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Israel & Iran get tails together in Davos

While the presidential planes that carried the Israeli and Iran arrived at Davos on Wednesday, they were parked alongside one another. The rhetoric between the countries flowed to such an extent, though, that they remain a million miles apart when it comes to Mid-East policy. Read what Peres, Bibi & Rouhani had to say at Davos yesterday.

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ANT KATZ

The Office of the Israeli president issued a statement after he addressed the annual gathering of moneyed minds. Peres spoke after Rouhani and had the advantage of being able to answer him to some extent.

Two highlighted quotes on what Peres had said about Rouhani were:

“He is the only leader who doesn’t say clearly the time has come to make peace between Israel and the Arabs”

“We extend our hand for peace, including to the Iranian people, but today was a great occasion that was missed.”

Davos - PeresAt his press conference to answer questions from the international and Israeli media at the World Economic Forum in Davos responding to the speech by Iranian President Rouhani yesterday, Peres began by addressing the speech by the Iranian President and said, “The most significant remarks were the ones he didn’t make – he didn’t express support for peace in the Middle East.

“He is the only leader I know who didn’t say clearly the time has come to make peace between Israel and the Arabs,” said Peres. “He excluded the reference to peace and when he was asked if his vision included all countries he said it included only the ones that Iran will accept, that is some definition.”

President Peres continued and said of President Rouhani, “He didn’t announce that in order to reduce the bloodshed in Syria he’s going to stop sending arms and money to Hezbollah to the stop the killing, he could have announced that seeing as he doesn’t want a nuclear bomb that he will stop building long range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, he didn’t announce that Iran will stop being the centre of terror in our time. We can see their fingers in many terrible pies that endanger lives.

“As far as Israel is concerned we are ready to make peace with the Iranian people, historically they have never been our enemies, We extend our hand for peace, including to the Iranian people, but today was a great occasion that was missed,” said Peres.

In response to questions, Peres said the speech was “half a job and the most important half wasn’t done. Peace is peace for all people, without exclusion.

“President Rouhani doesn’t need the P5+1 to stop building missiles; he doesn’t need their permission to stop sending arms to Hezbollah and elsewhere. There is an offer on the table to enable Iran to have what other countries have but they have to stop threatening and terrorizing, even while making speeches like this one. There is no room to postpone.”

He sends Syria bullets, not ballots

President Peres expressed his support for Secretary Kerry’s peace-making efforts and the US position on Iran, “I believe President Obama is trying to do the right thing and the US has decided not to stop the sanctions fully until they see the results. Secretary Kerry is doing an excellent job with dynamism and determination. There are different opinions, different options and it is normal that they are being examined.”

President Peres was asked about the Iranian President’s call for elections in Syria and said, “Elections are being done by ballots not bullets, he sends bullets and that’s no way to encourage elections.”

Davos - RouhaniWhat Rouhani had to say

Iran is determined to negotiate a comprehensive deal on its nuclear programme with major powers so it can develop its battered economy, President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday, inviting Western companies to seize opportunities now.

Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, the pragmatic president said Tehran was negotiating with the United States as part of a “constructive engagement” with the world and wanted Washington to back up its words with actions.

However, a day after a chaotic Syria peace conference from which Iran was excluded, he was unbending in his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ending “terrorism” backed by some of Syria’s neighbours was a precondition for any settlement of the country’s civil war, he said.

Elected last year on a promise to improve Tehran’s relations with the outside world, Rouhani took the United Nations by storm in New York in September. His appearance in the Swiss resort launched phase two of a charm offensive aimed at ending sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy.

An interim deal with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany (known as the P5+1) came into force this week. This granted Iran a limited easing of the sanctions in return for temporary constraints on its uranium enrichment and nuclear development.

Veiled reference to Israel

Rouhani stressed his commitment to achieving a final settlement. “Iran has a serious will to come to an agreement with the P5+1,” he told the assembled business and political leaders. “I do not see a serious impediment in the way of this agreement. The Iranian will is strong.”

Asked what might prevent a long-term settlement, he cited the risk of “pressure from other parties” – a veiled reference to Israel, which denounced the interim deal as an “historic mistake” and urged the US Congress to resist it.

