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Israelis assists Eswatini with vaccine rollout

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Israel

The success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme may seem like a far-away reality, but it’s actually much closer to home – over the border in fact. An Israel-based non-governmental organisation is working feverishly to assist Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) to build its COVID-19 response, including vaccine rollout, logistics, and public education.

The tiny landlocked nation has been hit hard by the pandemic, symbolised for many in the demise of Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini four weeks after he contracted the virus. Now IsraAID, the largest humanitarian aid organisation in Israel, is helping it to pick up the pieces and turn its story around.

From earthquakes and hurricanes to epidemics and forced displacement, IsraAID has been at the forefront of responding to major humanitarian crises worldwide since 2001. It has worked in more than 50 countries and at any one time, has about 300 staff members worldwide.

A seven-member team from IsraAID landed in Eswatini on 8 March 2021 for a two-week visit. They were invited by the government, which has vaccines in the pipeline, and wants help with logistics and public education ahead of the rollout. The mission is being funded by South Africa-based Nathan “Natie” Kirsh, a citizen of Eswatini.

The global chief executive of the Kirsh Foundation, Carly Maisel, told the SA Jewish Report that Eswatini’s COVID-19 case load and death count probably exceeded reported numbers. “The country has the highest COVID-19 death rate in Africa, and the highest HIV prevalence in the world. With just more than one million people, nearly 60% of whom live under the national poverty line, it would be easy for Eswatini to be left behind in the global vaccination race.”

Speaking from Eswatini, Molly Bernstein, IsraAID’s development and communications manager, says, “We made it here on one of the first flights following Ben Gurion Airport’s reopening last Sunday. We arrived with experts who can give insight into the main aspects needed to implement a vaccination campaign of this kind: an operations expert; a psychosocial support expert; our medical sector lead and public health nurse; an epidemiologist and physician who specialises in vaccines; our head of global programmes; and a communications and public-outreach lead.

“Since the start of the pandemic, IsraAID has been working non-stop,” she says. “We have responded to COVID-19 in 17 countries worldwide. We aim to use the models we develop in Eswatini to inform further vaccination campaigns around the world, specifically in the global south, through a new Global Vaccine Access initiative. IsraAID has longstanding expertise in public health, emergency medical care, and mental health capacity building. We will utilise the know-how developed during Israel’s successful vaccination rollout to inform its planning in Eswatini, from here moving to other potential locations.

“This visit is an assessment mission to understand the capacity, assets, and needs on the ground, and identify how we can best support these aspects moving forward,” says Bernstein. “We’re working with the government to put together a plan.”

Because the country has been hit so hard, Bernstein says that a crucial component of its work will be to focus on mental health and resilience, particularly in regard to the country’s frontline health workers.

“In order to build an effective public health response, we have to think holistically and prioritise the needs of local communities. We are meeting many inspiring people here on the ground who want to work hard to help Eswatini push forward with vaccinations to decrease the day-to-day impact of the pandemic,” she says.

“The people of Eswatini, including community leaders, government officials, and everyone we’ve met, have been extremely warm and welcoming. They are excited about learning about the vaccination experience in Israel and working together as the rollout launches here in Eswatini.”

Maisel says that the Kirsh Foundation wanted to play a role because it believes that “successfully overcoming the pandemic will be possible only once there is equitable access and widespread adoption of vaccines across all nations”. The Kirsh family has responded to COVID-19 around the globe, particularly in Southern Africa, through food relief, unemployment support, medical equipment, and bridge-loan funding.

In addition, “Mr Kirsh’s roots are firmly in Eswatini, the place he calls home, and his legacy of philanthropy there is extensive,” Maisel says. “Eswatini is the country where he founded his entry into business and where he raised his family. It will forever be an integral part of his identity. Watching the country ravaged by COVID-19 has been heartbreaking for him and the Kirsh family.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Kirsh Foundation has responded to short-term needs such as PPE [personal protective equipment] and food relief [in Eswatini],” says Maisel. “Additionally, the foundation has been examining how it can support the country over the long term, such as by sponsoring local oxygen capabilities.

“Now, we have partnered with IsraAID to help the nation and frontline health workers prepare for vaccine distribution and a potential third wave of the virus. Mr Kirsh speaks to the IsraAID team via video calls, and he has told them that they will have a universal effect on the country.”

IsraAID Chief Executive Yotam Polizer told the SA Jewish Report, “It’s ground breaking because there are few initiatives to support the global south during COVID-19, specifically with vaccination campaigns. It’s also ground breaking because it’s the first time that an Israeli organisation is using the expertise developed in Israel as part of its vaccination campaign, and is bringing this know-how to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.”

The Kirsh Foundation has been a longstanding supporter of IsraAID’s world-renowned global initiatives. “Bringing together the two countries central to Mr Kirsh’s philanthropic vision was a ‘no brainer’ in this case,” says Maisel.

