Speaking out against the government – right or wrong?
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein wrote a piece in Business Day on 29 June criticising the government for its slow vaccine rollout. It got a mixed response, but some felt strongly that he shouldn’t have done it. The SA Jewish Report questioned him about it.
1. What inspired you to write an op-ed in a mainstream newspaper about vaccines?
Government’s negligence in vaccinating this country goes beyond politics. It’s a moral issue, a matter of life and death that touches on one of the cornerstone values of the Torah – the sanctity of life. We know that pikuach nefesh, saving lives, is paramount, and that “to save one life is to save a world”. Every day of delay means more people die. It’s that simple. Had the government vaccinated South Africans at the rate it should have, we wouldn’t be suffering the death and widespread serious illness of this third wave.
2. Why did you blame the government for it?
The government insisted on running the procurement and rollout. Responsibility for its failure lies with it. At the same time, this isn’t a blame game, that was never my objective. I wrote it to add my voice to the public pressure while there’s still time to prevent further suffering and death from a fourth wave, which may be only a few months away.
3. What purpose did you believe an opinion piece like this would serve?
When public pressure around an issue increases, in a vibrant democracy, it can shape and influence government action. My article adds to that public pressure. Since publication, various other public figures have come forward to criticise the government, including Professor Shabir Madhi, one of the country’s top experts in this field, who echoed my accusation that the government has blood on its hands for bungling the vaccination campaign. Public pressure is building.
4. What reaction did you get?
The article has resonated with many people within and beyond our community who fear serious illness and death and feel utterly vulnerable to government’s vaccination failures.
5. Professor Barry Schoub, a leading virologist, took you on publicly in the media for the piece you wrote. Why do you believe he did this?
He obviously disagrees strongly with the views I put forward in my article. He believes the government’s vaccination programme has progressed well.
6. How do you feel about him doing this?
The open exchange of ideas and airing of different perspectives can only be a good thing for our country. People can then make up their own minds about whether they agree with Professor Schoub that the government’s vaccine rollout has been well-executed.
7. He pointed out numerous points you made, claiming they weren’t true and correcting them. What’s your response?
Nothing in my article was untrue. I had two professional researchers check my facts. Not a single fact in my article has been successfully challenged or overturned. Actually, since publication, various national experts, in letters to the newspaper, have defended the facts in my article and refuted the points raised by Professor Schoub. And Professor Madhi, an internationally recognised virologist and former president of the World Society of Infectious Diseases, has reaffirmed a number of the points I made, especially the government’s terrible mistake in selling off our supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Contrary to Professor Schoub’s support for the government’s decision, Professor Madhi, who in fact led the AstraZeneca trials, said “there was a complete blind spot to the critical evidence” regarding the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and that the government ignored the recommendations of the World Health Organization, directly causing untold extra hospitalisation and death.
8. How do you feel now about the vaccine situation?
The vaccination rate remains desperately low. Unless we dramatically speed up vaccine procurement and rollout, we will suffer further serious illness and death. More pressure must be put on the government. Lives are at stake.
9. Have you had any response from the government?
No formal response, but senior politicians from within the African National Congress have told me in private that they support the position I’ve taken. It’s important to realise that there are many in the government who aren’t happy with the state of affairs on vaccines – or, for that matter, government’s stance on Israel. If we keep silent, how can they speak up? We must be bold, and stand up for what’s right so that we inspire others to do the same and strengthen the hand of the many good people in government.
10. Why do you believe it’s important for you to be vocal about issues of government that you believe are wrong?
Silence is acquiescence. This was true during the days of apartheid, when our official community organisations were silent right up until the end. It was Chief Rabbi Rabinowitz who had the courage to challenge the apartheid government. It was true, also, during the Zuma presidency, when state capture and government corruption were almost normalised. Official community organisations were again silent, and I was the one who publicly called on President Jacob Zuma to resign, joined the protest movement, and even amended the prayer for government that we say on Shabbos so as not to pray for the president. I believe it’s important to speak up for truth and justice, whether the issue is a racist regime, a corrupt government, or a negligent vaccine rollout in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
11. Many in our community might say that, as Jews, we shouldn’t rock the boat in this country. What’s your reaction to this?
We cannot adopt a ghetto mentality of defensiveness and fear. What do we have to fear? This isn’t Putin’s Russia or Communist China. It’s a free country with freedom of speech, a free press, robust, independent courts, and those rights and freedoms are enshrined in our Constitution. My public challenge to the government is rooted in an optimism and faith in South African freedom and democracy.
