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Lessons from an octopus teacher

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If you haven’t yet seen the hit documentary My Octopus Teacher currently streaming on Netflix, you might be living under a rock, much like the subject of the film. A phenomenon making waves around the world, it was directed by first-time filmmaker Pippa Ehrlich, who grew up in Johannesburg and currently lives in Cape Town.

While the documentary has been nominated for a string of awards, and won a number of them, the 33-year-old’s proudest moment so far was when her bobbatold her how much naches she was getting as people around the globe responded to the film with joy, amazement, and fascination.

“I’m forever changed,” said one person on social media, while ex-South African author Joanne Fedler wrote, “I recognise in it what I have never been able to achieve in all my years as an advocate. It’s the highest form of activism. This is what art is supposed to do.”

Ehrlich says she could never have predicted the response. “I knew we had a beautiful film and story, and I knew Netflix liked it. But I never expected this. It’s been incredible to reach so many people. The first week was overwhelming – we were getting an email every three seconds! It’s been a rollercoaster, and I feel deeply privileged to have had this experience.”

While the story is about one man’s relationship with an octopus, it’s also about so much more. “We wanted to expand people’s perceptions of the natural world,” she says. “We created a portrait of a creature that couldn’t be more different to us, that had her own miraculous way of being and special personality. And that’s true for every living thing. There’s much negative press about the environment. To frame your work as a story of hope … it has a much better chance of reaching hearts and minds.”

She and the film’s subject and producer, Craig Foster, are part of the Sea Change Project,a community of scientists, storytellers, journalists, and filmmakers who made My Octopus Teacher and are dedicated to raising awareness of the beauty and ecological importance of South Africa’s kelp forest, which they call “the Great African Seaforest”.

Ehrlich’s earliest memories of the ocean are at Boulder’s Beach near Cape Town, where her grandparents had a holiday home and where she first learnt to swim. In coming full circle, the film takes place in the same region. She’s now a “skindiver” (swimming without a wetsuit) who has been diving in the kelp forest every day for four years.

Her path to being part of the project was a long and winding one. “I was working at the Save Our Seas Foundation – a well-paying job that allowed me to interact with some of the best marine biologists on the planet and fly all over the world. But I felt in crisis – everyone I worked with had amazing stories of being in nature and I felt like a voyeur. I didn’t have my own experiences to share.” It’s a similar story to the one Foster tells in the film, of his own breakdown as he longed to immerse himself in the natural world.

“I met Craig in 2015. I’ve been diving in the Cape since my early 20s, and thought I knew this environment, but after that first dive with Craig, I realised I knew nothing. It was like putting on magical glasses. I discovered animals I didn’t know existed, and things I didn’t think possible. When going through this crisis, I asked him to teach me how to dive in cold water and track animals. It took me six months to learn to dive [without a wetsuit] for as long as he could.

“At first he was very cagey about the octopus – it was a precious thing that only he had experienced. Then one day he sent me a treatment [outline of the story]. I was sitting at my desk at this very scientific organisation and I started to cry. I didn’t expect it to resonate with me. Then, when I looked at the footage, I realised it wasn’t just a powerful story, but could also be a powerful film that could resonate with others.”

The week Foster asked her to make the film was the same week she had an interview for a Masters scholarship in the United Kingdom. “It was scary … I had to choose. I abandoned the scholarship that I had spent six months applying for, and gave up my stable job. We made the film in Craig’s attic and had zero production budget at first. Thankfully, the Sea Change Project managed to procure some funds, giving me a small stipend for the first two years.”

Ehrlich spent three months just watching footage of the octopus and the kelp forest that Foster had recorded. As the film came into focus, she and her team had to make brutal editing decisions about what to keep and what to cut. One such moment she would have loved to include was when a giant stingray swam over Foster, covering his whole body.

“It’s one of the most dangerous animals in the kelp forest and is the animal that killed conservationist Steve Irwin. Craig kept very still and filmed it. We wanted to include the scene, but it just didn’t fit the story,” she says. “Likewise, the beginning of the film was probably cut 25 times. Craig’s life is fascinating, but we had to compress it. Working with top natural history filmmaker [and fellow director] James Reed made this clear.”

Although she had created short films at her previous job, Ehrlich had never directed a feature film. “It was a baptism of fire,” she says, humbly adding that it’s almost unheard of for a film made by a first-time director to be bought by Netflix. She believes that every film that gets made is a miracle because of everything it takes to get it to that point.

