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SA company switches to Canadian hechsher

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A South African health-food company opened the door to getting a hechsher from international kosher certifiers when it adopted the Canadian Kosher Certifier (known as MK) recently. This decision appears to be unprecedented in the South African market, and raises questions about the impact on the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS’s) Beth Din.

The news was announced in a number of marketing videos made by MK and shared on social media by The Chocolate Tree and Nu Tree. In the first video, a man with a South African accent says, “Kosher certification is a big advantage in the competitive industry. That little symbol [pointing to the MK sign] is a seal of quality, guaranteeing that your product meets the highest standard. MK has been a world leader in kosher certification for over 75 years and now we’re in South Africa. We recently certified The Chocolate Tree and Nu Tree, leading South African health-food manufacturers that have been synonymous with quality food for decades. Join the movement, get the seal.”

A second video welcomes the company, and encourages consumers to “look out for MK, the mark of trust”, and “MK – kosher for Passover” on its packaging.

Moshe Amoils, the owner of The Chocolate Tree and Nu Tree, said that even before the uproar last year over the UOS’s Beth Din kosher department’s fees and communication issues, he was thinking of seeking out a hechsher abroad.

“A few local companies were chatting about how unhappy we were about the Beth Din’s service delivery, pricing structure, the lack of justification for fee increases, and the way we were being treated. A couple of us started looking overseas because even by that stage, we were already gatvol.”

After things came to a head and Amoils went on air to describe his experience, he began to seek out an overseas hechsher more seriously. He heard that another local manufacturer had succeeded with MK, and he decided to reach out to it, getting a speedy response from executive director Rabbi Saul Emanuel. It was a coincidence that Emanuel happens to be ex-South African, which Amoils only realised after they connected.

Amoils said that from the beginning of going with MK, “the service has been unbelievable, the technology superb. I’ve listed 125 products in two weeks. With the Beth Din, it would have taken two weeks to list one product, although I know their processes have since improved. MK is a different machine. It couldn’t be more co-operative and happy to assist.” Even with the time difference, Amoils said he received prompt answers to questions. “For example, Rabbi Emanuel will call me as he’s getting ready for shul at 06:00.”

Furthermore, he said, he is paying two-thirds of what he paid the Beth Din. “It’s cheaper to get an overseas hechsher than from the people just down the road.” His Pesach fees are 50% cheaper, and annual fee inflation is set at 5% to 7%, a far cry from the volatile increases he said he faced with the UOS.

Amoils said the Beth Din tried to engage with him, and there was discussion of a dual hechsher. The Beth Din allegedly wouldn’t accept being the secondary hechsher, so Amoils agreed to make both hechsharim equal (on the packaging) in the spirit of community unity. However he couldn’t pay full fees to both, so he offered to pay a smaller fee to the Beth Din as it wasn’t the primary certifier. Amoils claims the Beth Din refused this offer. “It’s not about community unity. It’s really all about money,” he said.

He said an overseas hechsher was nothing new in the kosher world. Many companies manufacture products in countries that don’t have a kosher office, and inspectors from overseas certifiers visit their facilities to certify products. The same will happen here. “Essentially, it’s the same concept as the UOS.”

Amoils said the MK hechsher was known by the community here, and if a product was on the shelves of KosherWorld, people didn’t question it. He has spread the word on social media, and believes it won’t take long for it to be just another trusted hechsher.

He said the videos MK released were all funded by MK and were done free of charge as a way to welcome and promote new products. MK is also assisting Amoils with investigating export opportunities in North America. “Making the decision has made a huge difference to my stress levels and mental well-being,” he said.

Emanuel told the SA Jewish Report that he had worked for the kashrut department of the Beth Din for 10 years prior to moving to Canada. Speaking in a strong South African accent, he said “this request came from South Africa. We got an email one afternoon [from Amoils]. We got back to him right away, and soon after that we did the certification.”

He said MK would gladly co-certify kosher products with the UOS Beth Din.

Having options when it comes to kosher certifiers is the norm overseas, creating a “healthy” environment, Emanuel said. “Companies make the decision based on quality, price, and service.” MK has “very experienced representatives in South Africa” to monitor the kashrut of its certified products, and it can certify products “anywhere”.

