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Principal targeted in Redhill’s anti-Israel flare-up

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Joburg’s multi-faith, multi-cultural Redhill School this week attempted to pick up the pieces after angry pro-Palestinian alumni and students attacked the principal for trying to calm rising tension around the Middle East conflict.

Though there is chit chat between classes and sport and extra mural activities continue just like the news cycle – which has moved onto other things – the school’s executive head, Joseph Gerassi, his staff, and students are still reeling from a torrid week which threatened to tear the forward-thinking school apart.

Professor Karen Milner of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies said some of the Jewish parents were justifiably frazzled. “This was a big event in our community. It’s an important issue because it brought children into the conflict at school level, and had an impact on their lives,” she said.

“Parents were worried about physical altercations breaking out as well as their children’s sense of psychological safety and sense of inclusion at the school,” she said.

There was a general sense of disquiet on campus as children processed last week’s pro-Palestinian protest outside the school during the early morning drop-off on Thursday, 20 May. Dozens of young adults descended on the school dressed in pro-Palestinian garb, some wearing old school blazers, waving flags, and chanting popular anti-Israel slogans.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” was repeated often. This popular Palestinian slogan rejects the right of Israel to exist and calls for all of the land of Israel to be given to Palestinians. The slogan is considered an insensitive, hurtful anti-Jewish battle cry.

The co-ed private school took a beating as alumni shoved the school’s progressive headmaster under the school bus, accusing him of shutting down free speech. He denied that was his intention, and said he did what he believed was the right thing to do.

“As an educator, I have the right to de-escalate what I might see becoming a major bullying problem. If I don’t do that and a child is badly bullied or hurt, I could have a parent say that I could have foreseen it. Then I become liable,” he said.

While on leave last week, Gerassi was informed by senior staff and parents that there was a build-up of emotion within the school as tension over the conflict in the Middle East reached fever pitch. Some children were being harassed. Parents, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being harassed themselves, said some children felt alienated and intimidated by incessant social-media posts from friends and classmates.

“Some parents were writing to me saying that things were starting to build up, and children were saying things that were cruel to one another,” said Gerassi.

Foreseeing that the situation might escalate out of control, Gerassi sent a letter to his staff and parent body.

He wrote that it was an “incredibly contentious and divisive issue”, saying that he felt it was his obligation to ensure the conflict didn’t also tear people apart within the Redhill community.

“Let me say that I don’t believe that this issue shouldn’t be discussed and debated,” his letter read. “However, given the emotions currently surrounding this crisis and the age of our children, I don’t believe there is anything to be gained from having them argue and debate with each other.

“At such a sensitive time, emotions tend to run high and assumptions tend to be made about people based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds. Making such assumptions is dangerous, can create divisions within our community, and more importantly, fragment friendship groups that have taken years to build.”

He urged families to encourage their children not to discuss the issue at school.

His intention, he told the SA Jewish Report, was to wait until safe spaces could be created at the school which would enable children to debate openly and respectfully with one another.

The letter sparked outrage among some parents and their children. It was shared, and spread quickly online.

In a flash, the school’s untarnished reputation was dragged through the twisting tunnels of hate on Twitter. One former alumni, Kelly-Jo Bluen, tweeted, “As a Jewish former head girl of @RedhillSchool, I am absolutely appalled by this virulent Zionist, racist, antisemitic incursion on freedom of speech at the school and policing of students. All alumni should immediately withdraw financial support from the school as a start.”

That was mild.

Gerassi’s online presence and every past utterance he has made has been scrutinised for potential bias. A protest against censorship was called for by the alumni, many of whom belong to the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee.

“The context of my letter has to be taken into account. I was writing first and foremost to my community, not to the press out there, not to other schools, and not to the government. I was writing this after I had loads of parents asking me for advice,” Gerassi said.

“All I was asking for was time to be able to bring in specialists who could work with our kids on creating safe spaces where children would be able to have an opinion but there would also be facilitators to moderate if things got out of control,” he said.

“It’s all very well for journalists to think every child at school is a bastion of maturity who can sit down with their sandwich at break and have a well thought out argument. Those of us who have been in education know that doesn’t take place. Not when you have these kinds of issues.”

