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Outpouring of support for Israel

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Over the years, whenever Israel has had to fight a defensive war against Hamas in particular, the world has condemned it. This time around, things have changed.

An interesting article published in Israel Today (23 May) stated that the speaker of Knesset, Yariv Levin, had thanked various countries and organisations for their outpouring of support for Israel during the latest round of fighting Hamas.

Levin said that he had received calls and messages of support from Inter-Parliamentary Union President Duarte Pacheco who expressed unwavering support for Israel’s right to self-defence, as did German Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble, and the president of the National Council of Austria, Wolfgang Sobotka. Letters were also received from pro-Israel groups in the parliament of France, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Statements of solidarity and support were issued by the parliamentary national security committees in Lithuania and Latvia, by pro-Israel groups in the United Kingdom, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In Brazil, the son of President Jair Bolsonaro spoke in favour of the Jewish state in a speech before parliament.

I’m sure that there are many more in the world who are pro-Israel. The tide is turning, folks. We aren’t alone.

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Publicising dissention with chief rabbi destructive for community

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Two disturbing letters dominated your letters page in the 15 July edition of the SA Jewish Report. The fact that they appeared on the eve of Tisha B’Av was of major significance.

Our sages address the reasons why the two Temples were destroyed on Tisha B’Av. Two of the reasons given are sin’as chinam (baseless hatred) amongst the Jewish people, and another – perhaps less well-known – reason is general disrespect for Torah.

Airing these two letters by two prominent people in our community regrettably compels people to take sides in the issue.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and the office of the chief rabbi represent Torah in our community. Over the years, Goldstein has filled an incredible leadership role. From the Sinai Indaba to the Shabbos Project, he has achieved prominence for South African Jewry in the world. His approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has enabled Jew and non-Jew to bring experts in the field into our homes through his webinars. Leading doctors, clinicians, and other experts have publicly praised Goldstein for this.

Medical experts, political commentators, and other leaders in the wider community have been unapologetic in their criticism of the government’s tardy handling of the epidemic – from the strange banning of cigarettes amongst other things to ineffectual law enforcement and the vaccine rollout.

The common theme running through both letters was criticism of the chief rabbi.

Perhaps a lesson should be taken from Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) in parshas Korach, who, when he encountered opposition within the community, humbly went and approached the dissidents in their own homes. The authors of these letters should have resolved these issues privately with the chief rabbi.

By airing these letters in public, the office of the chief rabbi and consequently rabbis in our community, whom he represents, have been undermined.

I appeal to people of influence in the community to consider whether their public statements will benefit the community or create further division.

Our community is going through a crisis. Let’s move forward with achdus (togetherness) and unity, and ahavas chinam (baseless love).

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Who are the real looters?

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Having witnessed probably the worst outbreak of civil unrest since the dawn of democracy, one difficult question needs to be answered. Who are the real looters?

What took place last week was pillaging in its crudest form. Such plunder has been experienced in many countries around the word, recently in the United States and right now, in both Cuba and Swaziland. Looting and plundering in its crudest form seems to be the knee-jerk reaction of the oppressed and disadvantaged. Sadly, in the case of South Africa, the damage was enormous.

It seems, according to some analysis, that looters didn’t attack and wantonly destroy much infrastructure. In the main, they looted, stole what they could get their hands on, and fled with their spoils. The jury is still out on that. The question remains who the real looters are – not those crude thieves with that 52-inch flat screen TV or trolley full of food.

The real looters are far more sophisticated. While the crude looting took place over only a few days, the sophisticated ransacking has taken place over many, many years, and probably continues today.

Anyone listening to the evidence presented before the Zondo Commission these past two years could name tens if not hundreds of politicians, director generals, public servants, municipal leaders, executives, and managers of state-owned entities, as well as leaders in private business who plundered the country with such efficient sophistication, it would make the Wolf of Wall Street look like an amateur. Paul Holden, who runs the non-governmental organisation Shadow World Investigations has traced more than R50 billion plundered from the state thus far but says the true cost could be substantially higher.

Finger pointing by some “honest” ruling party leaders is really part of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) internal factional conflict. Does anyone really believe that only one faction is complicit in corruption?

