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NELSON MANDELA: ONCE IN A CENTURY

It is unfair to deify Mandela; he was flesh and blood like the rest of us, capable of suffering and erring. Imagine the loneliness and fear he must have endured for so long even while continuing to hold fast to his political principles.

But the phrase “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” could not have been truer than in South Africa. In a world filled with hatred and cynicism, we desperately need again the dignity and integrity of a Mandela, a man who lived in full his own ideal: “In a situation where resentment, anger and revenge would be expected of you, do the surprising thing: forgive, go beyond yourself and find a better option.”

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GEOFF SIFRIN

This piece originally appeared in the SA Jewish Report 20 June 2013

The most cherished photographs many people possess, displayed on mantlepieces or in special albums with family and friends, are those showing them next to Nelson Mandela, shaking his hand or receiving that broad smile of his. You find them hanging on the boardroom walls of giant corporations and in classrooms of township schools where he came to speak to children. What a joy to be able to point to a picture and say: “That’s me with Madiba!” – brushing shoulders with greatness.

Even this newspaper can claim a connection: the first edition, published on May 15, 1998, carried a message from (then) President Mandela: “Whenever and wherever freedom of expression is upheld, the advent of a newspaper adds to the desirable diversity of voices and enriches the market of ideas.

“I welcome the addition of the South African Jewish Report to the beautiful tapestry of the South African media… in playing a critical role in shaping a new South African policy and culture. I wish your publication success and rapid growth.”

What is this magic that made almost all individuals and groups with whom he came into contact feel special? It is hard to define, but it was there in bucketfuls.

Among the many minority groups he got to know well were South African Jews. One of his earliest encounters was in 1941 when, as a young man, he came to Johannesburg from the Eastern Cape seeking work, and was given his first job by Jewish attorney Lazar Sidelsky in his law firm. This act – both unusual and brave – made a lasting impression on Mandela. Later, many white comrades with whom he formed close bonds in the Struggle were leftist Jews. Of the 156 accused in the Treason Trial of 1956, 23 were whites – more than half of them Jews. The 17 activists arrested at Liliesleaf, Rivonia in July 1963, included five whites – all of whom were Jews.

Then at Wits University where he studied law, student friends were Jewish. Some of them later defended him in the high-profile trials mentioned above. The defence team in the Treason Trial was headed by advocate Isie Maisels, a respected member of the Johannesburg Bar. Another Jewish advocate, Sydney Kentridge, dealt particularly with Mandela as his counsel. Kentridge said years later: “I could somehow tell from the many talks I had with him that this man was a leader – of course I couldn’t have guessed he would become the leader he, in fact, became.”

By the trial’s end in 1961, all the defendants had been acquitted. Later, at the 1964 Rivonia Trial, he received a life sentence.

Mandela in Cape TownMandela with, from left, Rabbi Jack Steinhorn, Israeli Ambassador Alon LIel (behind), the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and senior Cape Jewish leader Mervyn Smith

 

But those early impressions were not consistent. His Jewish connections then were primarily with individuals – as friends, activists, lawyers and newspapermen. With the Jewish majority, he had little contact. Similar to other white groups, only a small percentage of SA Jews fought apartheid; Jewish radicals were on the margins of the community and often regarded with mistrust and hostility by it. The resentment this caused among Jewish activists still resonates in the community today.

Although most Jews went along with apartheid and benefited from it, they felt an awkward tension with it. They didn’t actively support it, voted consistently for liberal opposition parties in elections, and repeatedly backed Parliamentarians like Helen Suzman, who argued against its laws. Jewish women’s groups and others worked to alleviate the effects of apartheid on blacks. But still today Jews are ill at ease with the topic. The Struggle posed moral questions without simple answers: what was Judaism’s duty to the oppressed who lived around and among them? What had Jews learnt from their own history of persecution? And did they have the courage to stand up against apartheid when, in this virtual police state, it might damage their community by inviting retribution from the Afrikaans nationalist regime, which was in any case not well disposed towards them and had anti-Semitic tendencies?

After President FW de Klerk announced on February 2, 1990 that the ban on the ANC was being lifted and Mandela would be released after 27 years in prison, a new period began in which he engaged vigorously with mainstream Jewish organisations, philanthropists and businessmen.

