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Rabbi Ben Isaacson – a maverick soul finds rest

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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.

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SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates

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As Israel faced a steady bombardment of deadly rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza this week, the South African government, politicians, and activists condemned the Jewish state, ignoring the myriad complexities of the violence.

And as Hamas escalated its barrage of rockets targeting innocent civilians, to which Israel retaliated, there has been no condemnation of Hamas from either the South African government or any of its politicians.

Israel’s right to defend itself and diffuse tensions in a bid to save the lives of all its citizens including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hasn’t been acknowledged by the government in its condemnation of the Jewish state.

Siding wholly with the Palestinians, the government earlier this week expressed its “deep concern at the continued clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers while praying at the holy site”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters said it noted “the genocide” committed by Israel against the Palestinian people during Ramadan, saying “We condemn with contempt the violence perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli state on unarmed Palestinian people.” It called on the government to close down the South African embassy in Israel and recall all its representatives there.

No mention has been made about Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque stockpiling rocks, fireworks, and stone slabs around the site in preparation for violence and attacking Israeli police.

Focusing all its attention on the land dispute and potential eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the government ignored a multitude of issues that have contributed to the rising wave of violence since April.

The department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement saying, “The South African government strongly condemns the attacks and planned evictions of Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.

“It’s perplexing that during these unprecedented times, as the international community addresses the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel is exploiting the situation to advance its de facto annexation of Palestinian land. These acts aren’t only illegal but also risk undermining the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and will have negative consequences on the entire peace process.”

In response to this, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the government, all political parties, and the media to show “even-handedness” and acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

In a joint statement, SAJBD National Chairperson Wendy Kahn and SAZF Chairperson Rowan Polovin, said, “In their determination to condemn Israel come what may, the government has reversed cause and effect. The reality – and not for the first time – is that the initial clashes were deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership and have now culminated in a lethal barrage of missile fire on Jerusalem and other heavily populated cities.

“Rockets are indiscriminate. They imperil the lives of all who live in the Holy City, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim. In spite of this, the South African government has chosen to single out Israel for exclusive condemnation, disregarding completely the more than 1 200 deadly rockets fired thus far against Israeli civilians.

“The double standards don’t stop there. Whereas countries throughout the world sent condolences to Israel following the tragic loss of 45 lives in Meron, South Africa has yet to follow suit even two weeks later. However, within 24 hours, it was able to issue a statement condemning Israel.

“If the government, and indeed all political parties, wish to be part of ending this latest tragic outburst of violence, they must show genuine even-handedness. Those who unquestioningly endorse the claims and actions of one side while completely ignoring those of the other do nothing to resolve the conflict. In fact, they only make a bad situation worse.”

They went on to say that demonising Israel, as was the case with certain statements, was “irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous”.

The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, told the SA Jewish Report that no country in the world would tolerate this level of terror.

He has called on the international community and South Africa to condemn the rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli citizens in the “strongest manner”, as well as to support Israel’s right to self-defence.

Keinan said that these events were part of a “wave of terror” that was being led by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and were the result of “reckless and irresponsible incitement to violence”.

Concerning earlier violence, he said, “Israel sought to achieve calm in Jerusalem. We took every measure to prevent conflict or violence and to allow freedom of worship. These measures include postponing the Supreme Court hearing regarding Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, changing the route of the flag march, and then cancelling the event. Moreover, Israel acted in a measured manner in response to the rockets and incendiary balloons that had been launched from the Gaza Strip to prevent any escalation during this sensitive period.”

He said responsibility for the situation rested completely with Palestinian terrorist organisations and “on the unrestrained incitement by the Palestinian Authority”.

“No country will allow rockets to be fired on its children, women, and men. Israel will take any action necessary to protect its citizens. It’s the right and the duty of every state.”

Meanwhile, small protests were held by pro-Palestinian groups at the Israel Trade Offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, all of which blamed Israel for being solely responsible for the violence.