With the right approach, we can make a difference. Many of the critics have a misguided strategic understanding of how to influence the government. They believe we need to tread lightly, talk softly and meekly. But when it comes to government relations with Israel, we’ve seen how ineffectual this approach really is. Indeed, in spite of years of gentle, non-boat-rocking diplomacy, the government’s approach to Israel remains unchanged, as demonstrated by its deeply hostile and one-sided comments on the recent Gaza conflict. Clearly, the quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy has failed, and will continue to fail. It’s incumbent on leaders to speak up, to be bold, and make our views clear to the government. Seeking to appease and placate the government isn’t just a betrayal of personal integrity, it’s not even a successful strategy. In any robust democracy, governments expect robust criticism. That’s how a free society works. If we have the self-respect to tell the truth and stand up for ourselves, there’s more chance the government will learn to respect us
12. Many have criticised you for being so vocal against the government in this regard. How do you feel about the criticism?
My speaking out is good for our community because the interests of the Jewish community and South Africa as a whole are aligned. A negligent vaccine rollout is, equally, a threat to South Africa and the Jewish community, as was state capture and apartheid. To speak out on these issues is, therefore, in the ultimate best interests of the Jewish community. We aren’t an island unto ourselves. Our destiny is intertwined with South Africa. If this country thrives, then we as a Jewish community will thrive. And if it fails, then so will our community. We cannot be silent when the future of our country depends on making our voices heard. We must fight for a better country. And we do that by joining the public debate. I’m optimistic. We can make a difference. Change is possible.
Janine Lazarus: the story that took its toll
Media consultant Janine Lazarus has just published a book that was inspired by her experience as a Sunday Times journalist covering a serial killer who operated in Norwood, the suburb in which she lived. The SA Jewish Report speaks to her.
Give us the background to this book.
The thread throughout the book is my 27-year link with Norwood serial killer Kobus Geldenhuys. But it’s much more than that. It deals with a volatile South Africa in transition, the hot metal newsrooms of yore, and the inevitable racism in news reportage. A central theme is also my dance with the dark, and some of the sinister and sensational stories I covered during the heydays of the early 1990s.
How was your life impacted by the Norwood serial killer?
It was without doubt this story that made my name as a crime reporter. To get this close to a serial killer was the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Are people born to become killers, or does their environment mould them into the monsters they become? But what I grapple with most of all is that I believe we’re all capable of going over the edge. Ordinary people can commit extraordinary acts of violence.
What inspired you to write this book now?
Everyone has a book within them. I’ve wanted to try my hand at writing a book for a long time. Without giving the game away, an approach by a television production company on the back of the killer’s parole application gave me pause for thought. My head is still spinning around the fact that a television series is in preproduction on my first book, or even that a radio station wants to do a serial podcast on it. It feels surreal.
You were a crime reporter, so this was one of many crime stories you told. Why does it still haunt you?
Because I got up real close and personal with a man who raped and killed several women. I looked into his eyes just after he was sentenced to death. I crossed the line. I had broken a quintessential credo of journalism to stay out of the story. But in those days, the story was everything. Each investigation devoured me and spat me out, and I just rolled onto the next one. Landing headlines is what defined me.
Describe the killer you met then?
Vanilla plain and awkwardly ordinary. But then, serial killers are never the vengeful behemoths we conjure up in our nightmares. He seemed tired. In fact, when the police finally arrested him, he said as much. But what shook me to the core was that I unearthed a tarnished shard of humanity in his twisted soul. No-one in my newsroom could ever understand how this could be possible. After all, the rapist/killer had cut a swathe of terror through my neighbourhood and destroyed families.
What do you think of this man now?
That would be giving the game away. It’s central to my book. What I can say is that as much as I’ve borne witness to man’s inhumanity to man, I still believe intrinsically that there’s good even in the worst of people. I’m a deep empath, which for a crime reporter is an obvious flaw.
Norwood is traditionally where many young Jewish people live. Describe how it was then.
It was where I lived and loved. Restaurant owners knew my name and what my favourite meal was. Coffee shops knew how I liked my fix, and many first dates were shared over a glass or two of wine. Norwood was trendy, upbeat, and had a heady kind of rhythm. And it was safe. I would walk home down Grant Avenue from a late-night spot without a care in the world. It was my medinah (land).