One parent who wished to remain anonymous said the alumni had another agenda. “It was clear that this issue was hijacked and there was always another agenda. It was a pro-Palestinian protest by young adults more intent on demonising Israel than calling for freedom of speech.”

The posters screamed, “End the occupation”, “Boycott apartheid Israel”, “Condemn the genocide”, “Zionism is racism”. There were one or two which alluded to free speech, which said, “We will not be silent.”

Being Jewish himself didn’t help Gerassi either. Nor did it help that he had been interviewed by this newspaper after winning an Absa Jewish Achiever Award. This was added to posts online. So too was the fact that he had previously been headmaster at King David Victory Park.

“Had Gerassi come out strongly in support of Palestine, everything would have been fine,” said one Jewish parent who also wished to remain anonymous, “The fact that he was neutral and unbiased was held against him. He was trying to diffuse a divisive and emotional situation.”

A bruised and vulnerable Gerassi said, “I’m ok. I’ve managed to get past the hurt of this becoming personal. There were a lot of attacks on me personally, you get through that, and you realise the most important thing is Redhill, and I have to get things back together again.”

What hurt him the most was when he tried to reach out to students and alumni – many of whom he knew very well and had close relationships with – to engage with them before the protest took place, and they refused.

“I was terribly disappointed in that. When you purport to believe so much in healthy debate and you’ve been at a school that has had so much debate, surely the first thing you do is phone Mr Gerassi and engage on the subject.”

Gerassi said that before mid-term break, the school would hold a full-day workshop of presentations and dialogue by experts in the field.

“The presentations will educate our students on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as explain the different narratives and perspectives. Students will be given the opportunity to ask questions in a safe space and make comments in an environment that will allow for healthy debate and respectful engagement and which will be mediated by experienced facilitators.”

One parent said his children had become prouder to be Jewish, and had started to wear their Star of David necklaces. “We chose not to send our kids to school on the day of the protest, it was all too much for them,” he said.

“If it became heated, they weren’t equipped to defend themselves amongst the anger and name calling. School might be back to ‘normal’ but there is a lot of damage this has torn friendships apart,” he said.

One Jewish child who wished to remain anonymous told the SA Jewish Report, “Kids were discussing this issue which didn’t directly affect their lives and which they will forget about in a week or two. But what they didn’t realise was how the antisemitic rhetoric affected some of their Jewish classmates, and that lasts longer than a week or two.”

Understanding the passion of youth, and in spite of the hurt, Gerassi said he would always be available to chat to the same students who were angry with him. “I will always hold my hand out to them,” he said.

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BDS boycott ‘creating divisions among ordinary South Africans’

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“I felt targeted because I’m Jewish. It’s antisemitic,” said a businessman affected by an alleged boycott of companies purported to support Israel.

A group of 300 South African hardware stores supposedly cancelled contracts with “SA-based suppliers and companies that have relations with or who have shown support for Israel”. The executive director of Africa4Palestine (formerly Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa), Muhammed Desai, last week described the boycott as “heartwarming”.

“Many people have been pressured by their community to be part of a boycott and cause harm,” said this businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This affects ordinary South Africans because it destroys long-term business relationships.”

Although there has been an impact on his company, it seems not many businesses have felt the impact of the boycott. Other suppliers listed by Desai told the SA Jewish Report that no contracts had been cancelled. “None of our relationships or sales into any of the hardware stores in South Africa have been compromised,” said one supplier, who asked not to be named.

“I can state categorically that this has had no impact on our business,” said another supplier who wanted to remain anonymous. “Our order book is full.”

“As the ‘rainbow nation’, this is just aggressively encouraging divisions that were never there before,” said the first businessman. “People are making business decisions based on religion rather than good business principles. These enforced divisions are what worry me more than anything. What happened to the South Africa that we know? This radical stance is completely nonsensical,” he said.

Desai went on to declare, “Today, standing with Israel, having ties with Israel, or serving in the Israeli military have all, correctly, become similar to, in the past, having stood with apartheid South Africa or with Nazi Germany. To stand with Israel today is now synonymous with saying, ‘I stand with Germany’ during the Holocaust or declaring, ‘I stand with South Africa’ during apartheid.”