Rouhani broke no new diplomatic ground in his speech. In a private session with energy executives, he promised a new, attractive investment model for oil contracts by September as part of a drive to lure back Western business barred by the U.S.-led sanctions, participants said.

On Europe

Relations with Europe were being normalised now that the interim nuclear accord was being implemented, he said. Rouhani also met European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on the side-lines of the conference.

“Iran should use this window of opportunity with determination to move to a comprehensive long-term solution on the nuclear issue,” Barroso said in a statement. “This would open up the potential for an improved relationship and broader cooperation.”

At a separate meeting with US, European and Arab businessmen, Rouhani said Iran was seeking investment particularly in car manufacturing, oil and gas, petrochemicals, road and rail infrastructure and mining, a participant said.

Davos - Israeli and Iranian planes

No to Israeli passport-holders

He ignored a question from two US businessmen who said they had Israeli passports and asked if they could invest in Iran. The Islamic Republic does not recognise the Jewish state.

Most sanctions, including a severe squeeze on Iran’s access to the international financial system, remain in force and the United States has stressed Western companies should not regard Iran as “open for business.”

“Prudence and moderation”

Rouhani promised to pursue a consistent foreign policy of “prudence and moderation” to revive the economy.

He called for cooperation with all Iran’s neighbours but did not mention Gulf rival Saudi Arabia by name and refused, when pressed twice, to include Israel among states with which Iran sought friendly relations.

But Bibi was not impressed

REUTERS reported that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Davos but not in the hall during the speech, said afterwards that Rouhani’s soft words bore no relation to reality, citing Iran’s military role in Syria and its support for the Palestinian Hamas movement which seeks Israel’s destruction.

Davos - Netanyahu “Rouhani continues Iran’s deception show,” Netanyahu said.

“The goal of the Iranian ayatollahs’ regime, that hides behind Rouhani’s smile, is to ease sanctions without giving up their programme to produce nuclear weapons,” he said, urging the international community “not to be duped”.

Rouhani repeated Iran’s standard pledge not to seek nuclear weapons and said Tehran was willing to accept all safeguards and inspections of the U.N. nuclear agency, provided it was not subjected to “discrimination”. Western countries believe the atomic effort is aimed at developing a military capability.

“We never sought and will never seek nuclear weapons,” the president said. “I declare that a nuclear weapon has no place in our security strategy.”

But in a foretaste of tough negotiations on a long-term agreement, he said: “Iran will not accept any obstacles to its scientific progress.”

Some Western energy chiefs said they were impressed by Rouhani’s commitment to attract foreign investment in the sector, which has seen production cut by a third and exports halved by the sanctions.

“The fact that the president of Iran came to the meeting today… is clearly a sign that Iran wants to open up to international oil companies,” said Paolo Scaroni, chief executive of Italy’s Eni, who was at the meeting.

But, said Bibi, Eni would stick strictly to the sanctions and return to Iran only when a permanent nuclear deal was concluded and contract terms were changed.

Oil execs were impressed

“It was an impressive presentation,” said one of three other oil executives who attended and spoke with Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The United States and other Western powers want Tehran to end high-grade uranium enrichment and shut down a heavy-water reactor capable of producing plutonium nuclear fuel under any permanent settlement. Iran rejects these steps.

With Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, sitting in the audience, Rouhani said Iran sought cooperation “with the littoral states of the Persian Gulf”. However, he did not name Saudi Arabia, which has expressed concern about the interim nuclear deal.

In a clear swipe at Riyadh and Qatar, he renewed criticism of countries he did not name which he said were supporting terrorism in Syria, saying this would rebound on them at home.

Senior Gulf Arab businessmen from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who heard the speech said it was hard to believe Rouhani was genuine about his wish for better relations with Iran’s neighbours. They also said any trade deals would be for cash only until some payments channel could be arranged.

Iran was shut out of Wednesday’s UN-sponsored Syrian peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland, because of its refusal to endorse a framework for a transition from Assad’s rule.

