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Limmud acknowledges it ‘overstepped the mark’ by inviting BDS supporters

Limmud heard the community’s ire, and disinvited three Jewish anti-Israel presenters to its annual conference in Cape Town next weekend following outrage from people claiming that the organisation had gone too far.

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NICOLA MILTZ

By removing the three, who are associated with Boycott Divestment Sanctions South Africa (BDS-SA), from the programme, Limmud has thrown open the debate as to who is kosher and who is not when it comes to community forums.

Limmud – an international Jewish cultural and educational organisation taking the form of an annual conference in various countries – is widely viewed as a highlight on the local Jewish calendar. It always offers a diverse, star-studded line-up of prominent local and international Jewish academics, cultural experts, business leaders, and political heavyweights. It is known to push boundaries and challenge people.

But this year, Limmud pushed the boundaries too far. When the Cape Town programme was released last week, members of the community were angered by the inclusion of three BDS-aligned speakers: Heidi Grunebaum, Mitchel Joffe Hunter, and Jeremy Phillips.

Heidi Grunebaum is an academic, social activist, and associate professor doing research at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. She is a member of a minority group called SA Jews for a Free Palestine.

Jeremy Phillips is a postgraduate law student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and an active member of the UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum on campus. This organisation has been campaigning for an academic boycott of Israel.

Mitchel Joffe Hunter, who has presented at Limmud in the past, also supports SA Jews for a Free Palestine, and the Palestine Solidarity Alliance.

The community’s response was swift and fierce, as people expressed their disgust on various platforms including social media platforms such as WhatsApp groups, Twitter, and Facebook. Radio talk show host Howard Feldman’s phone lines were flooded with angry callers on his Morning Mayhem show on Chai FM.

In a letter to the organisers of Limmud, a shocked and irate Gary Nathan said it was “totally unacceptable” that Limmud would give these people a “platform, recognition, and legitimacy”, and went so far as to accuse those responsible of failing Limmud and the Jewish community.

He said: “The speakers support organisations that are clearly anti-Semitic, blatantly anti-Israel, and their arguments are based on lies and half-truths.”

Failing to disinvite them would send a signal to the community and “future generations of Jews” that their arguments were “legitimate”.

“We will send a message to our brothers and sisters in Israel, who are on the front lines defending our country with their lives, that we have abandoned them.”

He was not the only one to express their disapproval.

Adina Roth, the National Chairperson of Limmud SA, told the SA Jewish Report that Limmud “had overstepped the mark” and that the pressure to disinvite the three speakers was unlike anything Limmud had experienced before.

“Our community finds itself in a difficult time in relation to Israel. The community feels Israel is under scrutiny and under attack by the wider media and in this context, Limmud has strived to create a space where dialogue is still possible across a range of opinions. At the same time, we are aware the actions of BDS-SA are often perceived and experienced as inflammatory, intolerant, and anti-Semitic. The association of these presenters with BDS-SA was too much for our community right now.

“We heard the community’s cry, and it led to the very painful decision to cancel the speakers. We agonised for days over this.”

The Cape Town Limmud is being held at Herzlia Middle School Campus from 9 to 11 August. The venue is a change from previous years where it took the form of a sleepover outside the city. Called “Limmud in the Hood” it will take place over four days, and includes 18 international speakers and more than 140 sessions.

As soon as the programme was released, the school was flooded with calls from angry members of the community in response to the three speakers.

Geoff Cohen, the Director of Education at United Herzlia Schools, said that Herzlia had a reputation of being open and inclusive, but the school drew “a certain line in the sand” when it came to who it allowed to address its staff and students.

“We have a tick list that works well for us. It consists of four questions: Do you believe Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state? Do you believe in a two-state solution? These two questions should elicit a ‘yes’ response. Do you believe Israel is an apartheid state? And do you support BDS? The last two should elicit a negative response.”

The three speakers told the SA Jewish Report this week that they wanted the Limmud conference to conclude its sessions before commenting.