He said Africa4Palestine welcomed “this ethical position as a morally sound example to other stores in South Africa and the African continent to emulate so that we can truly create apartheid-Israeli-free zones. Your efforts have served as another great blow to those who believe they can support the Israeli regime on the one hand, and take money and profits from principled and moral South African people.”

If the language of boycotting Jewish businesses and creating “Israeli-free zones” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn said, “In his congratulatory letter to the boycotters, Desai compares Israel to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The irony of his use of Holocaust terminology is also not lost on us Jews. Nazi Germany also came to our minds when we read this letter. We remember that the Holocaust began with the boycotting of Jewish businesses.

“We aren’t fooled by his couching of words or references to those who ‘have relations with or who have shown support for Israel’ and those ‘standing with Israel, having ties with Israel’. What he actually means is Jews. According to the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre study in 2019, 90% of South African Jews support Israel, so invariably, what Desai is calling for is the boycott of Jewish businesses.

“The delight that he takes in potentially destroying these Jewish businesses is gut-wrenching, not least because of the fragile and precarious economic climate in South Africa. Will Desai and the BDS organisations rejoice in the jobs lost by these businesses?

“His so-called victory of boycotts of Jewish business won’t have an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All these threats achieve is attempted intimidation of local South African Jews who hold an opinion different to BDS. The South African Jewish community won’t be intimidated. It’s effect will be only to harm South African businesses trying desperately to survive and retain jobs,” Kahn said.

“Our Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion. There’s no rider that excludes Jews and people who have a connection to Israel. Nor does it call for the destruction of livelihoods of people for daring to believe differently.”

Desai issued a statement saying that the accusation of antisemitism was “a deliberate misrepresentation”, but then reiterated that “we welcome South Africans shunning, boycotting, and ending relations with suppliers and companies that are trading with, have links to, or are supportive of Israel”.

In response to the SAJBD’s statement on the matter, published on Facebook, Africa4Palestine’s Bram Hanekom wrote, “The 300 hardware stores can buy the things they need from other South African owned and ethical businesses.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public diplomacy at the South African Zionist Federation, noted that “the boycott of Jewish businesses has a long history in the BDS movement going back more than a decade, with Jewish businesses or those with Jewish management frequently targeted. What’s more, commercial boycotts against Israel have been a complete failure internationally. Since the boycott movement started, trade between Israel and South Africa has actually increased on average.

“BDS has many other failed boycott attempts,” he said. “One that comes to mind is the failed Woolworths ‘tomato’ boycott, which also produced zero results, other than a pig’s head placed in the kosher section of a supermarket. BDS may be trying to intimidate smaller Jewish businesses, but as yet, it hasn’t shown any signs that it has the capability of undertaking a full-fledged boycott campaign.”

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SAZF takes on Judge Desai for his conduct

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The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has predictably come in for some heavy criticism by the anti-Israel lobby for lodging a complaint against retired Judge Siraj Desai with the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC).

Last week, the SAZF lodged a complaint with the JCC against the judge, who recently took up the position of the Legal Services Ombudsman.

The SAZF said Desai’s actions and conduct over many years was plainly in breach of the code of judicial conduct and “entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer”.

This was a bombshell complaint against Desai, who is a well-known social activist and respected jurist described by many as the “people’s judge”.

The detailed complaint against him spans many years from 2009 till the present, highlighting Desai’s actions and conduct connecting him to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and the pro-Palestinian movement.

The SAZF said that Desai’s alleged misconduct included his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his judicial office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his judicial office to promote a partisan political cause.

Desai, who served the legal profession for 43 years, retired as a Western Cape High Court judge last year, and almost immediately accepted the ombud position having been appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The objective of the ombud is to advance and safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa But more importantly, it’s to ensure fair, efficient, and effective investigation of complaints of alleged misconduct by legal practitioners.