Key among them was the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, at whose National Conference in 1993 he was the keynote speaker. Of course, hanging in the background like a dark shadow was the uncomfortable recollection that during apartheid, the SAJBD had adhered to a formal “non-political” policy, saying its mandate was primarily to look after Jewish interests. In the brutal racial system, this had weighty moral connotations. Today, the mainstream takes pride in the Jewish activists who fought with Mandela, many of whom were banned, jailed or forced into exile, provoking a retort that it is unfairly claiming the activists’ reflected glory. Mandela’s broader contacts with the Jewish community included community upliftment organisation MaAfrika Tikkun, of which he became patron-in-chief. It was – and remains – a proud example of the Jewish community’s work among the underprivileged.

Greatness often attracts greatness, and Mandela found a skilled and enthusiastic supporter in Glasgow-born Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris. He chided and charmed SA Jewry through the complicated process and helped allay their anxieties about what was to come. He arrived in the country in 1988 from London when apartheid’s grip was already loosening.

His friendship with Mandela threw into relief the question: why had so few rabbis – the purported conveyors of Jewish values – been active in resisting apartheid? That matter, too, does not have a simple answer and bothers SA Jews until today.

On sighting Harris during his trip to Israel with Jewish leaders, Mandela affectionately proclaimed: “My rabbi has come!” The visit was a major step politically and few aside from Mandela possessed the gravitas to undertake such a thing; hostility to Israel in many political quarters was intense. Harris was equally warm to Mandela, declaring – when he was being treated by a Jewish doctor for eye problems derived from working in lime quarries of Robben Island during his imprisonment: “We’re sorry you are having trouble with your eyes, but we want you to know that there is nothing wrong with your vision.”

Ironically Harris, who had not lived in South Africa during apartheid, testified on behalf of SA Jewry at the Faith Communities Hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 about its role. Several white religious leaders apologised for their communities’ acquiescence during apartheid. Harris, too, expressed regret for the Jewish community. Other white groups had done no better, but his words caused some Jewish soul-searching.

In 1985 a movement called Jews for Social Justice was started for social action against apartheid, supported by Rabbis Norman Bernhard and Ady Assabi. Again, as the essential reconciler, Mandela attended shortly after his release from prison a Shabbat service at Temple Shalom in Johannesburg, at Assabi’s invitation. It provoked some enraged members of Assabi’s congregation to protest the invitation, since just prior to it Mandela had appeared on television warmly embracing PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at Namibia’s Independence Day celebrations. But Mandela’s magic quickly overcame any opposition amongst SA Jews; they fell in love with him, as all South Africans did.

Mandela possessed profound loyalty to friends and comrades, such as with feisty Helen Suzman. When she was the sole member of the Progressive Party in Parliament, she was the first Parliamentarian to visit the prisoner Mandela on Robben Island and look into the plight of political convicts.

After apartheid he remained close to her, even after she was thoroughly marginalised by the country’s new political climate. Suzman commented: “I have been airbrushed out of history by the new regime – but my friend Mandela still comes to see me.”

MANDELA & MARLENEWith South African Jews so passionately Zionist, the Israeli-Palestinian question inevitably came up with Mandela. Instinctively, he was more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis, given the close links during apartheid between the ANC and the PLO. However, he again showed his magnanimity by attending a ceremony at Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg in 1995 to honour assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
 

Mandela in Israel in 1999 with Marlene Bethlehem – a senior member of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies as well as a director os the SA Jewish Report

His trip to Israel in October 1999 with Jewish community leaders was a bold step politically, aimed at repairing political damage caused by Israeli links with apartheid South Africa. Israel had co-operated in military matters with the government, leaving a bitter taste in the ANC and other black movements.

Mandela proposed a plan for Mideast peace, calling on the Arabs to recognise Israel within the 1967 borders, and Israel to give up territory for peace. His proposals were regarded by Israelis and Palestinians as naive. In Gaza, he met with Arafat and, while in Israel, he visited Rabin’s grave and Yad Vashem.

His reconciling ethos stands as a stark contrast to what is happening today, where government officials and diplomats behave like loose cannons, making anti-Israel statements, while the leadership says nothing.

A South Africa without Mandela will rightfully pose the question: What is his legacy for the country and world? Certainly in South Africa there is no-one in the current leadership even remotely approaching his visionary stature. And in the Middle East? If only a Mandela could emerge from the Israeli or Palestinian side to do there what Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did for South Africa.

His lack of bitterness after his release from imprisonment reassured very nervous whites, Jews among them, that after living with “packed suitcases under the bed” during apartheid, they had a future here after all. Most people always knew, even if they tried to deny it, that apartheid couldn’t last forever, no matter how brutal the regime and pervasive the security police in every corner of the society. It seemed likely it would end in a racial bloodbath.