Said Grunebaum: “Limmud is a precious and immensely important space. I would like to honour that. I would prefer to wait until after the [conclusion of the] 2018 edition of Limmud before I share my reflections.”

In 2009, Limmud’s conference was mired in controversy with the visit to South Africa of Israel Defence Forces Legal Adviser, Lieut. Col. David Benjamin. His visit came fresh on the heels of the war in Gaza dubbed Operation Cast Lead.

His visit resulted in several local human rights activists, including some members of the Jewish community, voicing their objections to him being given a platform at the conference. They pushed for Benjamin’s withdrawal from the programme. Limmud stood its ground, saying that Benjamin would offer a first-hand perspective of the policy of the Israeli military, including its view of what happened during the three-week Gaza war.

This week, however, Roth said the pressure was overwhelming.

“We held our ground with the IDF legal advisor, even though there was a strong outcry from some of our Limmud constituencies. We were able to appeal to our Limmud principles of diversity in content and engagement through dialogue. In this instance, it was difficult because there was the same argument that the presenters came in the spirit of dialogue, of engagement. But, in the current context of our community, the extent of the vulnerability and pain is very strong, and the vehemence was so strong. We are a cross-communal organisation; indeed we are our communities. We needed to respond to that as well.”

Raymond Schkolne, an active member of the Cape Town community, said Limmud was a wonderful organisation, a “broad tent” including all sides of the spectrum. He said he did not believe the speakers should have been censored.

“This week’s developments will serve to further polarise the community, and this is not in [its] best interests.

“Let’s not forget these are Jewish people that are on a Jewish journey. The common narrative is that we are under pressure as a community, so we have to unite and get into the laager and not be seen to be critical of Israel. But it is important to grapple with these issues, and to be critical where it’s appropriate to be.

“It is not the Jewish way to alienate, exclude, and marginalise them, even vilify and demonise them. We are alienating the youth. Instead of finding ways of bringing them in, we are pushing them out.”

Longstanding Limmud volunteer, Daniel Barnett, said he believed Limmud “handled the situation correctly and responsibly” by removing the speakers from the programme.

“The community must have perspective here. There are tens of Israel-themed sessions on the programme, none of which are on BDS. There is no communal organisation that offers such a diverse range of topics on Israel in such a congested space,” he said.

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Couple caught in crossfire of attempted mall robbery

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A young couple attempted to flee the scene of a botched armed robbery at Melrose Arch on Easter Monday, only to get caught in a hail of bullets.

Today, Brandon Regenbaum, 27, lies in hospital in a serious but stable condition under heavy sedation following a five-hour long operation to reconstruct his jaw and repair his mouth. He was shot in the face after robbers hastily fled the upmarket lifestyle mall where they had tried unsuccessfully to rob Elegance Jewellers.

His girlfriend of three years, Lorian Blechman, 25, witnessed the whole scene and luckily escaped unharmed.

The couple, who were due to leave for a holiday in Umhlanga Rocks that day, met for breakfast at Tashas. They left the mall in separate vehicles and found themselves unwittingly in the middle of a gun battle between fleeing suspects and the mall’s security guards.

“The robbers were running towards the Virgin Active Gym. We quickly took a different exit to avoid them, it was scary,” said Blechman.

They beckoned to each other to take an alternative exit near the Daytona shop in a bid to dodge the fleeing suspects. To their horror, they were then confronted by the robbers – who had made it to their escape vehicles – further down the road on Athol/Oaklands Drive in the direction of the N1 highway.

The couple could see the suspects’ vehicles in their review mirrors, so they instinctively swerved out of the way to allow them to speed past. There were loud gunshots, after which Blechman noticed Regenbaum wasn’t driving. She frantically called him to ask why.

He told her, “Babe I love you, but I’ve been shot and I’m going to die.”

Traumatised and still in shock, Blechman told the SA Jewish Report that she jumped out of her car and ran to him.

Speaking from hospital, she said, “There was blood and glass everywhere, and he was in a lot of pain. He told me he was dying. I remember pulling up his hand brake,” she said.

