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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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SA Jewry’s pandemic response unique and robust, experts say

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The South African Jewish community’s response to the pandemic has been singled out as unique, efficient, and robust in an academic paper that tracks how the community galvanised itself from March to October 2020.

From the start of hard lockdown, “It became apparent to me that our response as a community was unusually speedy, pro-active, and comprehensive,” says Leah Gilbert on what motivated her to write the paper. “I was impressed with the fact that we used the expertise available among us to inform the community. In addition, the quick emergence of support programmes for people who were infected was unique.”

Gilbert is emeritus professor of Health Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she taught and researched health and disease in the social context for 35 years. Her daughter and fellow author of the article, Shirli Gilbert, is professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London, and academic director of the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre.

The article has already been accessed almost 1 000 times online, a high number for an academic study of this kind. The authors hope it will be useful for understanding communal responses to the pandemic in South Africa and in other communities worldwide.

Of all the Jewish communities in the world, why did they decide to focus on this one? “During the first lockdown in Johannesburg, observing through my professional lens my society’s relationship to health and disease, I had the idea of documenting our community’s response to the pandemic,” says the elder Gilbert.

“It began with the first SA Jewish Report webinar with medical experts, and the subsequent dissemination and sharing of knowledge and activities,” she says. “I approached my daughter, whose research focuses on the South African Jewish community, and we started collecting relevant material.

“The community’s response to the pandemic spanned the gamut from physical and mental health to religious observance, home schooling, financial relief, food aid, and social-welfare support,” Gilbert says. “The common theme among the initiatives was the efficiency with which resources were mobilised, something possible only because of a robust and highly centralised pre-existing communal infrastructure and strong networks of social capital.”

In their paper, they note that, “The unique response of the South African Jewish community to COVID-19 must be understood within the larger context of the relationship between Jews and health. Scholarship suggests that Jews have a heightened concern for health relative to other groups.”

They also write that “unlike other diaspora communities, in South Africa, a great deal of emphasis has historically been placed on communal unity”. Another unique factor is that “following the transition [to democracy], communal investment in outreach has expanded significantly”.

“Taken together, the centrality of health, robust communal infrastructure, and strong community social capital against the background of the Jewish community’s particular positioning in post-apartheid South Africa helps to account for the uniquely co-ordinated, energetic, and multipronged nature of the community’s pandemic response.”

However, the community also faced many challenges during the pandemic. “The ageing nature of the Jewish community in South Africa meant that the percentage of vulnerable people was relatively high,” says the elder Gilbert.

“This higher risk profile helps to explain the motivation for the quick and powerful mobilisation of resources. There was some friction around the question of how support for Jewish communal welfare fitted alongside South African Jews’ commitment to broader South African society. On the whole, however, evidence suggests that community support for both ‘inreach’ and ‘outreach’ initiatives has been generous and widespread.

“The pandemic has also been difficult for this community in particular because of the extent to which Jewish families are dispersed across the world, which meant long periods of time for families to be apart.”

Another challenge has been resources, especially financial. As they write, “despite the robustness of the community’s infrastructure and its still considerable resources, there are concerns about its long-term health and prospects. On 19 June [2020], the Chev [Chevrah Kadisha] was forced for the first time in its 132-year history to call for emergency financial support. Its work in both residential care and financial assistance – sectors especially impacted by the pandemic – left it severely exposed, and with almost no state support and overwhelming reliance on private donor funds, it was placed under unprecedented strain.

“The community remains highly vigilant, and co-ordinated leadership continues to be delivered by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the office of the chief rabbi, and the Chevrah Kadisha, together with other organisations and in partnership with Jewish experts,” they write in their conclusion. “Some cracks, however, are already beginning to show. The extent to which it will be possible to retain the strength and co-ordination of these responses as the pandemic’s severe effects persist remains to be seen.”

They researched their subject by collecting data from all issues of South African Jewish publications during the period under study (March to October 2020). This included the SA Jewish Report, the Cape Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Life, and Jewish Affairs, as well as websites, social media, and other public communications of major communal institutions, the office of the chief rabbi, and Jewish-led relief initiatives and organisations. “The analysis of the data took two months, after which we wrote up the article itself,” says the younger Gilbert.

The SA Jewish Report was one of their prime resources, “since it provided granular detail of what was happening on a weekly basis, both events and ongoing discussions and debates. The SA Jewish Report webinars were also key as they were helping to provide support and access to information that the community needed,” she says.

Asked how they think the South African Jewish community will emerge from the pandemic, they say, “The conclusion [of the paper] is a paradoxical one. On the one hand, the article emphasises the robustness of the community’s infrastructure and its considerable resources, which have allowed it to mount an impressive response to the pandemic.