Under Mandela, there would be no bloodbath. He created an atmosphere where minorities felt safe. He encouraged all South Africans to join in building a “rainbow nation”. He even invited one of his warders from Robben Island to his presidential inauguration and had lunch with Percy Yutar, a state prosecutor in the Rivonia Trial. He lived the Constitution: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”

Worldwide he is revered; even the United Nations proclaimed July 18 – his birthday – a special day in his name. His decision to retire after one term as president set an example in a world where in many countries this is unthinkable – witness events in Syria and our neighbour, Zimbabwe, where leaders ruthlessly cling to power, turning their armies against their own people.

Many politicians and groups will try to appropriate him for their own agendas. Even when he was desperately ill, this was cynically done, as with the ANC’s embarrassing display of an obviously ailing Mandela for the TV cameras a few months ago.

The void will only be truly felt after he is no longer with us; as a wise writer once observed: “Nobody is more intensely present than the moment of their departure.” Even in retirement, away from the public eye, he was still there as a guardian for everything we strive for in this country.

It is gratifying that he received his accolades while still alive and saw his dream of a democratic South Africa come true. Sadly, the standard of our politics has deteriorated since his departure from public life. The ANC has declined so much that even Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has declared that he will not be voting for it in the 2014 elections.

It is unfair to deify Mandela; he was flesh and blood like the rest of us, capable of suffering and erring. Imagine the loneliness and fear he must have endured for so long even while continuing to hold fast to his political principles.

But the phrase “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” could not have been truer than in South Africa. In a world filled with hatred and cynicism, we desperately need again the dignity and integrity of a Mandela, a man who lived in full his own ideal: “In a situation where resentment, anger and revenge would be expected of you, do the surprising thing: forgive, go beyond yourself and find a better option.”

We will sorely miss his magic when he’s gone. Regretfully, a man like that comes along once in a century

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Barney Harris

    Dec 10, 2013 at 3:06 am

    As fine a piece of journalism as one can find. Balanced, nuanced and transparently honest it portrays the Jewish community’s situation in SA during the Mandela years with compassion and understanding. It does so though without conceding for a moment that the community as a community could have done better.

    Kol Hakavod!

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“Let my people in” – chief rabbi takes on travel ban

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South Africa’s chief rabbi, Dr Warren Goldstein, has taken on the Israeli government over its sudden blanket travel ban in light of the new variant discovered by South African scientists.

He has been interviewed in Hebrew across multiple national radio stations, TV stations, print media, and online media in Israel.

In a plea to Israeli leaders, he said that shutting the door on world Jewry was a mistake for a number of reasons.

Many South African Jews were turned back in transit between 25 and 26 November, and others are desperately trying to get there because of important family commitments. But the chief rabbi emphasises that “Israel is home to all Jews, especially in times of crisis, and a total closure signals a separation between Israeli and diaspora Jews. The new variant doesn’t distinguish between Jews who have Israeli citizenship and other Jews.”

To him, there are two issues at stake. “The first is the relationship between Israel and the South African Jewish community. Our relationship with Israel is very much part of our value system, and we are a very Zionist community. This is expressed in many different ways, for example, our aliyah numbers, which proportionately are really strong. It’s also expressed in the high percentage of our community who have visited Israel, the fact that so many of our youth study in Israel, and especially in how so many of us have family in Israel. The connection goes very deep.”

To be blocked from entering Israel is therefore “a real blow to the South African Jewish community – spiritually and emotionally”. This latest blanket ban comes after almost two years of very intermittent access to Israel, and the new extreme levels of restriction were a tipping point for him.

“I felt I needed to make my voice heard in Israeli society. This is why I went to the Hebrew media, so that this plea would be heard by society and decision makers. I wanted to send a message on behalf of our whole community.”

He says he has seen the pain of these restrictions reflected in many ways. For example, specific incidents, like a father not being able to attend his son’s Barmitzvah, and a general sense of loss and distance.

The other reason he has spoken out is “for the sake of Israel itself, and for all Jews. Is Israel an ordinary state, or a Jewish state?” he asks rhetorically. “This is a direct plea to the Israeli government and goes to the heart of Israel’s identity. Israel is the only Jewish state, and we are deeply connected to it. In light of that unbreakable bond, if the state says some Jews can’t enter, it’s drawing a divide between the state of Israel and communities across the diaspora. That partnership between diaspora Jewry and the state of Israel is crucial, and if you break that bond, it will hurt Israel and world Jewry.”