A young Jewish couple walking their baby immediately called Hatzolah, which arrived a few minutes later. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, another witness helped Blechman to make several calls to family. She told Blechman to keep talking to Regenbaum.

“I told Brandon that help was on the way. I told him his mother and brother were coming. I asked him where I could find his Discovery medical card. I told him general things like he was going to be okay, to stay with me, to stay awake. I told him to count how long it would take me in seconds to run to my car 10m away to get my keys,” she said.

Blechman called her father, who was already in Harrismith en route to Umhlanga Rocks where they were supposed to meet later.

Regenbaum’s father, Clifford, was in Plettenberg Bay on holiday when he received the call telling him his son had been shot.

“I was shocked,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

He believes his son was shot by the robbers who may have mistaken him for a security guard in hot pursuit.

“He drives a bakkie with our company name on the side which looks like a security vehicle and even has hazard lights. The robbers had already seen him leaving Melrose Arch, and I think believed him to be a security guard. I honestly believe they tried to kill him,” he said.

“It has been a stressful, worrying time. He will recover, but it will take time. I’m angry at this senseless shooting of innocent people. My son could have died. These robbers have no respect for human life. I don’t know what there is to learn from this.”

Gauteng police spokesperson Kay Makhubele told the SA Jewish Report, “Police are investigating a case of attempted business robbery and attempted murder which occurred at Melrose Arch.

“It is alleged that an unknown number of suspects driving in two cars, an Audi Q7 and a Ford Ranger, were in a shootout with security guards after they were intercepted before the business robbery,” Makhubele said. “A man who was driving his car [Regenbaum] was shot and injured during the incident. Nothing was taken from the shop.”

While doctors have told the family the operation was successful, Regenbaum will have his jaw wired for seven weeks, and won’t be able to talk or eat solid food.

“It will be a long road to recovery,” said Blechman.

“It’s a miracle Brandon survived. It’s also freaky that we were in separate cars. If I had been with him on the passenger side of the car, I might not be here today. I was running late. Brandon needed to fetch his siddur and tefillin to assist my father with a minyan on holiday, as he is saying kaddish for my zaida who passed away last year. I believe my zaida was watching over us,” she said.

Police ask that anyone with information contact 0860 010 111.

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Israeli company turns SA water from toxic to drinkable

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An Israeli company is assisting local government authorities to transform toxic water to healthy drinking water in what could be a game-changer for South Africa as a water-scarce country.

The company, BlueGreen Water Technologies, is a world leader in eradicating toxic algae from water sources, and has offered its expertise to South Africa.

With a branch in South Africa, the company started working at Setumo Dam on the Molopo River in North West province earlier this month. The project is in collaboration with Sedibeng Water, the company overseen by the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Germany where he is currently based, BlueGreen Water Technologies Chief Executive Eyal Harel said, “Toxic algae blooms are like a ‘global pandemic’ of bacteria. They infest bodies of water, and when that population of bacteria explodes, it makes the water toxic. You can’t use that water for drinking or recreation, it depreciates property, it makes that body of water too hostile for other life forms, and it creates health and economic problems.”

The company believes in the value of all people having access to quality drinking water, Harel said, and it’s doing the work in South Africa on humanitarian grounds. “At the Setumo Dam, it’s more like lots of bacteria with a bit of water in between. But half a million people rely on it for drinking water. We came to help get good quality drinking water to these communities.” Local government departments and officials had been “extremely helpful … everyone is working together”, Harel said. “Even in this time of pandemic and reduced budgets, they are doing an excellent job.”

He said the condition of the dam meant it was impossible to treat it from the ground, so they have had to deploy helicopters to distribute product from the air. “This is the first operation of its kind in the world. It’s new for us too, and requires lots of co-ordination with government officials, water boards, and locals.”

The company describes its products as “floating, slow-release formulations of market-approved algaecides designed to prevent the intensification of cyanobacterial toxic blooms in freshwater bodies [also known as ‘blue green algae’]”.

