Sharansky tackling the tough questions
Natan Sharansky born Anatoly Sharansky in Donetsk in (then) Soviet Union, was a human rights activist, mathematician and Russian Refusenik – jailed by the Russian authorities as “a prisoner of Zion” – before he was expelled and made aliyah. In Israel, he rose in politics, serving in a number of ministerial positions before eventually becoming chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Professor Antony Arkin asked the questions.
PROF ANTONY ARKIN
What is your focus at the Jewish Agency for Israel today?
As we connect Israel to the Jewish world, historically we focus on aliyah. The numbers of olim are high and are growing. Currently the big operations are in Russia, Ukraine, France and Brazil. People’s reasons differ. In Ukraine there is a war and the collapse in large areas of government infrastructure. In Russia there is increasing concern at the authoritarianism of the government and the concern that the Jewish community is being isolated. In France, the rising anti-Semitism is putting increased pressure on a well-established community. In Brazil the economy seems very close to a meltdown. While we take no credit for these push factors, it is hard work that has ensured Israel is the first choice for those leaving. Ongoing programmes such as birthright, have played important roles in strengthening Jewish identity. We also focus on bringing Israel to the Jewish world. New types of shlichim with new programmes have been introduced. We are now placing shlichim on university campuses. Activism on campuses are the driving force for the deligitimisation of Israel. The students need all the support they deserve. The first shaliach for SAUJS is being put in place. Worldwide there are more than 80 shlichim.
Is the concept of Israel as beacon for the Jewish world still valid?
Historically (Theodor) Herzl’s vision was that World Jewry would move voluntarily to Israel or would assimilate into their host nations. The Diaspora was seen, then, as a passing phase. This is not happening. Millions of Jews continue to live abroad in vibrant, thriving democratic communities. However, there is enormous assimilation in these societies. The only effective bulwarks are Zionism and a strong religious identity. Without these countervailing forces, the existing communities’ grandchildren will not live as Jews. Israel then is essential for Jewish continuity. Much of our work is to strengthen these links with World Jewry. So, while Israeli society is not monolithic and highly opinionated on many issues, including Jewish identity, it plays the central, pivotal role in the life of the Jewish people everywhere.
Sharansky was previously in SA in March 2015, when ANT KATZ was honoured to spend a jam-packed hour-long, one-on-one with him. This piece went on to be one of JR’s most read stories of the year!
Read it or print out for a great family Shabbos read.
Knesset members across the political spectrum were terribly disappointed by the lack of support from American Jewry for Israel’s position on the Iran nuclear deal. How serious is this divide?
American Jews voted overwhelmingly for President (Barack) Obama. While I do not agree with every aspect of his administration’s policy towards Israel, it was considered a pivotal issue and Obama genuinely thought he was working in Israel’s best interest. The Iran nuclear deal was very polarising for American Jewry, especially as all major political parties in Israel thought it was fraught with danger. Personally, unlike the fight for the freeing of Russian Jews from the Soviet Union, where strong linkages were made with the regime’s behaviour, Obama made no such linkages with Iran. He should have built far greater safeguards into the process to counter Iranian threats to destroy Israel and to arm Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups. So it is a great disappointment that the Iranian nuclear deal was not linked to Iran’s destructive actions against Israel. It is hoped that President (Donald) Trump will emphasise far more these linkages going forward.
Having played the lead role in trying to finalise the Kotel prayer plaza and freedom of religion for all streams of Judaism, Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu has baulked at implementing this despite Cabinet’s approval. How will this impact on Diaspora-Israel relations?
Netanyahu has been most supportive during the three-year negotiations. He brought me in to lead the discussions, but faced criticism. His new government coalition relies on the ultra-Orthodox and charedi parties, who blackmailed him by threatening to bring down the government if the Kotel deal is implemented. The prime minister is asking for more time to find a solution that can be achieved without the collapse of the government. The Supreme Court is likely to be a determining factor and should help to achieve a realistic solution.
Having been one of the most celebrated Jewish Russian human rights activists, what are your thoughts about Russian-Israeli relations today?