He isn’t asking Israel to jeopardise the health of its citizens. Rather, he’s asking that the same criteria be applied to Israeli citizens returning to Israel and Jews needing to visit. Israeli citizens who want to return are allowed to do so if they are fully vaccinated, do a PCR test, and go into quarantine.

“If you combine these three strict requirements, the Israeli authorities have deemed that the risk becomes negligible. If they are good enough for Israeli citizens, any Jew in the world should be allowed to enter on the same basis.”

Goldstein is speaking up now in particular because “vaccines have completely transformed the risk profile. We can see this in the current wave in South Africa.” He has written about it before, but not as extensively as now. “I’ve learnt that one needs to use multiple platforms and address Israeli society directly.”

He says the message has found “tremendous resonance with journalists. I haven’t spoken to one Israeli interviewer who wasn’t sympathetic. They have challenged me, and I have clarified that I’m not asking for more than what’s granted to Israeli citizens. There has been a lot of support and interest.”

He says the incident in which South African Jews were forced away from Israel on Friday 26 November and made to fly on Shabbat was “an absolute disgrace and totally unacceptable for any state, but for a Jewish state, was unthinkable and beyond the pale. This is especially considering the circumstances of two of these Jews going to comfort the Kay family, whose son gave his life for the state of Israel. At the very least, the Israeli government must apologise for this conduct and promise its citizens and Jews around the world that such a thing will never happen again.”

Finally, he says “vaccination is everything. It’s a blessing. Thank G-d for it. Take it with both hands: it is a big mitzvah to protect yourself and others.”

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Community urged to be cautious as wave gathers speed

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The Omicron variant is hitting the Johannesburg and Cape Town Jewish communities, with numbers rising rapidly but very few hospitalisations. Those hospitalised – at this point – are mainly unvaccinated.

However, many organisations have taken precautions to stem the tide to avoid a repeat – or worse – of what happened before. The machanot and Rage festival were this week cancelled, among many other private simchas.

The number of new infections in the community have increased rapidly over the past two weeks, says Darren Kahn, the executive general manager of Hatzolah Medical Rescue. There have been 272 new cases recorded this week, with 387 active cases in the community.

“To date, thankfully, there has only been one hospitalisation and we have two long-term patients on oxygen from the third wave,” he says.

“The current numbers are fast approaching our original planned numbers, and the wave is just beginning. The Hatzolah team is working around the clock to ensure the community is well cared for.”

Though Kahn said responders were fearful of a return to the COVID-19-positive numbers experienced only a few months ago, many experts believe this variant will be far milder than any we have had before if you have been vaccinated.

“We all enjoyed a couple of COVID-19-free months, but it’s unfortunately time to start being more careful again. We urge the community to go back to the basics: get vaccinated, wear a mask, keep a social distance, and sanitise. Let’s do this and get through the next wave together.”

To date, Hatzolah has vaccinated more than 30 000 people at its vaccination site.

In Cape Town, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Community Security Organisation (CSO) sent out an alert to the community on the morning of Wednesday, 1 December, with the subject line: “COVID-19 warning: fourth wave is on our doorstep!”

“CSO Cape Town has seen active cases on its COVID-19 Wellness Monitoring Programme surge from 0 on Friday, 26 November, to 28 cases on Tuesday, 30 November. While little is known about this new variant, we do know that its reproductive rate is at the same level as it was at the peak of the previous waves.”

After meeting medical advisors, Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein says shuls’ safety protocols haven’t changed. “This is rather just a call to reinforce what we have done so well since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “The message we need to communicate to our community is that there’s no need to panic and that, working together, our shuls will be safe places for them to attend, even at this time.”

Meanwhile, the Ballito Matric Rage festival was cancelled after one day, when 32 attendees and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

But Ronen Klugman, the founder and director of Plett Rage, says that the festival will go ahead from 3 to 7 December, with about 900 people attending. “We’re not cancelling because we’re the last line of defence against this disaster of the new variant. Kids are already arriving – I can see them on the beach – and if we cancel, it will make the situation much worse. They will scatter, and spread all over this town, and there will be no control,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

But with the festival in place, “The only way they can get into events is if they go through our testing centre. We have the responsibility to stick to our robust plan. Everyone is vaccinated, so that’s our first buffer. They have to take a PCR test before they leave. They present their vaccine certificate and PCR test on arrival. Then they go for a rapid antigen test. They get an AR band with a chip that only works for one day. Then they get tested again. If anyone tests positive, we implement contact tracing and take any contacts out of the festival.”