During the killer’s reign of terror, it became like a ghost town. Razor wire and burglar bars, so uncommon to the neighbourhood, became permanent fixtures. Single women moved out en masse.
In terms of being a crime reporter, did this story change how you felt about what you did?
It defined me. Cracking the front page week after week was the stuff of pure adrenalin. I had set the bar high. It was a difficult act to follow. And, in spite of how close I had come to evil, I never slammed on the brakes. I kept chasing the headlines.
What was it about crime that you found fascinating?
Most people I know have this morbid fascination with crime. I’ve read so much about how people delve into this genre, perhaps as some form of odd escape or an interest in good versus evil. Perhaps it makes them feel lucky not to have become one of the statistics.
There was a stage during my news reporting life when I considered studying criminology part time. I just don’t think I’m clever enough.
Looking at the crime situation today, would you say it’s worse or better?
Crime is crime. Victims are victims. There’s no better or worse. For those left behind, each tragedy leaves an overarching void that can never be breached. What I do know is that the justice system is deeply flawed, our police services are over-stretched and lacking, and our prisons are bursting at the seams. It seems too easy to get away with violent crime.
You now run a successful media consultancy. What made you decide to leave your life as a journalist?
Seven cameramen died in the space of 16 months before our first democratic elections. One of them was The Star’s chief photographer, Ken Oosterbroek. Then, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter took his own life. His iconic photograph of the vulture eyeing a starving child in the Sudan is seared into my brain forever. These were my colleagues, my friends. I had worked with them on so many stories. The grief in our newsroom was palpable.
I also didn’t want to become a jaded old hack. I still wanted to delight in the rainbows across the skies after a Highveld thunderstorm, and in the entirely enchanting sound of a child’s laughter. I needed to turn my back on news. It was the hardest decision I have ever made.
Why did you choose media consulting as your second career?
I’d dabbled in lecturing journalism. I worked as Johannesburg bureau chief on a women’s magazine. I landed my own talk show, albeit at the bum end of the week. It was still my spot.
But it was three abysmal months in a stereotypical public relations agency that was the last straw. I couldn’t stomach the candy floss in a world which was hardly the stuff of butterflies and sunshine.
When the agency made me its so-called head of media, I thought, “Stuff it. I can do this on my own. I can wear two hats quite comfortably: the client’s and as a former news hack.” It’s an insight that has served me well.
Do you ever miss being a reporter or working on a newspaper? If so, what do you miss?
With every cell in my being. It was an adrenalin rush. No day was ever the same. I watch breaking news now and rail loudly against the television or radio reporter for not asking obvious questions. And I know exactly what stories in the news would have had my name all over them. I’ve never been in short supply of chutzpah, but covering violent crime takes guts and I’m not sure I have that edge anymore.
Any thoughts on another book? If so, what would it be about?
Eish! This one was akin to giving birth (or so I’m told since I don’t have a child of my own). It literally was birthing a book. Blood, sweat, and tears. I sobbed at my keyboard, I fought to find the right words, and I ploughed through acres of research. I cried when I finally hit the send button on my manuscript. And I wished with all my heart that my beloved late parents could be part of this.
Could I do it again? Perhaps. But if there’s a next time, maybe I’ll do something on my line of work right now. So many brands are ignorant when it comes to dealing with the media.
Maybe I’ll call it, “How not to put your foot in it.”
Debating life’s meaning at a time of existential crisis
If you’ve been wondering about the meaning of life, you’re not alone. Mark Oppenheimer and co.’s new book, Conversations about the Meaning of Life, has some answers from world-renowned experts. Asking “What do Mother Teresa, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the exploration of Mars teach us about the meaning of life?” they discover the answer isn’t 42.
The SA Jewish Report asked him more questions.
What inspired you to bring out this book?
Now is a pivotal moment to engage with life’s biggest question: what’s the meaning of life? So, we approached Professors David Benatar and Thaddeus Metz, world experts in the field. Benatar is professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. His books include Better Never to Have Been and The Human Predicament. Metz is professor of philosophy at the University of Pretoria. He has often been credited for having helped develop life’s meaning as a distinct field in Anglo-American philosophy over the past 20 years. They have very different views on what makes life meaningful.
Benatar is sceptical. He thinks that if you zoom out and consider each of us as a speck on a pale blue dot in a cold universe, our lives have truly little meaning. Metz takes quite a different view, which is that we can each pursue truth, beauty, and goodness in our lives and find meaning in these.