There is very little anti-Semitism from the Russian government and the administration has a positive attitude to the Jewish community. There are increasing links to Israel and lot of serious dialogue is taking place. But there are real concerns. The Jewish community was alarmed at the recent expulsion of the senior Chabad rabbi and the increased authoritarianism of Russian society. Russia’s increasing support for the Assad regime in Syria and close ties with Iran, which is trying to build a Shi’ite hegemony on Israel’s northern borders, is a matter of deep concern. There is also a significant leakage of Russian technology and weapons to Hezbollah. Fortunately there is a close dialogue between the Russian and Israeli leadership.
Will US President Donald Trump be good for Israel?
There are good intentions on both sides. However, the Trump administration is not yet fully in place, so there is very little experience and policy developed. Statements that he sees Israel as a main ally are very positive. There are many friendly voices in the administration, but time will tell.
Humanity’s best rises after violent unrest
The KwaZulu-Natal Jewish community has begun emerging from the shock of last week’s chaos, remaining vigilant and expressing gratitude for assistance provided by the wider community. Moreover, they are paying it forward wherever they can to others in need.
Those working in relief operations in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng describe a spirit of ubuntu (humanity towards others) among ordinary South Africans that has sparked practical, powerful change.
”We not only helped ourselves, we helped others, and they in turn helped us. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, there was aid,” said Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council.
The Jewish community in the coastal city was hardest hit by last week’s violence and looting, in which businesses were destroyed, food and fuel supplies were disrupted, and communities felt under threat. Now, they say they are humbled by the chain of support that has encircled them.
Lieberthal said the community continued to “adopt an attitude of constant vigilance”, noting that threatening “fake news” still circulated and patrols in residential areas continued throughout the night.
Government security efforts simply haven’t been sufficient, she said. “In spite of the announcements from the government, the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] isn’t here to protect residential areas or citizens, it’s here to protect national key points. The national and metro police are under-resourced and outnumbered.” As such, while “the community certainly appreciates the efforts of the SAPS [South African Police Service] and Metro Police, the community has taken care of itself”.
Lieberthal said the community was still trying to come to terms with the reality of what had hit it. “It’s very difficult for those who weren’t directly impacted by this crisis to understand what it was like to be in the thick of it. Children and adults alike were terrified. We hope that this nightmare is over. It’s now time to pick up the pieces and try and start again.”
The national leadership of the SAJBD, as well as a number of other communal organisations, corporations, non-profits, small businesses, and private individuals has been fundamental to ensuring the delivery of essential items to the community through protected convoys.
“To date, we have received medication, non-perishable items such as flour, tinned foods, oil, pasta, toiletries and personal hygiene items including adult nappies, sanitary towels, formula, meal replacements, medication, and kosher meat – all of which has been delivered or handed out,” said Lieberthal.
Reverend Gilad Friedman of the Umhlanga Jewish Centre described the individual heroism that underpinned collective efforts. There were those who organised private flights to deliver goods; and a local doctor and a pharmacist, who opening up his pharmacy “mid riot”, worked together to help provide chronic medication. Volunteers brought bakkies and vans to take goods to distribution centres at shuls, and some acted as personal shoppers, moving from store to store to try and get the products needed by the elderly. Some are manning the phones, trying to make contact with every community member on record to check up on their welfare.
More than just providing for basic needs, there is also a sense of spiritual unity, according to Friedman. “Last week, people didn’t know if they were going to have food for Shabbat, and one of the rabbinical families at the shul got flour from all the people that they could find, and made challot for all the families.”
Last Thursday, the centre established a helpline with the tagline, “Do you need help, or do you want to help?”
“Since the message went out until today, I’ve had to charge my phone four times a day,” said Friedman. “There is just an endless stream [of calls], and credit goes to the people on the ground making a difference.”
Rabbi Shlomo Wainer of Chabad in Umhlanga echoes Friedman’s appreciation of support. Along with other Jewish community organisations, he is now helping to co-ordinate assistance to impoverished areas in Inanda and Phoenix, having been in long-term contact with a bishop and pastor in those vicinities.