“Kashrut is all about reliability,” he said. “We go where people ask us to go. We aren’t going out there to companies and offering our services, but we will be glad to assist them if they request it.” The organisation’s goal is to “help companies all over the world get kosher certified in many different markets”.

Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of the kosher department of the UOS, said, “We are aware of The Chocolate Tree being certified by MK, however we cannot comment on MK or any other potential competition. We have had limited dealings with them, but understand that they are one of several kashrut authorities in Canada.

“We are an internationally recognised hechsher that works with the best in the world, like the OU [Orthodox Union], and have been serving the South African Jewish community for decades,” Goldstein said. “Being local experts, with representatives visiting factories thousands of times each year, we provide the highest standards of kashrus with the most sustainable option for companies in Southern Africa. We have certified more than 150 new companies kosher in the past three years, and will continue to bring many more kosher products to the community.

“The kosher department of the UOS remains dedicated to delivering on our vision of more people eating more kosher more often.”

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1 Comment

  1. Leonie

    Mar 18, 2021 at 10:46 am

    Kol Hakavod you have acted with sense and I wish more manufacturers would follow your example and assist in reducing prices and affiliation fees.
    The Beth Din needs to wake up and smell the roses.
    The days of monopolistic behaviour is being challenged and the plutocrats can’t handle it.

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Archbishop’s anti-Israel stance “endangering Anglican Church”

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They have had a longstanding friendship and worked closely together, but when Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein saw Anglican Church Archbishop Dr Thabo Makgoba describe the situation in the Middle East as “evil” and place all the blame on Israel, he refused to stay silent.

In a hard-hitting open letter in the Sunday edition of City Press (6 June 2021), Goldstein told the archbishop that he was “making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church”. He explained that by supporting Hamas, “you are not only perpetuating the suffering of Palestinians and working against peace in this painful conflict, you are on the wrong side of history and in neglect of your most basic moral duty to protect the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which is your parish.

“For while you castigate Israel for defending itself against violent extremists, know that the very same violent religious ideology drives extremists right here on our borders, and their intended victims are your Christian congregations.”

This isn’t the first time the chief rabbi has commented on the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s (ACSA) sharp turn away from Israel. In 2019, he condemned its resolution to support “well-directed Boycott, Divestment, Sanction actions” against the Jewish state.

The letter to which the chief rabbi was referring was written by the archbishop to his constituents on 1 June 2021, titled “A pastoral letter on the tragic situation in Palestine and Israel”. Makgoba compared Israel’s policies to apartheid, and wrote among other points, “The current state of affairs is unjust and evil. We therefore call for an arms embargo to be placed on all fighting forces in the region, just as there was a United Nations arms embargo on South Africa. We also call for other pressure, including sanctions, to be imposed to bring all the parties around a conference table to negotiate a just peace. The current imbalance of power means that the Palestinians are suffering disproportionately.”

But the chief rabbi methodically explained why the accusation of apartheid was “a defamation of the Jewish state, disrespectful to the victims of apartheid, and a dangerous lie, which brings to mind the Christian blood libels against Jews in medieval Europe”. He explained how attempts to establish a Palestinian state have repeatedly been turned down by Palestinian leadership, and emphasised the genocidal essence of Hamas’s ideology.

“Over the past year alone, about 4 000 Christians in Africa have been killed by Islamist extremists – Islamists who share Hamas’s ideology. More than 4 000 churches have been burnt to the ground. Archbishop, these people were murdered because they are Christian. Where is your voice in defence of your own parishioners? Not only are you silent on this issue, you publicly support the allies of the perpetrators of these horrors,” Goldstein wrote.

The chief rabbi told the SA Jewish Report he felt it was urgent to speak out because “the militant extremism of Hamas is the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and it’s a threat to people around the world, including Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims. Hamas wants the genocide of all Jews, just as other extremist groups want the conversion and murder of all Christians. This is a struggle for human dignity, decency, and moderation. Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in this fight for freedom.”

He says it’s even more urgent now because “violent extremists are wreaking havoc in Africa and globally. This includes those on our doorstep in Mozambique. I wanted to appeal to him, to other Christian and Muslim leaders to stand together in unity against the violent extremism that is encroaching, which is a threat to us all.