“IsraAID has become synonymous with rapid response to humanitarian crises around the world. We know that it’s up to the daunting task of preparing for a national vaccine rollout, not just because of its proven ability to deliver on its mission, but because of the unique insights it will bring from the unparalleled success of Israel’s vaccination campaign.

“We hope IsraAID will be able to leverage its experience in Eswatini to roll out its global vaccine initiative throughout the rest of Africa, where many countries are in need of its logistical and medical insight,” she says.

Asked if the organisation would carry out a similar mission in South Africa, Polizer says, “Our goal at IsraAID is to support the most vulnerable, regardless of politics. We’ve worked in countries that didn’t even have diplomatic relations with Israel, and we would be happy to support communities affected in South Africa in the future. We believe that through long-term humanitarian work, we can build bridges between people and countries. We would also love to discuss opportunities to partner with individuals and institutions in the South African Jewish community in the future. COVID-19 won’t be over for us, here [in Israel], until it is over for everyone, everywhere.”

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Saluting Zan Swartzberg – one of the 800 who fought for Israel

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Zan Swartzberg from Bethlehem in the Free State was one of 800 South African Machal volunteers who heeded Israel’s call for help after it was surrounded by seven armies determined to obliterate it in 1948. He was just 21.

As he celebrated his 94th birthday and the launch of his fourth book this past weekend, he recalled those heady and harrowing days. “My first book is called The Hammers: A Personal Story of the 1948-1949 Israeli War of Independence. It’s called The Hammers because we flew huge American B17 flying fortresses. Three of them, day and night, for weeks on end. In other words, we hammered them, so our official name was The Hammers,” Swartzberg says.

As Israel mourns those lost in defence of the country and to terrorism on Yom Hazikaron, and celebrates its 73rd year of independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the man who was there at the start says the country shouldn’t be taken for granted.

His memories are still vivid of joining thousands of other Machal volunteers in fighting for Israel’s independence, and the enormous stress and challenges they faced.

“Many were World War II veterans, and knew the odds were against us,” says Swartzberg. “An air shuttle service was started to transport volunteers, and I needed to get 100 hours of experience, so I got it on the shuttle flights. Each flight could take only 19 volunteers at a time. The South African government was aware of the volunteers heading off to fight, but turned a blind eye. We should always be grateful for that.”

His latest book, launched on Sunday, is titled I Salute you Sir!. “This is because a few years ago, I got a call late one evening from an Israeli official, inviting me and my wife, Noreen, to celebrate Israel’s independence. He said, ‘Are you Zan Swartzberg? Are you still alive?’ A special meeting was arranged with President Benjamin Netanyahu. And when he saw the ribbons on my windbreaker, he knew exactly who I was. He came and put his hand out and said, ‘I salute you sir’.”

The book tells other fascinating stories. “First, how my father escaped Lithuania, and about the Jew hatred that we as schoolchildren went through in Bethlehem.” It also tells how the Swartzbergs were reunited with their long-lost daughter, and how his brother Joe cheated death – twice.

Speaking at the book launch, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft of the Small Jewish Communities Association described how “Zan [or Zundel which is his full Jewish name], for most of his life has lived in Bethlehem. He remains to this day on his farm proudly named Masada Farm/Loch Katrine Farm in the Bethlehem district.” Swartzberg’s wife, Noreen, describes her husband as a “proud Jew”, which motivated him to name the farm Masada.

Describing Swartzberg as “an ardent Zionist” Silberhaft said, “It’s a remarkable fact that of the approximately 3 000 Jews from around the world who volunteered to fight for the Jewish state in its time of supreme need, more than a quarter came from South Africa, whose Jewish community at the time numbered barely 100 000 souls. Only the United States, whose Jewish population was fifty times larger, produced more volunteers for the cause. Since then, it has always been a matter of great pride to him to be able to claim to have been one of ‘South Africa’s 800’.

“Having obtained an international radio operator’s licence prior to this, Zan joined the Israeli army and became a radio operator and air gunner in the fledgling Israeli Air Force. He was in the air force division from 1948 to 1949, serving in the famed 69th squadron, and was also an instructor in radio telegraphy.

“A number of the 800 South African volunteers went on to achieve considerable fame and success. They included Judge Cecil Margo, who played a key role in the establishment of the Israeli Air Force, anti-apartheid hero Arthur Goldreich, former Woolworths Chief Executive David Susman, and former Johannesburg mayor Eddie Magid.

“After the war, Zan devoted himself to various pursuits. He was a yachtsman, served in the merchant navy, and later in army commandos. In due course, he became a business man and then a farmer. In collaboration with Lorraine Houston, he has become an increasingly prolific author.”

