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Real protests and smokescreens

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The Jewish Report Editorial

This week is Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), which usually means a week of trouble on university campuses around the country and in many other countries. The strife is usually between those who support Israel and those who would like it to disappear. The week-long series of events is a construct of those against Israel in an attempt to garner as much support as they can in their Boycott Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel battle.

They appear to do what they do to make Israel look like a racist country that treats Palestinians no better than the Nationalist government did to black people during apartheid – hence the term “apartheid Israel”.

Frankly, those behind IAW use the guise of human rights to sew division and encourage prejudice and hatred against the Jewish state and those who support it. And as much as they claim that it’s all in the name of human rights, they totally neglect to factor in human-rights abuses in the rest of the Middle East and the world.

The good thing about IAW this year is that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, most students are working from home and aren’t on campus. So, IAW isn’t on campus either.

But there is a genuine protest on campus over young South Africans’ inability to continue their university education because they can’t afford it.

A number of students from our community are involved in the protest and have, in some cases, put their own education and future on the line to help others. One such person is Gabi Farber, who is a member of the Student Representative Council on an African National Congress ticket.

Gabi, like most of us, comes from a sheltered environment where she really doesn’t have to go out on a limb to get an education. But for her, it is a matter of values – Jewish values at that – that spur her on to fight for the rights of others. (See her opinion piece on this page.)

I’m aware that many in our community believe people like Gabi are rabble rousers and troublemakers looking for a cause. I beg to differ. Such people generally don’t do things that could have a negative impact on their own lives. In this case, those who have stuck their necks out have a lot to lose in order for others to gain what they are already getting – an education. They stand the chance of being arrested, suspended, or even kicked out of the university. All this because they are protesting the fact that others aren’t allowed to continue their education.

It would be far easier to sit at home and carry on studying while others are out there protesting.

I do understand the fear factor of students and parents, and some people are ambivalent or not very up to date on what this about. I’m not sure I would be encouraging my children to go out and protest because of fear for their security. However, I do believe that Gabi and the others out there are courageous young people with integrity and backbone. They are doing what so many of us won’t do. They are standing up for those who aren’t being heard.

I do understand that many of us question where the money to put these young people through university is meant to come from. I would also like to know that. We are all aware of the financial quagmire our country is in, not least of all because of the pandemic and lockdown.

However, as Jews, we understand the importance of an education, and most of us would give the clothes off our backs to get our children the best education. So, too, would other parents, however, for so many, their clothes won’t garner a day of a university education. So their children can’t go. And if they could afford something, they may not be able to pay for more than a year or two…

So, where should the money come from? I don’t know. However, like Gabi, I do believe that if young people have the ability to get a tertiary education, they should be encouraged to do so, not prevented.

I believe we should support this cause, not least because it’s part of the Bill of Rights within our Constitution to provide a basic and secondary education. The wording in the Constitution is that everyone has the right to “further education, which the State, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible”. Clearly this was written a couple of decades ago, and it should by now have become more accessible to all whether they could or couldn’t afford it. Do I sound like a radical? Hardly! I sound like a Jewish mother who believes education is paramount.

So, while this protest goes on, supported by people who believe in a Jewish state and those who don’t, IAW is still happening in a different format.

This year’s theme is #UnitedAgainstRacism, which as it happens, is something I totally agree with. I believe we should be uniting against racism in all forms. I believe we should be uniting against prejudice as well. It’s a great cause, only I believe it’s a smokescreen. It’s not actually about uniting against all forms of racism around the world, but uniting against Israel, a country that BDS claims is racist. This isn’t a fight against racism, it’s about getting the world to unite against Israel. Let’s call a spade a spade.

I would love us to all unite against racism and for the education of all our children. For me, those issues I fully support.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Exploding fake mythology about Israel

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As I sit here late on Tuesday night to write my editorial, I keep receiving news flashes about more and more missile attacks on central Israel. I feel sick to my stomach knowing that most of my family who live there are holed up in bomb shelters overnight as they pray that the Iron Dome is able to stop the missiles aimed at their town or city.

I feel scared for them and especially for my precious 18-year-old niece who is spending a year living in the Old City in Jerusalem. What does she know of missiles? What does she understand about this kind of violence?