Harel said he was motivated to work with water as “water touches all people, no matter their differences.” With 22 March being ‘World Water Day’, he emphasises that “two billion people around the world only have access to poor quality water. About 99.9% is left untreated, and people think there is nothing they can do. We want to educate decision-makers that this isn’t the case anymore. Lakes can be treated, even much bigger lakes than Setumo Dam. In addition, algae blooms can actually be prevented.”

Harel got married in Cape Town, and was there during the height of the drought in 2018.

“I remember the term ‘Day Zero’, and how frightening it was,” he said, pointing out that drought also contributes to algae blooms because with less water, “pollution concentrates and bacteria grows. It becomes even more toxic, less liquid, and makes the existing problem much worse. That could be the reason Setumo Dam was in such appalling condition.”

The company also assisted Roodepoort Dam, reducing toxic levels of algae in the water two weeks before a rowing competition in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit. However, Harel said Setumo Dam was in much worse shape. “It’s first and foremost a drinking water source,” he said. “It’s in a rural area that borders Botswana, and the communities are about as poor as it gets. So it’s our small way of helping.”

He emphasises that the company is “completely non-political” and is simply trying to reach out to areas where it knows there is an acute problem. It has even reached out to other Middle Eastern countries that aren’t friendly to Israel. “We aren’t here to make a political stand but a humanitarian one, and any human-rights organisation should understand that.

“Part of our agenda is to empower local communities to take responsibility for their local water source. We come as guests,” he says. “In all likelihood, if the dam isn’t maintained, it will go back to the way it was. So, our ultimate goal is to train local communities to be able to assess water conditions. They will be the ‘boots on the ground’ and raise the flag that there is a problem. We work with real-time remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery to assess conditions in the lake, so they will be part of that process.

“We have established good relationships with the government. It sees the problem for what it is, and is taking a long-term approach. We are totally committed to improving water quality in South Africa, and we see the same from government.”

The company’s director of operations in South Africa, Jurgens van Loggerenberg, told the SA Jewish Report that he had worked in water-treatment processes throughout South Africa for the past 20 years.

“Over the past two decades, I’ve seen a decline in the management of infrastructure and water quality. It’s a big problem as it affects people’s lives. So, when I saw BlueGreen’s technology and what it could mean for the improvement of water quality, I was fascinated.” He joined the company soon afterwards.

He believes the technology could “be a game-changer for South Africa. Toxic bacteria means that humans suffer. And it’s never been looked at this way before. Water has been treated only at the treatment facility. I don’t think the team has ever treated water of this poor quality before, but it has a strong strategy. We have the support of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and the Department of Water and Sanitation. They are standing behind it. They believe in the technology and what it can do for the environment. They know it can help them achieve their goals.

“One thing we observed is that there are so many shops in the area that sell bottled water,” he said. “The day the community can open the tap and have safe drinking water will be a big day for the country.”

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Wits protest an education in activism

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“When I look back to my youth in years to come, I don’t want to have to tell my children I was one of the people who kept to the side and stayed silent. I want to tell them that as a white, Jewish woman in a democratic South Africa, I led.”

So says Gabi Farber, a student activist who, together with other Jewish youth, has committed herself to the fight against financial and academic exclusion at South African universities.

They join a growing movement of university students who in recent weeks embarked on a nationwide protest over tuition fees with demands including the allocation of funding for excluded students and a zero fee increase for the 2021 academic year.

Farber, the legal and policy officer of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), has been integrally involved in the protest.

“We have been on the ground every day,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “Walking through the streets of Braamfontein creating mass awareness about the students’ financial-exclusion crisis.”

Following the shutdown of various campuses, violence has escalated in the past few days, with police responding to demonstrations with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, and arresting protesting students in Braamfontein. A bystander, Mthokozisi Nthumba, was tragically shot and killed by police last week.

Says Farber, “The first few days were scary. The police were out of control, and you could see they didn’t know what they were doing, shooting rubber bullets directly at people without giving time to disperse. A grenade landed on my foot and burst my eardrums. It was dangerous.

