Rabbi Ben Isaacson – a maverick soul finds rest
I could write a standard obituary tribute to Rabbi Ben Isaacson. I could praise his Torah knowledge, his love for the biblical prophets, his passion for Israel, and his voluminous writings.
It would be a dull and boring literary piece that would give no insight into the unique character and genius that was Ben Isaacson. Ben was no cowering wallflower, he was a man with a big ego, who wanted his story told, and what a unique story it was.
Ben was crazy, quirky, and off-beat in the way that genii are often misunderstood. He was a unique maverick, that no one could force-fit into the standard rabbinic mould, yet most of all, he longed for acceptance by the rabbinic establishment after a long journey in the wilderness.
When the late Suzanne Belling was appointed Isaacson’s biographer, he regaled her with colourful stories of a life well lived, anecdotes of trips to the south of France, love affairs, adoring groupies, and tennis games in the searing tropical heat with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s representative to Zimbabwe.
But that wasn’t the story that his family wanted told, and so the book was edited, re-written, and stripped bare of its life. When the toned-down version of the book was submitted to the establishment for a foreword, the response was less than enthusiastic. A book on the angry biblical prophets, would be so much more appropriate, they thought.
So resultantly, we were deprived of a unique glimpse into the life of the most rebellious rabbi to have ever graced the pulpit in South Africa.
Over many cups of tea in his apartment, near the iconic Doll House Roadhouse, Isaacson, would tell me about his life, his struggles, and his vindication as South Africa’s most iconic anti-apartheid struggle rabbi. He longed for recognition for his political and humanitarian work from the Jewish community, which he never truly received.
Ben, whose impeccable social-justice credentials were beyond reproach, was a proud Zionist, and vociferous supporter of the state of Israel, where he had lived for many years. He wasn’t shy to call out antisemites, and considered the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement a thinly disguised form of antisemitism.
My interview with him was published some years back in the SA Jewish Report, but parts deserve repeating here.
“It portended an ominous Shabbat evening in 1957, when Rabbi Ben Isaacson, assistant to Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, rose to the pulpit of The Great Synagogue in Wolmarans Street, Johannesburg. After a rousing sermon about the ‘twelve spies’ who scouted the land of Israel, during which Isaacson had unequivocally condemned the racist policies of apartheid, the president of the Wolmarans Street Shul, Percy Yutar, dismissed Ben Isaacson on the spot. Yutar would later be the infamous state-prosecutor who prosecuted Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, and who called for the imposition of the death penalty on Madiba.”
And so began the journey of Ben Isaacson, the “struggle rabbi”. Sent into cherem(banned) for the sin of condemning apartheid, Isaacson found himself rabbi to the small conservative community of Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg. The day after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, Isaacson travelled to the blood-soaked streets of the dusty township, where 69 protestors had been mowed down by police in a protest against oppressive apartheid pass laws.
Together with other clerics, Isaacson visited the hospital and morgue to see the lifeless bodies caked in mud and blood. That evening, Isaacson’s home in Krugersdorp was raided by the security police. His library of struggle and Jewish religious books was confiscated and never returned. His wife and young daughter were traumatised by the rifle-wielding uniforms. Police even cut open the mattress of baby Ilana Isaacson’s crib, looking for evidence against the Jewish clergyman.
At that time, Isaacson was also harbouring the young children of anti-apartheid activist Ben Turok, who together with his wife, Mary, were on the run from the police. Indeed, Isaacson and his then wife, Ann, were regularly providing a safe house for African National Congress (ANC) operatives to meet.
The “rebel rabbi” was too much for Krugersdorp, and Isaacson was under extreme pressure to resign. This time, he was sent further into the purgatory of Bloemfontein, no place for a member of the Congress of Democrats. In Bloem, Isaacson would be broken, and he once again became a rabbi with no pulpit.
The friendship between Isaacson and struggle heroes Beyers Naudé and Helen Joseph was so deep that when he was left an unemployed rabbi, Naudé, the head of the South African Council of Churches, would send the rabbi a monthly cheque.
Isaacson is the only rabbi in South Africa to have ever joined the banned ANC. While in exile in Zimbabwe, Thabo Mbeki, who would later become the second president of South Africa, came for Shabbat dinner and loved the chopped liver. When Isaacson returned from exile to South Africa, he asked Mbeki, “Why have you forgotten me?” Mbeki replied, “We will never forget you,” yet, says Isaacson, “they did”.
Isaacson’s religious journey lead him through many flavours of the Jewish faith, including his own Har’el branded congregation along the M1 highway in Houghton, Johannesburg. Ultimately, he returned to Orthodox Judaism where he felt most at home and where he believed he had the most to contribute. Whether the Orthodox establishment truly accepted him back into its fold played heavily on his mind.
As Rabbi Isaacson’s body is laid to rest this week, South Africa should mourn one of its true struggle heroes, an anti-apartheid icon, a rabbinic genius, and a true maverick, who looked at the world and was determined to make life better for all who live in it. Therein lies the greatest Jewish lesson that Rabbi Ben Isaacson could ever teach – the true meaning of what it means to be a Jew.