Why is this book necessary right now?
Now more than any time in the past few decades, humans have had to isolate. With isolation comes reflection about the nature of our existence, and questions about whether this new isolated existence is meaningful at all. Asking what we need to lead meaningful lives is particularly important at a time when we are struggling to find any meaning at all.
This book is a group effort. Explain how it came about and why these particular people are involved.
We (Jason Werbeloff and Mark Oppenheimer), the interviewers in this book, have long-standing friendships with Metz and Benatar, the experts in this field. Jason studied under Metz and Mark under Benatar. We felt that Metz and Benatar were obvious choices for the book because of our personal connections to them, but also because they are so widely published and recognised for their work on meaning.
What did you hope to achieve?
We wanted to write an accessible guide to life’s most important question. And we think that the authors are perhaps the most knowledgeable on earth about this topic.
Who do you wish to appeal to?
Readers of the SA Jewish Report – all four of the authors are Jewish – and Jews have a long history of thinking about life’s deepest questions. More broadly, the book is designed for anyone who has a yearning to know more about what life is about.
At this moment in South Africa, what are the challenges to leading a meaningful life?
Because South Africa was late with its COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve had to suffer a long series of waves that have shut down our lives.
On the one hand, we try to find personal meaning at a time when we’re having to choose between isolation and risking our health. On the other, we also live in a country with enormous political and socioeconomic volatility. So, we’re trying to find meaning in this embroiled landscape.
What do you hope your readers will take home from this book?
The underlying idea of the book is to inspire people to reflect on their lives and take action to lead a meaningful existence. Part of that exercise is to think about the kind of person that you can be and the kinds of activities you can engage in to find meaning: the search for truth, beauty, and goodness. We explore these in some detail so that people can walk away ultimately leading better, richer, more meaningful lives.
The style of the book (interview format) is unusual. Why did you choose it?
Dialogue is helpful because it doesn’t present just one position. Each of the individuals involved in this discussion has a different position on the meaning of life. So it seems more likely that the reader will resonate with at least one of us. The four authors had a chance to argue and respond to one another, and you can really get into the nuts and bolts of each person’s position and stand behind at least one of the speakers. Who knows, perhaps after reading this book, you’ll change your mind.
- Conversations about the Meaning of Life is available on Amazon: http://smarturl.it/MeaningOfLife
The hidden, humbling history of the Litvaks
Kęstutis Pikūnas put together a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Passport – The Litvaks’ about the Jews of Lithuania. Being Lithuanian and having grown up there, he knew nothing about Litvaks beforehand. The SA Jewish Report asked him about his experience.
How did this project come about, and do you have a Litvak background?
When I first started writing these Passports, my goal was to present Lithuania in an annual English publication for a foreign audience.
Being Lithuanian and having lived abroad for many years, I wanted to tell the story of Lithuania through its people from the best possible angle. This ambition came from bitter personal experience and the fact that many people identified me as a foreigner who came from a culturally and economically poor country. It triggered a sense of inferiority and frustration, leading me to try to prove everyone wrong.
Little did I know that as I interviewed luminaries, I learnt humbling life lessons. I realised how little I knew about the history of my homeland and how selective and superficial my approach was. This was the beginning of my journey.
I don’t have a Litvak background and when I started the project, I didn’t plan to dedicate one whole publication to the Litvaks. This was because I knew very little (or close to nothing) about Litvak culture, heritage, and history.
I was born at the time when Lithuania was still under the Soviet regime, so we didn’t learn about it at school, nor did my parents talk about it at home.
When I was compiling the second volume, I met Professor Irena Veisaitė, who was among the few Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Meeting her was an eye-opener.
Hearing her extraordinary story of survival and courage, I was left with countless unsettling questions. How come I had only learnt about this now? Why was my perception so superficial for so many years? Where does this disinterest and denial come from?
This initial conversation led to a dear friendship and further discoveries. After interviewing her for the second volume, which also features an interview with South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (known as Zapiro) and Litvak businessman Eli Broad, it was clear to me that the third volume would be dedicated to the Litvaks.
What did you expect to learn from the project?
I had way more questions than answers. As I learnt more, I felt a deep sense of shame about the massacres and local collaborators.
To this day, I find it hard to comprehend how, in this modern day and age, we still choose to turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable truth, trying to forget rather than talk openly about it.