Interestingly, in an open letter to DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition said it was “extremely disappointed” by DIRCO’s statement about the conflict, calling for more action by the government.

The Democratic Alliance said Israel must “employ maximum restraint in the use of force” adding “violence from both sides must cease in the interest of peace, saving lives, and protecting the human rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people”.

Dr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus said, “The ANC government has never tried to hide its hostility towards Israel, and has now once again chosen the terrorist side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s time for the ANC to honour Israel’s sovereignty.

“It’s lamentable that the South African government is always so quick to side with Israel’s opponents and condemn the country,” he said.

In Cape Town, a protest organised by Africa4Palestine (formerly BDS SA), brought a number of anti-Israel groups together. But only about 200 members of the public gathered to condemn Israel, many of them children.

Speaking in front of parliament, the late Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela called for the closure of the South African embassy in Israel. “We are clearly asking South Africa not to downgrade its embassy in Israel, but to close it down!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd. “We also want to deny [Israeli international carrier] El Al from coming into South Africa!” he said to more cheers of support.

He called for South Africans to “boycott products from apartheid Israel. The only thing we expect from our government is to place sanctions on apartheid Israel!” He then called on the crowd to join him on 18 July in Pretoria (the date marked to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy) outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. “We want to see it shut down and for the ambassador to leave. We won’t compromise,” Mandela said.

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Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance

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The Community Security Organisation (CSO) has witnessed a marked increase in anti-Israel rhetoric as well as expressions of hate directed at Jews online following violence in Israel, and has appealed to the community to be extra vigilant and report all incidents.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of CSO Johannesburg, told the SA Jewish Report on 12 May that tension in Israel had escalated dramatically over the past few days, with levels of open conflict growing exponentially over the past 48 hours.

“It’s not uncommon for anti-Israel anger around a situation like this to spill over into diaspora Jewish communities,” he said.

“Since Monday, we have seen a significant increase in concerning online rhetoric and numerous protest action called for over the coming days across South Africa.

“We are seeing a huge campaign by the anti-Israel lobby to dehumanise Israel with massive distortions about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Political leaders, social-media influencers, and celebrities are lending their voices to the pro-Palestinian lobby.

“This creates the perfect environment for a potential lone-wolf actor to carry out an attack. Whenever something like this takes place, our concern is that the anger created can be misdirected against the local community.”

He said that while CSO staff and volunteers were working hard to ensure the continued safety and security of the community, it was a “collective effort”.

“Vigilance is crucial. We should always make sure our facilities are as secure as possible, and we should always be doing the best we can to strengthen our security.

“It’s at times like this that we are reminded always to implement the best safety protocols because the threat is always out there.

“It requires the active participation of all community members. We ask you to maintain heightened awareness and report any emergency, potential threats, suspicious activity, or antisemitism related to the Jewish community or Jewish facilities to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 (or 086 18 911 18 in Cape Town).”

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Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel

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The Golan is the true gatekeeper of Jerusalem, particularly in mitigating against the Iranian threat across the border, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Major (Res) Yaakov Selevan said during a talk to commemorate Yom Yerushalayim this week.

“People who live in the Golan claim that it’s the most naturally beautiful region in Israel. But they aren’t living here for the views; they are here because there is something for which they’re willing to die – the redemption of the heart of the Jewish people.”

Selevan, a Jerusalem born-and-bred military official who now works as a tour guide and public speaker, was hosted for the webinar by Mizrachi SA and the South African Zionist Federation, in collaboration with other partners.

Although Selevan grew up with “the Western Wall as my backyard”, he now lives with his wife and three daughters in the Golan. Over the years, he has come to realise how deeply intertwined the fates of these two Israeli regions are.

Logistically, the Golan has always been a key strategic point, both in its proximity to neighbouring countries and major water sources, including the Sea of Galilee. Politically, its significance is even greater.

