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Israel Apartheid Week will test Habib’s resolve

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The Jewish Report Editorial

GEOFF SIFRIN

Israel Apartheid Week will test Habib’s resolve

 GEOFF SIFRIN

Wits University was aflame last year with demonstrations around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when its new vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, came into the position. Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) was being held on campus.

Not an easy time to start, as he was struck full face with the violent disruption by members of the SRC of Israeli-born pianist Yossi Reshef’s concert 15 minutes into Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, after they forced the door. The incident raised many eyebrows about how, at this renowned university, such a thing could happen.

Since then, Habib has endeavoured to re-establish the dignity and integrity of Wits as a place where different viewpoints can be freely expressed. He said at the time that he intended making Wits one of the great universities of the world.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn’t gone away. As IAW 2014 takes off on Monday, there is a fear of a re-run of the ugly events of 2013.

Last year, insufficient clarity existed in the university’s guidelines for political protests, allowing demonstrators to engage in a free-for-all. Subsequently, Habib employed the services of an independent legal expert for a disciplinary hearing of 11 students charged with bringing the university into disrepute. The students were found guilty, which also had the effect of helping clarify what was permissible and what was not.

Habib was at pains not to destroy the futures of these students, but lines had to be drawn. The saga became bigger than an Israeli-related issue and more about university conduct as a whole.

To his credit, Habib has this year seemingly endeavoured to pre-empt disruptions at IAW by calling in the parties involved on both sides – the PSC and SAUJS – and establishing clear boundaries of acceptable conduct. Hovering over these guidelines is a weighty statement that improper behaviour will not be countenanced and will lead to consequences.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. They must set an example. On paper, Habib’s stance seems clear and commendable. It remains to be seen, however, what will happen between theory and practice, when IAW actually gets underway.

Such an emotive topic is more difficult to manage than an ordinary student affair. The protagonists are so far apart that it is wishful thinking to expect to bring them together calmly.

Hate speech, abusive behaviour and even violence could result. Habib must be congratulated for assertively setting the standard of conduct before the event. But he must follow through with severe actions if the situation gets out of hand. As an educator and guardian of a prestigious university, his lesson must be that all views are entitled to be heard and given their space, but not in a way that silences other views, shouts them down or physically prevents others from expressing their allegiances, such as happened to Yossi Reshef.

With elections coming up in two months, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will increasingly become a political football, with parties intensely aware of the positions they project. It could lose or win them votes among Jews, Muslims and others. Disruptions around this question at one of the country’s most prestigious campuses and the authorities’ reaction to it could be a bellwether for the ethos of the run-up to the poll.

No-one is naïve enough to think the Wits students will eliminate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s tensions and accept a bland middle road. On the contrary, robust exchange of ideas and passionately held beliefs are essential to vibrant university life. But this does not mean licence for intimidation and assault.

We are watching closely to see if Habib’s stance of safeguarding civilised dialogue will prevail. If it does, he might be just the sort of vice-chancellor Wits needs in these controversial times, not only on this matter, but on others that critically affect the university.

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Seeing heroes emerging

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To make us all feel happier, we need to feel safe, secure, and well. And these three tiers in our lives have been battered and bruised over the past few years. However, I feel happier right now because I am seeing these needs being met again. You may be thinking that I have finally lost my marbles, but let me explain…

Our sense of wellness has been challenged severely by COVID-19, but we are well out of the third wave, and so many of us have been vaccinated. Now, we have the opportunity to get our youngsters vaccinated too. That’s the best news I’ve heard in a long time.

I totally understand why some parents are a little hesitant to rush into vaccinating their children, but I believe that vaccination is our ticket out of this torrid coronavirus-ridden time we are living in. It’s our ticket to freedom, travel, and having a semblance of our former life. I cannot imagine anyone of us is not longing for that. I sure am!

As my teenage boys said to me when I asked if they wanted to have the vaccine, “It’s a no brainer, mom, we have to have it!” And apparently, I can’t override their choice legally – not that I plan to.