But then, who should be subjected to this whenever terrorist groups feel the time is right? Most people just want to live a peaceful life.

It amazes me how something that appeared initially to be an ugly fracas on the Temple Mount has spiralled into what looks like war. The night sky above the cities that we all love have come alive with what looks like fireworks – only, these videos are of deadly missiles aiming to kill as many people as possible. And they are being sent from Gaza. The only thing between them and Israelis is the Kupat Barzel, the so-called Iron Dome, that deflects the missiles, exploding them high up in the air.

If not for this phenomenal Israeli invention, there would be thousands of deaths in Israel. Quite simply, with missiles aimed at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the central part of the country, these missiles could have destroyed most Israelis.

But at great financial cost – with each Iron Dome counter missile costing about $50 000 (R700 494) and the battery for the machinery costing $100 million (R1.4 billion) – they weren’t able to.

Now, if you had been reading other papers in South Africa this week, you might be surprised to read what’s written in this one about Israel. We have made every attempt to bring you factual accounts, from journalist Paula Slier who is covering the conflict from the Middle East, from South Africans in Israel, as well as showing you South Africa’s reaction to the conflict.

This was of vital importance to us because most South African leaders and media have all but ignored what Israel is experiencing. In fact, they have made Israel out to be the devil incarnate.

I have to say I was angered at hearing people referring to ordinary Israelis as “rabid Zionists” and neglecting to say that the missiles were coming fast and furious to central Israel from Gaza before Israel retaliated. The bias appears to be endemic.

When I heard or read reports of Israeli police attacking “worshippers praying”, I was astonished. On checking the facts, I discovered that nobody was praying, they were protesting and throwing stones and rocks at the police. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never taken rocks and stones to shul to pray. I have been to Al-Aqsa, and I can assure you there are no rocks and stones lying around to be thrown. Someone had to bring them there.

Now, I’m not going to say to you that Israel and the Israeli authorities never do anything wrong. That would be untrue. I’m not someone who blindly believes that. Like any leaders and any government, Israel makes mistakes. We all do. That’s called being human.

I wasn’t there, so I cannot tell you exactly – blow by blow – what happened, but I can tell you that the first tirade of missiles came from Gaza, and they were aimed at Jerusalem, the holiest and most populated city in Israel. Yes, the terrorists knew that Israel had the Iron Dome, but they sent many missiles at once to try and get as many through so they could to do as much damage as possible.

They were aiming for civilians, and clearly they didn’t care whether they were Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.

And it didn’t stop there. They then fired vast numbers of missiles at other extremely populated areas, like Tel Aviv. If their plan wasn’t to kill or maim innocent civilians, then what was it?

But South Africa’s political leadership can’t see that Israel has a right to protect its people. I don’t know of any country that wouldn’t respond to missiles fired into its densely populated cities. Do you?

I understand that the Palestinians have a right to protest, as do any group. Those protesting maintain it was about the potential eviction of four families in East Jerusalem – not hundreds of people as has been stated in other media. I do understand, though, that any forced removals are emotional and often politicised.

My point is that, no matter what happened, the huge scale of violence that ensued wasn’t the fault of Israel, yet that’s not what has been portrayed.

I battle to understand how leaders and journalists can’t see that there are two sides to every story. There is never only one.

However, there clearly is a blindness about anything that Israel does that’s positive. It can be seen only as provocateur and aggressor.

Okay, so Israeli leadership has made it the country’s business to ensure that it uses every means at its disposal to protect its people. This evidently isn’t a bad thing, considering the situation Israel is in. And partly because of this, it’s demonised. I guess, if thousands of Israelis died in the missile attack, South Africans might be more forgiving or sympathetic. But, why should Israel have to suffer many deaths to get people to understand it has a right to exist and a right to protect itself?

I hope that as we and the world go to sleep tonight, the missile warfare comes to a permanent halt. It’s enough! I also hope that at some point, those who are so dead against Israel will see that it takes two to fight.

Shabbat Shalom and chag sameach!

We won’t be publishing next week because of Shavuot, but we will be back the following week (28 May).

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Mother’s Day follows Lag B’Omer tragedy

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This Sunday, there is one South African-born mother who won’t be celebrating Mother’s Day. Tanya Hevroni, who is the mother of three little girls, is mourning the senseless death of her husband who was killed in the Lag B’Omer stampede on Mount Meron last Thursday.