“On the other hand, the enormous challenges posed by the pandemic have also heightened existing feelings of precariousness and vulnerability within the community. The economic future of largely self-funded Jewish communal organisations is uncertain, emigration is ongoing and possibly increasing, and the self-employed (among whom Jews are strongly represented) have been hard-hit,” according to the elder Gilbert.

Asked if they will conduct research on the South African Jewish community in future, the younger Gilbert says, “My historical research on the South African Jewish community is ongoing. I’m working on a study of German Jews who came to South Africa in the 1930s, as well as a special journal issue on South African Jews co-edited with Professor Adam Mendelsohn. In October-November 2021, I’ll be teaching a six-part online course on Jews in South Africa for the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre. Everyone is welcome.”

  • The academic paper can be accessed by searching “South African Jewish Responses to COVID-19” on Google.
  • The Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre course can be accessed by looking at the “What’s On” tab on www.sirmartingilbertlearningcentre.org

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JNF-SA trail commemorates “Great Jewish Escape”

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Between 1945 and 1948, up to 300 000 Holocaust survivors and Jewish partisans were rescued across war-ravaged Europe in preparation to enter British-occupied eretz Yisrael before the declaration of the Jewish state. Yet, the remarkable achievements of the Bricha (escape or flight) Movement have been all but forgotten in Israel today.

The Jewish National Fund of South Africa (JNF-SA) is trying to change that by creating the Shvi Bricha walking trail in the Carmel mountain range in Israel’s north. It symbolises the thousands of kilometres traversed on foot by the Bricha Movement to freedom.

The Bricha – the Great Jewish Escape – was the topic of a webinar hosted by the JNF-SA and the South African Zionist Federation last week.

Pre-eminent Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer wrote one of the only books on the Bricha, published in 1974. He explained how in July 1944, Abba Kovner, a Jewish partisan commander, travelled to Soviet-occupied Vilnius in Lithuania to convince the authorities to let the Jews leave.

“It was a hopeless endeavour,” said Bauer. Zionist youth movements became active leaders in the Bricha, the clandestine, underground movement to rescue partisans (and later, survivors and those who were hidden) to smuggle them out of Europe.

After the war, millions of people were on the move throughout Europe. At first, there were no separate displaced persons camps for Jewish survivors, and they had to fight for recognition of their Jewish national identity. The Bricha Movement was central to these efforts.

In September 1945, the first shlichim (emissaries) from eretz Yisrael arrived in Europe to co-ordinate the Great Jewish Escape. One was Tzvi Netzer, himself an escapee from Europe just two years before, proficient in German, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish. Bricha leaders had to bribe many border officials across Europe to allow people to pass into different countries, from Poland to Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Allied-occupied Germany and Austria. They needed graphic designers to forge visas and other official documents. Sometimes, the Jewish groups pretended to be Greeks returning home. They spoke Hebrew, passing it off as Greek to the none-the-wiser Polish authorities. The entire operation was funded by the Joint (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee).

Many gathered in displaced persons camps, and then eventually moved on to Greece, Italy, and France and then on to eretz Yisrael by ship as part of “Aliyah Bet” in defiance of the British naval blockade curbing Jewish immigration before 1948.

“It was absolutely amazing,” said Bauer. “It was the largest illegal mass movement in Europe in the twentieth century. Without the Bricha, there would have been no state of Israel. The Holocaust almost destroyed the hope of a Jewish state. Vast numbers of potential immigrants were killed. The displaced persons camps and the Bricha put pressure on the British and United States to help create the state.”

Professor Avinoam Patt from the University of Connecticut is the author of Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and the Bricha after the Holocaust. He noted that about 75% to 80% of Holocaust survivors were aged between 17 and 35. Most had lost their entire families and their homes. They faced enduring antisemitism in Europe (such as the devastating Kielce pogrom in Poland in 1946) and had to take control of their lives. With other avenues closed and feeling unwelcome in Europe, many embraced Zionism, helping to revive Zionist youth movements decimated in the war. Some set up kibbutzim – communal farms – in Europe, to learn agriculture in preparation for aliyah.

“The Bricha Trail is now an open-air museum and major educational tool of the Great Jewish Escape,” said Dr Omri Bone from the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the JNF-SA’s parent body. He lauded JNF-SA for its efforts to make this become a reality.