Former Judge Rex van Schalkwyk of the Rule of Law Project told the SA Jewish Report, “This isn’t about whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Did Judge Desai conform with the ethics that constrain him as a judge? Having looked at the complaint, there is at least a case that needs to be answered. Judge Desai must give an explanation about his conduct. It’s legitimate for this issue to have been brought to the professional body of the JSC [Judicial Service Commission] and to be dealt with specifically in accordance with the principle of law not in accordance with the political issues which will cloud the complaint.”

The SAZF has been lambasted for the complaint, which it lodged on 10 June, by members of Africa4Palestine and the South African BDS Coalition. They have set up a Facebook page called “Hands off Judge Desai”.

The anti-Israel lobbyists described the complaint as “spurious” and “baseless”, and called it a “vengeful attack”. Africa4Palestine criticised the “questionable” timing of the complaint, saying that it was an attempt to distract from its complaint lodged against the country’s outgoing Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Last Friday, 11 June, the JCC appeal panel said it was continuing its deliberations on Mogoeng Mogoeng’s appeal against a misconduct finding for his remarks about Israel brought by Africa4Palestine.

Earlier this year, the JCC found that Mogoeng had contravened the code of judicial conduct with comments made during a webinar in June last year and subsequently at a prayer meeting where he declared that he would never apologise for the views he expressed. In the webinar, hosted by the Jerusalem Post, he said he believed South Africa would do well to consider adopting a more objective stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said “hatred” of the Jewish state could “attract unprecedented curses upon our nation”.

In his March ruling, Judge Phineas Mojapelo stressed that “judges are to stay out of politics”.

The South African BDS Coalition said the SAZF’s complaint against Desai was in “retaliation for the failure to secure a seat at the Constitutional Court by Judge Unterhalter” accusing him of being an “apologist for Zionism”. Earlier this year, the SA BDS Coalition demanded that Unterhalter not be selected to the Constitutional Court for his association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Rolene Marks, SAZF’s legal forum spokesperson said, “At issue here, is the role that judges play in our society. The reason that there is a judicial code of conduct is that judges need to be seen not to be promoting political causes since they may have to rule on them at some stage. However, it’s clear through his comments that although Judge Desai is entitled to his views in terms of freedom of speech, he is bound by the judicial code of conduct, and his actions fall outside of that.”

According to the SAZF, last year, Desai while being interviewed on an Iranian YouTube channel, made “inappropriate comments” likening Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela.

“To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights, and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions,” the statement said.

It added that Desai also made “several other shocking remarks” during the interview regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States – an important trading and diplomatic partner of South Africa – as the “great Satan” which demonstrated that Desai had “engaged in conduct incompatible with his status as a judge of the high court.”

According to the SAZF, Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby.

In 2009, Desai was part of a South African delegation of pro-Palestinian activists that was to take part in a protest known as “the Gaza Freedom March” organised by the Palestine Solidarity Alliance. It was during this time that the Cairo Declaration was signed which was a call for a global movement for Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel. The SAZF said Desai “lent his stature as a judge to the drafting and issuing of the declaration”.

In 2015, he gave an order in a review application brought by pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist organisations and activists against the City of Cape Town. There is allegedly no record in the judgment of him having disclosed his interest in BDS to the parties in that case, according to the complaint.

In 2018, Desai welcomed Hamas during its visit to South Africa and said, “We hope to make an intellectual contribution to the resolution of the Palestinian issue, but we take our leadership from you, you are the leadership on the ground.”

“This, despite the fact that the Hamas charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the state of Israel. Using the prestige of the judicial office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the judicial code of conduct,” said the complaint.

“Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the judicial code,” said the SAZF. “It’s therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account.”

Desai told News24 through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, that he was “unapologetic in his stance in condemnation of apartheid Israel”.

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Kacev heads up Jewish education network that will benefit SA

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The former director of the South African Board of Jewish Education, Rabbi Craig Kacev, has been selected as pedagogical director of a new project called the Global Jewish Education Resource Centre, in partnership with Israel’s Diaspora Affairs ministry.

For the first time, there will be one organisation liaising with Jewish schools throughout the world, creating a global Jewish education network.

The initiative includes a global educational and professional network that will work with experts and providers across all continents and in different languages. It will pioneer the development of educational content, training of teachers, support of school leadership, building of virtual platforms to share ideas and initiatives, and the provision of professional consulting services to individual schools.