However, I do get that some parents are nervous about putting chemicals into their children’s bodies unnecessarily. Can I say, I have seen too much illness – even in young people – in the past year and a half to believe this is unnecessary. It’s essential to protect your children, your other loved ones, the community, the country, and the world. It’s that simple!

So, any good parent should hesitate, but don’t pause for long because, as my boys said, “It’s a no brainer, mom!”

The second tier I want to look at is safety. After hearing about the horrific murder of the much loved jeweller, Mark Kopelowitz, last week, I felt physically sick. I couldn’t help imagining this father of four lightly saying goodbye to his family in the morning on his way to work, never thinking that it would be for the last time. They may or may not have kissed him goodbye because – as we all do – they assumed that he would be home at the end of the day, as normal. But that wasn’t to be.

That’s enough to shatter our sense of safety. However, there’s another side to this horrific story and that’s the fact that within hours, a crack team of investigators made up of our own CAP, the police, and others had culprits behind bars with evidence to take them to court.

Now, that’s a huge accomplishment. You see, part of our feeling of insecurity is tied into the fact that we don’t feel protected by the police anymore. However, this crack team is doing the most amazing work, particularly in our areas, and it’s fighting crime in a way that it hasn’t been fought for decades. They are bringing back our sense of security.

One of the worst issues regarding crime is criminals getting away with it. In so doing, they have no fear of doing it again and again, encouraging mayhem and an attitude that they are all powerful. This crack team is showing them that crime will no longer pay. They are changing the face of crime-fighting in our areas. Hopefully, their example will be followed around the country.

Isn’t it amazing how it can be done with the right commitment, people, and technology?

Following on that, I would like to take you to another story we covered in Sandton this week.

An armed robbery right next to a Jewish school that could have ended in tragedy. But it didn’t because of the quick thinking and action of teachers at the school and the Community Security Organisation. Their actions were so swift and calm, the nursery school children didn’t even realise that they were all in their safe rooms because a real crime was happening. They were blissfully thinking it was another drill that they experience regularly.

So, those children will remain emotionally unscathed by this senseless attempted robbery.

Again, these people inspire safety and security in me.

Living in South Africa, we have no choice but to accept the threat of crime. It exists, no matter how much we hate it. We just hope and pray we remain unscathed.

It is, however, essential to be vigilant and protect ourselves all the time. I know that sounds easier said than done – it is. And every one of us is going to let our guard down at some point. We’re only human.

We just need to keep our guard up as much as possible and, should something happen, we must do whatever it takes to safeguard ourselves, our children, and those around us.

More and more, I’m seeing people doing just that. We may not personally be able to stop crime, but we can do our best to avoid it or use what we have learned to teach others.

Nicky Sher had a horrific experience when hijackers took her on a joyride, leaving her fearing for her life. (See page 3.) Incredibly, this brave woman has come out with her story in order to help others who may find themselves in a similar situation. She wants to warn and help them.

So, when I say that I believe these needs are being met, I really do. I see heroes emerging. I see a community gathering to put an end to the darkness in the only way we know how.

I feel inspired and happy!

Shabbat shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

No more double standards

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When the South African government hosts the foreign affairs minister of another country, it’s generally good news. When we welcome leadership from elsewhere, it mostly means increased co-operation between the two states, building relationships, and boosting trade.

In fact, in the past 18 months, in spite of the pandemic, we have hosted a number of leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron of France; Spanish secretary of state for foreign affairs, Cristina Gallach Figueras; Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister Sabri Boukadoum; Dr Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, the president of the Republic of Malawi; and Lesotho Prime Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro.

The countries we invite or simply welcome are varied, some being more or less important to us in terms of trade and bilateral agreements. Some official visitors are more or less impressive to host. Nevertheless, making friends and influencing other governments is generally a good sign in a country’s leadership.