His second book, published in July 2019, was titled Ovamboland Border War: An exercise in Futility, focusing on South Africa’s border war in then South West Africa. The following April, his third book was published about the realisation of his life-long dream of sailing the open sea. Titled Survival, The Voyage of Yacht Black Jed, it told of his yacht trip from East London, South Africa, to Villamoura, Portugal.

To mark the celebration of his 94th birthday, Silberhaft surprised Swartzberg by presenting him with the mittens he wore as a Machalnik. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, I donated my bomber jacket and mittens to the Machal Museum in Israel. I don’t know how he did it, but when he handed me those mittens on my birthday, I was so emotional. The tears poured … I was gobsmacked. And then I asked him to please re-donate them to the museum.”

With less than 10 known Machalniks still alive, Swartzberg feels grateful to have been there and to be able to tell the story of Israel’s miraculous fight to survive. He recalls how while walking in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, Israelis would stop him and thank him for his service to the founding of their country. “They don’t forget what the Machalniks did. I feel so privileged that I played a small part in the birth of a Jewish state.”

  • Zan Swartzberg’s books can be bought on Amazon.

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SA’s unique connection to Israel makes Israelis feel at home

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Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are generally tough days for Israelis in the diaspora as it isn’t easy to experience them properly thousands of kilometres away from Israel.

But in South Africa, many Israelis say it’s easier.

“The first few years in South Africa, I was amazed at how similar Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut felt to how it is in Israel,” says Israeli ambassador Lior Keinan. “I made a point of visiting different communities and schools on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It felt so familiar. They played the same songs and danced the same dances. It was a relief.”

Liat Amar Arran, the local Jewish Agency representative and the director of the Israel Centre, agrees. When she moved here, she thought these particular days would be when she would be most needed with her “personal stories and sense of connection” with Israel. “Instead, I met a community that was already strongly connected and was very involved in commemorating and celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was amazing.”

For South African Jewry, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut showcase their connection with Israel.

“Yom Hazikaron is an incredibly important day when we commemorate those who fell protecting Israel. Without those who have given their lives to keep am Yisrael [the people of Israel] alive, we wouldn’t feel protected here in South Africa,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s really important to realise exactly what the people of Israel have gone through to keep Israel alive.”

For Israelis living here, it’s a lot more personal.

“Being here on Yom Hazikaron has extra special meaning for me,” says Keinan. “I’m fortunate that none of my family has been killed in action. However, one of my best friends who I studied with in high school was killed in the second Lebanon War. Ashi Novik was a South African who moved to Israel. So now, for me to be an ambassador in South Africa, I can look at the memorial of all the South Africans who paid the ultimate price for Israel, and I see the name of my high school friend. When I light a candle for him personally and all those whose names are on the memorial, I feel like I’m closing the circle. I knew him in the past, and now I’m here honouring his memory.”

Habonim Dror Southern Africa shaliach Lior Agiv says learning to appreciate Yom Hazikaron has been a process.

“As a young child, these days of Zikaron and Atzmaut always seemed to be something amorphic. Hearing my father’s stories of all the wars he had taken part in, watching these series and movies on TV, it all remained a bit abstract. As I grew up and my army chapter was getting closer, I started to wonder more about the meaning of these days.

“All these feelings grew much stronger after my army days near Ramallah. Since then, every year, no matter where I’m located, I honour these days by lightning a neshama candle for my fallen friends and try to deepen my knowledge of our wars and fallen ones.”

Batya Shmueli, also a shaliach in South Africa, says, “I was born on the African continent in Ethiopia, and at the age of 11, my family fulfilled our dream of returning to Jerusalem. Returning to Africa as an Israeli to do a mission with my family is closing a huge circle. We will connect with our brothers and sisters and remember the loved ones who fell and sacrificed their lives in various wars for the sake of the people of Israel and future generations,” she says.

“Independence Day is a day in which we stop for a moment and look at the fact that we have a state and a home for the Jewish people,” she says.

Arran says that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed, which is why Yom Hazikaron is felt so keenly. “My good childhood friend, Ariel, was killed in the army,” she says. “My brother-in-law lost his entire unit in a helicopter crash. Everyone knows someone that has been killed.”

Lee Salama, a Habonim shaliach in Cape Town, says, “In officer boot camp in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have a saying, ‘We have to realise that in order for us to be able to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there were people who had to die.’ And then we have this beautiful transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut and celebrating life.”

Says Polovin, “Yom Ha’atzmaut is an incredible celebration of everything Israel has accomplished in its very short 73 years. No matter where you look, Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ showing the way. Whether it’s technology, medical advancements, or even showing the world how to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is at the head of the pack.”

Says Keinan, “The beauty of going straight from the sombre day of Yom Hazikaron to the happy day of Yom Ha’atzmaut shows us that from great pain and sorrow can come the greatest joy. The suffering and pain, and the joy and celebration, are really just two sides of the coin.”

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Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film

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(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.

Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.

While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.

Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.

Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.

“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.

“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”

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