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Fire and rebirth

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OP-EDS

This will be a high-anxiety Yom Kippur. Even the wave of relief from the shofar blast signalling the end of the fast will be short-lived.

The pandemic, with its face coverings, social distancing, hand washing, and isolation, has been with us for many months, and will still be there when the fast is over. And because Yom Kippur is also a day of prayer and self-reflection, it will be hard not to lament the lousy hand we’ve been dealt. For me, as always, it will remind me of another high-anxiety Yom Kippur, and I hope this one also leads to better times.

The sirens calling Israeli reservists to battle on 6 October 1973, turned that Yom Kippur from a day of prayer to a day of emergency mobilisation. Ironically, because so many Israelis were at services, officers were able to enter synagogues and dispatch reservists to their units as the country transformed from peace to war.

But this story is about the next Yom Kippur.

Living in Brooklyn, I was concerned about friends and family in Israel, but I had some draft-board obligations – the Vietnam War was winding down but not over – and I had just begun my studies at Brooklyn College. After the spring semester, I bought an open-ended student ticket, meandered through Holland and Belgium, and then caught a flight to Tel Aviv. I had no plan whatsoever, but a high school friend met me at the airport and invited me to crash at the kibbutz where he had been living. They liked him at the kibbutz, and they were happy to house and feed his American friend for a few days. By day three, though, they suggested that I start working or find alternative accommodation. I opted for the former.

I discovered quickly that farming is hard work. Whether you are working in the fields or tending to the livestock, nature dictates the rhythm, and it’s relentless. The typical day starts before sunrise, and ends when it ends. The work is physically demanding, and the summer heat oppressive. I thought about quitting, but then fate smiled on me.

The kibbutz had plenty of hands to milk the cows and pick the cotton: it had other volunteers; it had students in an ulpan, a Hebrew-language immersion course; and it had a unit of soldiers detailed to it. However, because reservists were cycled back and forth from civilian life to the front lines, there weren’t enough licensed drivers to operate tractors and combines. I had a valid New York State driver’s license. The fact that I had never driven a car with a manual transmission, much less a twelve-gear tractor or a massive cotton combine, didn’t deter me from offering my services, or the kibbutz from accepting. Somehow, I managed to learn without any serious incidents.

I often worked alone in the fields on the midnight shift, and I learned to appreciate solitude. The roar of the tractor is incessant, but you don’t shut off the engine unless a plow blade, a hydraulic line, or some other mechanical emergency requires immediate attention. When I did shut it off, I felt enveloped by the darkness and the silence. The sensation didn’t last long because of the pressure to get back to work, but I still remember those moments of stillness.

Which brings us to the high-anxiety Yom Kippur of 1974.

Most synagogues have a cantor for the high holy days. At the kibbutz in 1974, services were led by the kibbutzniks, many of whom were Holocaust survivors and most of whom were veterans of Israel’s wars. Services were utilitarian because even on Yom Kippur, the cows must be milked, the chickens must be fed, and those on guard duty must be relieved.

But when the cantor recited the soulful lines of the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, “Who will live and who will die … who by fire and who by the sword”, you could feel the emotion. (This standard of the Yom Kippur liturgy is attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 11th century. Many now recognise the lines as lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s dirge-like classic Who by Fire.)

A year earlier, Israelis raced into battle, spending weeks, sometimes months, under fire in bunkers and tanks, and many were now missing from the pews.

Because services were quicker, there was a long break before the closing Neilah prayer and the concluding shofar blast. Most people remained subdued, in part because they were fasting and in part because of the solemnity of the day. But on this Yom Kippur, they were also anxiously praying for the sirens to remain silent.

I’ve been to Israel many times since, and I always try to visit the kibbutz to reconnect and recall those nights in the field and that long, anxiety-filled Yom Kippur afternoon. I haven’t visited this year because of coronavirus restrictions, and I suspect that Yom Kippur services worldwide will be subdued because of the many empty seats, mostly as a result of social distancing, but some for those who succumbed to this awful disease. It can be argued that the seeds of Middle East peace were planted on that fateful Yom Kippur. Hopefully, good things will come from this one as well.