Rouhani later cancelled a planned news conference and left the building without taking any questions in public, except from the World Economic Forum’s founder Klaus Schwab. Organisers cited “technical reasons”, saying they could not provide an adequate room with simultaneous interpretation at short notice.

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Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family

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Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.

The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.

Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.

“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.

“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”

Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’

“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”

Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”

By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.

“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”

He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.

Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”

He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.

Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”

Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.

“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”

Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.

“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.

“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”

To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit: https://givechak.co.il/yeonatan/en

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Chief rabbi calls JSC questioning ‘racist and antisemitic’

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Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein this week was appalled at the “conduct of the commissioners of the Judicial Service Commission [JSC] in their questioning of two Jewish judges [over the past weeks]”. He described it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.

Judge David Unterhalter was grilled about his short association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his interview with the JSC. He was being interviewed for a position on the Constitutional Court. Similar queries were directed at judicial candidate Advocate Lawrence Lever who is standing for a position in the Northern Cape, including if he observed Shabbat.

“The Jewish candidates were the only ones subjected to questions relating to religious identity and practice,” said the chief rabbi. “The direct implication of their questions was that a Jewish judge who is a Zionist or observes Shabbat would be disqualified from holding high judicial office.

“This violates the letter and spirit of our Constitution. It’s morally and legally repugnant for officers of the JSC to discriminate against any candidate on the basis of their religious identity. They should all be ashamed of themselves,” the chief rabbi said.

He called on JSC commissioners including the minister of justice to retract and apologise for their comments. “And I also call on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on their entire process. Racist conduct can never be condoned,” Goldstein said.

The SAJBD also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.

“Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny,” said SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn. “Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.

“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices, except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid,” said Kahn. “It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board. Nearly all Jews in South Africa have some association with [it]. One wonders why a body mandated with protecting constitutionally sound principles of religious freedom and fighting hate would be so objectionable to members of the JSC panel,” she asked rhetorically.

“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.

“From the questions Jewish candidates were asked at the JSC interviews this month, one would question whether those bent on pursuing an antisemitic agenda are beginning to influence key decision-making bodies unduly. We call on all South Africans to stand up and protect these constitutional values, and reject all forms of discrimination.”

Rabbi Greg Alexander, the co-chairperson at the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), didn’t hold back on his opinion of the interviews. “There is little doubt that there was flagrant discrimination at the recent JSC hearings. This is specifically concerning the two Jewish candidates being interviewed.”

“Had such religious or cultural questions been asked of others of another faith, it would undoubtedly have sounded an alarm and disgusted those observing,” said SACRED co-chairperson Rabbi Julia Margolis. “However, we now face a doubly-disgusting situation in that such questions arose in the first place, and secondly, that only one religion, faith, or culture appears to have been deliberately targeted.

“This suggests that the very foundation of South Africa’s democracy is under threat, and one cannot help recalling the late Nelson Mandela’s voice: ‘I have fought against white domination, and I will fight against black domination.’ The determination of the late, great statesman to fight for absolute equality and against discrimination of any kind should be brought front and centre at this time. Those who raise such blatantly discriminating questions should be publicly shamed for doing so.”

“There does appear to be some prejudice in the questioning from the JSC,” said Mark Oppenheimer, an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar. To question a Jewish advocate about their observation of the Sabbath “is a weird thing to ask, given that there have been many Jews on the courts over the years, and you wouldn’t ask a Christian whether they could do their job given that they might go to church on Sunday, or a Muslim who needs to go to prayers on a Friday. So there is either antisemitism or anti-Zionism, or a great deal of ignorance. With Judge Unterhalter, it’s unclear if this was an excuse to try and block him, or whether it was the reason he wasn’t nominated further.”

Writing in Business Live, Tony Leon, the former leader of the opposition, said, “In the dismissal of Unterhalter’s claims for judicial advancement, his membership of the ‘suspect class’ of his race was fused with his religious affiliation. Thus, the JSC interviewers gave little airtime to Unterhalter’s credentials, which include being the first South African ever appointed to the appellate body of the World Trade Organisation, where he served as chairperson for two years.