It always puzzled me. We all know that Jews lived in Lithuania for hundreds of years. They created, built, and loved together. There are plenty of signs all across Lithuania of that. But I understand that realisation comes gradually. This is what this experience has taught me.
What were you trying to achieve and why?
I wanted to induce empathy and honest dialogue. I believe storytelling is a powerful tool, and it can work miracles if it captures the reader’s attention on a personal level.
I’m happy that I had an opportunity to record and perpetuate what I consider an inseparable part of Lithuanian history.
A friend of mine (I had no idea he was Jewish), whom I interviewed, said, “History is made up of facts, but treating these facts selectively, choosing what feels acceptable and familiar but ignoring anything that may be unpleasant, is foolish. This road leads to nowhere, and often results in hostility.”
I believe that knowing history through its dry facts and figures is one thing, but being able to understand the events and reasons why and how it all happened is another.
Another important detail which is important to mention is that I didn’t have to do this book, I chose to do it. It was never my intention to invent something new, quite the opposite. I wanted to feel it, discover it, and “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. And I don’t regret a single minute of it.
What were the stories/anecdotes that stood out for you and why?
It would be hard to pick out one story that stood out the most while compiling this publication as they all are personal and delicate. Probably the reaction of my peers surprised me most as I was keen to learn what my family and friends knew about Lithuanian Jews and the history of Lithuanian Jewry. To this day, there are so many ridiculous superstitions, myths, and twisted narratives about the Jews. I simply don’t get it. As for anecdotes, there aren’t that many, and they are far from funny.
What were the most emotionally tough parts to deal with?
Quite a few. Being at murder sites and talking to Holocaust survivors about their experiences moved me immensely. It would be impossible to describe that feeling in words as it’s utterly incomprehensible how this could have happened. Just standing there next to a pit, or simply looking into a person’s eyes who witnessed the atrocities without saying a word, these silent moments speak volumes to me.
Was there anything uplifting and inspiring in the process?
The courage of those who stayed true to human values. Those who resisted, and risked their own lives to save their neighbours or even a stranger. Their stories and testimonies will stay with me for the rest of my life. Of course, becoming friends with those who contributed and those whom I interviewed for this publication is another rewarding experience.
What were your impressions of the South African Litvaks you spoke to?
I only had the chance to interview Robbie Brozin, who later introduced me to Justice Albie Sachs. Each of their stories are unique and valuable. I have to admit that even in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought that I would ever have the chance not only to interview them, but make friends with them. This is very important. I keep in touch with them and our friendship is dear to me.
How did you deal with the South African aspect of the book?
The story of South African Jews is unique. Not many people know that more than 90% of the Jews in South Africa came from Lithuania. Right before the pandemic, I was planning to go to South Africa together with the photographer and spend some time there documenting. As strong and insightful as Albie and Robbie’s interviews are, I believe it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that in the near future it will be possible to travel again and continue what has been started.
What was the reason for putting Sachs on the cover?
Our first conversation lasted for maybe more than three hours and prior to that, we simply agreed to talk, without a set list of questions or any further commitments. I’m happy that Sachs kindly agreed to our talk being transcribed, edited, and published. He embodies everything that this publication is about. I could go on and on about the reasons why Albie is on the cover, but I believe that G-d is in the details. And I have to say that Steve Gordon, a dear friend of Albie, took fantastic photographs.
On completion of this book, what have you learnt about the Litvaks?
An awful lot! I quote Meryl Frank, a Litvak from the United States, whom I also interviewed: “The worst thing a person can do to another is to ignore them, to fail to see them, and erase them from history. I have seen a change in Lithuania over the 15 years I’ve been visiting the city of Vilnius [Vilna]. I believe that with the passage of time and the recognition of history, there is a possibility for building bridges.” I honestly believe that there is no better time than now to reach out for each other’s hand. The truth has the power to liberate.
What would you want those who read your book to learn or understand?
This is probably the hardest questions of all, because while compiling this book, I was often asked questions like: “Why is this important?”; “Why should I care about the past?”; “Why do you care?” and so on and so forth. I think there’s no right answer to this question. I truly hope that the reader will take away a sense of empathy and compassion.
Why do you believe this is an important book, and who is it important for?
The book is relevant to everyone, and it’s especially important for us ethnic Lithuanians, Lithuanian Jews, and Litvaks. It’s a genuine invitation to review and, hopefully, renew the relationship.
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