“It’s important to speak the truth and say it as I see it,” Goldstein says. “To accuse Israel of being ‘evil’ demands a response. Silence is acquiescence. How can we be silent in the face of these accusations, when we know they are false? It’s about speaking up in the name of truth and justice. It’s not about personalities or emotions. It’s the moral responsibility of any human being, especially a religious leader.”

Goldstein doesn’t think this debate will have an impact on his relationship with the archbishop.

“We have been friends and colleagues for many years. He was appointed the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa a year or so before I became chief rabbi. We had a lot in common, both being relatively young appointees at the time. We’ve worked together, marched together against state capture and corruption, and interacted on many forums. South Africa is blessed to have a very strong culture of interfaith co-operation. We meet and discuss, and I don’t see this as a breach of that. I see this as having a public debate. It was the same with my letter to the president [Cyril Ramaphosa], much of this has been discussed in private meetings, but I’m putting it out there because we are debating for the good of the country.”

It’s the same reason Goldstein called on the Muslim Judicial Council and Jamiatul Ulama South Africa “to join me in imploring our communities to be tolerant of each other’s vastly differing political and religious views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. This call, made at the end of May, was rejected by those organisations.

“We can have a different view, and we can all agree to disagree, but religious leaders need to show respect, peace, and tolerance,” Goldstein said. “If religious leaders don’t stand together, then these negative forces will divide us.”

The chief rabbi feels that by condemning Israel, “the archbishop is hurting the very people he is trying to help. Israel is a bastion of freedom and dignity in the Middle East for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to worship in freedom. By supporting Hamas, the archbishop is leaving the Palestinian people to suffer under the jackboot of violence and dictatorship. Hamas doesn’t believe in negotiation, so by supporting extremism, he is pushing the option of peace further away.”

Goldstein hopes that his letter “will provoke real debate within the Anglican Church. I have heard from Anglican rank and file members that they aren’t aligned with the views of the archbishop. In addition, millions of Christians who support Israel should be able to do so without being intimidated or threatened.”

He also hopes that this debate “will lead to a time for reflection for all religious leaders” and that they will continue to meet and keep the channels of communication open, as has been the case for many years.

“What I hope will be on the agenda for the interfaith movement is commitment across the board for religious leaders to preach tolerance, peace, human dignity, and to support forces in the world to do the same,” he says. “I hope all religious leaders will oppose in every way the violent extremism that is gaining ascendency, particularly in Africa. We can agree to disagree without denigrating each other. We must call out violent extremism with one voice. This is a wake-up call that we need to take a stand.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 9 June, the archbishop said, “Nothing in my letter suggests that I support violent attacks by one community on another or that I question the right of Israel to live in peace and security and that of the Palestinians to self-determination.”

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Legal stricture puts Lithuanian citizenship out of reach for many

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Hundreds of applications worldwide for Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry are being rejected by the Lithuanian Migration Department, some pending indefinitely and others being placed on hold.

This follows a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision in December 2020 which has opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher and dramatically slower to get citizenship.

In addition to what has always been accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants are now also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940. This applies to Litvaks around the world.

This is a departure from the original position, which never required any proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.

“This is a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It has far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutiene from Next Steps.

Her company assists many South Africans to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report some of her clients’ applications have recently been declined by the migration department because of this.

According to insiders, things changed following this court decision, which highlighted the law on all citizenship applications. “There is discussion about the exact interpretation of the Lithuanian law of citizenship,” Degutiene said.

This development has dramatically slowed down the application process, causing frustration, say insiders. The department has queried hundreds of pending applications, requesting this additional proof, which according to insiders is extremely difficult – if not impossible – for most people to produce.

There also appear to be many more declined applications than there were previously. In some cases where families have applied at different times using the same source documents, some have been granted citizenship, while others have been rejected.

Dainius Junevičius, the Lithuanian ambassador to South Africa, said 2 646 positive decisions were made by the migration department to reinstate citizenship for Jews from Lithuania living in South Africa between 2016 and 2020.

“The number increased tenfold in five years – from 119 in 2016 to 1 121 in 2020. During that period, the embassy accepted 2 116 passport applications and issued 1 679 passports. Last year, the consular section of the embassy exceeded all of its limits, and accepted 659 passport applications,” he said.

