Rhodes University: Not a Home for All
“One of the reasons I wanted to tell the story in my own words was because I wanted to make clear that Rhodes is not an institution full of scoundrels,” Larissa Klazinga (pictured) told the SA Jewish Report Online. “There are a lot of very good people there who stood by me. Someone like Susan (Smailes), who is an attorney, and many others,” she said.
A Progressive Zionist’s Two-Year Odyssey
This not an easy story to write: it’s difficult to pin-point the ‘beginning’ and the end’s a fairly sad one. I suppose the long and the short of it is this: Zionists can’t work at Rhodes University and they probably won’t much like studying there either.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Rhodes, allow me to sketch the landscape. The demographic make-up of Rhodes is unlike WITS or UCT. Rhodes has very few Jewish students and even fewer Jewish staff members; factor in the number of those that openly identify as Zionists and you are down to single digits.
Now to introduce myself: while I’m certain we all agree that labels are for boxes not people, for the purposes of this story, permit me to use broad strokes: I’m a hearing impaired Jewish lesbian vegetarian with a bi-racial Xhosa fiancé (nobody panic – she’s converting).
No, I didn’t just make that up. As you can imagine, I have come up against my fair share of discrimination but I do not exaggerate when I confess that until I came face-to-face with what can only be described as anti-Zionism I never really understood bigotry.
Time for the bombshell as I emerge from the proverbial leftist closet… I’m a Zionist. Okay, that was a poorly kept secret and not much of a shock to anyone that knows me. I’ve been a Zionist for as long as I can remember. I didn’t ever think that it was a controversial position, in fact, much like being “Proudly South African” it seemed like a no-brainer. I’ve had discussions with progressive friends who disagreed with me but the vitriol directed at me over the past two years has come as a shock.
For the full story, click here to READ:
RHODES PAYS DEARLY FOR ANTI-ZIONIST STAND
I am also an old Rhodian and I used to be a proud one. After a brief stint in Gauteng working as a professional activist I returned to Rhodes where I worked for more than a decade conceptualising and organising a myriad of transformation initiatives highlighting gender-based violence, xenophobia, racism and other human rights abuses. I became the go-to person for anyone wanting to organise an awareness-raising event and ironically, I also functioned as the university harassment officer, charged with assisting students facing discrimination and harassment and putting in place measures to counter-act the problem.
Now that I’ve set the scene, let me try to describe the events which saw me walk away from my alma mater and my career at the end of November 2013. It all started in early 2012 when a new ‘awareness-raising’ event reared its head at Rhodes: Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). It was organised by a group of students and staff members ostensibly under the banner of the Faculty of Humanities, with evening film screenings, ’discussions’ and lunchtime seminars hosted in the Politics Department. It was clear that these events were being directed by Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS).
IAW was underwritten by Rhodes
From the outset two things were evident: first, this event was actively underwritten by the university and second, this was not a debate, this was a diatribe, the organisers would brook no dissent. Within days of the publicity material going out I had two separate incidents of Jewish students arriving at my office in tears after ugly name-calling exchanges with some of the IAW organisers as they attempted to defend Israel.
LEFT: Rhodes not welcoming to Jewish students
Both students were very upset by the unbalanced nature of IAW. They asked me to try to help present a more balanced view and proposed parallel events under the banner “Balance the Debate”. One of those students, Benjamin Katz contacted SAUJS national and asked for assistance. With their help they printed posters and T-shirts and organised a few events to highlight Jewish history, talk about anti-Semitism and attempt to address some of the misinformation being disseminated by BDS and IAW.
I agreed to help them get the word out about their events and because I realised how much pressure they were under, I agreed to attend with them when I could, and in an effort to constructively engage Ben and his small contingent of student Zionists committed to attending IAW events: their intention was to have the IAW organisers give them an opportunity to state their case and to try to ask the kinds of questions that would open up genuine dialogue. They also suggested to some of the IAW organisers that they host a joint event to encourage debate. These attempts were rebuffed at every turn.