She, like so many other mothers, is now forced to come to terms with what it means to be a single mom.

She’s not alone. There are many more in Israel who lost their loved ones in this tragic incident in which 45 people died and more than 150 were injured.

It was a celebration that all those who went looked forward to, but went horribly wrong. Lag B’Omer is the one night when observant people can really celebrate during the counting of the Omer. It’s 24 hours in which people can marry, cut their hair, and do a whole bunch of things they can’t do between Pesach and Shavuot.

While I have always enjoyed celebrating Lag B’Omer, I knew very little about the annual gathering at Mount Meron. Since this largest peacetime tragedy in the history of Israel last week, I have unfortunately had reason to find out more. And the more I looked, the more the irony and horror of what happened emerged.

Shortly before this disaster struck, there was the most incredible joy at the site of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai’s grave. I find the idea of this euphoria turning into terror and then devastation hard to absorb. I can’t even imagine how those survivors are going to live with this. Also, most of them were involved in the stampede that killed people, creating what has been dubbed “Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster”. How do they live with that?

Lag B’Omer marks the day Rav Simon bar Yochai died, but it also falls on the day that ended a plague that killed thousands of Torah scholars who had studied with – among others – Rabbi Akiva. I have to admit the fact that we are living through a pandemic (or a plague, call it what you will), which has mostly now been stopped by mass vaccination in Israel, gives me the shivers. This event was the very first mass gathering in Israel since the start of the pandemic, and it was allowed only because of the huge success of the vaccination drive.

Then, I read that 110 years ago, in 1911, 11 people were killed and 40 wounded when they fell from a balcony on Mount Meron on Lag B’Omer. They were said to have fallen about seven metres when the railing around the grave collapsed. It’s way too similar to the events of last week. Back then, it clearly wasn’t safe, and neither was it safe now. Especially not for 100 000 people dancing and singing. Apparently, there was supposed to be a limit of 15 000, but this wasn’t implemented because, it seems, there isn’t a specific body or authority that controls the site.

Every year except 2020, for about 600 years, observant Jews have flocked to this site on Lag B’Omer. Was it a tragedy waiting to happen? And why did it happen this year? We can search for reasons and try to make sense of it, but I’m not sure those answers are forthcoming. I guess it’s a matter of police work and your belief system.

However, I cannot imagine Lag B’Omer on Mount Meron will ever be the same celebration. Maybe I’m wrong. The tragedy will certainly have an impact on hundreds of people being able to view Lag B’Omer as a celebration again.

In fact, it will take Israel a long time to get over this massive loss.

I don’t believe anybody meant for it to happen. However, blame is being thrown around. People apparently need to find a culprit, a reason, a bad guy. They can’t blame terrorism or crime. And so, many are blaming the Israeli government. Some blame secular Israelis and others the Haredim themselves.

Do we always have to have someone to blame? Is having someone to blame and potentially charge with a crime going to help bring back these people? Will it make anyone feel better?

I don’t believe so. It certainly isn’t going to bring Tanya Hevroni’s husband back.

While I don’t pretend to know her, I have a good idea that she will step up to the plate and continue to be an outstanding mother to her girls. That’s what mothers do.

And as we celebrate mothers this weekend, I know many mothers who would always get out of a sick bed and do the impossible for their children. Their love knows no bounds.

While we may not all be mothers, we have all had a mother in our lives. And we know the love of a mother. She is the one who was always there for us, even if she had a full-time job. She is the one on whose shoulders we cried when our hearts were broken. Hers was the hand we held that made us feel supported. She was the one who made sure we ate well, kept clean, brushed our teeth, and slept enough.

Her love was and always is unconditional. Being a mother is no easy task, but it’s the most gratifying and precious job in the world. And, having lost my own mother, I know that nothing in the world will replace the person who nurtured my siblings and me, held us when we needed it, and gave everything of herself for us. For my own mother and every mother out there who knows this love, we at the SA Jewish Report salute you!

Shabbat Shalom

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Some are more equal than others

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In this country, we have a Constitution that most experts around the world believe to be one of the finest. Apparently, every genuine right that a person could think of was considered in writing it, and is somehow included. And if it wasn’t originally included, it has since been considered and brought into law.