Junevičius said the migration department had processed 1 242 reinstatement requests last year. Citizenship had been reinstated in 1 121 cases, and rejected in 121 cases. “This gives about 90% positive decisions,” he said.

There is uncertainty about where people stand now regarding the prospect of gaining citizenship.

However, there may be hope on the horizon.

In recent weeks, following extensive lobbying, there are initiatives in parliament to amend the citizenship law. A Bill has recently been drafted formally supported by more than 30 members of the Lithuania Seismas (parliament).

“This is a very positive development,” said Degutiene.

The date for tabling the Bill, debating it, and voting whether or not to pass the Bill into law, is still to be decided.

The Bill, which requires a majority vote in its favour before being passed, aims to remove the requirement that applicants prove that their ancestor actively retained Lithuanian citizenship up until 15 June 1940. If the proposed amendment is passed, the requirement would be to prove only that their ancestor held citizenship at any time prior to 15 June 1940.

“This would likely ensure the success of many pending applications which are currently under query,” said Nicole Marcus of AccessEU.

It follows pressure from many service providers who have been actively engaging with Lithuanian authorities to amend the way in which applications are being considered.

Many have written to the Lithuanian Home Affairs Ministry to complain about the way in which the migration department is now considering applications, describing it as “unreasonable and unfair”.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has written to Lithuanian authorities at the highest level, seeking to make things easier for South African Litvaks.

“This is a matter of principle,” said Zev Krengel, SAJBD national vice-president. “Most of our ancestors were forced to flee Lithuania under terrible circumstances, and restoring our citizenship will go a long way to heal and address the wrongs of the past.”

Krengel, who has visited Lithuania several times, received his passport in 2017 with his father, Julius, whose father fled the country in 1925 with literally “the clothes on his back”, according to Krengel.

The Board has written to the president and prime minister of Lithuania, including several other prominent members of parliament, appealing for an amendment to the law, correcting the wording so that citizenship of Lithuania will be reinstated as before.

The letter calls upon the leadership of Lithuania “to cherish and preserve” significant resolutions that allowed all people of Lithuania who were expelled or emigrated in pre-war times to return their citizenship and be part of the new Lithuania.

The SAJBD said it was concerned about “new legal barriers” which were creating obstacles for those applying for reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship.

Junevičius, said the principle of state continuity was very important for Lithuania. “Modern Lithuania is a continuation of the pre-war Republic of Lithuania, which lost its independence on 15 June 1940, when it was occupied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. All persons who were Lithuanian citizens on that day are considered Lithuanian citizens until now, regardless of where they lived then – in the United States, Russia, British territories, or elsewhere. We’re talking not only about Jews, but about people of all nationalities and faiths. Lithuanian legislators enshrined this principle of continuity of citizenship in the Law on Lithuanian Citizenship,” he said.

“According to the current law and the interpretation of the courts, there is an important condition for the reinstatement of citizenship – the person had to be a Lithuanian citizen on 15 June 1940, so that they or their descendants could reinstate Lithuanian citizenship,” he said.

“The majority of Jews living in South Africa are of Lithuanian descent. The reality is that not everyone meets the criteria for reinstating citizenship.”

If documents are missing or the migration department has doubts that the applicant was a Lithuanian citizen on 15 June 1940, the procedure takes time, he told the SA Jewish Report.

“We are well aware that some applicants cannot prove that their ancestors were Lithuanian citizens until 15 June 1940, and their requests are rejected. As long as this citizenship law and court interpretation is in force, no other solutions can be expected.”

Junevičius said it was important for prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania.

“I’m frustrated that the Lithuanian passport is valued only because it provides an opportunity to travel around Schengen countries, without even visiting Lithuania,” he said.

Although the Lithuanian embassy in Pretoria was opened only in 2015, investment from South Africa in Lithuania is negative, and only 300 tourists from South Africa visited Lithuania in 2019.

“Lithuania is still an undiscovered place for South African Jews to do business, get a great higher education, spend a vacation, or even relocate to the country where their ancestors once used to live,” he said.

He said the embassy did its best to increase the speed of service to reduce waiting times, but asked for patience while booking a time slot for a visit at the consular section.