I felt sympathy for courageous Jewish students
As the week of IAW dawned I felt tremendous sympathy for these courageous Jewish students, a tiny minority at Rhodes who confessed to feeling victimised because of their support for Israel but were determined to speak out nonetheless. As one of only a handful of Jewish staff members and the only one who has ever expressed solidarity with Israel publicly I felt compelled to support them. I believed that it was my duty not only as a staff member tasked with supporting students against harassment but also as a person of conscience and a Jew to stand up for what I believe in and to support others who do the same.
RIGHT: Keeping the Israeli flag flying after IAW 2012
With that in mind and after speaking to the Jewish students, I printed an A4 colour page featuring the Israeli flag and the words “wherever I stand I stand with Israel” and placed it on my office door. I did not anticipate that this would raise an eyebrow since I had put up a supportive poster during the ‘Save Zimbabwe Now’ campaign three years earlier which had not elicited any comment. I realised that I couldn’t actively arrange events in opposition to what was happening because I did not have the support of my line manager to do so, so I reverted to indirect methods of support such as the poster on my office door. I also decided to wear pro-Israel clothing to work, reasoning that I could go about my daily activities while still supporting the Jewish students who were taking more direct action.
I thought, based on previous political positions taken, that my actions were not controversial. I could not have been more wrong. I returned the next day to find the page removed and shoved under my door with a note written on the back by Roger Adams, the Deputy Dean of Students asking me to discuss the matter with him immediately.
I arrived at his office wearing an IDF shirt and was instructed to remove it and not wear any ‘military or pro-Israel’ clothing to work. I was told that using my office to further a political position was inappropriate and I was instructed not to make any public statements in support of Israel.
I asked if that injunction applied to all staff and if it related to activities taking place after hours. I was informed that since I lived and worked on campus, I was never in fact off duty and thus never entitled to voice my opinion on this issue. I asked why other staff members could pin their colours to the mast about Israel but I was silenced and he said they were academic staff, entitled to academic freedom of expression but as admin staff I was not.
Dissent would be construed as insubordination
I felt threatened and censored and when I asked what made this issue different from any other I was given no clear answer. I was in fact given the very clear message that to dissent on this issue would bring the office into disrepute and would be construed as insubordination. I argued as long as I could bear and then left the office shell-shocked.
Anyone that knows me will confirm that I am a stubborn person, so in order to honour my commitment to Ben and the others I took the next day off work, reasoning that this would ensure that I would not be seen to be acting in an official capacity. I attended a ‘discussion’ hosted in the Politics department seminar room led by John Rose (BDS activist and visiting lecturer in the Politics Dept.) and Prof Robert van Niekerk. I sat at the back and wore non-partisan clothing. I confess that for fear of being charged with insubordination I did not speak at all during the meeting. Despite my silence, the following morning I received an email from a Rhodes staff member I’d never met questioning my support of Israel.
And so it began.
The atmosphere on Rhodes campus during IAW 2012 was so vitriolic that it left no room to explore common ground. I spent the week being insulted, harassed and variously described as a racist, in favour of ethnic cleansing, a misandrist, an apartheid apologist and my favourite ‘the pied piper of misandry on campus’, which, while inaccurate and defamatory (and frankly I still fail to see how that relates to Israel), was certainly creative.
RIGHT: Rhodes is not the serene place this picture depicts
That initial anti-Israel email began a nine month battle to get Rhodes to take action against what emerged later to be a BDS-sanctioned witch-hunt involving senior academics and extending to the head of BDS National. This larger connection became apparent a few weeks after IAW 2012 when I discovered a series of emails between IAW organisers, BDS National activists and Rhodes staff members encouraging each other to gather “evidence in any medium: written, verbal, video… to collect data and people’s personal experiences” against me because I was a danger to their agenda.
I mistakenly believed that this matter would be taken seriously so I had meetings with the Director of HR, the staff Harassment Officer and the Dean of Students, Dr Vivian de Klerk, who was the head of my division. During these meetings I was able to confirm that Rhodes has a strong anti-Harassment policy and no policy on staff political activity, leaving me confident that I had every right to speak out in support of Israel. After months of requests and finally with the help of my Union Representative I was able to secure a conviction against the author of the original anti-Israel email in October 2012. To date no action has been taken to address the BDS witch-hunt.
