,” says Kacev. “We walked down to the tarmac and were put straight onto buses with our luggage, and driven to Haifa. Because we are quarantining with the Ethiopians, we are being served their traditional food. We asked staff to ‘tone it down’ for us!”

While in quarantine, the Kacevs have been able to speak to their children (who have already made aliyah) through a nearby fence. Many of the Ethiopian olim have done the same, speaking to relatives who settled in Israel before them. “While we had the inconvenience of not being sure when our flight would be, I thought about how these olim from Ethiopia have literally been waiting years. It was so humbling,” says Kacev.

Sean Korb, who was also on the flight with his wife and two young children, says, “If there is one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that we aren’t in control of everything. As 2021 rolled in, we were ready with every document necessary, and were looking forward to being part of the second or third aliyah plane of the New Year, but then Ben Gurion Airport was shut.

“Being thrown between excitement and disappointment was anxiety-provoking to a degree that we have never experienced. Every flight was an option but not an option. Frankfurt, Turkey, Ethiopia were all options, but not for us South Africans. Permission was needed by the Israeli government to allow us to enter on those flights.

“On the morning of 25 February, we had said we will go when we need to go – we cannot push the river anymore. Just a few moments later, we received a call that there was one more option: to fly together with a group of Ethiopians the following day. We were warned not to get our hopes up, but asked to get our COVID-19 tests just in case. Hours later, we received the news that we had made it onto the flight and would need to be at OR Tambo International Airport for our flight leaving in less than 24 hours.

“The rest of our experience was filled with more extremes: the kindness and hospitality of regular Ethiopians helping us with our pram and luggage as we got off in Ethiopia, but also the ruthless security who checked our bags and wanted our son – who was a day away from his first birthday – to walk through security alone. Our pram was taken away twice to be inspected.

“But we made it. Our baby boy turned one in an Ethiopian airport, on Purim, during a pandemic, on our way to Israel. Now we sit in quarantine in a hotel in Haifa, with staff working tirelessly to ensure that more than 400 people are taken care of. We will never forget the way we made our way to the place we want to be.”

Korb says they didn’t realise how historic it would be to fly with this group of Ethiopians. “We didn’t know how many people it was going to be, but it was literally an entire plane filled with young and old. The kids wanted to interact with our two children, and it was incredible to see them play together. There was also a lot of chaos. Everyone wanted to get onto the plane, and was excited and nervous.”

He emphasises how “incredible” Amar Arran and aliyah consultant Ziva Taitz were throughout the experience. “They literally didn’t stop, working 24 hours a day trying to get us to Israel,” Korb says. “They helped us to deal with our expectations, not get our hopes too high, but also to keep up hope. They were professional, organised, and are still helping us. So a huge kol hakavod to them, and their team. We count ourselves extremely blessed to have arrived in Israel on this historic flight.”

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Vaccination a jab of hope for healthcare workers

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After a sleepless night marked by a mix of anxiety and excitement, Dr Mark Kadish woke up on Tuesday morning, 23 February, ready for a historic occasion: his long-awaited vaccine against COVID-19.

“I woke up on an emotional rollercoaster,” the GP told the SA Jewish Report. “I sat with my wife and reminisced about this past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it had been working in healthcare. All healthcare workers and their support staff are mentally, physically, and emotionally depleted. As I entered the vaccination environment, I was overwhelmed with emotion.”

Kadish is one of thousands of South African healthcare workers who have at last received their shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in recent days. The first leg of South Africa’s vaccine rollout programme is well underway, and in spite of some complications and frustrations, almost 40 000 healthcare workers across the country were expected to be inoculated by Wednesday, 24 February.

“I feel grateful and blessed to have received the vaccination,” says Kadish. “I feel privileged and at the same time so excited to be able to hug my family again. Driving back to my practice from my vaccine, I can honestly say I felt more hopeful and optimistic.”

The sense of relief amongst several doctors is especially significant following the frustration which beset the rollout previously. In the wake of the cancellation of the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout, many doctors were again disappointed on Sunday, when they were unable to receive their shots at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

“A number of GPs had registered for their vaccine and went on Sunday, only to be told Baragwanath wouldn’t be running because it was a weekend,” says pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg, who had booked for this vaccination slot. “A lot of them then went to Steve Biko Academic Hospital, and it was absolute chaos.

“More than 2 000 people were there, with queues on top of each other. They don’t have the facilities for people to be there, and people were being told to leave. It was a feeding frenzy.”