Local virology expert Professor Barry Schoub told Sky News, “All the cases [of the new Omicron variant] so far have been mild to moderate cases, and that’s a good sign.”

Dr Efraim Kramer, a leading international expert in emergency medicine with a specialty in mass gatherings, told the SA Jewish Report, “At the moment, we’re still groping [for information about the new variant] because tests are being done in a laboratory. We’ll find out in the next one to two weeks exactly what its transmissibility is and what kind of clinical profile it has.”

Dr Carron Zinman, a pulmonologist at Netcare Linksfield Hospital, told the SA Jewish Report that there had been differences in the symptoms of people who had presented with the new variant.

“They are saying it’s presenting atypically. In general, people are complaining of loss of taste or loss of smell. The GPs are seeing a lot of extreme fatigue with nothing else. In terms of my patients in hospital, one came in with something unrelated, not knowing she had it. So, it’s behaving differently, and the bloods are looking different as well.”

Zinman believes the Omicron variant is the reason for most of the positive tests at the moment, and thinks the new variant is more contagious.

Kramer agrees with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who said on Sunday that South Africans need to learn to live with the virus. “The days of trying to run away from it, trying to evade it, being in lockdown, and those kinds of things are gone,” Kramer says. “It’s here almost to stay, and every time we think it’s gone away, another cousin arrives.

“I don’t think there’s anything mysterious anymore about COVID-19. The president said we were staying at level 1. His statement was exceptionally positive in what he said, and exceptionally positive in what he didn’t say, if you read between the lines. In the meantime, we’ve kept the country on level 1, so we carry on.”

Kramer encourages people to go to shul. “There hasn’t been a single COVID-19 case in 20 months in people going to shul. Probably 99% of the people coming to shul are vaccinated,” he says.

If people want to go on holiday, they can as long as they take COVID-19 into consideration in everything they do, Kramer says. “The only mandatory aspect of that lifestyle is that people must get vaccinated so that if you do get it, you don’t get it severely. Our community is highly compliant in terms of COVID-19 vaccination. That’s fantastic as it means that life can almost carry on for them.

“If they want to go on holiday, they must go on holiday. If they want to get married, they must get married. We can’t knock people around anymore. We’re going to have a generation of dysfunctional kids if we carry on this way. People must do what they want to, they must just be careful.”

Kramer has criticised the “political panic” around Omicron, saying, “They believe that by closing doors, they’re going to keep it out. What they don’t know is that it’s there already. They just don’t know who’s got it, how many have got it, and how quickly it’s going to spread.”

“Closing borders doesn’t make scientific sense,” Schoub told Bloomberg TV. “What we have to recognise is this measure is politically motivated, which is highly damaging to countries like South Africa that depend on the tourist industry.”

Kramer says unvaccinated people shouldn’t be named and shamed. “We don’t know why people haven’t been vaccinated. It could be because they choose not to, because they’re scared to have it. It could be that they’re allergic to the preservative in the vaccination and they’re not allowed to have it because they’ve been anaphylactic before.” But he warns, “The people that are landing up in intensive care are the ones that aren’t vaccinated.”

Asked if the vaccines we have protect us from the new variant, Zinman says, “All of that needs to be worked out. I think that you have to accept that there’s got to be some protection from the vaccine, because the vaccines to date have shown efficacy against all the variants.”

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SA Jewish leadership confront Israeli PM over travellers’ ordeal

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Orthodox spiritual leaders in South Africa have expressed their shock and dismay over the treatment of South African travellers turned away from Ben Gurion Airport last Friday night.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, South African Rabbinical Association Chairperson Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, and the dayanim of the Beth Din of South Africa wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on 30 November expressing their unhappiness.

The group of five travellers from South Africa included two who were going to Israel to comfort the Kay family after the murder of their son and brother, Eli Kay, in a terrorist attack on 21 November.

They were in the air when Israeli authorities decided to ban South African travellers in light of a new COVID-19 variant discovered by South African scientists. On landing in Israel, they were forced onto a flight back to South Africa via Dubai on Shabbat.

“We were shocked and dismayed to hear that a group of Jewish travellers from South Africa, who arrived at Ben Gurion Airport this past Friday, were denied entry into Israel and forcibly returned to their country of origin, and as a result were compelled to desecrate Shabbat,” wrote our religious leaders.

