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Capetonians living in Christchurch say attack has hit hard

  • Christchurch
While the world is still reeling from the horror of the terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, last Friday, it may seem a little removed for some South Africans.
by TALI FEINBERG | Mar 22, 2019

However, there are a number of ex-Capetonians living in Christchurch for whom the impact was extremely close. “We knew one of the victims – a 14-year-old boy called Sayyad, who attended the same primary school as my kids with his twin sister. He was slaughtered at Al Noor Mosque,” says Michael Herman, who moved to New Zealand 16 years ago.

He cannot believe that a gunman mowed down and killed 50 Muslim New Zealanders in two mosques, leaving scores more injured and a country in shock.

“I’m distressed by Sayyad’s murder and the suffering his family is obviously experiencing, and my daughters are quite literally devastated by the brutal and unnecessary loss of someone they regarded with deep affection.”

Herman knows several of the families who have either lost members or close friends in the attack. He points out that the Al Noor (The Light) mosque is only 1.5km from the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation’s shul, Beth-El. Just like the Pittsburgh shul that was attacked in October, Or L’Simcha, this congregation also has a name associated with light. “Given the attitudes expressed in the terrorist’s diatribe, this atrocity was separated from Christchurch’s Jewish community and Beth-El congregants by a scant degree,” he says.

“It was possibly something entirely arbitrary that prompted him to act on his Islamophobia rather than his anti-Semitism, or perhaps because he could slaughter more at the mosques. Whatever his reasons, as the attack five months ago in Pittsburgh showed, the haters will subscribe just as easily to the demonisation of Jews as they will to the demonisation of Muslims,” he adds.

“And as the Muslim community in Pittsburgh showed, when these attacks happen, our communities are strongest and most harmonised with our respective fundamental principles when we stand together and support each other.”

Herman says his family came to New Zealand “to get away from the craziness and mayhem that had infected most of the rest of the world. We were attracted by New Zealand’s egalitarian and progressive values. I never took our way of life here for granted, and have always known that something like this could happen, but it wasn’t something I dwelt on.”

He says this is “a thoroughly unwelcome defining moment for Kiwis, a coming of age that nobody wanted, a loss of innocence that is soul shattering. But as the collective response has demonstrated since Friday, Kiwis are standing up for what we value as a country: kindness, caring, and lending a hand where it’s needed.

“We’re grieving, each in our own way. The people I’ve spoken to are resolute in protecting what we had before the terrorist attempted to rip the fabric of our society apart. We’re thinking about what we can do to help the families and their community, and what we can do in time to heal our country and to enable our Muslim colleagues and friends to live joyful lives free of fear.”

Herman says more than R65 million has been raised in the past three days for the massacre victims. “I expect much more still is needed to help fix what’s been broken and to provide for the needs of the grieving families, many of whom lost their sole breadwinner.”

Marnie Fienberg, whose mother-in-law Joyce Fienberg was among the 11 Jews murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, wrote in a blog appealing for donations: “The universe cracks. That’s how you feel when a close family member is violently torn from this world while she or he is at prayer… I know because only six months ago, I was in their shoes.”

Rabbi Greg Alexander of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation wrote in a piece published on the Daily Maverick website this week: “This might have happened halfway across the world, but mosque worshippers have been murdered in Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal last year and we are not doing enough to stop this happening again.

“I say clearly to the Muslim community in Cape Town that when any person is attacked for their belief, all humanity is attacked. We, the Jewish people, are sadly no strangers to prejudice, and we stand with you.”

Shai Levin is a Capetonian who moved to Christchurch two years ago to study. “I have friends of friends whose family and co-workers were killed in the attack,” he says. “Nothing like this could ever be expected at the far corner of the world, so far from this form of fanaticism. It’s crazy to think such a disgusting thing happened just 2km from my home. The day before the attack, I had run past the mosque at exactly the same time (as the attack), 13:40,” he says.

Levin is studying maths at the University of Canterbury and was in a lecture at the time of the shooting. “Messages circulated about what happened, and people started whispering amongst each other. The severity was unclear until we were sent an email declaring lockdown of the university. People were very distressed.” He managed to get home before the campus was completely locked down.

He says he is angry that the Muslim community of New Zealand was targeted, because “they are a hugely peaceful community that are well integrated into society here. I think the news of the attack hit the people of New Zealand very hard, as the country is so far disconnected from any major crimes and terrorism. Personally, I tried to be there for my friends. The motto ‘Kia Kaha’ comes to mind – a Maori phrase for ‘keep calm’ or ‘keep going’.”

Levin thinks it’s unlikely that this attack could have happened at a shul, because the attacker was looking for a large group of people to target, and the Jewish community is so small there.

As a past member of the Community Security Organisation, Levin watched the video of the attack from a security standpoint. “This event was completely unwarranted, and security in New Zealand is usually at a minimum. I have no doubt that security will be elevated at a national level.”

Levin says that since the attack, there has been fear and tension among the people around him. “However, the country as a whole is so united in the support of ethnic minorities, and there is a huge amount of love and support towards the Muslim community of Christchurch. It is a peaceful, multi-cultural city, which is why people are so quick to stand up to the fact that ‘they are us’. So many are keen to help out however they can.”

Herman agrees: “The unity of humanity and altruistic reciprocity are the foundational principles of Judaism. We can consider these interesting curiosities, or actually live these values. As Jews, this is our time to do what the Muslims of Pittsburgh did, and not only say we stand with Muslims, but be there helping to rebuild trust and to provide cordons of safety, if necessary.”

“For those who have never done so before, this is their time to say, ‘I stand with Muslims.’ I appeal to everyone who is appalled by what happened in Christchurch to immediately donate generously.”

Stephen Goodman, president of the New Zealand Jewish Council, says the Jewish community in New Zealand is “feeling deep sympathy towards the Muslim population. We are only too aware that an attack like this could have been directed against Jews, so we also feel quite vulnerable.”

“A terrorist attack against one community is an attack against us all,” says Goodman. “We appreciate the support of Jews around the world in helping us help the Muslim community in this most difficult time. Many people felt New Zealand was too far away and too tolerant a society for something like this to happen. This proves we are all vulnerable so must remain alert.”

South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) national director Wendy Kahn says: “The SAJBD condemns in the strongest terms the heinous shootings of worshippers. We stand up against hate crimes against all religious communities… we stand in solidarity with the people of Christchurch, and with the Muslim community.”

The board of the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation said: “All congregations, no matter their faith, should be able to worship in safety.”

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