Thanks to the efforts of Netcare, however, Meyberg was able to secure a second booking for Tuesday, going to Baragwanath Hospital with fellow specialist Dr Carron Zinman.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Zinman. “The process was organised and efficient, with healthcare workers standing in designated queues with strict distancing. I joined the Netcare queue, presented my ID and booking number, and completed some forms. It felt like I was back at school.”

Carefully spaced groups of vaccinees were ushered into a hall and positioned at individual stations, greeted by a nurse ready to administer the vaccine.

Zinman recounts, “Bara had drawn up individual doses. There was a syringe with your name and number on it waiting, and after you got it, they waited to see if you had any immediate reaction. Women burst into song and clapped as we stepped outside to be monitored for anaphylactic reaction. It was a beautiful moment.”

Though the vaccine won’t change her social distancing habits or wearing of personal protective equipment, Zinman says it offers some relief and hope.

“I’m happy it’s done,” she says. “We’re still seeing positive patients, and though we’re wearing our equipment, you have a feeling that maybe the vaccine adds another layer of protection.”

Meyberg was equally elated.

“Fighting COVID-19 means working hard, putting life on hold, and risking your family,” he says. “The vaccine felt like getting some hakarat hatov [gratitude], something to say that people appreciate the risks you and your family take daily.”

Other healthcare workers in the Jewish community had equally moving experiences, in spite of many initially being let down by events on Sunday.

“I was as nervous about driving to Bara as I was about getting the vaccination,” admits GP Dr Lana Marcus. “I hadn’t been there since 2006. There was a lot of anxiety about logistics and parking, and obviously about the vaccine.

“I had an idea of what to expect based on photos shared by other GPs, and I was really impressed with the setup. It was smooth, there was no crowding, it was well-explained, and the staff were friendly.

“I now no longer have the holy terror of catching COVID-19.”

Dr Monique Price, the Chevrah Kadisha’s senior medical doctor, described her vaccination as an out-of-body experience.

“My rescheduled appointment was at 15:20 on Monday, and within a few minutes, I was in the observation area,” she says.

“When I had it, I felt on a high and part of something momentous and positive. Only two weeks ago, we weren’t sure any of us would get it when the AstraZeneca vaccine was cancelled.”

If the successful rollout so far shows how things can be done at a public tertiary hospital, Price feels that the rest of the country can surely follow suit and everyone can be vaccinated.

“13 March marks a year since the Chevrah Kadisha closed the doors to its facilities,” she says. “I would love to open them again, but that can happen only when it’s safe. It’s still some way off, but this is possibly the beginning of a positive change.”

After some initial scepticism, GP Dr Daniel Israel says his vaccination this week offered some much-needed light at the end of a long tunnel.

“There was some concern about GPs because they don’t fit into either public or private healthcare systems,” he says. “They’re on the frontline, so it’s important they get their shots, too.

“I had the attitude that I would believe it only when I saw the needle in my arm. When I saw all the incredible work being done by volunteers at Bara, however, I was reminded of the election in 1994 and felt that people were coming together and uniting for a common, important goal. People pulled together and made it happen.”

Doctors being vaccinated is a beacon of light, Israel says. “Time will tell if the vaccine is fully effective, but it’s a wonderful thing, and I feel a little safer.”

Dr Gilad Mensky, who works in intensive-care at Baragwanath Hospital, paid tribute to the efforts of the hospital and all volunteers involved. He was vaccinated last week.

“Bara has done an outstanding job,” he says. “You really felt safe. Heads of department and senior doctors were on the floor ushering people and helping them. You felt the commitment and the enthusiasm.

“We’ve all gone through an emotional derailment, and it was nice to get some upliftment at last. A vaccine isn’t a right but a privilege, and I’m honoured to have received it.”

Says Meyberg, “We will still wear our masks and maintain protocols as we wait for herd immunity as more people get vaccinated. People need to understand that more vaccines are on the way, and that everyone will get it. There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes, and we are seeing the results.”

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Pretoria doctor one of the first to be vaccinated

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Around the same time that President Cyril Ramaphosa got his COVID-19 vaccination in Cape Town on Wednesday, 17 February 2021, an unassuming Jewish doctor was one of the very first healthcare workers to receive the jab, and possibly the very first Jewish doctor in the country to do so.

“At last! I was very anxious to get it,” Dr Darren Joseph told the SA Jewish Report. He is a special physician in the department of internal medicine at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, and is also a pulmonology fellow.

Joseph has been at the frontline of the COVID-19 war, and has lost colleagues, including a matron in his ward who passed away from COVID-19 this week. He also assisted the Jaffa Jewish Aged Home during its COVID-19 outbreak.

The first 80 000 Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines arrived in South Africa on 17 February, but Joseph never expected to get his dose so soon.