“The media suggests there are hundreds of us and that the protestors are violent. In reality, it’s very calm on the ground, and there aren’t too many of us.”

The police have calmed down in recent days, Farber says, and those responsible for Nthumba’s death were due to attend a hearing on Wednesday, 17 March.

“I couldn’t let [the police brutality] turn me away though,” she says. “There are risks when you’re fighting for change. What’s scarier to me would be doing nothing at a time like this.”

Natanya Porter and Benjamin Atie have also been actively involved.

“On Monday, there were about 50 protestors, and we were chanting and singing peacefully in the street,” recounts Porter, South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) officer at Wits’ education campus. “Suddenly, the police arrived in hippos [armed vehicles] and water-cannon trucks as if there were thousands of us burning down Braamfontein. They used a disproportionate amount of force.”

Beyond active involvement in the protest, Porter and Atie have also been involved in assisting students arrested by police, providing them with snacks and support while they awaited trial last week.

“There was no reason for their arrest,” Porter says. “We believe that the police just grabbed whoever was in a protest t-shirt and who was slowest at running away. In the end, the magistrate dismissed the case.

“As an education student, I believe that it’s a right not a privilege. I don’t think it’s fair for education to be available only to the few who can afford it. I’m heartbroken and shocked at the way the police responded.

“A total of 8 142 Wits University students are financially excluded,” says Atie, SAUJS Wits chairperson. “This means that these students passed last year in spite of all its challenges, but aren’t being allowed to return because they are in debt to the university.

“As Jews, this issue speaks to us because we have always placed a major focus on education and supporting the impoverished. It’s our responsibility to assist these students in whatever way we can.”

Indeed, the role played by the young Jewish activists has raised the profile of the fees issue within the broader Jewish community, says political analyst and former SRC activist Jamie Mighti.

“We have to be cognisant living in South Africa that there are challenges to upward social mobility, including historic poverty and exclusion,” he says. “One of the recognised ways to lift oneself up is through education. The Jewish community is world renowned for prioritising the value of education.

“To see young people like this stand in the gap with other students and use their voices reminds one of the roles played by Jews in fighting apartheid. The Jewish community will look back at this moment and say this was the birth of South African leaders and the re-emergence of Jewish activism within the broader South African conversation.”

Former SAUJS Wits chairperson, Yanir Grindler, stresses that more Jewish students need to get involved. “I’m left with a sense of anger towards the broader Jewish student population,” he says. “It has been so difficult to get them involved. A minority of Jewish students have been there on a consistent basis alongside Gabi protesting with the students. The rest are quite disconnected because they feel it doesn’t really affect them. That’s naïve, because it does.”

Farber, Porter, and Atie agree that more Jewish students need to play their part.

Says Atie, “One of the biggest criticisms we receive at SAUJS is that we come across as a union which cares only about Israel and Jews and not the larger South African community. It’s this perception of Jews that enables anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric to enter the halls of parliament and academic circles of South Africa. Only by involving ourselves in the struggle of the larger South Africa can we begin to change this perspective.”

Many academics agree that the plight of financially excluded students must be addressed.

“There are multiple stories in and around the protests,” says Bonita Meyersfeld, a professor at Wits Law School. “Do I think they’re legitimate? Absolutely. The commercial reality demands a creative and imaginative rethinking, but that’s true of the country as a whole. My experience with the first Fees Must Fall movement showed me that students are desperate.

“Ignoring that pain or painting all protestors with the same brush of judgement and intolerance will never solve the problem.”

Barry Dwolatzky, emeritus professor of engineering at Wits, attests that the contribution each graduate makes far exceeds the cost of educating them. “The debate isn’t between students and university management,” he says. “It’s one between all of us and our government.

“Universities don’t have the resources to solve the problem in the long run. All they can do is apply a band aid here and there in the hope of managing the short-term situation. The future of South Africa depends on how well we support education.”

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