Instructed to act against Israel
IAW 2013 was more of the same, with the Dean of Students’ Office offering to sponsor IAW events at the invitation of Roger Adams. I was instructed to change the banner (the image at the top of a webpage) of the Rhodes student web portal to an IAW one and a concert organised by the Music department showcasing Israeli pianist Yossi Reshef was picketed.
Realising that it was impossible to attempt a head-to-head confrontation my splendid partner Charlene Donald aided by Christian Zionists put up a series of posters around campus downloaded from a pro-Israel website called ‘stand with us’. These posters unleashed allegations of racism and resulted in angry phone calls from the SRC offices to Charlene, official complaints to the Dean of Students’ office and an almost gleeful ‘investigation’ into supposed wrong-doing which ended in a Fairness Forum hearing and a decision that the posters were protected by freedom of speech.
I sought the help of the SAJBD and the Zionist Federation early on and with the support of key people such as Leon Reich and Chuck Volpe I was able to raise enough awareness about the problem at Rhodes that a fact-finding visit was planned to coincide with Yom HaShoah. Upon hearing about the impending visit from the SAJBD I was warned by Vivian de Klerk that my participation in the meeting was ill-advised.
Actions to shut me up or forcing me out
One can only conclude that these actions, beginning with Roger Adams’s official rebuke in March 2012 and ending with the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Dr Mabizela’s statement to the Mail & Guardian in relation to the pro-Israel posters, that “the role and purpose of the Fairness Forum will be reviewed in due course and that action over a student https://www.sajr.co.za/images/default-source/events/general/rhodes—poster-blurred-home.jpg” />For months I was silenced, harassed, and threatened with discipline. By June, when none of that was able to wring a resignation out of me, “due process” was followed and I was served with a CHARGE SHEET consisting of 18 separate counts, mostly related to Zionism, some referencing my sexual orientation, and a number that were simply fabricated. These charges were drafted by the University lawyer after a series of consultations with both Roger Adams and Vivian de Klerk. They cited the authority of the Vice Chancellor for convening a hearing and they were signed by the Director of HR.
I was shocked by the scale of the onslaught and the overt mention of my sexual orientation and Zionism in the charges but I was not unprepared. Thanks to the incredible support I received from Jewish community I did not walk into the hearing unrepresented, as de Klerk and co. had hoped. Enter Michael Bagraim and Adv. Izak Smuts SC. Without going into detail, let’s just say that things swung in my favour with remarkable speed after they entered the fray.
Disciplinary hearing aborted
So, what has changed in the ensuing months? To be honest, a hell of a lot! The disciplinary hearing was aborted and at the behest of the University I entered into a confidential settlement agreement. I’m happy with the settlement and don’t intend to breach it, so that is all I can say about that saga. Yay! A happy ending!
Not so fast.
If you had asked me in 2011 if I would have believed that Zionism would be the issue that defined my career at Rhodes I would have laughed disbelievingly. Even more surprising, according to some of my colleagues, this one issue has become the single most contested element of my character. I have been subject to bullying and harassment on a scale I’ve never experienced before. Throughout I did my best to fight for my rights to freedom of speech, belief, association, and religion. I have fought to maintain my health and I have struggled to come to terms with betrayals of loyalty and trust from people I used to admire.
RIGHT: Michael ‘Bags’ Bagraim is one of SA’s most respected labour lawyers & the immediate past-President of the SAJBD
I used to believe that discourse was possible in an academic setting and that once people started talking they’d see that Zionism and the belief in a Palestinian state could co-exist and in fact support each other. I was wrong. I now know that there can be no dialogue, no understanding, no coexistence when there is fundamental intolerance based on double-standards and bigotry.
I say ‘double-standards’ and ‘bigotry’ because these same ‘progressive human rights activists’ are rabid in their anti-Israel rallying but completely silent about China’s occupation of Tibet, accepting Chinese state funding of a Rhodes language institute without a peep. They have not organised weeks decrying Turkey’s security wall, Iran’s Islamic state or even marching in support of democracy and an end to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, our neighbouring country. They only seem to object to Israel, leading me to conclude that their ethics are not universal, the objections limited to the only Jewish state in the world. That makes it old-fashioned, all-too-familiar bigotry. Full stop.
