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

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OP-EDS

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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OP-EDS

Our title deed to Israel was given by G-d

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Yom Ha’atzmaut is an opportunity to declare proudly and publicly our connection to Israel. This is our opportunity to remind ourselves and the world what Israel means to us.

We can draw our inspiration for this from a beautiful and powerful mitzvah bikkurim – the mitzvah for farmers to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate them to G-d.

The Talmud paints a colourful picture of the farmers’ procession to the Temple as they brought the bikkurim. They didn’t arrive one by one in Jerusalem; rather, they would go up in a group, accompanied by music and a whole entourage to mark the occasion. At the head of the procession, there was a bull decorated in gold. And all the residents of Jerusalem – the shopkeepers and all the workers, sometimes even the king – would come out to greet the farmers. Upon arriving at the Temple, the Levi’im would sing a song from the book of Tehillim.

Then, on dedicating their baskets of produce to the Temple, the farmer would make a declaration summarising Jewish history and expressing gratitude to G-d for bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel – to the sacred ground from which these first fruits were harvested.

Why all the fanfare? And how is any of this connected to Yom Ha’atzmaut?

One of our great sages, the Malbim, explains that the declaration on the bikkurim was a response to those who would challenge our right to the land of Israel. He cites Rashi’s very first comment on the Chumash – the question of why the Torah begins with the book of Genesis, the more narrative-driven portions of the Torah, when really the Torah is a book of commandments.

Quoting from a prescient midrash, Rashi explains that the reason the Torah begins with the story of creation is because one day, the Jewish people would be accused of unjustly appropriating the land of Israel, to which we can respond – G-d, the creator of the world, gave it to us. That is our title deed. And we underline this claim by publicly declaring and celebrating our connection to the land of Israel in the bikkurim ceremony.

There’s certainly a lesson we can draw on here in our own age about proudly and unapologetically celebrating our connection to the land of Israel.

But bikkurim has another – no less important – lesson for us for Yom Ha’atzmaut – the lesson of gratitude. Through the declaration, farmers express gratitude for the fact that G-d took us out of Egypt and brought us to the land of milk and honey from which the fruits were harvested. In this way, the entire farming experience becomes grounded in a deep appreciation. And the way we show our gratitude is by dedicating the best and the first to G-d through the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben, of redeeming a first-born son, and through the mitzvah of bikkurim.

Gratitude is at the heart of Jewish identity. The word “Jew” comes from the word “Yehudi”, derived from the name “Yehuda”, Leah’s fourth son. When she gave birth to Yehuda, she said, “I will give thanks to G-d.” As Jews, we know that everything we have, every blessing we enjoy, comes from our creator.

And so, as we mark Yom Ha’atzmaut this year, as we look back with satisfaction on all of the immense achievements of the past 73 years, our hearts are filled with gratitude and appreciation to G-d for His blessings that have made it all possible.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is famous for having said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” G-d’s miracles have accompanied the birth, growth, and development of the state of Israel throughout these 73 years. From the great military victories and economic and technological achievements, to the miraculous rebuilding of yeshivot and Torah learning on a grand scale beyond the wildest dreams of those who saw the destruction of these institutions in the Holocaust, the Jewish people have established, with G-d’s blessing, a thriving state in spite of all odds. Israel has, with divine help, continuously defied the natural order of things.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut, as we once again declare our historic connection to the land and celebrate all that our beloved state of Israel has miraculously accomplished, let us do so with deep gratitude and unabashed pride – and through this, let us unleash abundant divine blessings for many more years of greatness.

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OP-EDS

Beth Din works to make Pesach “lesstressingmoreblessing”

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The kosher department spends nearly six months of the year planning for Pesach and making certifications.

This year was particularly challenging with the sad and untimely passing of Rabbi Desmond Maizels in Cape Town. His care and knowledge added much to South African kashrut for many decades.

Various products available all over the country are manufactured in Cape Town. With the help of the Cape Town kosher team, we ensure that the highest standards are kept, and all essential items that the community needs are made available across the country.

This year, we launched a #lesstressingmoreblessing campaign, which we hoped would help make everyone’s preparation ahead of Pesach a little easier. We shared our expanded Green List, which is a list of products that don’t require a special Pesach hechsher.

We all know how expensive this time of year is and unfortunately, it’s costly for companies to manufacture Pesach items. In many cases – locally and internationally – the ingredients need to be changed, and factories often need to be closed for at least 24 hours to kasher production lines.

Furthermore, runs are often done in small batches and in most cases, production is done under the direct supervision of a mashgiach. We do what we can to research products all year round to add to our Green List to make it easier and more cost-effective to keep Pesach.

We then shared some delicious recipes from Romi Rabinowitz. Next, we created and shared helpful videos on kashering some of the latest kitchen appliances, which also enabled the community to meet some of the kosher team. Most importantly, we extended the hours of our kosher desk hotline to answer all the community’s questions.

Pick n Pay again printed our Pesach Guide, and innovated by placing a variety of Pesach-specific products on its Bottles app. This is something we hope to expand in the future.

What’s most important to us is community feedback. After Pesach, we reached out to the community via a survey, and got just less than 800 responses.

Here are the most pertinent:

•     Most of the community was happy with the product range available this year;

•     They prefer to buy locally-made products as it keeps costs down;

•     More than two-thirds of the community felt that the kosher department gave them useful information this year;

•     The Green List was found to be the most useful information shared;

•     There is a range of locally produced items that people would like to see available next year, namely: Orley Whip, sweets, cold drinks, diet drinks, chocolates, spices and sauces; and

•     Many expressed appreciation for our team, which we are grateful for.

The survey is now closed, so if you didn’t have the opportunity to respond to it, we invite you to contact us directly with your feedback.

We are grateful to everyone who completed the survey. We value the feedback and, with the positive and useful information given, we have already begun to plan for Pesach 2022. We hope we will keep you #lesssressingmoreblessing.

  • Rabbi Dovi Goldstein is the kosher managing director at the Beth Din.

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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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