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Pandor holds line against pressure to cut ties with Israel

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Minister of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Dr Naledi Pandor brought a sense of calm in the midst of the recent feverish anti-Israel rhetoric in South Africa by refusing to commit South Africa to cutting ties with the Jewish state.

Responding to a parliamentary question on 7 June 2021, she said, “South Africa has recently issued a number of media statements strongly condemning the actions of the Israeli government, where casualties have been mostly innocent civilians, children, women, and the elderly.

“South Africa recalled its ambassador accredited to the state of Israel, Mr Sisa Ngombane, in May 2018. The government remains seized with the modalities related to its diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. The department will communicate any further actions still under consideration.”

She was responding to a question by Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Thembi Portia Msane who wanted to know South Africa’s “response to the criminal and indiscriminate killing of Palestinians by the State of Israel”.

Then, at an online event hosted by DIRCO titled “Justice for the Palestinian people” on 8 June 2021, Pandor made statements that were more extreme. She called it an “unbalanced power equation between an occupying power and a people resisting occupation” and said that “the Palestinian narrative evokes experiences of South Africa’s own history of racial segregation and oppression”.

South Africa welcomed “the initiative to convene a special session of the Human Rights Council on the grave human-rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem which was held on 27 May 2021,” Pandor said. “South Africa supports the recent adoption of the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution which establishes an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel.”

At the same time, she acknowledged Israel’s right to exist in peace, saying, “We, along with many in the UN membership, have long accepted and supported a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace.”

Pandor could potentially have descended into worse rhetoric during the event, which consisted of more than two hours of Israel-bashing. It’s clear that she’s under enormous pressure from various quarters to cut ties with Israel, but she has held the line. Where is this pressure coming from, and what will she do about it?

“South Africa is under tremendous pressure to further reduce her relations with Israel – there’s not much left frankly, other than to cut full diplomatic relations,” says local political analyst Daniel Silke. “BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] has certainly entrenched itself within the thinking of the ANC [African National Congress], but I do think there’s an element within the ANC that pushes back against the more extreme or radical view of reducing relations. Pandor may well spearhead that more moderate view.”

Silke believes that “in the end, South Africa is unlikely to cut full diplomatic relations. South Africa will keep a mission in Israel in spite of there being all sorts of rhetoric and rumblings, and perhaps even some sort of other kind of minor downgrade, if it’s still possible.”

He thinks this is because South Africa still has to think of its relationship with other countries – especially the United States and in Western Europe – and cannot act “as an island unto herself”.

“There will be ramped up rhetoric against Israel as we’ve seen, from President [Cyril] Ramaphosa down,” Silke says, “but I expect that in order to at least keep South Africa within the broader community of nations – including with a view to improving relations with the US – we will fall short of what would be a full downgrade of diplomatic relations”.

“In spite of an apparent lack of empathy with the South African Jewish community, it does remain a prominent community within South Africa, and from President Ramaphosa’s understanding, a downgrade would clearly affect relations between the government and the community. This includes business entities that are important for economic growth in South Africa via private-sector initiatives,” Silke says.

Silke says it’s also important to look at the African context. “We’ve seen a shift from some African countries towards close relations with Israel. Ramaphosa is head of the African Union, so South Africa has to balance her role with greater co-operation between African countries and Israel. Those factors also help to keep the channels open, albeit under difficult circumstances.”

Local political analyst Steven Gruzd agrees. “There’s definitely political pressure from BDS to take even further measures against Israel to the extent of cutting ties,” he says. “As Pandor noted, we withdrew our ambassador from Tel Aviv in May 2018, and that ambassador hasn’t been replaced. As we’ve seen, whenever there’s a flare-up in the Middle East, the pressure to cut ties increases.

“It’s difficult to know how great that pressure is, but BDS has certainly been putting pressure on the government. Also, there’s pressure coming from political parties like the EFF, and many within the ANC itself, who portray what’s happening in the Middle East very much through a South African prism.

“But the ANC still believes in a two-state solution. That’s still official policy and it hasn’t gone back on that,” Gruzd says. “So there will be more condemnation in the weeks and months ahead, but I strongly doubt there would be a physical cutting of ties. I hope I’m proved right.”

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