“It was rejected over and over again. We took a long time to get the story right. It was sent to someone who had just joined Netflix. She watched it on a plane and her little boy climbed onto her lap to watch it, enthralled. That moment convinced her, as Netflix is always looking for projects that people can watch as a family. So it was miraculous. If that child had not been there, Netflix might not have taken it on.” While Netflix is “the dream”, it was also “terrifying to deliver to the most demanding broadcaster in the world. For three years all I did was dive, edit, and sleep.”

Turning to the recent parody of the film titled My Kreepy Teacher that has since gone viral, she says, “It really made me laugh, and they put in a huge effort. The artistry and creativity is fantastic. Everyone had been taking the film so seriously, which was quite intimidating. So it’s great to have a lighter take.”

While Foster makes swimming in the kelp forest look effortless, Ehrlich advises that people don’t just head out there. “It’s dangerous. Swim in a tidal pool first, train, and get used to the cold. The ocean is unpredictable.” Even as an experienced swimmer, she once had a frightening moment when she almost got swept onto rocks by an ocean swell.

To the thousands of people who want to bring the beauty of the film into their own lives, Ehrlich advises “carving out time to getting to know one aspect of nature. There is a concept of a ‘sit spot’ which is one place you visit every day. You observe and notice changes, and you start to feel like this place or animal or plant is a character in your life. It begins to take up more space in your mind and you become more curious.

“Don’t take your phone,” she emphasises. “Just not having your phone creates a huge space in your mind and heart. Our phones are rewiring humanity. The antidote to a synthetic reality is an organic reality, rooted in time spent in the natural world.”

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SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates

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As Israel faced a steady bombardment of deadly rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza this week, the South African government, politicians, and activists condemned the Jewish state, ignoring the myriad complexities of the violence.

And as Hamas escalated its barrage of rockets targeting innocent civilians, to which Israel retaliated, there has been no condemnation of Hamas from either the South African government or any of its politicians.

Israel’s right to defend itself and diffuse tensions in a bid to save the lives of all its citizens including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hasn’t been acknowledged by the government in its condemnation of the Jewish state.

Siding wholly with the Palestinians, the government earlier this week expressed its “deep concern at the continued clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers while praying at the holy site”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters said it noted “the genocide” committed by Israel against the Palestinian people during Ramadan, saying “We condemn with contempt the violence perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli state on unarmed Palestinian people.” It called on the government to close down the South African embassy in Israel and recall all its representatives there.

No mention has been made about Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque stockpiling rocks, fireworks, and stone slabs around the site in preparation for violence and attacking Israeli police.

Focusing all its attention on the land dispute and potential eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the government ignored a multitude of issues that have contributed to the rising wave of violence since April.

The department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement saying, “The South African government strongly condemns the attacks and planned evictions of Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.

“It’s perplexing that during these unprecedented times, as the international community addresses the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel is exploiting the situation to advance its de facto annexation of Palestinian land. These acts aren’t only illegal but also risk undermining the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and will have negative consequences on the entire peace process.”

In response to this, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the government, all political parties, and the media to show “even-handedness” and acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

In a joint statement, SAJBD National Chairperson Wendy Kahn and SAZF Chairperson Rowan Polovin, said, “In their determination to condemn Israel come what may, the government has reversed cause and effect. The reality – and not for the first time – is that the initial clashes were deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership and have now culminated in a lethal barrage of missile fire on Jerusalem and other heavily populated cities.

“Rockets are indiscriminate. They imperil the lives of all who live in the Holy City, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim. In spite of this, the South African government has chosen to single out Israel for exclusive condemnation, disregarding completely the more than 1 200 deadly rockets fired thus far against Israeli civilians.

“The double standards don’t stop there. Whereas countries throughout the world sent condolences to Israel following the tragic loss of 45 lives in Meron, South Africa has yet to follow suit even two weeks later. However, within 24 hours, it was able to issue a statement condemning Israel.

“If the government, and indeed all political parties, wish to be part of ending this latest tragic outburst of violence, they must show genuine even-handedness. Those who unquestioningly endorse the claims and actions of one side while completely ignoring those of the other do nothing to resolve the conflict. In fact, they only make a bad situation worse.”

They went on to say that demonising Israel, as was the case with certain statements, was “irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous”.

The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, told the SA Jewish Report that no country in the world would tolerate this level of terror.

He has called on the international community and South Africa to condemn the rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli citizens in the “strongest manner”, as well as to support Israel’s right to self-defence.