Considering this, I would expect to be glad when South African International Relations and Cooperation Minister Dr Naledi Pandor hosted and welcomed with open arms the minister of foreign affairs and expatriates of the state of Palestine, Dr Riad Malki. It’s neither here nor there if such a country in fact exists. South Africa should be enhancing relationships with other leaders around the world.

However, it gets stuck in my throat when the same honour isn’t proffered to the leadership of Israel. In fact, our dear minister of international relations and cooperation is unlikely to be available for such a meeting even if it was hosted in her honour.

But yet, at the same time, she will have these warm and friendly meetings with this Palestinian leader, talking about peace in the Middle East and finding a two-state solution. This actually sounds wonderful, except that you cannot work towards peace by dealing with only one side. You cannot negotiate peace without both parties being given an equal platform, or am I somehow mistaken?

Let’s talk more about creating an equal platform. In their discussions, the foreign ministers of South African and ‘Palestine’ agreed to do all they could to remove Israel’s newly bestowed observer status at the African Union. Why, you may ask? Quite simply, to punish Israel. Is that a way of working towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians? I think not.

Then, while Pandor is going to welcome Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for a state visit to South Africa, she wouldn’t be seen anywhere near the company of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. And, the latter’s crime? None that I know of, but we would have to ask the very learned Dr Pandor.

The Palestinian and South African bilateral discussions also brought about agreement to host a Cape Town conference for Palestinian heads of missions in Africa this year where the “state of Palestine’s policy towards Africa” will be discussed and contemplated. What are the chances of our government hosting such a conference for Israelis? The truth is, in this instance, I’m sure holding such a conference for Israelis would be perfectly acceptable, only it would inspire a huge protest, and so on.

So, I repeat, government hosting this Palestinian leader is essentially good news, as is its hosting of most other leaders. However, it’s the double standards that irk me.

Though South Africa will entertain leaders from countries with horrific human-rights records, it won’t meet Israel. China is way up on this index, as is Libya, Syria, Iran, all of whom are friends of our government, but not Israel (which doesn’t really feature on this abusive list).

What’s so perplexing for me is that it seems like South Africa is being left behind with its anti-Israel sentiment – or can I go as far as calling it South Africa’s blind spot?

Most countries in the world recognise these days that a relationship with Israel can only be good for them. Israel is way ahead of so many countries in terms of technology, agriculture, science, and even medicine, that it’s worthwhile to maintain a good working relationship with it.

So many African countries with a good relationship with Israel have benefited hugely on numerous fronts, but South Africa cannot or will not consider this.

I totally understand that a country with a background of human-rights abuses would find it unconscionable to be friends with a country that commits human-rights abuses. If Israel was really such a country, then perhaps we wouldn’t have room to talk.

However, Israel is in the heart of the Middle East, nestled among a number of countries where human-rights abuses are horrific. And yet, South Africa picks this tiny country to put its pins into, ignoring the friends it has that commit human-rights abuses. I say it again: these are very convenient double standards!

I also understand looking out for Palestinian women and children who have been treated badly and made homeless. I feel for them, and wish I could help them. However, what about Afghan women and children? Or is it okay to abuse them or ignore the fact that they are being abused because it isn’t woke to protest against that?

I feel as if I have said this all before, and I know I have. However, somehow, it seems important to come back to it when our government’s double standards are being showcased once again when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

I can’t ignore it. We can’t ignore it.

The only solution is to make it clear that if the South African government or our foreign affairs minister is going to meet Palestinian leaders, then she needs to meet Israeli leaders. She needs to get to know the issues from both sides, to sit down and discuss them. Visit Israel. See for herself. Don’t take it from others. Do the research, and make up her own mind based on the facts.

It isn’t rocket science. It’s simply taking away the blinkers of prejudice and replacing them with the facts. We can help! Just say the word.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Being Jewish is a constitutional right

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In this country, we are fortunate enough to have religious freedom. It’s enshrined in an incredible Constitution. This is a big deal for us, and it ensures our right to freedom of religion, belief, and opinion.

