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Rabbis could fall foul of hate speech bill

Rabbis – who are generally the most compassionate and cautious people – could land up breaking the law according to the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill.



Letters/Discussion Forums


In fact, this Bill’s new hate speech provisions have created concern about the future of freedom of expression in South Africa.  

There is broad consensus that hate speech that incites violence has no place in a democratic society. The problem with the proposed Hate Speech Bill is that it goes much further than prohibiting hate speech. It attempts to regulate a broad variety of offensive speech.

South African religious leaders will be vulnerable to prosecution if the Bill is passed in its current form, including rabbis.

Although most rabbis are both compassionate and cautious about their public statements, many standard pronouncements by mainstream Orthodox rabbis would violate the proposed Bill.

As recently as November 2015, Jerusalem Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar called homosexuality an “abomination”. He was quoted as saying: “I call on them, in warm and friendly language, to leave their bad path. The Torah has forbidden it [homosexuality] and calls it an abomination… It is a cult of abomination. It is clear that it is abomination. The Torah punishes it with death… There is no such thing as having understanding or tolerance for this.”

Any speaker who expresses similar sentiments in South Africa, will be at risk of facing a three-year prison sentence should this Bill be passed. The Bill visits criminal consequences on any “intentional communication…  which is insulting to any person or group” and “demonstrates a clear intention” to bring that group “into contempt or ridicule” on the basis of sexual orientation. 

The Bill also covers speech based on belief. Rabbi Amar was also reported to have said that Reform Jews are “evildoers”.  That would be a second offence under the proposed legislation and would justify an even longer prison term.

Much gender-based speech falls foul of the current draft Bill.  Rabbi Eyal Karim who was eventually sworn in as the Israel Defence Forces’ chief rabbi, is alleged to have remarked that “women cannot testify in court because their ‘sentimental’ nature does not allow it”. That statement could also be prohibited in terms of this Bill.

Some Jewish South Africans will view the Bill as a welcome innovation to protect the vulnerable. Others will be concerned about its chilling effect and its role in preventing honest debate.

South Africa already has broadly framed laws which aim to prevent people from making offensive statements. Our Equality Act brings hurtful speech under its ambit.

Although the provisions in the Equality Act are arguably much too wide, the remedies in the Act aim to effect reconciliation. Parties who violate the Equality Act might be required to apologise, pay damages or to take steps to stop the discrimination.

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema violated the Equality Act when he responded to allegations of rape against Jacob Zuma by saying: “When a woman didn’t enjoy it, she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, requests breakfast and taxi money.

“In the morning that lady requested breakfast and taxi money. You don’t ask for taxi money from somebody who raped you.”

He was required to apologise and pay an amount of R50 000 to People Opposing Women Abuse (Powa). The new Hate Speech Bill would be much more far-reaching as it aims to visit offensive speech with criminal consequences. 

Israeli gay rights activists responded to Rabbi Amar’s statements by draping a gay pride flag outside his office.

Ordinary women question and resist prejudicial statements by rabbis every day. Orthodox practice is constantly changing in response to multiple challenges.

In the South African context these rabbinical statements wouldn’t create a risk of physical violence. Criminal law has almost no prospect of shifting the attitudes of religious leaders and it seems counterproductive to silence their voices.

Victoria Bronstein is professor at the School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand.


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  1. LJ

    Feb 24, 2017 at 10:08 am

    ‘I will tell you this for certain. Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality is. And the protection that religions have been afforded despite hate speech calling homesexuals an abomination is despicable. 

    But you say the magic word: religion. It’s their religion. You say religion, you can get away with anything. 

    I am thrilled that the Religious leaders who think it is ok to promote such hateful agendas will be held accountable and brought to task.

    In the year 2017 we should not be debating the human rights of others in regards of race, gender and sexual orientation

    And I dont find it very compassionate or cautious of those rabbis to espouse such hateful viewpoints ‘

  2. David B

    Feb 24, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    ‘This bill is not there to protect Jews – but to protect government officials from being criticized.’

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Who are the real looters?



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letters/Discussion Forums

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letters/Discussion Forums

Chief rabbi should consult before speaking out



The chairperson and executive of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) would like to clarify the organisation’s response to the SA Jewish Report’s interview with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and last week’s editorial (8 July). Both referred to the chief rabbi’s article in Business Day, (29 June).

South Africa is teetering in the face of the enormous double challenge of a rampant COVID-19 third wave while parts of our country have been set alight. Now more than ever is the time for visionary and responsible leadership.

The SAJBD is the democratically elected representative leadership body of South African Jewry. When issues of concern arise with our government, we have no qualms in raising them. We live in a constitutional democracy, where everyone has the opportunity to air their views.

But, in the SA Jewish Report, the chief rabbi’s call for President Cyril Ramaphosa to “repent” and “atone” for “his sins” was presented as the equivalent of speaking out against apartheid. This is an offensive and objectionable analogy.

The tone and content of the article in the Business Day was also inappropriate and ineffectual.

We wrote to the chairperson of the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) to engage on this issue, and were dismayed that the UOS responded that it has no oversight over the chief rabbi’s communications.

It’s critical that any representative of a community purporting to speak on its behalf is accountable, and that they fully consult on issues of strategic importance. This is a fundamental principle of good leadership.

The chief rabbi criticises the elected leadership of the Jewish community, and separates himself from it, in spite of the fact that he sits on the SAJBD national executive committee and has every opportunity to discuss strategy for engaging with government.

The notion that a single leader can know what’s best for his community and can act unilaterally is outdated and dangerous.

Our community is suffering and frustrated. Now is the time to come together and find constructive ways of rebuilding.

The SAJBD remains committed to a productive relationship with the chief rabbi that serves the best interests of our community and country.

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