  • Howard N. Apsan PhD is an executive at The City University of New York, a faculty member at Columbia University, and the founder of Apsan Consulting, specialising in environmental and risk management.

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OP-EDS

Is the US losing interest in the Middle East?

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The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship is a really interesting case study for those who watch Middle Eastern geopolitics closely. Some background to current events is necessary to set the context.

On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a difficult ally. Its human-rights record is suspect, to say the least. It was clearly responsible for the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which caused a worldwide outcry. It has also been involved in a war in Yemen that has created a humanitarian disaster, with high civilian casualties and hunger, malnutrition, and illness in that country.

On the other hand, it’s a strategic US ally, and a stable, pro-Western country. It entered the war in Yemen for good reason – to prevent the Iranian-aligned Houthi forces from taking over the country. It was also the second biggest oil producer in the world in 2020.

President Joe Biden was left with a difficult choice. Heading up a Democratic administration, which supposedly prides itself on its support for human rights, he couldn’t leave things as they were. On the other hand, he couldn’t damage the US’s vital strategic and national interests. To this end, he seems to have attempted to walk a fine line by taking the following actions:

He released a redacted intelligence report that blamed the crown prince for being behind the murder of the journalist, but took no further action. He has made it clear that the US no longer supports the operations of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and has temporarily paused the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia, but has allowed the continued sale of defensive arms.

More importantly, he didn’t act when Saudi oilfields were once again attacked by Houthi missiles and drones on 7 March, which led to a spike in oil prices briefly above $70 (R1 021) a barrel.

The US said on the Monday that its commitment to defend Saudi Arabia was “unwavering”, and in a Twitter post, the US mission in Riyadh condemned the attacks, which it said demonstrated a “lack of respect for human life” and a “lack of interest in the pursuit of peace”. However, the US took no further action.

The main issue, however, which is being brought to the fore by the awkward US-Saudi dance, is that the US is losing interest in the Middle East. The area is much less of a priority than it used to be.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the US no longer relies on imports of oil from the region. Last year, according to The Economist, the US was in fact a net exporter of oil and natural gas.

Second, the US has been involved in long and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost trillions of dollars and achieved very little.

Finally – and this has been the policy across three US presidents now – the US wants to pivot to Asia and focus much more on countering a rapidly growing and influential China. It wants to lighten its burdens in the Middle East, and instead focus its energies on what everyone believes will be the world’s leading growth region of the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean the US will withdraw totally. It still has troops all over the area, and has vital interests in preventing a nuclear arms race there and not allowing terrorist groups to grow and find sanctuary. However, given recent events, it seems clear that it will scale down its activities and no longer expend the time and energy it has in the past. Its military activities will be curtailed.

The effect of this clear signal from the US has been dramatic, and it no doubt played a major role in the Abraham Accords and signing of peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. If and when the Saudis join the emerging Israel-Sunni reproachment, it will no doubt also be due to the fear of less US involvement in the region and of therefore having to face their enemies alone.

While this development has been positive for Israel in that it now has new strategic allies in the region, bringing much more diplomatic strength and regional influence, in the long term, there must be concern.

The US moves towards Saudi Arabia are a portent for it becoming much less involved in the region, and clearly show its intention not to be dragged into any more wars there.

While Israel now has a lot of new allies as a result, and it seems the friendships will be warm, none of the new allies are major military powers. Local regional alliances, useful as they are, cannot replace the world’s main superpower, and an unstable region will surely become still more unstable without the US’s active presence.

Israeli leaders have long suspected this, but the fact that the US hasn’t responded militarily to the two recent attacks on the Saudi oilfields when in the past, under any president, there would have been a robust and strong response, shows how dramatically things have changed. The US can no longer be relied on as a military ally. Israel will be left to fend pretty much for itself if and when the next war breaks out in the Middle East.

  • Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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OP-EDS

Pretoria’s Old Synagogue: from simcha to shande

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On a recent visit to Tshwane, I was horrified to see the dilapidated state of the Old Synagogue on Paul Kruger Street in the city centre, which is a heritage icon for Jews and South Africans.

So many happy recollections of weddings, Bnei mitzvah, and Brit Milahs flooded my memory, and my eyes filled with tears. I thought of the significance of this majestic building that witnessed the start of the Rivonia Treason Trial of 1960 and 1964, as well as the inquest into the death of Steve Biko.