Anglican ministers break ranks over church’s anti-Israel stance
“What do you do when the leadership of an organisation you’ve spent your whole working life serving adopts a policy or position that your conscience won’t tolerate?” asks Reverend John Atkinson. He is one of four local Anglican Church ordained ministers who recently spoke out against the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s (ACSA’s) anti-Israel doctrine.
Atkinson, along with Reverends Dave Doveton, Dudley Greenshields, and Allan Smith also wrote a letter to the United Orthodox Synagogues’ Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, thanking him for taking a stand against ACSA’s approach to Israel, especially in the light of his recent open letter to Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Dr Thabo Makgoba. In that letter, the chief rabbi said the archbishop was “making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church”.
After receiving the letter from the four ministers, the chief rabbi invited them to meet him, which both parties said was very positive. “We wanted the chief rabbi and the Jewish community to know that there are many Anglicans who would find these policies offensive and a contradiction of our faith,” said Atkinson. “We may be sanctioned, but we aren’t afraid. Standing for the truth and against antisemitism is much more important.”
The group believes that ACSA’s anti-Israel resolution “expresses the ideological perspective of a small but influential elite, and by no means is representative of the average Anglican in Southern Africa. This is why we have made public our rejection of anti-Israel decisions and policies in our denomination”.
Between them, the four ministers have about 160 years of service looking after congregations within their denomination. Two of them were lecturers in theological institutions. All of them have a wealth of experience in their chosen professions.
They are close to retirement, so their careers are unlikely to be negatively impacted by speaking out. “It won’t make us popular, but that doesn’t worry us,” said Atkinson. “There are more people who would speak out if their careers wouldn’t be impacted.
“The average Anglican hasn’t thought about the Middle East at all,” he said, so the Jewish community needs to know that it’s not like three million people have turned against Israel. The ministers will therefore work to increase education and awareness.
He was moved by the meeting with the chief rabbi, and hopes that it “will open the way for greater dialogue between our communities and a greater appreciation of the values we share”.
Delving into why they have taken a stand, he said “this crisis of conscience was precipitated by a resolution that was passed at the highest decision-making body in the denomination in 2019 to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions [movement] and call for a boycott of Israel. The resolution also called on local bodies within the church to adopt these measures.
“Since then, the chief rabbi has had discussions with the Anglican Archbishop, only to be rebuffed. This has been of particular concern because of rising incidents of antisemitism in South Africa,” said Atkinson.
In the letter to the chief rabbi, they wrote, “We want to convey our assurance to you that not all Anglicans support the aforementioned [anti-Israel] synod resolution. Indeed, we are appalled that people in our church would even think of proposing such an antisemitic stance and shocked beyond belief that the synod would uncritically and without any debate pass the resolution.”
A synod is a council of a church, usually convened to decide an issue of doctrine, administration, or application.
They said they weren’t against the criticism of any state and its policies, “but the one-sided diatribe against the government of Israel elected by the people of Israel and the total alignment with certain militaristic organisations bent on the destruction of the Jewish homeland is beyond belief”.
It had caused “much grief and disappointment, as it casts a slur on all of us. The simplistic analysis ignores the role of other countries and organisations who play a direct and indirect role in geopolitics and conflict in the region, and one suspects is meant to advance a propagandistic narrative and shut down other points of view. Certainly, no representative of the Israeli state was invited to give their perspective at the synod.”
The ministers said that “to lay all the blame on the Israelis amounts to scapegoating, which as you are all too painfully aware, is a classic hallmark of the scourge of antisemitism”. They were also deeply disturbed by the resolution calling on them to boycott Israeli companies. “What a terrifying reminder of the horrific genocidal acts against the Jewish community in Europe,” they wrote.
They disagree with the assertion that the present state of Israel isn’t tied to “the historic Jewish nation recorded in the sacred scripture that we as faith communities share. We believe that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to undermine Israel’s right to exist, and is against the historical record. This, too, is a mark of antisemitism.”
They questioned why a church which is based thousands of kilometres away from the conflict “should be so committed to the promotion of one narrative and the total exclusion of the other. If our church is so concerned about the lives of Palestinians, why was it silent about the deaths of 3 383 Palestinians in Syria? We believe the answer is obvious.
“We would like to assure you that we will remain faithful and vocal about Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against attack,” they said. “We will continue to engage with other Christians on these issues to ensure that the pro-Palestinian narrative isn’t the only voice that is heard.”
“The significance of their letter struck home to me powerfully,” Goldstein said. “It shows that there is another voice within the Anglican Church and the Christian community in South Africa, so many of whom love and support Israel and appreciate its role in the world.
“We can easily make the mistake of thinking that certain politicians or religious leaders speak for the country when they come out with such anti-Israel vitriol,” he said. “This letter is indication of a much broader movement of South Africans who have a completely different view. It’s important for us to know that we have many allies and friends across the length and breadth of this country. That’s why I wanted to meet with this group who wrote to me, to express to them on behalf of our community how much we appreciate their friendship and their partnership in getting this message out.