My alma mater now a totalitarian institution
This realisation was particularly hard for me because I was a true believer in the ideal of “academic freedom”. I honestly thought that Rhodes was an institution that created spaces for all kinds of positions to be explored, for people to grow and change, and where ideas were valued. It is a difficult thing to admit to being naïve, but I was. Turns out my alma mater has become a totalitarian institution where colleagues are encouraged to spy on each other, gather evidence and work behind closed doors to get rid of people. It is a university where the Deputy Dean of Students can look me in the eye and tell me that since I’m not an academic I’m not entitled to academic freedom… without flinching or showing any signs that he might be uncomfortable saying it.
I was raised under Apartheid, yet I never really understood what totalitarianism felt like until I was told that I was not allowed to speak, even in private, about a political belief. At Rhodes. In 2012.
The REALLY disappointing thing is that despite a settlement which sent me packing and the Vice Chancellor’s assurance way back in June that an investigation would be instituted to determine how an unconstitutional charge sheet was drafted on a Rhodes letterhead, as far as I’ve been able to confirm very little has happened; no-one has been brought to book; no heads have rolled. Vivian de Klerk remains at the helm in charge of student well-being, though rumour has it she’s taking early retirement next June (coincidence?); Roger Adams leaves with an unblemished reputation headed to UCT to carry on his good work and worse still, two courses filled with one-sided anti-Israel propaganda will continue to feature in the Rhodes curriculum.
The sad truth is that on Friday 29 November I handed in my keys and I walked out of my office for the last time. I packed up my home, removed the mezuzah from the door and walked away from a residence I helped found 11 years ago. It felt like giving up. It felt like I let the bigots win… oh no, a really bad ending… that sucks! But wait, there’s still more!
This story would be incomplete if I failed to mention that ‘Rhodes’ isn’t monolithic. Yes, there are anti-Israel, homophobic bigots in abundance, but there are also some truly amazing people there.
I had the unwavering support of wardening colleagues in Lilian Ngoyi; of senior academics who reminded me never to cave to bullies when I was at my lowest ebb, and of many other current and retired staff members who didn’t know or didn’t care much about Zionism but who offered kind words and encouragement.
I was lucky to have the friendship of the Director of Special Projects in the Vice Chancellor’s office who acted consistently with integrity and kindness.
Unashamed Zionists swim against the tide
I also had the solidarity of several academics in the Commerce faculty and of Christian Zionists like the Radloff family who as unashamed Zionists swimming against the academically popular tide, offered gentle reassurances and were brave enough to break rank and take a stand for Israel.
I was inspired by the small band of Jewish students who put body and soul on the line to defend Israel, some at great cost. Rhodes really is where leaders learn, and as a community we ignore that at our peril.
LEFT: Leon Reich, a past Mayor of Grahamstown and Rhodes Council member ensured that Larissa’s plight was heard by communal leadership when nobody else would
Lastly, this story would be sorely lacking if I didn’t thank the Jewish community, especially, Leon Reich and Jonathan Silke from the Zionist Federation, Gwynne Robins and David Jacobson from the SAJBD, Michael Bagraim and his splendid colleague Izak who were there when I needed them even though I could never afford them, and finally the indomitable Wendy Jacobson and the infinitely wise and generous Chuck Volpe, without whom I would not have survived these two miserable years.
So, what have I learned?
Freedom always comes at a cost and it takes chutzpah to understand that and pay the price. It also takes good friends and the love of a good woman. I head into 2014 unemployed, homeless and endlessly hopeful, reassured that there are still things worth fighting for and people willing to stand with me, and Israel. Am Yisrael Chai!
The ‘Imperial Tour’ that cemented the Jewish Commonwealth
Exactly one century ago the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, Dr Joseph Hertz, arrived in South Africa on the first leg of a global tour which lasted almost a year.
Arriving in South Africa on 27 October 1920, he spent more than three months in the country. He then went on to visit significant Jewish communities in other dominions: Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The entire tour covered 42 communities and 40 000 miles (64 000km).
Hertz, who became chief rabbi in 1913, got the idea of conducting a tour after seeing the Prince of Wales’ visit to Canada following World War I. He wanted to do something similar, and visit smaller communities, saying he was “enthused to come into personal touch with the distant communities under my ecclesiastical jurisdiction”.
