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No more excommunicating people for their beliefs

As we witness anti-Israel sentiment spilling over into anti-Semitism here and around the world, it is time for us to set aside our differences, and work together against the storm.

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Voices

PETA KROST MAUNDER

The only way for us to tackle the antagonism thrown our way is as a strong, tactical, smart, and united force.

Therein lies the problem – we are far from united as a community. While there is a fairly extensive core that is united – to a degree – there is also a whole lot of verbal swiping at one another and backstabbing. While people are human, and arguing and differences of opinion are expected, there is a limit to how badly people within a community can treat each other.

Earlier this week, I was contacted by the venerable Professor David Bilchitz to ask if he and Judge Dennis Davis could write an opinion piece for the newspaper. Of course, I was interested, as they are both men of great brains (as Winnie the Pooh might have said). But when he suggested that they wanted to write about the issue of Limmud, and the people who had aligned themselves with BDS being disinvited, I became reticent, feeling that we had thrashed this issue out so thoroughly, there was nothing left to consider.

However, when he said that they wanted to address the issues of people being “excommunicated for their views” and “bullying” behaviour in the community, I realised these were important issues to tackle.

These problems keep coming up in our community, partly because it is our nature as Jews to be opinionated. However, we don’t all have the same views. We don’t all dress the same. We don’t all go to sleep at 9pm. We don’t all to go Plett in December. We don’t all live in Glenhazel. We are all different, and some of us are more different than others.

Most of us teach our children that we are all unique and different, and it is those differences that make us special. We tell them they don’t have to be like everyone else.

Yet, when someone has a view or a belief that is outside of popular communal-think, why do we treat them like pariahs? Why do we assume that they are wrong? And even if they are wrong – which they may well be – surely they have the right to think what they do. In the same vein, we have a right to debate their views with them. Perhaps in the debate and discussion, they might just rethink their views. Or, we may find food for thought that perhaps there is more than just one right way.

But if we don’t allow people to be different, and to have different views, then are we any better than those who refuse to see Israel as anything but pure evil?

We are such a multifaceted and interesting people. We are smart, generally knowledgeable and educated, but sometimes we can be so very blinkered about our own people.

I get upset with people who even consider that BDS could have a point. I also get upset with people who assume that women can’t have careers, and should spend their adult life focusing only on their husbands and children. What right do they have to tell me what I should do with my life? The truth is, they have every right. I don’t have to agree, but as long as they aren’t harming me or anyone else with their views, they have a right to them. And what if theirs is the predominant view? Should I be alienating myself or them for these views?

And if I do, who am I harming most? All of us. That is the issue.

As Jews, we have opinions, and we are very persuasive and sure of ourselves. This is to be applauded. However, if we don’t agree with people, so be it. Does this mean that we should destroy the extended family because siblings or cousins can’t agree? No, so why should we shred the community because of it?

Since I have been editor, I have been confronted a few times by people who vehemently disagree with me. They have an inalienable right to do so. They don’t have a right to threaten me and badmouth me, but to disagree with me… absolutely.

I have also met people who tell me they won’t comment or give their opinion in the SA Jewish Report because they will be ostracised for doing so. Some say they have already been shunned by the community for their views. What are we doing?

We are brothers and sisters. We don’t have to agree, but we do have to have each other’s backs. There is a world out there that doesn’t necessarily like our kind, so if we destroy ourselves from within, what chance do we have to survive?

Progressive, Maharsha, Zionist, not-so-Zionist, secular… we are all Jews. So, let’s stop making each other’s lives miserable, and start working together to change the way people see us.

Let’s start working towards showing the world we are a people who can be proud of how we look after our own. Let’s be those people who listen to each other and, if we disagree, we agree to disagree.

Let’s be the people who live this perhaps overused quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That way we will be able to stand up to our enemies with pride.

Shabbat Shalom, and best of luck to our Absa Jewish Achiever nominees.

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Voices

Do we have different standards for ‘others’?

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On 24 February, an article appeared in The Times of Israel claiming that 11 ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) had tested positive for COVID-19 on landing in Israel.

More concerning was the fact that a passenger on board had claimed to have overheard some of the young men “boasting” that they had not taken a COVID-19 test but had simply managed to get a negative result. The passenger reported this to the authorities, who are investigating the claim.

After recounting the story on my morning show, I was challenged by a friend who questioned why I had chosen to use the identity of the group. Would I have used a group description to describe the passengers if they were modern Orthodox, Reform, or simply irreligious Jews? Would I have dared, he asked, to use the term Muslim (if they were) or any other description that he knew I wouldn’t use if it wasn’t relevant to the story.

He’s right of course. The identity isn’t at all important in this case.

Earlier in the week, I had also spoken about two incidents of antisemitism on NBC television in the United States. Listeners agreed that the episode of Saturday Night Live where the host suggested that Israel was providing a vaccine only to Jews was antisemitic. They also agreed that a scene from a show called Nurses, where it was implied that Jews wouldn’t accept a transplant from an Arab or a woman was also problematic. But that scene showcased Haredim, and some listeners felt that “they” had brought this type of thing on themselves as a result of their behaviour.

To me, it was no different to suggesting that a rape victim was “asking for it” or was to blame, but so entrenched was the thinking, I was unable to get my point across.

It was clearly acceptable to entertain bias against the ultra-Orthodox.

I’m concerned that my own reference in the case of the travellers, as well as my listeners’ reaction to the episode of Nurses reflect an internalised bias. One that cannot be ignored.