“That this took place in the Jewish state is simply unconscionable,” they wrote. “To further compound the trauma, two of the passengers were making their way to Israel to spend Shabbat with the Kay family, who are mourning the loss of their beloved Eli in last week’s terror attack in Jerusalem. From the reports we received, no attempt was made to accommodate the passengers by allowing them to remain in quarantine over Shabbat.

“To force fellow Jews to desecrate Shabbat is a violation of the Jewish identity and Jewish values of the state,” they wrote. “The manner in which the religious rights of these individuals have been infringed isn’t something one would expect of any country, and certainly not the Jewish state. On behalf of South Africa’s rabbis and the communities we represent, we wish to record our strongest objection to the forced desecration of Shabbat.”

One of these travellers, Ilana Smith, says the incident led to more stress and trauma for the Kay family, who tried to help the travellers in spite of being in mourning. “I was going to Israel only to be there for the Kay family. I was staying nearby, and was going nowhere else. And now the Kay family had this extra stress on their hands – the last thing they needed! Kasriel Kay was phoning the rabbi in Dubai, trying to help us. My family back home went into Shabbos not knowing if I would be stuck in Dubai. There are post-traumatic repercussions from this ordeal.”

Melissa Genende was travelling to Israel from South Africa to see her grandchildren on the same flight as Smith. “We had no knowledge of the flight ban, and weren’t stopped until we arrived in Israel on Friday afternoon. Our passports were taken from us. We were marched underground and came up at the departure gate for the flight going back to Dubai.

“We were threatened that if we didn’t board the plane, the police would be called,” she said. “This in fact did happen while we explained that we didn’t want to fly on Shabbat. At this point, we had no choice but to get on the plane. I’m not fully shomer Shabbos, but I would never travel on a plane on Shabbat. I have travelled many times in my life, and always make a plan that I don’t travel on Shabbat, often with a lot of extra cost.”

She’s angry that all the other people on the plane entered Israel with no problem. “We came from South Africa on the same plane, so why were we not giving any other option? We could have gone into bidud [quarantine] for a few days. We had all been tested, and I had already prepaid for PCR tests at the airport. I understand the panic. What I don’t understand is how they make a decision for five people and let everyone else in the country.”

The group had no opportunity to get food or water while waiting in the airport. “Kosher food was also unavailable to us for the entire two flights. When we landed in Dubai, it was already Shabbos. We had nowhere to wait all night until our flight at 05:00. We managed to find a lounge that would allow us to pay $32 [R513] for four hours. There was no kosher food there. We arrived back in South Africa at 12:00 on Saturday. Our luggage didn’t arrive, and we still have no idea where it is or when will get it back.”

Genende has since been ill from dehydration and travel sickness. “I’m taking this as far as can. I’m hoping that the Israeli government will do something about the staff at the airport. At the very least, I want a new ticket to Israel. I will fight until I get answers and compensation.” Emirates, she says, won’t reimburse her as she has “used” the return flight.

Even though she was able to get home, she says she would have preferred to be stuck in Israel than to have experienced this. She says she and the other South Africans have since been asked to go to the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria to meet the ambassador. She’s waiting “with bated breath” to hear what’s said. She’s had no other communication from anyone in Israel.

Former MK and olim advocate, Dov Lipman, has worked tirelessly with his organisation, Yad L’Olim, to assist olim and their families to deal with travel restrictions throughout the pandemic. In the past few days, he has barely slept as Israel went from one extreme to the other in a matter of hours.

“It’s been a really difficult time for South African Jewry,” he says. “I hear their pain, I hear their cries. The incident last Friday was nothing short of tragic, and I use that word deliberately. It’s a tragedy when someone arrives in Israel legally and is turned away.”

He says the incident has been covered extensively by the Israeli media, “with strong criticism of the government for the way it was handled from all segments of Israel’s population. At the very least, this kind of thing won’t happen again because of the degree of criticism.”

He was involved in trying to assist the South Africans. “I had a hard time enjoying my Shabbat knowing that people were in transit to who knows where. It was very painful. I’m now even more motivated to help olim and their families around the world. I believe all of our efforts will lead to a better situation.”

In response to queries from the SA Jewish Report, the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria released an official statement. “We deeply regret the unfortunate incident that occurred at Ben Gurion Airport on 26 November when a group of South African citizens were deported and had to violate their religious beliefs. The incident took place immediately after the imposition of new strict COVID-19 regulations. The incident is being investigated, and necessary conclusions will be drawn. Needless to say, if the embassy had been informed of these events in time of the occurrence, this unfortunate chain of events could have been prevented.”

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