Keinan said that these events were part of a “wave of terror” that was being led by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and were the result of “reckless and irresponsible incitement to violence”.

Concerning earlier violence, he said, “Israel sought to achieve calm in Jerusalem. We took every measure to prevent conflict or violence and to allow freedom of worship. These measures include postponing the Supreme Court hearing regarding Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, changing the route of the flag march, and then cancelling the event. Moreover, Israel acted in a measured manner in response to the rockets and incendiary balloons that had been launched from the Gaza Strip to prevent any escalation during this sensitive period.”

He said responsibility for the situation rested completely with Palestinian terrorist organisations and “on the unrestrained incitement by the Palestinian Authority”.

“No country will allow rockets to be fired on its children, women, and men. Israel will take any action necessary to protect its citizens. It’s the right and the duty of every state.”

Meanwhile, small protests were held by pro-Palestinian groups at the Israel Trade Offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, all of which blamed Israel for being solely responsible for the violence.

Interestingly, in an open letter to DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition said it was “extremely disappointed” by DIRCO’s statement about the conflict, calling for more action by the government.

The Democratic Alliance said Israel must “employ maximum restraint in the use of force” adding “violence from both sides must cease in the interest of peace, saving lives, and protecting the human rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people”.

Dr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus said, “The ANC government has never tried to hide its hostility towards Israel, and has now once again chosen the terrorist side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s time for the ANC to honour Israel’s sovereignty.

“It’s lamentable that the South African government is always so quick to side with Israel’s opponents and condemn the country,” he said.

In Cape Town, a protest organised by Africa4Palestine (formerly BDS SA), brought a number of anti-Israel groups together. But only about 200 members of the public gathered to condemn Israel, many of them children.

Speaking in front of parliament, the late Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela called for the closure of the South African embassy in Israel. “We are clearly asking South Africa not to downgrade its embassy in Israel, but to close it down!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd. “We also want to deny [Israeli international carrier] El Al from coming into South Africa!” he said to more cheers of support.

He called for South Africans to “boycott products from apartheid Israel. The only thing we expect from our government is to place sanctions on apartheid Israel!” He then called on the crowd to join him on 18 July in Pretoria (the date marked to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy) outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. “We want to see it shut down and for the ambassador to leave. We won’t compromise,” Mandela said.

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Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance

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The Community Security Organisation (CSO) has witnessed a marked increase in anti-Israel rhetoric as well as expressions of hate directed at Jews online following violence in Israel, and has appealed to the community to be extra vigilant and report all incidents.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of CSO Johannesburg, told the SA Jewish Report on 12 May that tension in Israel had escalated dramatically over the past few days, with levels of open conflict growing exponentially over the past 48 hours.

“It’s not uncommon for anti-Israel anger around a situation like this to spill over into diaspora Jewish communities,” he said.

“Since Monday, we have seen a significant increase in concerning online rhetoric and numerous protest action called for over the coming days across South Africa.

“We are seeing a huge campaign by the anti-Israel lobby to dehumanise Israel with massive distortions about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Political leaders, social-media influencers, and celebrities are lending their voices to the pro-Palestinian lobby.

“This creates the perfect environment for a potential lone-wolf actor to carry out an attack. Whenever something like this takes place, our concern is that the anger created can be misdirected against the local community.”

He said that while CSO staff and volunteers were working hard to ensure the continued safety and security of the community, it was a “collective effort”.

“Vigilance is crucial. We should always make sure our facilities are as secure as possible, and we should always be doing the best we can to strengthen our security.

“It’s at times like this that we are reminded always to implement the best safety protocols because the threat is always out there.

“It requires the active participation of all community members. We ask you to maintain heightened awareness and report any emergency, potential threats, suspicious activity, or antisemitism related to the Jewish community or Jewish facilities to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 (or 086 18 911 18 in Cape Town).”

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Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel

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The Golan is the true gatekeeper of Jerusalem, particularly in mitigating against the Iranian threat across the border, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Major (Res) Yaakov Selevan said during a talk to commemorate Yom Yerushalayim this week.

“People who live in the Golan claim that it’s the most naturally beautiful region in Israel. But they aren’t living here for the views; they are here because there is something for which they’re willing to die – the redemption of the heart of the Jewish people.”

Selevan, a Jerusalem born-and-bred military official who now works as a tour guide and public speaker, was hosted for the webinar by Mizrachi SA and the South African Zionist Federation, in collaboration with other partners.