Sounds incredible, right? However, considering the corruption in this country, could it possibly be too good to be true?

No, the Constitution is as sound as we have described, however, it’s only as good as its implementation. In the past few weeks, we have witnessed the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) interview people for positions as judges in various courts. One would imagine that, more than any other body, the JSC would be exemplary when it came to upholding the Constitution and ensuring any prejudice was not allowed.

Well, that hasn’t been our experience in watching Jewish legal beagles cross questioned by the JSC in areas that have no bearing on their positions as judges, but rather point to potential antisemitism and violation of the Constitution. Frankly, it’s extremely troubling.

I am considering here only issues pertaining specifically to the Jewish community and Jewish people who underwent JSC scrutiny, not any of the others.

When Judge David Unterhalter was interviewed two weeks back – or should I say interrogated, as that’s how it felt to me as I watched – it followed a very distressing antisemitic complaint by the South African Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Coalition. While we have discussed this complaint at length, in a rough summary of it: BDS smeared the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ (SAJBD’s) name, and by virtue of his connection with it, Unterhalter’s as well.

This obviously got to the JSC, and during the “interview”, individual members intimated that by virtue of the fact that Unterhalter had been on the SAJBD for some months, it somehow meant he might not be “constitutional” or “support equality”. The line of questioning was ugly. It also unfairly painted the SAJBD as an organisation opposed to human rights rather than one that fights to enable South African Jews to live a prejudice-free life in South Africa.

I wondered if this was only because of the BDS complaint. And why was it even allowed by a body that should be the absolute upholder of the Constitution? I mean, we’re talking about the initial selection committee for Constitutional Court judges, no less. The line of questioning was uncomfortable and frankly, unacceptable. It’s true, everyone vying for these positions gets put through the question-firing committee, but some questions don’t fall into the appropriate category, and Unterhalter got those.

Fast forward to last Friday, and Advocate Lawrence Lever underwent his interview for a position as a judge in the Northern Cape. He has been acting as a high court judge for five years already. After answering “no” to having been on the SAJBD, he was tackled about what it meant to have an allegiance with the board, as if it (once again) was some dubious organisation. All this was pointed, as it had been with Unterhalter, to South African Jewry’s allegiance with Israel, the Jewish state. And by virtue of having any allegiance, it meant that they (or we) support human rights violations. Talk about a leap of judgement! Talk about tarring and feathering us all…

But with Lever, it didn’t end there. He was then questioned about whether he observed Shabbos. The question led to the idea that if he was shomrei Shabbat, itcould get in the way of him doing his job as a judge properly because he might not be willing to work on a Friday night or Saturday. Astonishingly, no Christian, Muslim, or person of any other faith faced this line of questioning. Again, I come back to the fact that we’re talking about seats for judges on our judiciary, and these questions were, in my opinion, unconstitutional.

As Jews, we have the right to observe our religion, and we have the right to have a body that protects us. We also have the right to an affinity with another country. It should never be allowed that we – or anyone else – should be demeaned or not given a position because of this.

Now, I cannot say categorically that Judge Unterhalter wasn’t shortlisted for Constitutional Court judgeship because of antisemitism or because of his allegiance with the board. Although I know that some people have questioned my saying that I believe it was also due to the fact that he was white, privileged, and didn’t have that many years as a judge behind him, it certainly didn’t work in his favour.

As for Lever, well, we’ll see.

The point is that, with our incredible Constitution admired throughout the world, we should never be subjected to this, especially in the name of the JSC. If the Constitution was properly implemented, this would be stopped immediately and only questions that are fair and reasonable would be allowed. Surely those who bring up these kinds of questions should be censured?

I must say that as we consider what Freedom Day means to us this week, it’s sad to think that 27 years ago, we celebrated the rainbow nation. This amazing concept meant all South Africans were equal, and race, religion, gender, etcetera weren’t going to get in the way of our beloved country. Perhaps we need to rethink how we implement our Constitution, and what we’re all doing to recreate that rainbow nation so that we can build the country of our dreams.

I, for one, want to live in a country where we’re all equal before the law, Jewish or not.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach!

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