This means that as Jews, Muslims, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, or Baha’i, we’re all entitled to follow our own religious beliefs, and those around us must enable us to do this freely. That is, as long as it doesn’t infringe on or harm others’ rights.

But when university students are scheduled to take important tests or assessments on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, our two holiest of holy days in the Jewish calendar, it’s undoubtedly incumbent on the university to give them the option of another day to write. Surely, the students shouldn’t have to just accept and deal with it or work around it. They certainly shouldn’t have to decide whether or not to observe their holy day because of an academic issue.

Surely, in respect for their religion, when they have specifically requested that alternative arrangements be made, they shouldn’t have to decide whether to write on Yom Kippur or simply lose the marks.

We may well be a minority religion in South Africa, but the Constitution gives us the right to practice our religion. And that means fasting and praying on Yom Kippur. Nobody should force us into a situation where we have to choose whether or not to fast or write an important test on Yom Kippur.

Our right to practice our religion is enshrined, but somehow Stellenbosch University didn’t think these rights were important enough, causing consternation among young Jewish students.

Somehow, those in authority over these tests simply didn’t believe it was important enough to make other plans for Jewish students.

Now, I have no idea if Stellenbosch University would make alternative plans for Muslim or Buddhist students, but I would hope that it would do so. I’m certainly not saying that it should make alternative arrangements only for Jewish students, that would be wrong.

I’m saying that it should accommodate all students’ religious beliefs because it’s a national right of every one of us to practice our religion, whatever that may be.

I’m not about to call this antisemitism because I don’t actually believe this to be the case, but it’s still unacceptable that a university – where young minds learn what’s right and wrong, and so much else – denies clear constitutional rights.

I know of a case recently at the University of the Witwatersrand, where a young observant Jewish student was scheduled to write a test on Friday afternoon. She was going away for the weekend and asked to be able to write earlier so she could get to where she was going before Shabbat began.

It was allowed, as long as she wasn’t able to speak to her classmates between them starting to write and her finishing. It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t made into something it wasn’t. It was simple, and enabled her to get to her destination before Shabbat.

However, those who were meant to write on the high holy days at Stellenbosch weren’t given any leniency in terms of writing on that day.

I do understand that those outside of our community may not understand why we cannot write anything on Yom Kippur and the high holy days. They may not know anything about our religion, and I am certainly not expecting them to study it. But when it’s clearly important to us and we can justify making these requests, it’s not too much to ask. We certainly can expect people to make allowances for us.

Considering that so many people around us don’t know much about Judaism and Jewish people, there’s certainly a lot of misinformation about us. While some see us as religious zealots or strange people who wear odd clothes and have seemingly bizarre rituals, others find their way to believing that whatever we do is bad.

Before you think that I’m paranoid or have developed a victim mentality over the high holidays, that isn’t what I mean. I just think that sometimes people make assumptions about us and our organisations without checking their facts. Or they listen to what ignorant people say about us and accept it as truth.

Could this be the case with Judge David Unterhalter and the second Judicial Services Commission grilling for Constitutional Court positions? I guess that’s being kind and lenient in terms of some of the questions aimed at him regarding the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

To be honest, from my scant knowledge of what went on, I’m not sure that Unterhalter wasn’t selected because he is Jewish. However, the kinds of questions put to him about his religious affiliations and working with the SAJBD show a total lack of knowledge about us.

It doesn’t bother me that people don’t know much about us – they don’t have to – but then don’t make ugly assumptions about what we stand for.

I don’t know much about a lot of religious groups, but I wouldn’t presume to believe any nonsense about them just because they are different. I would expect that others would treat us in the same way.

It’s the new year for us, however, and this means new beginnings. I’m hoping that from now on, the sun will shine on us.

Looking around, colourful flowers are blooming and the weather is glorious. Somehow, this makes me feel really hopeful for this new year.

I have a sense that in spite of everything that has happened and the situation we are in with COVID-19 and all that it has meant for us, things are going to get better.

I wish that for you, me, our community, and all we care about!

Shana Tova to you all and Shabbat Shalom!

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