“Courtesy of a bile-ridden tissue of vitriol against him authored by the Qatar-funded Boycott, Disinvest and Sanction outfit, Unterhalter landed up spending much of his time offering his views on Zionism (not in the remit of the court) and his one-time membership of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies,” continued Leon. “According to BDS, the century-old Board, whose leadership is democratically and transparently elected, is akin to the Broederbond. Mere membership of this community body rendered Unterhalter unfit for higher judicial office in the view of BDS, a matter the JSC seemed to endorse.”

The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant judge’s position in the Northern Cape. It also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court bench. Both are to be referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for candidates for appointment to the Constitutional Court.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Manoim said, “It’s a great honour to be able to serve. I’ve been in public service for a long time – on the Competition Tribunal for 20 years as a public regulator – and I wanted to be able to continue serving.”

As a human rights lawyer before 1994, Manoim said he hoped to bring “the perspective of a lawyer who has worked with and without a Constitution”. He also wants to emphasise the importance of institutions in society. “We as a country must ensure our institutions work properly and independently, and we must work to protect them,” he said.

He said it was important for people who had the opportunity to serve in public office, to do so. “It’s easy to criticise society – and we do have many problems. But we must get our hands dirty and contribute towards solutions. As an optimist, I think we can solve our problems – we always have. So we must put ourselves in whatever role we can be useful in. This community has people with a wide range of skills and talents. We must get involved in whatever sphere we can to make a real difference.”

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Community fights fire on all fronts

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Jews across the Mother City watched in horror as an unseasonably hot Sunday, 18 April 2021, turned into an apocalypse. What started as a small fire on the slopes of Table Mountain quickly became a raging inferno lasting three days.

The flames engulfed the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant, a University of Cape Town (UCT) library, and other university buildings and heritage sites, before moving towards the City Bowl. As fire, smoke, ash, and wind wreaked havoc, many members of the community bore the brunt of the destruction.

Chabad on Campus Rabbi Nissen Goldman put duty first as the fire threatened his home, workplace, and a precious Torah scroll housed in the Isaac & Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT.

“I live about 600m from upper campus. We were out for the morning when someone sent a photo of the fire right outside Chabad House [Goldman’s home]. Our neighbour’s roof caught on fire, and other houses nearby burnt to the ground.” Miraculously, his home remained intact.

Goldman managed to procure an emergency vehicle to take him to the Kaplan Centre. “Thank G-d I had a key to the centre as well its beit midrash. We went through three blockades to get there. We had no clue if it was safe, we just went. It’s miraculous how the Kaplan Centre was untouched, as it’s on top of campus. It was full of smoke, but we managed to get the Torah out. It was really exhilarating – you had a feeling like you’re just ‘plugged in’, and you know you’re not running on your own power. You know you’re on a much bigger mission.”

Goldman also helped evacuated Jewish students find places to stay. Bram Freedman is from Vereeniging and lives at Kopano Residence. “At the first note of the severity of the fire, our warden acted quickly and made the call to evacuate,” he says. “We had about 10 minutes to pack essentials. I took my tefillin. People started contacting me, saying I could stay with them for as long as I needed. I decided to stay with my Muslim friend, even though I had received offers from about 30 Jewish families. This is because this particular friend was adamant in helping me out. He picked me up and welcomed me into his home. The whole family is so friendly and accommodating.”

Daniel Cohen, originally from Durban, is in his first year at UCT studying mechanical engineering. “At times like these, I feel very blessed to have such an amazing community,” he says. “Yesterday [Sunday], the smoke started spreading and they told me to grab anything valuable. Being in a rush, I grabbed only my laptop. From what I’ve gathered, my res hasn’t been damaged too badly, although there were videos of fire outside it. UCT is being very strict about letting people onto campus, so we haven’t been able to fetch our stuff.” Both students are grateful to Goldman and the community for their support.

On the other side of campus, the JW Jagger Library caught fire – home to a number of prominent archival collections. “The destruction is immeasurable,” says devastated library manager Michal Singer. “We adopted a policy of compassion in tackling research requests during lockdown. Today [Sunday], we saw that kindness directed back at us. While there were fire doors preventing the spread of the fire, the impact of the water damage isn’t to be underestimated. We will be undertaking emergency conservation efforts.”