Today, the building lies in ruins, designated to the ash heap of a bygone era. The pain in my chest was acute as I looked at this wonderful monument that has been vandalised and abused instead of being cherished and preserved for generations to come.

As part of my oversight visits to buildings owned by the department of public works and infrastructure, I was asked by Councillor Wayne Helfrich and Candidate Councillor Leanne de Jager to come to Tshwane to investigate a number of heritage buildings. The belief was that while they had all been abandoned, they could be repurposed and reused.

It’s of the utmost importance that buildings such as this magnificent shul should be preserved at all costs to tell the stories of a bygone era. It needs to serve as a reminder of the tremendous impact it played as a catalyst to the birth of democracy in South Africa.

The first stone of the Old Synagogue was laid in 1897, and the shul was consecrated on 20 August 1898, making it the first permanent shul in Pretoria.

As a result of the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902, the community had financial constraints. In 1906, legendary philanthropist and businessman Sammy Marks settled the mortgage of the shul, and donated it back to the community. He had three strict instructions:

  • The property couldn’t be sold, ceded, or assigned to anyone, but was to be used exclusively for a shul in perpetuity;
  • No mortgages, charges, or encumbrances could be applied or laid on the property; and
  • The house on the property could be used only as the residence of the minister of the congregation (rabbi) or some official of the shul.

What would Sammy Marks be thinking today? He and his descendants would be horrified if they stood where I stood and saw – and smelled – the destruction that greeted us when we entered the building.

I can still feel the heaviness in my heart as I gazed up at the once ornate, beautiful ceiling and the galleries that had held so many faces smiling down on the simchas that marked this building’s history.

But the building wasn’t just a source of joy and miracles. In 1952, the growing Jewish community moved to another building in Pretorius Street, taking its Aron Kodesh, menorah, cornerstone, and stained-glass windows with them to their new home that could accommodate increasing numbers.

The site was then expropriated and transferred to the state with the intention of redeveloping the entire block on which the shul stood into a new Supreme Court.

In 1958, it was modelled as an annex of the Supreme Court for security-related cases. The striking sandstone façade of the building was neutralised by painting it cream. Two utility buildings for police accommodation, holding cells, and witness waiting rooms were added.

This further dehumanised this once magnificent vestige of Jewish life in Pretoria. These utility buildings were created with strict racial segregation, another painful reminder of our tragic past.

The area of the Aron Kodesh and bimah were converted into judicial benches, windows, were bricked up, the Magen David replaced by the South African coat of arms, and the seating converted to that of a conventional court.

The neshomah of the shul was removed in its entirety, but it started to have importance in our democratic life. The first treason trial was transferred to this holy building on 1 August 1958, and lasted until 29 March 1961.

Those who made their appearance in this building in the two treason trials (of 1958 and 1962) included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and my late uncle, Denis Goldberg. Their sentencing in the infamous Rivonia Trial, however, took place in the Palace of Justice.

During the trial, one of the witnesses, M Mkalipe, brought his Bible into the witness box. To the surprise of the judges seated where the rabbi used to stand, Mkalipe read a few verses from the book of Daniel to his “assembled congregation”. He said he did it deliberately to invoke the rich history of the Old Synagogue – a religious space distinct from the Calvinist Dutch Reformed roots of the apartheid regime.

“We cannot allow such a magnificent, significant, and authentic piece of our history as Jews and as South Africans to disappear,” says Helfrich. “We have to come together as a community to restore this once great symbol to its former glory. The Jewish community in Tshwane has expressed a deep sense of sadness at the demise of the building, and would love to see it restored as a Jewish and major South African heritage site.

“So many promises have been made to the community that this beautiful home will once again be able to teach and inspire our youth that they have given up hope of them ever seeing the light of day.”

As Jews and South Africans, we need to change this. We need to restore hope that history has a place in our lives, that we can continue to celebrate the rich heritage that is housed in this building, and that we can free the voices that once rang out in this shul so that they can speak to us again.