Earlier on in his career, he had served as rabbi to the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg (from 1898 to 1911). During this time, he publicly challenged the Kruger regime, and supported the administration of Lord Alfred Milner, who recommended him to Lord Rothschild for the vacant post of chief rabbi of the British Empire.
Hertz set sail from the United Kingdom (UK) on 8 October 1920, and reached South Africa almost three weeks later. The tour was branded a “pastoral tour”, but the agenda was also to raise £1 million for Jewish education as a memorial for those who had died in the Great War. Indeed, a letter in the United Synagogue archives reveals correspondence from a man in South Africa to Hertz, aggressive in tone, asking whether the trip was for the purpose of Jewish pastoral care or if it was to raise money for the Jewish War Memorial.
The chief rabbi replied, “Let me assure you, dear Mr Ehrlich, that I am coming to South Africa on a purely Jewish mission. It is true that there will be an accompanying appeal for the Jewish War Memorial, but I regret the ‘war’ part of it as much as you do.”
South African Jewry had a population of 66 000 at the time. Hertz travelled throughout the country, covering 5 000 miles (8 000km) by railway. His first public engagement was a sermon at the Great Synagogue in Cape Town on Shabbat 30 October 1920. He was impressed by the shul, describing it as “the largest and most impressive Jewish house of worship in the empire”.
He also warmed to its minister, Rev A P Bender, whom he said was “a most popular and respected figure, not only in the Jewish, but also in the general life, of [the] Cape Colony”. Bender was a part-time professor of Hebrew at Cape Town University. In the following days, the chief rabbi was given a banquet at City Hall, delivered a sermon at New Synagogue, and attended a reception of the Cape Town University J-Soc.
Hertz then travelled to Kimberley, where the community dated back to 1869. It was there that he sounded a warning about assimilation. In a sermon, he said that there had been “too much drifting in religious life”, and the perils faced by South African Jewry were the same as those confronting Jewish communities in England, Australia, and Canada.
After a trip to Bloemfontein, which brought back memories of consecrating the synagogue in 1902, Hertz moved on to Johannesburg. In this city, he received a rapturous welcome, with crowds waiting for his arrival at the railway station.
The Sunday Times reported afterwards, “There can be no doubt of the warmth of his welcome from his old congregation. He comes here not only as the high priest of English Jewry, but as an old friend who through long years of unselfish work among us endeared himself equally to Jew and Gentile.”
The next stop was Pretoria, where Prime Minister Jan Smuts gave a speech praising the contribution of the Jewish community and looking forward to it flourishing in the future. In his remarks at the reception, Smuts declared, “The Jews in South Africa are welcomed in every walk of life, and have achieved the greatest successes. Nobody grudges them their success because they deserve it. Let them bring their resources and talents to this country.”
At his next destination, Bulawayo in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), he said he found “Jewish hearts throbbing with enthusiasm for all forms of Jewish endeavour”. Hertz spent a final few weeks in South Africa visiting Pietermaritzburg, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, and Oudtshoorn.
One of the things Hertz noticed about the Jews of South Africa was how charitable they were – a characteristic still identifiable today (even among those who now live in Israel, the United States, and the UK). He was struck by the care shown in the orphanages in Cape Town and Johannesburg. He was also impressed by the community’s raising of £450 000 for the War Memorial Fund, remarking that it was “a record of generosity that surpasses even that of American Jews”.
Afterwards, Hertz wrote about the success of the visit. “Thank G-d it has been justified by the results, which in view of the extraordinary financial position prevailing in this country, are very gratifying indeed.”
After this ground breaking world trip lasting almost 11 months, Hertz arrived back at Southampton on 30 August 1921, and had a private audience with King George V at Buckingham Palace in November.
The “Imperial Tour” is one of the things Hertz remains most famous for, along with his commentary on the Chumash. It solidified the bonds between the UK and her then dominions, and gave him and his office profile on the world stage.
A century on, the historic ties endure. The sun may have set on the British empire but, 100 years after Hertz’s landmark tour, the ties between Jewish communities across the Commonwealth remain strong.
- Zaki Cooper is on the diplomatic advisory board of the Commonwealth Jewish Council.