Even in the Roman era, when Roman soldiers were unable to penetrate the Jewish resistance in Jerusalem, they elected to try and attack from the periphery and move down. At the time, the Golan was rich in Jewish life with more than 30 synagogues. In the year 67, in spite of the efforts of Jewish revolutionaries, after a number of attempts, the Romans did overtake the ancient city of Gamla in the Golan. “They killed more than 4 000 Jews. Jewish independence fell, and then the Romans started moving down towards the heart of the land – Jerusalem. Three years later, we know, the second temple was destroyed.”

Fast forward thousands of years, when the Golan was redeemed from Syrian control by the IDF in the 1967 war, a number of fascinating ancient Jewish artefacts were found. The most striking of which was an ancient coin from the era of the Jewish revolt against Roman control. Engraved in Hebrew, its inscription reads “for the redemption of Jerusalem, the holy”.

In the modern political landscape, the Golan remains a contested hotspot particularly in relation to Iran and its ongoing incursions into the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria.

Selevan said that for many years, Iran had also used Israel and Jews symbolically as a strategy to forge allegiances across Muslim and Arab states that otherwise would be divided across Sunni and Shiite ethnic lines. These distinctions are derived from a dispute over the line of succession after Muhammed.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, “Iran wanted to ‘export the revolution’, and it realised it had a problem. While they were Shiites, most of the people around them were Sunni.” So, said Selevan, they chose a “common interest – the holy city of Jerusalem. Who controls the old city of Jerusalem? The filthy Zionists.” Moreover, as enemies across the Arab world sought ways to attack Israel, they turned to Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

Iran remains a threat to Israel on a number of levels, Selevan said. The first is its nuclear programme; the second its Precision Guided Munitions project, which designs missiles that use GPS to hit specific targets. Third, is its political take over and proxy power in various countries like Lebanon and Yemen. The next key territory which Iran is looking to control in the region is Syria, itself riddled by a civil war that has been appropriated by a myriad of interests.

In Lebanon, Iran controls networks of tunnels and occupied villages where local people are being used as human shields and whose homes are utilised for the storage of missiles and rockets. It hopes to use the chaos in Syria to take over using a similar model.

However, along with military action, Israel has made huge inroads diplomatically to prevent this, Selevan said.

“Iran used us and Jerusalem as a common interest, a common enemy, and a step in the door to the Sunni world. However, in the past few years, with what’s happening just here in Syria, people in the region are seeing what the Iranians are doing and how they’re taking over this region. They realise that they are next in line: Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, all these countries said, ‘Oh my G-d, all these years, we thought the Jews were the problem. Now we understand the greatest threat is the Shiites. Who can help us against the Shiites? The Jews!’”

Israel has thus turned Iran into the common interest which is “our step in the door of the Muslim world”. The most recent result is the Abraham Accords peace agreements, said Selevan.

Israel has another way in which it continues to forge towards peace – humanitarian aid.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has helped, offering medical services and distributing food, clothing, and other products for basic needs, proving, “you can stop Iran with baby diapers”.

At its core, the motivation for the action is humanitarian, said Selevan. “We did it because we’re Jewish; we cannot stand by when we see people suffering.”

Nevertheless, it also had an impact on political engagement. Terror groups, such as those under Iranian control, are reliant on local populations for support, access to land, and soldiers. As Israel continues to reach out to her neighbours, “there’s a whole generation growing up in Syria knowing that we’re not the devil”.

Although this doesn’t mean there aren’t still many who are against Israel and are manipulating the aid system, nevertheless there are shifts. For Selevan, this is encompassed by a drawing made by a seven-year-old Syrian Muslim girl. Her portrait of the Israel flag, captioned in Arabic, thanks the Israeli who saved her life.

In spite of the huge upswing of attacks on Israel in recent days, Selevan said he was hopeful. His life in the Golan is a contract between him, his country, and his community.

“I’m here at the end of the end of the end of the country because someone needs to be here, because my community is the greatest answer to the Iranian threat. That’s my purpose. That’s my essence.” Holding out a replica of the Jewish-revolt-era coin, Selevan asserted, “Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves: what’s my job in the redemption of Jerusalem?”

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