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Second waves and second chances

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Voices

The closing weeks of 2020 brought with them the long-anticipated onset of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa. Over the December period, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) continued to co-ordinate meetings between the communal leadership and medical experts to assess the situation and plan and advise the community accordingly.

We have since participated in several national initiatives aimed at co-ordinating the efforts of civil society and faith communities in responding to the serious challenges of the day. Last week, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn participated in an African National Congress civil society engagement with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and other cabinet members titled “COVID-19 response and vaccines: the role of progressive civil society”. On Sunday, together with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Kahn, and SAJBD National President Mary Kluk, I attended a meeting with Ramaphosa to discuss how the religious leadership can assist government, particularly in terms of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

It hardly needs to be emphasised that all members of our community need to continue to do their part in minimising risk to themselves and anyone they come into contact with. Once again, I urge people to make full use of the guidelines and regular updates by Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and other medical experts on the SAJBD Facebook page and website to ascertain how best to conduct themselves in terms of vigilance and safety practices.

Restorative justice

Last month, we were able to resolve a long-standing hate-speech case between ourselves and former student leader Mcebo Dlamini for remarks he made at the University of the Witwatersrand, on PowerFM, and social media in 2015. Successful mediation was facilitated by the SA Human Rights Commission at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. We are satisfied with the outcome of this matter. As SAJBD National Vice-President Zev Krengel put it, Dlamini’s recognition that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive, together with his genuine apology, enables us to heal from the hurt he caused.

It should never be forgotten that South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian, bitterly divided, and conflict-ridden country to the robust multiracial democracy we have today was accomplished because South Africans, without forgetting the injustices of the past, were prepared to work together in building a better future. Expressing regret for one’s previous conduct, sincerely apologising for it, and undertaking to mend one’s ways going forward has thus assumed a great deal of importance in our society, and this is particularly true when it comes to racist behaviour. Once said, offensive words cannot be unsaid, but a heartfelt apology goes a long way towards removing their sting, and makes reconciliation possible.

Our Gauteng Council chairperson, Professor Karen Milner, stressed the importance of taking a restorative approach to justice wherever possible whereby the offender acknowledges what he or she has done wrong and expresses genuine remorse. Dlamini met these criteria, and was a successful example of what’s possible with this approach.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Backlash against Israel supporters undemocratic and disturbing

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One of the aspects of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict that should concern anyone committed to fundamental democratic values in South Africa was the disturbing extent to which even the most mild defences of Israel were met with intimidation, threats, and vitriolic abuse.

In a democratic society, it’s legitimate to disagree, however robustly, with such viewpoints, but the backlash against anyone – usually although not always Jewish – who declined to toe the anti-Israel line went far beyond this. Merely to raise the issue of, for example, Israel’s right to self-defence was to invite a storm of insults and inflammatory accusations which all too frequently went beyond mere denigration to incitement to cause harm, including advocating physical violence and economic harm in the form of demands that “heretics” be dismissed from their employ and boycott initiatives be initiated.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has devoted much effort both to exposing and denouncing these totalitarian tactics and to addressing some of the more egregious instances of intimidation that have arisen. One concerns the orchestrated campaign of vilification that a group calling itself the Redhill Parents and Alumni Concerns Committee conducted against Redhill School after its principal, alarmed by the hostility and division that the issue was generating within the student body (not least through the school’s own WhatsApp discussion platforms being spammed by anti-Israel propaganda) ruled that the debate be taken off campus. In response, an ugly demonstration was held outside the school, the principal himself was the target of an online hate campaign, and pressure was brought on Redhill to reject a young Muslim peace activist as an on-campus speaker in favour of one of the most extreme anti-Israel voices currently active, Ronnie Kasrils.

In a letter published in The Star this week in response to a paid advertisement insisting on Kasrils being invited to speak, Gauteng Council Chairperson Professor Karen Milner condemned how Redhill was “being bullied into choosing toxicity and vicious hatred over peace activism”. Thankfully, the school remained firm, and the original panellists spoke.

The previous week, Kasrils published a column in the Sunday Times that even by his rock-bottom standards was venomous and defamatory. Combining the standard demonisation of Israel with vicious asides concerning Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and the Jewish religion itself, it resulted in our major communal bodies taking the unusual step of publishing a joint response by our Jewish communal leadership groups (see the Board’s Facebook and website) in the same paper.

Not content with demonising Israel, Kasrils “breached all standards of civil discourse” by crassly impugning the integrity of a senior representative of the Jewish faith community and by “propagating a particularly obnoxious form of religious bigotry”. Typically, Kasrils employed the classic totalitarian tactic of portraying those who disagreed with him not just of being wrong, but of being “so morally twisted as to make anything they might have to say entirely unworthy of notice”.