Beth Din dispute with manufacturer foments discontent over pricing
Local manufacturers of kosher food say they are looking overseas for alternative kosher certification following the furore caused by the Beth Din’s removal of a company’s kashrut licence last week.
A longstanding relationship between the Johannesburg kosher department and Honeyfields, an ice cream, sugar cone, and chocolate manufacturing company, turned sour, resulting in it being stripped of its kosher licence.
The Beth Din claims it was because of a contractual breach following “ongoing non-compliance” with its stringent kosher model, in which it has a zero-tolerance policy for non-compliance.
Honeyfields claims it all comes down to money, saying that the Beth Din took its kosher certificate away because it steadfastly refused to accept the “exorbitant spike” in Beth Din kosher fees.
However, the Johannesburg kosher department insists it has nothing to do with fees.
“This has nothing to do with an increase in Beth Din fees. The breakdown is purely over non-compliance over many years and the unco-operative nature of the company with regard to kosher compliance,” said Head of Kashrut Rabbi Dovi Goldstein.
There has been a lot of allegations this week both on social media and on ChaiFM over what people in the community claim to be “sky-rocketing kosher food prices” and the Beth Din’s alleged “lack of service, transparency, and communication”.
The Beth Din has threatened to seek legal action following Honeyfield’s message to its Jewish clients in which it allegedly questioned the Beth Din’s integrity and pricing models. Honeyfields is further challenging the Beth Din’s price hikes at the Competition Commission, claiming unfair business practice.
The owner of Honeyfields, George Georghiou, told the SA Jewish Report that he may have made mistakes in the past, but he always rectified them. “I accept and admit there have been mistakes with the printing of my labels in the past, but I always acknowledge this and fix them. This is not about me and my procedures being kosher or parev, it’s to do with the increase in fees which I’m not prepared to pay,” he said.
He said he believed many manufacturers would “ be looking at obtaining kosher certification elsewhere overseas because they are left with little choice,” he said.
Georghiou says he is looking for a new hechsher as he wants to remain loyal to his Jewish clients. “Three products including parev and dairy chocolate-lined sugar cones and wafer baskets are going into 600 stores nationwide and sadly, the Jewish community won’t be able to buy them even though the products are kosher, but are now uncertified,” he said.
In a message to his Jewish clients last week, he said the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) had inflated his fees by a whopping 600%, which was going to affect the prices consumers were going to pay in the future. He wrote that he was offered numerous payment methods to meet the obligation, which he told the SA Jewish Report remained unaffordable.
“I’m just a simple chocolate and ice cream maker, I’m not here to fight. But when they decide to damage my turnover, that’s declaring war, and I will go to war with the Beth Din,” he said.
Georghiou isn’t the only manufacturer prepared to take a stand.
Johannesburg mashgiach Akiva Mallett decided to explore alternative options when he set up his new company, Dairyluv, which makes Chalav Yisrael dairy products. “I found that during my application process, there was a lack of commitment on the part of the UOS, and I felt it would turn out to be a disappointing relationship,” he said.
So he looked further afield for kosher certification.
“I applied to six of the world-leading kosher authorities, and chose Montreal Kosher. It was a long application process, but made easy with the professional people working there. We have a six-hour time difference but overcame that obstacle through proper communication and understanding.
“Even though the exchange rate plays a role, I believe the fees will still be less than what I would be paying here,” he said.
The owner of The Chocolate Tree, Moshe Amoils, told the SA Jewish Report that this outcry has brought to his attention the fact that manufacturers and producers aren’t alone in this struggle.
He said his Beth Din kosher Pesach fee in 2017 was R7 200. It went up more than 300% in 2020 to a staggering R45 000.
He successfully negotiated this down with the kosher department, explaining how it would negatively affect the community.
“Many people realise that there are actually other options available. People are considering moving further afield, and will do so if they find it more affordable, especially if it comes with better service and improved relationships.”
One longstanding manufacturer who prefers to remain anonymous said he was dissatisfied with the way the Beth Din conducted itself. “After many years, I’m considering applying elsewhere for an international hechsher,” he said.