“We have launched what we called ‘Operation Beyond Relief’ because I don’t believe that relationships are only for now because of the difficulties. This is for the continued relationship of goodness and kindness at all times.”
Wendy Kahn, the national director of the SAJBD, said it was involved in this project as well as numerous other operations to provide food aid across affected areas. “The past weeks have been devastating for our country, and the SAJBD, in addition to assisting and supporting our Jewish community in KwaZulu-Natal, has prioritised the alleviation of hunger that the past unrest has unleashed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.”
In collaboration with other foundations in Gauteng, “in the past week, we have supported the distribution of hundreds of food parcels to areas in distress”. These include Eldorado Park, Orange Farm, Kliptown, Vanderbijlpark, as well as Alexandra, and more help is being planned for the East Rand.
On the ground, the Board took part in clean-up operations in Daveyton. “Although it was heart wrenching to see the destruction, it was also incredibly uplifting to be part of the solution. We were so moved by the community in Daveyton, that we intend to return with other ways of supporting the community,” said Kahn.
The SAJBD is also working with The Angel Network in KwaZulu-Natal as it organises truck and air deliveries of essential goods. Glynne Wolman, the founder of The Angel Network, said that within four days, they had managed to collect more than R500 000 in funding, and had already dispatched trucks loaded with 1 800 food parcels, 200kg of nutritionally fortified e’Pap, 14 000kg of mielie meal, and one ton of soya meal to help those left in the direst conditions after the unrest.
“We have seen the worst of people, and now we have the chance to see people at their best. More than anything [in the aftermath], it has been ubuntu in its truest form,” said Wolman.
Jewish humanitarian group Cadena’s director of international alliances, Miriam Kajomovitz, echoed Wolman’s observations. The organisation has been helping in Gauteng in various capacities, be it clean-up operations, organising psychological support, and now planning small-business relief for those whose livelihoods were destroyed: “We are all working together. Everyone is giving of their expertise and what they can for the good of all.
“Crisis is always an opportunity for change,” Kajomovitz observed.
Days of wreckage and reckoning
As South Africans face the largest outbreak of unrest and violence in the post-apartheid era, the community of KwaZulu-Natal reels from safety concerns, lost businesses, and looming food and fuel shortages.
In Gauteng, while central community areas haven’t been directly affected, the province remains on tenterhooks as it looks at the longer-term effects on the country as a whole.
“It’s like a war zone. I haven’t slept for two days,” said Michael Ditz, shortly before he began another patrol in his Durban North neighbourhood this week.
Ditz, the co-owner of retail chain Jam Clothing, said that last week, they owned 115 stores with a national footprint. This week, “we are now down to 99, we have lost 16 stores. Some have been burnt to the ground, others just had their goods looted.”
“We still have to assess the full damage, but the tragic irony is the long-term job losses – it will take years to rebuild.”
Ditz said it was too early to process fully the shock of the past few days. “I just feel gutted,” he said.
He said they also faced personal danger. “Our families and our houses are under threat. We are literally guarding our own neighbourhood.”
Yet, he said, unity had been forged in this regard. “We have been working with the Muslim community.” A similar collective effort is also happening in Jewish community member Darren Katzer’s neighbourhood in central Musgrave.
“With the Muslim community, it has been unbelievable. We are working closely together, just protecting each other and doing whatever we can.”
Especially as food shortages become a real possibility, “our neighbourhood block is literally having meals with all of us together, so that we can pool our food, because we don’t know if we are going to run out. That’s the reality.”
The looting has decimated businesses, shops, and factories in the area, and the violence is “on their doorstep”. The equivalent of their proximity to the unrest would be something like the looting of Norwood or Sandton in Johannesburg.
Shops are now shut in the vicinity, and where one might be found open, mass queues are forming. Janyce Bear, who along with her husband, Rod, are shop owners in a mall that was looted in Glenwood, said people were trying to source items like baby formula.
She said her family had looters strolling in their neighbourhood, “coming up our road with their trolleys filled with stolen goods. You feel like you are in another world.”