Dr Miri Nehari, a clinical and educational psychologist, is the chairperson of the Bricha Legacy Association in Israel. She is the daughter of Tzvi Netzer. “The Bricha isn’t known, spoken about, or researched in Israel,” she said. “The Shvi Habricha is the only commemoration for the Bricha Movement. The association receives no funding from the state. Its main argument is that it didn’t take place on the soil of Israel.” She says the neglect of the Bricha reflects a deeper ambivalence about the Holocaust and its role in the formation of the state of Israel.

Hopefully, JNF-SA’s efforts will start to change all that.

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Taliban takeover – a booster shot for radical Islamists

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The rapid assumption of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan as the United States (US) withdrew its forces will have ramifications far beyond Central Asia, not least for Israel, according to veteran US diplomat and academic Ambassador Dennis Ross.

Ross, who advised the Clinton and Obama Administrations, was interviewed by Carly Maisel in a Lockdown University webinar, broadcast by the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre on 28 August.

“Begun in 2001, Afghanistan was the longest war in US history,” Ross said. “Afghanistan is known as the ‘death knell of empires’, as discovered by the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans.”

President Donald Trump wanted the US out of Afghanistan, what he called a “forever war”. From a high of 150 000 US troops, there were just 2 500 remaining when Joe Biden assumed office in 2021. He, too, was determined to leave Afghanistan. In spite of investment of more than $85 billion [R1.2 trillion] in the Afghan army over 20 years [and more than $1 trillion (R14.6 trillion) spent on the war in total] “there was massive corruption and poor morale. It was a hollow force,” Ross said.

After being vanquished in just six weeks in 2001, the Taliban melted away, bided its time, and regrouped, drawing support from local populations and neighbours such as Pakistan. “Afghan governments looked like foreign implants; they were corrupt and lacked credibility. This helped the Taliban gradually rebuild itself,” said Ross.

The new Taliban government wants international support and recognition. It has therefore sought to project a more moderate image than it had in its first stint in government from 1996-2001. Its pronouncements about being more tolerant towards women’s rights, for example, don’t convince Ross.

“The risk is that the Taliban victory acts as a recruitment tool – a booster shot for radical Sunni Islamists. They have portrayed the US withdrawal as a great victory on social media. They want to show they’re back in business,” said Ross.

So what effect will it have on the region and wider international community?

Iran has a history of hostility and suspicion for the Taliban. They almost went to war in 1998, after the killing of nine Iranian diplomats by the Taliban. Also, the Taliban are radical Sunni Salafists who see Shia Iran as heretics; neither side is tolerant. The Taliban has profited from the opium trade from Afghani poppy fields, fuelling drug addiction in Iran.

Nevertheless, the two have been building a relationship over the past few years, including Iran arming the Taliban. “They have a shared desire to see the defeat of the US everywhere, and seek its humiliation,” said Ross. “Their commentary has been gloating.” He predicts that the new Iranian government will be even more confrontational with the US, and will “want more, for less” in any renegotiated nuclear deal with the US and its allies.

Israel has received support from the US, which has resupplied weapons to Israel after the clashes with Gaza, and continued financial support. “But Israel has always told everyone that ultimately, it needs to depend on itself. This has always been part of the Israeli ethos. It will never ask the US to die for it. Israel will defend itself by itself. The American experience in Afghanistan has only deepened this sense,” said Ross. The security establishment wants the US to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal not because it thinks it’s a good deal, but so that it can buy the time Israel needs to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, by force if needed.

Pakistan has provided sanctuary for Taliban leaders, partly to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan. It has suffered heinous terror attacks by the Taliban, but sees everything through its struggle with India. The world must be wary of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, with growing radicalism.

Russia hasn’t rushed to recognise the Taliban government. It has kept its embassy open, and has a “wait and see” attitude. By conducting military exercises in the former Soviet republic, Tajikistan, President Vladimir Putin is sending a message to the Taliban and other radical Islamists: don’t mess with us, according to Ross. But, “Russia, too, will celebrate every US defeat.”

China may seek to exploit large lithium deposits in Afghanistan, but it, like Russia, fears Islamist insurrection in its vast territory. Getting to the lithium would require major investment, and China may incorporate it into its “Belt and Road” initiative – a grand plan to build supportive infrastructure on China’s main trade routes.

“China and Russia will seek to take some advantage, but will both tread carefully because of profound suspicion of the Taliban,” Ross said.

Looking ahead, Ross said there could be civil strife within the Taliban. “We may face a mess for some time to come in Afghanistan. I’d love to say we achieved something, but at what price? We hoped we would see competence after the chaotic dysfunction of the Trump presidency. It sure doesn’t look like it. We’ll need some foreign policy successes.”

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