Colin Hurwitz of Glens Sauces told the SA Jewish Report that the consumer was the biggest loser. “My heart broke earlier this year when I overheard an old lady complain that she couldn’t afford to buy a bottle of my kosher-for-Pesach tomato sauce. These are the people who are suffering. The Beth Din has lost sight of this.
“My tomato sauce costs what it does because of the many crippling hidden costs over and above the Beth Din Passover fee,” he said.
Another kosher manufacturer and retailer speaking under condition of anonymity questioned whether the Beth Din had the community’s interests at heart.
“Eateries are constantly trying to cut back and streamline their businesses to the bone because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep the cost of kosher down for the end user. They are constantly listening to complaints by the consumer about increased food prices while doing their utmost.”
Goldstein told the SA Jewish Report he was saddened by this latest scandal, considering the fact that the department had worked tirelessly to improve customer relations and ensure food prices were kept as low as possible.
The Stan & Pete saga had positive results in a vastly transformed department and a total revamp in kashrut, including a new scientific and equitable pricing model, he said.
“Our goal is for more people to eat more kosher more often. We don’t turn people away when they can’t afford the full price. In fact, we offer them various ways to remain on board because it’s in our interest to have more kosher products available for the community,” Goldstein said.
According to him, every company, no matter the size, is charged the same R32 000 annual base fee according to the new scientific pricing model. This is the standard fee applied across the board before other expenses come into play, for example the number of factories and products.
“People can apply for a special discount. We don’t turn people away, we understand times are tough, especially during COVID-19 when we have offered payment holidays and alternative payment options,” he said.
In the case of Honeyfields, he said, “The company had been included in no less than five alerts over the years which we consider way beyond the acceptable norm. The situation became untenable.
“Our community trusts that our stamp can be relied on, and when we have tried multiple times to work with a company and it still refuses to work with us, we are left with no choice.
“Sadly Mr Georghiou has taken a shot at our reputation, and we take this seriously. This is why we have decided to take legal action,” he said.
When a company asked for financial assistance, the department would “go out of its way on a case-by-case basis to offer a discount or phase-ins over multiple years to make it fair and equitable”, Goldstein said.
“Our approach is to benchmark against the world’s best kashrus agencies, and we are seeing that we are more than 50% less than other international agencies. So, you would need to question how some overseas hechshers can offer their services at such low costs, and whether it’s sustainable.”
COVID-19 deaths in decline, but community still on alert
The Jewish community in Johannesburg has experienced a dramatic drop in COVID-19 deaths since the surge in July. “So far in September, we have only had two COVID-19 deaths in Johannesburg, and we are seeing no excess deaths compared to the past five years,” says Chevrah Kadisha (The Chev) Chief Executive Saul Tomson.
“The reported sharp drop in deaths due to COVID-19 in the Jewish community is indeed good news,” says Barry Schoub, the founder of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“It parallels the positive trends indicating that the current COVID-19 epidemic is declining [in South Africa]. So, for example, the daily increase in cases has dropped markedly from 5.37 during lockdown level 5, to 0.11 at present in lockdown level 1.
“In the general population, the daily mortality rate has similarly dropped steeply from a high of 572 on 22 July, down to 114 on 1 September, and now 39 on 21 September, according to the COVID-19 South Africa dashboard,” says Schoub.
At the peak of the pandemic in South Africa, the South African Jewish community had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world, possibly due to our ageing community. “In July, there were sadly 48 COVID-19 deaths in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and total deaths for July were 110 which is a 129% increase compared to the five-year average,” says Tomson. “In August, there were 17 COVID-19 deaths in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and a 24% increase in the five-year average for the month.”
In the past five weeks, Chevrah Kadisha residential facilities (Sandringham Gardens, Our Parents Home, Selwyn Segal, Arcadia, Sandringham Lodge, and Sandringham Square) have had no new COVID-19 infections among their nearly 1 000 residents.
Tomson says these homes are all still under strict lockdown. “We were cautious prior to the national lockdown, and now we need to remain increasingly vigilant as the national lockdown eases. The pandemic is very much ongoing, and the elderly are still very vulnerable. There is, understandably, mounting pressure from families wanting to visit and residents wanting to get out, but essentially the risk profile hasn’t changed. All the good work we have done means that the vast majority of residents haven’t contracted it, and we want to keep it that way.”