Both she and her husband were recovering at home from COVID-19 when their mall was attacked, and while they are grateful their store was spared, they are devasted for the other tenants.
It’s a sentiment that Jenny Kahn, who owns a store with her husband in the same mall, shares. She described their fellow tenants as “family”, who have even helped with donations to the Union of Jewish Women outreach activities in which she is involved.
“By the grace of G-d and my prayers to Hashem, for some unknown reason, our shop was spared,” she said. The sole reason they can think of for the sparing of their shop is that while they are a jewellery store, they also sell “fancy goods”. These include menorahs, which were on prominent display in their window.
“The majority of the people that buy the menorahs are Christian church goers.” Perhaps, she muses, this acted as some kind of deterrent.
Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council, said that while they were “aware that there has been loss of business and livelihoods within the community”, exact numbers couldn’t be given at this time.
“At present, there are extremely long queues for petrol and food. Supermarkets that are able to open are limiting the items being bought. The SAJBD KwaZulu-Natal and Community Security Organisation (CSO) are hard at work to resolve these two matters.”
“Although tension is running high here, we have an incredible community that has always come together and once again, this is no exception,” Lieberthal said.
The Johannesburg CSO’s director of operations, Jevon Greenblatt, said that while the picture in that province was different to that on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal, people should be careful while also curbing panic and hysteria. Inaccurate posts on social media, for example, could lead to police and security companies being called out unnecessarily, preventing them from attending scenes where they are truly needed.
“Remain cautious and close to home,” he urged.
Amidst the turmoil and horror of the past week, stories also began to emerge of communities fighting back against looters. Property developer Steven Herring, under whose company Tembisa’s Birch Acres was built, witnessed this when his mall was threatened and people from the neighbourhood stood up to the looters.
“It’s amazing to see. When we’re on the edge, it’s unique that people are standing up, stepping up, and showing support. It’s heartwarming to see that at the end of the day, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Yet, he said, this kind of community support was forged right from the start. “When we built the mall 10 years ago, we were hands on with the community every step of the way. On the property, not only is there the mall, there’s a taxi rank, a vicinity for hawkers, a centre-managers office, a car wash, and even shops that are especially allocated to elevate people from being hawkers to shop owners. It’s an all-inclusive process that has been going on for a very long time, and we keep those relationships going.”
On the flipside, Jewish community member Reuben (whose name has been changed), who was involved in security operations on the frontline in Johannesburg, witnessed some truly dark moments.
“We went to a store in Jeppe that had been looted, and where the owners had asked for help to access their store – a small corner spaza shop. As the owners were driving up, you could already see in their faces that their lives were shattered. They started to cry. They were shaking and as they walked into the store, there was nothing. They just broke down.
“I have seen enough carnage and damage, [but I was moved by this]. That was the worst part, you saw the real cost of the violence wasn’t destruction of roads, it was lives.”
Light at the end of the tunnel after heavy COVID-19 losses
The Johannesburg Jewish community is reeling from unprecedented COVID-19 deaths during the third wave of the pandemic. But in spite of these tragic fatalities, the vaccine is clearly having a positive effect.
“We are dealing with many sad losses at the moment. We’ve just had the 200th Jewish death from COVID-19 in the Johannesburg region since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Chevrah Kadisha Chief Executive Saul Tomson. “We’ve had a 35% increase in deaths over normal levels year on year. June this year was extremely high, and we expect that July will be just as harrowing. The winter waves are definitely worse.
“The third wave has put a huge strain on our operational team. It’s working through the night, six days a week, and running up to eight funerals a day,” Tomson says. “That’s a funeral every hour. The load is intense.”
While some burial staff have contracted COVID-19, “There hasn’t been a moment when they’ve said it’s too risky. It’s a small team that’s completely committed. In spite of the pressure and volume, it continues to operate with efficiency and compassion.”
Tomson says the Chev also relies on volunteers, and there is a huge amount of logistics and paperwork behind the scenes when a COVID-19-positive community member passes away. This is in the context of hospitals and the department of home affairs being overwhelmed with deaths.