“I’m sure that their letter will encourage others to come forward. Often people feel intimidated and don’t want to speak out. We need to create an environment in South Africa where all citizens can come forward and show their support. There is an enormous groundswell of the silent majority of South Africans who support Israel. I met this group to encourage them to get the message out so that more people can come forward and express their true views.”
Going forward, the ministers will work to “encourage the support [of Israel] in the Anglican population and beyond”, according to Atkinson. “The Jewish community can assist us in this endeavour by communicating with Christians they know about Israel and the Jewish perspective of the Middle East.”
The miracle of the maroon handkerchief
Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.
Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.
A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.
“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.
Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.
In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”
A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.
The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.
“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”
So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.
She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”
She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”
Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”
Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.
Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”
COVID-19 vaccination could be compulsory at workplace
As vaccination becomes more freely available in South Africa, questions arise such as can you make vaccination compulsory and can you dismiss someone if they refuse? Do you have to allow time off to get vaccinated, and what happens if an employee has an adverse reaction? These questions and many more are new to our labour law, and will be subject to litigation over the next many years.
In terms of the department of employment and labour’s latest regulations, the minister has recognised that employers may in terms of their own internal rules make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory.
Obviously, the compulsion must be subject to certain oversight, and must be reasonable in all circumstances. The employer would have to take into account their own operational requirements, and must be able to justify that in terms of these requirements, they would expect employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Over and above this, each case must be carefully explored, discussed, and subject to proper consultation, taking into account the employee’s circumstances. These circumstances can include medical, religious, bodily integrity, and any other factor reasonably raised by the employee or the employee’s representative.
Obviously, each particular employer would develop a set of guidelines and rules which would be read with the disciplinary code and would be properly implemented after consultation with the employees or their representatives.
These rules must be made subject to the above-mentioned criteria, and would probably be differently implemented in accordance with the operational requirements of the position of the actual employee.
For instance, if a buyer for a company has the duty to travel abroad and can do so only if vaccinated, then there would be a compulsion to be vaccinated. It would be incumbent upon the employer to explore whether there are other ways of doing the job or whether an employee is willing to accept another position which doesn’t require vaccination.
It’s absolutely vital for every employer to read the regulation, and to advise all the necessary parties within the next three weeks of their intention to make vaccination mandatory and which employees will be affected.
Obviously, even once vaccination has been made mandatory, it would be subject to the employees being able to obtain the vaccination, and might require the employer to help obtain them. The employer’s policy will take into account various factors such as consultation with all the representatives at the workplace, and will respect bargaining council agreements and any other collective agreements with trade unions.
If there is an informal committee representing the staff and/or a workers forum, these bodies must also be consulted.
The minister of health has published draft regulations for the establishment of a no-fault compensation fund for injuries caused by the COVID-19 vaccination. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund will be established in terms of the regulations as an amendment to the regulations of the Disaster Management Act of 2002.
Although this compensation fund for vaccine injury hasn’t been formed yet, the various ministers involved are taking into account commentary from the public, and will be getting legal advice from parliament’s legal advisors.
The injury must be related to vaccination. An injured person may not institute a claim through the court process against the national or provincial government until the claim has been adjudicated by the relevant panel through the compensation fund.
Only if the person is dissatisfied with the outcome of the adjudication or the amount awarded can that person lodge an appeal, and the appeal must be determined by the relevant decision maker. Only after pursuing a claim with the scheme can a person look to the courts if that person is still dissatisfied.
Businesses are urged once again to warn their staff that protocols are in place, and breach of COVID-19 rules and regulations will lead to spread of infection and almost inevitably disciplinary action.
I’m involved in no less than a dozen cases where employers have reported and taken action against recalcitrant employees. It’s time, once again, to reiterate the fundamental, basic rules such as social distancing, mask wearing, and sanitising. Over and above this, any staff member exhibiting symptoms must report these symptoms to their health officer or senior management, and should immediately take sick leave.
The consequences of a staff member remaining silent could be loss of their position and more seriously, the spread of infection.
Employers will have to educate staff about the value of vaccination along with normal social distancing, masks, and hand sanitising. Education in these circumstances, I believe, will be the strongest factor in convincing all staff to get vaccinated.
A consolidated direction on occupational health and safety measures in certain workplaces was gazette on 11 June 2021. This contains new requirements with regard to vaccination.
It’s clear from this that an employer must give employees time off to be vaccinated. The employee may be required to provide proof of an appointment to be vaccinated. Time off shouldn’t be regarded as sick leave, but should be given as a form of special leave.
If there are negative effects from vaccination, the employer will grant paid sick leave in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. If the sick leave has been exhausted, there could be a claim in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. Employees will produce the vaccination certificate thereafter, and a medical certificate if they’ve had complications.
- Michael Bagraim is an attorney specialising in labour law, and advises nationwide on the restructuring and management of labour forces. He is also a Democratic Alliance member of parliament.
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