Indeed, Schoub warns, “Acute viral epidemics follow a broadly similar pattern – the epidemic curve rises fairly rapidly to reach a peak, and then falls off again over a short period of time. Importantly, the virus doesn’t disappear and will still be circulating in the population at a low, perhaps even imperceptible level.
“The disappearance of overt cases of disease often leads to complacency and a relaxation of care to prevent infection. The inevitable consequence is the advent of the second and subsequent waves of the disease. In a number of countries, the second wave has been even more severe than the first. Israel is one such country,” says Schoub.
“The important lesson is that while the South African epidemic is certainly easing, 500 to 1 500 daily cases are still being reported,” Schoub says. “Even when it does come down to a few sporadic cases, the price of complacency and relaxation of vigilance is the inevitable return of the epidemic.”
“We are doing our best to normalise life within the facilities, and we have opened the dining rooms as of first-night Rosh Hashanah,” Tomson says. “We also brought in beauty therapists from Sorbet to uplift our residents prior to yom tov.”
The Chev has also started to organise visits on an appointment basis, with strict protocols in place. These are labour intensive and complicated, needing an infection-control monitor on both the resident and guest sides, screening of guests, and ensuring all protocols are adhered to. The Chev is in constant communication with the community, residents, and families, and Tomson emphasises that the organisation is still under a lot of pressure to protect every resident.
In Cape Town, there has been at least one COVID-19 death in September, but “the numbers on the COVID-19 Wellness Monitoring Programme have dropped significantly”, says the director of the Community Security Organisation (CSO), Loren Raize. “In August, we monitored 15 people on the programme, and in September, so far, we have had six join, three of whom are still currently on the programme.”
Delia Kaplan, the deputy director of Cape Town’s Highlands House for the Jewish Aged, says the home had an isolated incident of COVID-19 in which a resident passed away on 28 August. The home is still under lockdown, and residents can’t leave unless for medical reasons. On their return, they isolate for 14 days.
However, many restrictions within the home have been relaxed, and families can visit by appointment under strict protocols. Every visitor, including staff and contractors, has to complete digital symptom screening before entering the premises. The situation is constantly assessed, but “there is a sense of hope and renewal”, she says.
In Durban, one Jewish individual in a COVID-19 ward passed away in September, but COVID-19 wasn’t confirmed as the cause of death. In August, one Jewish person who had COVID-19 passed away, while two were unclear. Beth Shalom Aged Home Chairperson Solly Berchowitz says that one of the previously reported positive cases at the home passed away.
“We are still in lockdown with only essential resident movements. Late last week, we started allowing family to visit residents in the garden under strict conditions,” he says.
In Pretoria, the Jaffa Aged Home had no cases of COVID-19 from 20 July until one resident tested positive in mid-September. She is in isolation. The home is still under lockdown.
“Visitors can come to the fence and speak to a resident from five metres away. Residents cannot leave unless for emergencies. We opened the dining room last week so that the residents could eat a yom tov meal together, but with screens and distance between them. They can also go to the garden. We continually reassess the situation,” says the home’s director, Mark Isaacs.
Experts warn that in spite of the promising numbers, now isn’t the time to let down our guard. “What we do while opening up as a community going forward may have an effect [on increasing infections], and there are many in our community with elevated risk of severe disease if infected with COVID-19,” says Professor Jeffrey Dorfman, extraordinary associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University.
“Some precautions should be near universal. This includes continued wearing of masks in public places, particularly public indoor spaces. As much as I value public shul services, I feel that masks, social distancing, and limits on attendance should probably remain for now. Singing seems to create particular risks, and shul rules need to continue to reflect this. Personally, I have been to public prayers, but only outdoors, with no immediate plans to change that.”
Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director of the NICD, agrees. “COVID-19 is still with us. We are alert for resurgence. The risk groups for severe illness and death remain the same, and these vulnerable groups and their close contacts need to ensure that they continue to be cautious. This applies to gatherings around yom tov. Home gatherings are of concern. While there are protocols in place in synagogues to reduce transmission, at home, people let their guard down, especially among family and friends. Care homes need to continue to take the necessary precautions.”
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