The plunder happened under the watch of the current leadership. Only days after the COVID-19 pandemic was recognised as a national emergency, a host of “shady” PPE (personal protective equipment) tenders were awarded to the strangest of people, and who can ignore the very recent issue of a sitting health minister fingered for questionable deals?

The façade of respectability by the “connected and influential” is starting to wear thin. Even the masses are starting to question the ANC.

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When it comes to vaccines, it’s better to stick to the facts

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The Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines (VMAC) as well as the two other MACs are concerned about the extent of vaccine hesitancy in the country.

A recent survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council found that only 52.3% of a cross-section of urbanised and rural populations were planning to be vaccinated – possibly one of the lowest vaccine acceptancy rates in the world. The success of the COVID-19 vaccine programme is critically dependent on public trust and public partnership in what is essentially a novel public health programme – the mass rollout of a new vaccine for adults.

Undermining the programme by uninformed “pseudo-activist” grandstanding can only further damage the fragile public confidence about COVID-19 vaccines. One need only look back in recent history to see the damage wrought by uninformed, wannabe COVID-19 “experts” such as former United States President Donald Trump.

The plea is certainly not to stifle criticism of the government or the vaccine programme. In fact, the VMAC itself has, on a number of occasions, criticised various aspects of government policy. For example, take the Covax deposit issue, which is in the public domain under earlier advisories published on the health department’s website.

The VMAC was established as an independent scientific think tank of top national experts, as well as a panel of international experts, in the field of COVID-19-related vaccine issues. Its members serve in a voluntary capacity, function completely independently of the government, and declare no conflicts of interest. Its purpose is exclusively to provide expert, evidence-based, scientific guidance for the government to plan and execute its vaccine programme.

Three items in the last issue of the SA Jewish Report sanctimoniously adopt a moral stance of the right to speak out against the government. Few reasonable people would disagree with this. But criticism, to be of any value, must be based on authentic science and scientific facts. As the late senator, Daniel Moynihan, so wisely quipped, “You are entitled to your opinion. But you aren’t entitled to your own facts.”

On 3 July, I wrote a letter to the chief rabbi informing him of my resignation from his informal medical advisory body. My reason was that it would “be totally inappropriate for me to be recognised as a medical adviser to your office”. This followed his submission to Business Day on 29 June of an opinion piece which was replete with misinformation and, in my view, was also distasteful in the extreme. These were repeated in his interview responses in the last issue of the SA Jewish Report.

For example, what’s glaringly omitted in any of his submissions is the pivotal role that the B.1.351 (Beta) variant played in the vaccine strategy of the country. He went on to say that evidence was available that the AstraZeneca vaccine would have prevented serious illness, hospitalisation, and death. No such evidence exists, only vague speculation by some. He laments the fact that so many middle-income countries are so far ahead of South Africa, but omits the inconvenient truth that vaccines widely unregistered at the time – from China and Russia – were used, vaccines which had no evidence of activity against the Beta variant.

The chief rabbi’s piece was drawn to my attention, inter alia, by a member of my VMAC. As chairperson of the VMAC, I was unfortunately compelled, in the public interest, to correct at least some of the glaring items of misinformation. It certainly was unfortunate, as the very last thing I wanted was to be involved in a vitriolic to-and-fro correspondence duel with uninformed journalists pursuing their own narratives.

As far as the Jewish community is concerned, I continue to cherish the responsibility that the community has given to me to advise it on COVID-19. I have, for more than a year and a half, willingly, and in fact feel privileged to have been able to volunteer my services and professional and scientific knowledge. I have provided scientifically based advice on COVID-19 to schools, shuls, organisations and, of course, to many individuals who have contacted me.

As chairperson of the VMAC, a member of the general MAC on COVID-19, and a number of other scientific forums, I’m fortunately in a position to provide to the community updated scientific information and data on COVID-19 to clearly explain the facts and sort them out from the plethora of background noise often emanating from the media and unqualified “experts”.

I will be using the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Facebook page every Wednesday at 12:00 to give a weekly update on COVID-19. It can be accessed at https://www.facebook.com/SAJBD

  • Barry Schoub is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. This article is written in his private capacity. He’s not a member of the health department, and receives no remuneration for his advisory services to the department. He reports no conflicts of interest.

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