Perhaps the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in conjunction with the Tshwane Jewish community can breathe life into this Grand Old Dame of Jewish heritage. Let’s mobilise and make a difference. Let’s revive this legacy, and let it be a historic museum, a testimony to the past, and an inspirational teaching space for generations to come.

  • Madeleine Hicklin is the Democratic Alliance shadow deputy minister: department of public works and infrastructure.

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OP-EDS

If I am only for myself, then who am I?

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In Pirkei Avot, it says, “If I am not for myself then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then who am I? And if not now, then when?”

This is a verse that has rung true for me over the years. Growing up in South Africa, I was always confused about why we were all still living here when the country has so many problems.

About three months ago, students started coming to the Student Representative Council (SRC) offices in their numbers desperately asking for help. These were students who had passed one of the most challenging academic years, but weren’t allowed to continue their studies because they had been excluded financially.

Last year, these students passed against great odds. Many were sent home to rural areas to study a university degree while living in a one-bedroom shack. They had to set aside an hour during their exam to walk up a hill just so that they would have signal to submit their work. Many have parents who lost jobs and lost lives.

These same students aren’t being allowed to return to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), not on merit, but on the basis of an unfair disadvantage.

Since the beginning of time, Judaism has highlighted the importance of education. During the time of Rabbi Akiva, Jews were killed for learning Torah. From here on, it was made very clear to us as a nation that without education, one cannot survive. As a persecuted people, we were made to understand that education is something that can never be taken away from us.

But what if you were never given an opportunity to get that education in the first place?

During the apartheid era, the doors of higher education were closed to black people. Twenty-seven years down the line in a post-apartheid democracy, this reality still exists for many in our country.

While I have been privileged enough to be able to access tertiary education, many aren’t in that place of privilege.

For much of my life, I didn’t agree with protests. I thought that they were the easy way out, futile, and that a much better way of getting what you want was negotiation.

We have had two months of hour-long meetings, negotiating with the Wits administration and putting forward proposals, many interviews, and even the launch of a national fundraising campaign #21MillionIn2021. After this, I realised I was living in utopia thinking that sitting across a table would bring back these students.

We tried everything and exhausted all our options before beginning to protest. After much deliberation, we had no other option but to go to ground. It’s sad to see that our requests fell on deaf ears until the entrances of the university were peacefully blocked.

It’s frustrating that when I called the police to help a student who had been raped, they never arrived. However, when we protest, within minutes, there more police on the ground than there are students.

But the hardest thing of all is to know that there are many who don’t understand what we are doing here, and will probably never ask.

These protests aren’t about politics or trying to cause chaos. These protests are about lives. Many of these students are the first ones out of many generations in their family to be getting a tertiary education. So, when they come to the SRC offices for help, it’s because they don’t have anyone to show them what to do. They are alone, and they come to us as the SRC for help in desperate need of solutions.

Every day, I walk into the SRC office as one person and come out as another. I have heard the stories and seen the faces of these students. Each degree is a bridge for a student from a life of despair to a future of opportunity. This is a truth that I can’t unlearn, a truth that I can’t not act upon.

As Jews, we are no longer a persecuted people, but that doesn’t mean that we mustn’t fight for those persecuted around us.

As I write this article, I’m a student at Wits, but that doesn’t mean that I must stop fighting for the 6 000 students who aren’t.

I have learnt that my identity as a Jew is directly tied to my ability to protest, to demonstrate, to stand firmly for what I believe in. I have learnt that to protest, I don’t need to be violent or undignified, but rather I can protest in the way in which I feel is right.

I have learnt that my Judaism isn’t confined to shul and the parameters of my community. It’s about my feet. It’s about movement and movement building. It’s about applying my abilities as a Jew to practice tikkun olam (to repair the world) fervently in all the spaces I exist in.

We have all chosen to stay in this country, with all its problems and its opportunities. It’s time we stopped complaining about the things that are wrong, and started being the ones to change them to things that are right.

If we are going to stay in South Africa, let’s do it for a reason. I have found my reason. I’m going to do my part in bringing back these 6 000 students, and make sure that they aren’t the last ones from their families, schools, or townships to open the doors of education.

“If I’m not for myself then, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself then who am I? And if not now, then when?”

  • Gabi Farber is studying a Bachelor of Arts Law and International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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