In addition to responding in the public arena, the Board has been engaging with various members of our community who have experienced cyber bullying and other forms of harassment, and extending to them whatever support we can in dealing with these attacks. We will continue to do so over the coming weeks while also following up on cases of intimidation involving a clear-cut infringement of the target’s civil rights.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

‘G-d isn’t playing around’

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So, there we were in the desert waiting to enter the land of Israel, when the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission. They had news which we didn’t like. And, because we complained, G-d, who wasn’t having a particularly good day, decided that for the next while, we would be destined to wander. And while we did that, said G-d, who wasn’t happy at all, the older generation would die out and only then would He allow us to enter the promised land.

There is something biblical about the COVID-19 pandemic. Something unnatural and suggestive of a plague from another realm. It has felt even more like this over the past few weeks with the older members of the community being particularly hard hit. Day after day, we are assailed by news of the passing of friends and their parents and each time, the shock seems to be less but the weariness a lot greater. With each death, our spirits sink lower, and we wonder what our world will look like on the other side of this.

A Facebook advert posted by one of the kosher restaurants in Johannesburg as follows: “Winter Warmer. Ready to eat meal – serves 3-4 (also great for shiva house meal or family in isolation/quarantine)” reflects the gravity of the situation. No doubt more than it intended to. Whether the post was in good, bad, or no taste at all, is irrelevant, but it does indicate the need and the demand. We’re a community that’s alternating between quarantine and shiva. And we need to eat.

The situation in Gauteng is grave. Hospitals are on divert, beds are scarce, and schools are trying the best as they can to remain open. Netcare has announced the suspension of visitors to protect patients, and educators are forced to decide daily which grades and classes need to be quarantined so as to protect the environment. Daily shul services are now filled with those saying kaddish for lost parents, and it’s hard to keep track of the bereavements.

As a friend put it, “G-d isn’t playing around.”

I write this having returned from yet another COVID-19 funeral. Yet another passing of a person who seemed to be in their prime, who had children, who although adults, are too young to be mourning. And a wife far too young to be a widow. My fingers are tired and my heart is weary from sending WhatsApps to people asking if they would prefer me not to attend a service because of the numbers and regulations. And although I might process the world through words, I find that I have none that can be any comfort.

Not to the bereaved and not to myself.

The list of names that I include in my prayers is too long. And then just like that, it’s too short. We’re living through a time that is infused with loss and punctuated with sorrow. We’re seeing those a few years older than us disappear before our eyes. And we seem unable to stop it.

The only thing that we can do is to be as cautious and careful as possible. We have tested the alternative, and the results speak for themselves. We might not understand why this is happening and why our generation has been chosen to live through it. But I do know that we need to introspect, reconnect with faith, and accept that we don’t control this world.

G-d, it seems, isn’t playing around.

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Voices

Open season on Jews

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As expected, the Gaza conflict resulted in a sharp upsurge in antisemitic attacks the world over. The focus of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) over the past week has been on following up several of the more serious instances of anti-Jewish abuse and intimidation. We assisted a university student in laying criminal charges against two classmates who cyberbullied and threatened him, and are assisting a community member who was threatened in a Johannesburg gym and subjected to disturbing rhetoric. We have further worked closely with children at non-Jewish schools, university students, professionals, and business people who have likewise been victimised.

Another area of concern has been the growing prevalence of calls for Jewish-owned businesses to be boycotted. It’s noteworthy that the ostensible distinction that Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS)-aligned activists routinely make between “Zionists” and Jews has been distinctly absent regarding these initiatives. Those responsible have quite unabashedly identified those they wish to target on the basis of them being Jewish. In one case that has come to our attention, a store was singled out for boycott because it stocks kosher products. These actions very obviously amount to incitement to cause harm on the basis of both religion and ethnicity, and as such, are expressly prohibited in South African law.

Such is the intensity of the anti-Israel frenzy whipped up in times of heightened conflict in the Middle East, many consider it to be open season on anyone who takes a contrary position. In practice, that usually means Jews, although we are now also seeing people outside of our community targeted, most notably a Laudium school teacher who was reportedly fired for expressing what was no more than a mildly pro-Israel view.

Fortunately, in a democratic society, the law states otherwise, and in cases where people have crossed the line, the Board has always gone to whatever lengths necessary to hold them accountable. Among those who have learned this to their cost are former Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Fatima Hajaig; Bongani Masuku, the international relations secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); and international relations secretary and former COSATU Western Cape leader Tony Ehrenreich.

Upholding the right of the Jewish community to dignity and equality is the core mandate of the SAJBD, and that includes safeguarding the right of its members to support and identify with Israel without being threatened, racially abused, or unfairly disadvantaged.

Striving to inject more balance in the media is another area in which the Board, in tandem with the South African Zionist Federation and other communal organisations working in that field, continues to be much involved. This week, we have co-ordinated a united response by leading Jewish organisations to a scurrilous and thoroughly disgraceful attack on our chief rabbi that appeared in a leading weekly newspaper over the weekend. This, together with the many interviews and comments provided by our spokespeople and opinion pieces published have at least got our community’s voice out there and ensured that the media’s coverage of issues hasn’t been one-way traffic.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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