I believe very strongly that observant Jews should themselves demand to be held to a higher standard. And while there is no doubt that there has been problematic and outright reprehensible behaviour in some communities within the ultra-Orthodox fold, I’m deeply troubled that we are moving fast towards a hatred of “others” within our own community. And that we don’t even realise it.

We need to check our own behaviour.

Are we as outraged by the shenanigans at the Rage Festival that triggered the new variant and the second wave as we are by a shul that stayed open when it should have closed?

Are we as infuriated by secular Jews flying home from holiday with COVID-19 as we are by a wedding that shouldn’t have taken place? Are we quick to shake our heads when Haredim attend funerals in Jerusalem but justify gatherings in Tel Aviv because the right to protest is sacrosanct?

It begins with a recognition that there is bias. It begins with the acceptance that we are quicker to condemn an identifiable group. And it begins with treating our own with the respect that we would undoubtedly give to others.

It begins with me.

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Voices

Inform Board about exam clashes timeously

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Having just celebrated Purim (duly adapting its laws and customs to COVID-19 conditions), we are now looking ahead to Pesach less than a month away. From the point of view of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), it means gearing up to address potential problems of university exams, tests, or compulsory practicals being set on yom tov. Later, of course, it will be time to plan for Shavuot, and after that, for the extended yamim tovim season commencing with Rosh Hashanah and concluding three weeks later with Shemini Atzeret.

Dealing with these issues is a significant part of our core mandate of upholding the civil rights and religious freedom of the Jewish community. We work closely with various academic institutions in resolving scheduling clashes, and over the years, have thankfully been very successful in that regard. This has been true even over the past 12 months, when all practical solutions had to be arrived at in the context of COVID-19 restrictions. However, in order for the SAJBD to take up these cases effectively with the relevant university, we need to be informed timeously by the students concerned whenever problems arise. I therefore urge religiously observant students to check their exam timetables for the entire year carefully, and in the event of finding any clashes with yom tov, to advise the SAJBD as soon as possible by writing to sajbd@sajbd.org.

COVID-19 Q&A

We are fast approaching the first anniversary of that unforgettable day when South Africa went into hard lockdown and everyone’s lives changed. This week, in response to steadily declining infection rates, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a move to level-one lockdown. While this will significantly ease many of the restrictions the country has been operating under, other restrictions, including curfews, the wearing of masks in public places, and limitations on the size of gatherings remain in place. It hardly needs to be emphasised that we must all resist the temptation to become complacent, and must scrupulously comply with these regulations.

The SAJBD’s COVID-19 Q&A series continues to provide expert advice and guidelines regarding various aspects of the pandemic. These are all readily accessible on our Facebook page, along with extensive information about the pandemic, its impact on the Jewish community, and responses by members of communal leadership that have been uploaded since the pandemic began. This week, we feature video presentations from psychologist David Abrahamson, looking at “The psychological impact of COVID-19 on our children/teens”, and Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on vaccines, exploring the COVID-19 variant and its impact on vaccines, reinfection, and other relevant questions. Please continue to send through your COVID-19 questions to sajbd@sajbd.org, or post them on our Facebook page and we will do our best to get relevant professional experts to answer them.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Duty to remember from generation to generation

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Tribute to Veronica Phillips, o”h

When Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips, who sadly passed away earlier this week, was the guest speaker at the Johannesburg Yom Hashoah ceremony many years ago, it was the first time that she had spoken in public about her harrowing experiences. From that time on, however, she was a regular speaker on Holocaust remembrance platforms, including at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre, as well as in schools and media interviews. Veronica was a proud and committed member of our community, and an inspiration to those who knew her. One theme she continually stressed in her addresses was that of l’dor v’dor (the duty of passing down the torch of remembrance from generation to generation). This, indeed, is the keynote theme of this year’s Yom Hashoah ceremony, where survivors will stress the solemn responsibility of youth today to ensure that the stories of survivors and above all, those who perished, aren’t forgotten. Although this time, Veronica won’t be with us to drive home that message, her dedicated, unselfish work in doing so in the latter part of her life will always resonate with those who were privileged to hear her tell her story.

Jewish Affairs – 80 years young

This week, the first issue for 2021 of our journal Jewish Affairs (Vol. 76, No. 1, Summer 2021) was published. The articles cover a wide range of subjects, from the Biblical writings, history, and archaeology of ancient Israel, to Zionist pioneers in the modern era, to such noteworthy Jewish South Africans who made a difference like the late Clive Chipkin, a celebrated architect, architectural historian, and Johannesburg heritage activist who passed away earlier this year. To read it, along with all previous issues that have appeared since the journal switched to its online format, go to South African Jewish Board of Deputies (sajbd.org). PDF versions of all previous issues going back to 2009 can be found at Jewish Affairs – archived issues.

Exactly 80 years have passed since the appearance of the inaugural issue of Jewish Affairs in 1941. I warmly thank all the loyal subscribers, advertisers, and contributors who have enabled us to reach this milestone. The original purpose of the publication was to serve as a vehicle for reporting back to the community on the work of the SAJBD and provide information on issues of concern to the community. In succeeding years, it developed into the country’s leading Jewish current affairs, historical, and cultural journal, and is now a vital resource for academics, journalists, genealogical researchers, and others with an interest in the history of our community.

Jewish Affairs is housed on the main SAJBD website, but a new, standalone Jewish Affairs website is in an advanced stage of production. Those interested in taking full advantage of this rich communal resource can do so simply by signing up, at no cost, as a subscriber. Send your name and email to david@sajbd.org.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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