The need for this initiative was recognised during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many communities in the diaspora were struggling to cope with the closure of schools and the transition to virtual learning while facing a shortage of Jewish Studies teachers and high-quality curriculum resources.

The initiative will include the creation of connections and dialogue between Jewish school students, teachers, and principals around the world. The initiative is in partnership with Herzog College, Israel’s leading academic college for teacher education in the religious sector. It’s renowned for its expertise in teacher training, professional development, and designing innovative digital content.

Kacev made aliyah earlier this year. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Israel, he says “this new initiative, in response to the impact of the pandemic, has goals uniquely linked to what schools have experienced over the past year and a half. It also seeks to capitalise on the past for the benefit of Jewish schools in the future. The initiative seeks to make a difference in areas of leadership, teachers, and content, with a focus on enhancing Jewish learning.

“That said, it’s also intended to respond to current trends such as distance learning, social and emotional needs, project-based learning, and other areas where schools need support. Herzog College brings a team of high-level educators doing research and teaching in many spheres, and we hope to ensure that schools around the world benefit from this expertise. We don’t claim to know everything, nor do we intend to be an organisation that forces solutions on schools. This is intended to be a platform that provides support. Working with as many partners in the field, it aims to serve each school in its areas of need.”

Kacev says he took the role on “with much trepidation. The responsibility is substantial, and the pressure to bring an offering that adds value to as many Jewish schools as possible around the world isn’t to be underestimated.”

As director of pedagogy, he will be guiding the educational team on the approach and content that it will use in teacher education, content development, and student engagement opportunities.

“While we will start with a few offerings, this will grow rather quickly. There are many existing organisations developing content or offering services to the field. I hope to work with as many of these as possible to bring their expertise to a larger audience, and then have the Global Resource Centre bring its added offering to the field. We are also hoping to develop more cost-effective models for schools to access high-quality content.”

Kacev says he was drawn to the role because, “having dedicated myself to Jewish education for the past 25 years, this is where I wanted to remain. Now, I will be able to bring all that I learned along the way to Jewish schools across the globe. I have a sense of many of the common needs across the Jewish educational world, and I’m learning about the specific needs in each country. I believe that I bring a broad and deep understanding of Jewish education, together with the experience of working on a large scale. One quickly learns that if systems are developed correctly then even if the platform or organisation is huge, the customer feels that their needs are being met. We hope to achieve that on a substantial scale for schools and especially Jewish educators around the world.”

On the importance and uniqueness of this project, he says, “There are many providers in the field and many countries have umbrella organisations serving their Jewish schools. But there is no one organisation that is looking to provide a global address for all that’s available while developing meta-curricula, worldwide teacher networks, and looking to harness the substantial expertise in the field for the benefit of all. This is also an initiative that Israel is investing in, and will continue to invest in with substantial funds, together with philanthropists around the world interested in Jewish education.”

At a ceremony last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich signed a 38 million shekel (R160 million) agreement with Herzog College to lead the two-year project.

So, how soon will the project reach Jewish schools in South Africa? “Whatever part of the offering goes live after the chaggim in October 2021 will be available to all Jewish schools around the world,” says Kacev. “Teachers will be able to find content, get assistance in finding specific content, join worldwide networks on many topics moderated by experts in their fields, and join the ongoing online courses. As the project develops, there will be specific initiatives together with Jewish schools in South Africa based on their needs and requests.”

Regarding the specific challenges facing South African Jewish schools that the project can assist with, Kacev says, “South Africa, like many other places could benefit from ongoing teacher education, opportunities for educational leaders to share with colleagues and learn from experts around the world, and high-quality curriculum content and materials. The extent to which the Jewish schools stand to benefit from the initiative will depend on their proactive use of the resource centre.

“That said, I have a special place in my heart for South Africa, and hope to ensure that they do benefit from all that the initiative offers. There will also be opportunities for schools to benefit from additional investment in our area of responsibility if there is partner funding from the community. We hope to find that sort of support over time, as has been the case in Europe and South America to date.”

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