Some of the toughest moments have been funerals for young people. “We have seen some young deaths, but it’s not the norm. The average age of COVID-19 deaths is 77 years old. One of the worst days was when we buried a husband and wife at the same time. We’ve done funerals for couples a week or two apart, but never both at the same time. We had to ask a whole set of halachic questions – it was totally unprecedented. It’s also very difficult when families can’t attend if they are COVID-19-positive,” he says.
Local virology expert Professor Barry Schoub explains why the Jewish community has been considerably more seriously affected by COVID-19 than the general community. “First, the majority of the country’s Jewish population resides in Gauteng, the province which has been by far the most severely affected in the country. As at 6 July, Gauteng accounted for about 62% of the total number of cases in the country. Second, the median age of the Jewish population is 45 years, against a national average of 26 years. Age has been well documented to be the major determinant of severity of disease and hospital admission. Third, the penchant for functions and get-togethers, often discarding COVID-19 precautions, is an important yet preventable contributor.”
Says Tomson, “The funeral streaming that we started in December has made an impact. The professionals who used to video Barmitzvahs and weddings are now at the cemetery all day, streaming funerals. While that’s an upsetting thought, it has created much-needed income for them. And it’s a gift to the families by allowing members who can’t be there to be part of the service. Virtually every funeral is streaming now, and can be found on the Chev website.”
In spite of all the negative news, there’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. “Our staff was vaccinated nearly two months ago with the Johnson & Johnson [J&J] vaccine, and it has been a game changer,” Tomson says. “Very few have got COVID-19, and we’ve had zero staff hospitalised. It’s effective against the current variants. The same goes for our cemetery staff and volunteers, who were also vaccinated with J&J. They have a lot of public contact, but they’ve been only mildly symptomatic or completely asymptomatic.”
Says Schoub, “Vaccine rollout in countries with high coverage has drastically reduced the extent of severe infection, hospitalisation, and death. For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), which has now reached 59% population coverage, the tally of daily cases per million population was 423 as against 202 for South Africa [on 6 April]. However, the daily death rate per million population was only 0.5 per million population for the UK as against 5.5 per million for South Africa.”
Johannesburg general practitioner Dr Daniel Israel says, “The vaccine is an absolute ray of hope. Studies show that in spite of the fact that some people have had only one dose of Pfizer, and have still caught COVID-19, the incidence of people becoming very unwell after having been vaccinated is little to nothing. If one looks at the countries where vaccinations have taken place, vaccination has really made the rates of COVID-19 drop to almost nothing. Vaccination is the way to go. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of this.”
Meanwhile, all Chevrah Kadisha residents over the age of 60 got their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week. “With the massive increase in community deaths in June, only one Chevrah Kadisha resident has died from COVID-19. That’s staggering, given their age and frailty. With our staff being vaccinated and all our protocols in place, it shows the power of the vaccine in preventing spread and severe illness,” Tomson says.
He says they were scheduled to get the second dose only in mid-July, “but our team phoned the health department every day and were relentless. We got our entire allocation 42 days after the first dose [the minimum time in terms of government policy], and our team immediately got to work. They went room to room, vaccinating virtually every resident. We were at the top of their list for the second jab. It shows the tenacity and commitment of our care team. My message is that vaccines work. I’ve seen it first-hand. We’re so grateful.”
Tomson says the Chev has been extended on all three fronts. “The Chev is unique in that it not only cares for the aged, vulnerable, and frail, who have been severely impacted by COVID-19, it also offers financial relief to indigent families, who have been severely affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic. I don’t know any other organisation that does this. It’s also a burial society. We have been extended beyond imagination.
“Financial relief is ongoing,” he says. “It isn’t changed by the different waves [of COVID-19]. We’ve experienced a significant influx of families needing financial assistance – a 15% increase over the past year. Younger families are also needing additional financial help.
“I keep thinking that without the support of the Jewish community, nothing we’ve done in this pandemic would have been possible,” Tomson says. “There are ongoing challenges, and it’s an ongoing partnership with the community. It has been so since 1888, and we are blessed.”
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