Consultant Shelagh Gastrow, who drove fundraising for the modernisation of UCT libraries in the 1990s, says, “During our history, we as Jews have lived with the image of books burning. And although this wasn’t intentional, I think the horror is deeply ingrained – that burnt books are irretrievable. It’s a good time to realise what treasures we have in this country.”

Kaplan Centre director Adam Mendelsohn says, “It was surreal watching the fire grow”, as he lives a few kilometres from campus. “Archival collections are irreplaceable. This is our heritage that has been so carefully preserved for many years.” He says most of the Kaplan Centre archive is at the centre and is therefore safe, but “some Jewish-related material was stored at the Jagger Library, and we are uncertain of its condition”.

Analyst Nadine Shenker, who lives in University Estate not far from where the fire began, describes her experience. “On Monday, we woke up with tight chests – the fire was metres away. I kept running to see if it had jumped the highway, in between hosing down the roof and the trees in our garden. My neighbours were packing their cars. At that moment, I realised that the only thing that was really important was life. The air quality was worse and visibility was bad. We got a voice note to evacuate, and the sirens started blasting. We hurried to my dad’s flat in Sea Point. We came back to an untouched home and a fire truck stationed at the top of the road. The embers on the mountain looked like a Christmas tree. I felt relief and gratitude.”

As the fire spread to the City Bowl, residents picked up and ran. Vet Reena Cotton, whose home backs onto the mountain, says, “When it was apparent the fire was coming our way, we packed the cats, birds, and dogs in the car to get them to a safe place. They were all extremely traumatised. We phoned our children to ask if there was anything they wanted us to take, and packed those items, as well as a change of clothing and a few precious things.

“When you know the fire is coming, you can’t relax. I went out every hour to watch first the smoke, then the flames grow and get closer,” she says. “At 04:00, we were told to evacuate, so we went to where our dogs were and walked them on the Sea Point promenade at 05:00. We spent another sleepless night at friends.” Their home was saved but “the damage to the vegetation and wildlife is devastating. The community spirit and generosity of strangers is magnificent.”

Architect Roxanne Kaye says, “Living right on the mountain means we have had to evacuate before, but this was by far the worst. On Monday morning at 04:00, our doorbell rang with panicked instructions to leave. We grabbed passports and documents, but before we could pack more, we were told we had to go. When we got to my sister, we could see the fire skimming the back of our road.” Their house and other homes were saved, “but it was a close call”.

Charly’s Bakery owner Jacqui Biess co-ordinated volunteer efforts in Vredehoek. “It was absolute insanity. Residents described flames behind their houses as metres high. We had to get fire engines to different places, and phone people to evacuate. This morning [Tuesday] I woke up, heard the helicopters, and just burst into tears, because I knew it was going to be okay.”

Four United Herzlia Schools (UHS) campuses sit in the shadow of the mountain. “As the fire was getting closer, the roads alongside Herzlia Highlands Primary were evacuated,” says UHS education Director Geoff Cohen. “At 06:20 on Monday morning, we made the call to keep the UHS City Bowl campuses closed. There was a huge amount of smoke. In addition, the traffic from getting 1 000 pupils to school would have got in the way of the firefighters. We asked the district commander his advice yesterday afternoon [Monday], and he said the fire was still unpredictable, so we kept the schools closed again on Tuesday.” Amidst all this, “We decided to evacuate the schools’ Torah scrolls. It was an easy decision – they’re a symbol of who we are.”

Photographer and videographer Chad Nathan captured the scene across the city. “I’m fascinated with fire fighters – I see them as real life superheroes,” he says. “It was literally just me on the [closed] highway. At one point, it was very intense – I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see – that’s when I thought I had better get out of there. It was really sad seeing people evacuate their homes. And I saw some people refusing to leave.”

Says Shenker, “I will forever be grateful to the fire-fighting heroes. Let’s hope we can rise from these ashes stronger, more mindful, and more protective of our planet.”

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