“It was quite a surprise. We knew the hospital was preparing to begin vaccination, but today it asked for a few volunteers to take part in a ‘trial run’, and I was third in line. It’s exactly like any other vaccination, it’s not painful. It was a very pleasant experience, and everyone cheered!”

Other healthcare workers can’t wait for their turn. “We are thrilled. We have the champagne ready!” says Johannesburg general practitioner (GP) Dr Sheri Fanaroff, who has a preliminary slot booked for her COVID-19 vaccination at 15:00 this Sunday, 21 February.

GPs have been able to book preliminary time slots to have the injection at government hospitals, but not all healthcare workers have been able to do so yet. The GPs will also have to wait for confirmation of their appointments, but if all goes to plan, Fanaroff will also be vaccinated at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in a few days’ time.

“I don’t know many doctors who have turned it down. We are happy that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is only one dose, and the studies look encouraging,” she says. “It will allay a lot of anxiety about the chance of severe illness and hospitalisation. But we will still be wearing masks and taking precautions, as will anyone who gets vaccinated, until the country is able to reach herd immunity.”

Dr Mark Kadish, a GP in Johannesburg, looked back at how far we have come and what this moment means. “At the end of 2020, we were faced with a second wave of COVID-19. As doctors, we were overwhelmed and struggled to maintain our bearings. We are exhausted physically and emotionally, as we find ourselves in yet another whole new world. In addition, there is a pandemic of mental-health issues related to COVID-19.

“The broader picture encompasses our support staff, who themselves are swamped and exhausted,” he continues. “As I contemplate receiving the vaccine, I have a great sense of relief, but at the same time, I have a sense of guilt as it’s essential for the elderly, immune-comprised, support staff, and the broader community to be vaccinated.”

Johannesburg GP Dr Daniel Israel is also waiting for confirmation of his preliminary slot on Sunday. “It’s all happening, and it feels good. At the end of the day, there’s still some uncertainty as this round of vaccines is happening in the framework of a trial. But we know it’s safe, and I feel reassured that the Johnson & Johnson results show that it protects against serious disease, especially because we are exposed to COVID-19 every day.”

Dr Orit Laskov and Dr Sol Lison, both GPs in Cape Town, have preliminary slots booked for Sunday at Groote Schuur Hospital. “The idea of being vaccinated makes me feel really excited and optimistic. It feels like a light at the end of the tunnel but not ‘the’ light, as we aren’t out of the woods yet,” says Laskov. “It will help me feel slightly less anxious about treating positive patients. I have confidence in the government’s response to this. It’s moving in the right direction.”

Says Lison, who is in his 70s, “I have been terrified of COVID-19 because of my co-morbidities, so I’m prepared to have the vaccine and see how I go. It has been quite a battle to try and get by. I will still wear a mask and take other precautions, but it’s good to know that the vaccine prevents severe disease.”

Dr Evan Shoul, an infectious disease specialist at Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg who works in a COVID-19 ward, hasn’t yet been able to book a slot, but says, “It’s really exciting and will change things quite radically for us. We are all absolutely thrilled at the prospect of getting the vaccine. Lots of medical staff have been exposed to a year of traumatic experiences, so it’s wonderful to have something promising in our midst.”

For Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines, it’s a big moment. “I feel positive about the vaccine rollout now that the first batch of vaccines has arrived for healthcare workers. They have worked exceedingly hard under tremendous pressure, and I’m delighted that they will now be afforded the means of protecting themselves with a very safe and effective vaccine,” he says.

“This is the first rung of a very challenging ladder. It will certainly tax our healthcare resources to the maximum to vaccinate and achieve the goal of reaching the desired level for herd immunity. Yes, there will undoubtedly be hitches along the way, but I’m quietly confident that the goal will be reached, hopefully by early next year. I feel we owe the health minister our gratitude for his extraordinary hard work and the devotion he has shown in securing vaccines for the country.”

Professor Efraim Kramer says that as a frontline healthcare worker in an emergency department, he registered within hours of the electronic vaccinating system going live.

“I’m 67, have hypertension, and therefore have always been at high risk. During the first wave, 12 out of 14 of the doctors in our department contracted COVID-19, and five have contracted it during the second wave thus far. Receiving the vaccine would potentially take me out of the severe/fatal COVID-19 risk category. I don’t have a date or time, but my hospital, Thelle Mogoerane Regional Hospital, is the designated COVID-19 vaccine administration centre for the south eastern region, and I have no doubt that’s where I will get my jab with the rest of my medical team. How do I feel? Like a little boy waiting for a big present that’s coming soon … counting how many sleeps.”

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