Although Selevan grew up with “the Western Wall as my backyard”, he now lives with his wife and three daughters in the Golan. Over the years, he has come to realise how deeply intertwined the fates of these two Israeli regions are.

Logistically, the Golan has always been a key strategic point, both in its proximity to neighbouring countries and major water sources, including the Sea of Galilee. Politically, its significance is even greater.

Even in the Roman era, when Roman soldiers were unable to penetrate the Jewish resistance in Jerusalem, they elected to try and attack from the periphery and move down. At the time, the Golan was rich in Jewish life with more than 30 synagogues. In the year 67, in spite of the efforts of Jewish revolutionaries, after a number of attempts, the Romans did overtake the ancient city of Gamla in the Golan. “They killed more than 4 000 Jews. Jewish independence fell, and then the Romans started moving down towards the heart of the land – Jerusalem. Three years later, we know, the second temple was destroyed.”

Fast forward thousands of years, when the Golan was redeemed from Syrian control by the IDF in the 1967 war, a number of fascinating ancient Jewish artefacts were found. The most striking of which was an ancient coin from the era of the Jewish revolt against Roman control. Engraved in Hebrew, its inscription reads “for the redemption of Jerusalem, the holy”.

In the modern political landscape, the Golan remains a contested hotspot particularly in relation to Iran and its ongoing incursions into the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria.

Selevan said that for many years, Iran had also used Israel and Jews symbolically as a strategy to forge allegiances across Muslim and Arab states that otherwise would be divided across Sunni and Shiite ethnic lines. These distinctions are derived from a dispute over the line of succession after Muhammed.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, “Iran wanted to ‘export the revolution’, and it realised it had a problem. While they were Shiites, most of the people around them were Sunni.” So, said Selevan, they chose a “common interest – the holy city of Jerusalem. Who controls the old city of Jerusalem? The filthy Zionists.” Moreover, as enemies across the Arab world sought ways to attack Israel, they turned to Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

Iran remains a threat to Israel on a number of levels, Selevan said. The first is its nuclear programme; the second its Precision Guided Munitions project, which designs missiles that use GPS to hit specific targets. Third, is its political take over and proxy power in various countries like Lebanon and Yemen. The next key territory which Iran is looking to control in the region is Syria, itself riddled by a civil war that has been appropriated by a myriad of interests.

In Lebanon, Iran controls networks of tunnels and occupied villages where local people are being used as human shields and whose homes are utilised for the storage of missiles and rockets. It hopes to use the chaos in Syria to take over using a similar model.

However, along with military action, Israel has made huge inroads diplomatically to prevent this, Selevan said.

“Iran used us and Jerusalem as a common interest, a common enemy, and a step in the door to the Sunni world. However, in the past few years, with what’s happening just here in Syria, people in the region are seeing what the Iranians are doing and how they’re taking over this region. They realise that they are next in line: Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, all these countries said, ‘Oh my G-d, all these years, we thought the Jews were the problem. Now we understand the greatest threat is the Shiites. Who can help us against the Shiites? The Jews!’”

Israel has thus turned Iran into the common interest which is “our step in the door of the Muslim world”. The most recent result is the Abraham Accords peace agreements, said Selevan.

Israel has another way in which it continues to forge towards peace – humanitarian aid.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has helped, offering medical services and distributing food, clothing, and other products for basic needs, proving, “you can stop Iran with baby diapers”.

At its core, the motivation for the action is humanitarian, said Selevan. “We did it because we’re Jewish; we cannot stand by when we see people suffering.”

Nevertheless, it also had an impact on political engagement. Terror groups, such as those under Iranian control, are reliant on local populations for support, access to land, and soldiers. As Israel continues to reach out to her neighbours, “there’s a whole generation growing up in Syria knowing that we’re not the devil”.

Although this doesn’t mean there aren’t still many who are against Israel and are manipulating the aid system, nevertheless there are shifts. For Selevan, this is encompassed by a drawing made by a seven-year-old Syrian Muslim girl. Her portrait of the Israel flag, captioned in Arabic, thanks the Israeli who saved her life.

In spite of the huge upswing of attacks on Israel in recent days, Selevan said he was hopeful. His life in the Golan is a contract between him, his country, and his community.

“I’m here at the end of the end of the end of the country because someone needs to be here, because my community is the greatest answer to the Iranian threat. That’s my purpose. That’s my essence.” Holding out a replica of the Jewish-revolt-era coin, Selevan asserted, “Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves: what’s my job in the redemption of Jerusalem?”

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