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Stellenbosch students forced to choose between exams and yom tov

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Jewish students at Stellenbosch University were deeply distressed by having to choose between observing high holy days or writing tests, including on erev Yom Kippur. They say that their desperate pleas to have assessments moved, even by a few hours, fell on deaf ears.

“Stellenbosch University scheduled tests for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year,” says Zianda Goldstuck, a first-year student. “Although the tests were for modules where each student’s two best marks out of three possible tests are used to calculate the final mark, it was concerning that Jewish students would have to forfeit the opportunity to improve their mark or, in some cases, pass the module.

“The university argued that the option of two best marks out of three was intended for this kind of eventuality, but in reality, it limited Jewish students to having to ensure the two tests were successfully written, with no recourse to improve marks or pass failed tests,” she adds. “It seems very unfair to have tests on two of the most important Jewish holidays of the year.”

She said that the South African Union of Jewish Students’ representative, as well as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) made contact with the university. “However, the university refused to make any accommodations as it claimed that the system of using only two out of the three tests was already an accommodation. It also claimed that it didn’t accommodate any religious holidays for minority religions.”

But after looking into it, Goldstuck found that the university had made accommodations in the past by moving tests or avoiding having tests on certain days. “This underscores the fact that Jewish students don’t get the same opportunities as other students,” she says. “We have to choose between observing religious holidays or our academics. It also seems contradictory that the university is trying to position itself as being diverse, yet refuses to accommodate minority religions. The situation caused a great deal of stress, and I was deeply disappointed in the university’s rigid stance.”

Another Stellenbosch University Jewish student, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “I was supposed to write on 15 September at 17:30, erev Yom Kippur. This meant that I would have had to start my fast just before my test, and then drive home to Cape Town on Yom Kippur. I tried to write my test early, but the university claimed it was “unable” to make a plan for me.

“I was disgusted,” he says. “What made it worse is that the lecturer completely ignored my email asking him if he would write an exam over Christmas Eve. He just didn’t respond. I lost out on an opportunity to write a supplementary exam – I was basically punished.”

In the end, he chose not to write the exam. “They moved an exam to another day last semester as it was on a Muslim holiday. But they wouldn’t do the same for a Jew. They really could have made a plan. They chose not to because it was a hassle for them,” he says.

Another Jewish student at the university, speaking on condition of anonymity, says she chose to write the exam and not observe Yom Kippur. “I’ve kept Yom Kippur every year since Batmitzvah age. So it was weird not doing it. It’s the most important day of the Jewish year, and I feel like I should have kept it. But I had no choice. I understand that there are many Jewish holidays and it’s difficult to change dates. But Yom Kippur shouldn’t have an exam on it.”

Tzvi Brivik, the chairperson of the Cape SAJBD, told the SA Jewish Report that “students who were affected reached out to their lecturers, the deputy-registrar and registrar requesting alternate arrangements be made for them to make use of this assessment opportunity. The university stated that due to the impact of COVID-19 on the calendar year, and the fact that students were afforded two prior assessment opportunities, it wouldn’t approve the request for alternate arrangements.

“It was at this point that the Cape SAJBD was informed about the matter. We engaged with the affected students, their parents, the university, and the university’s ombudsman. The university maintained that it hadn’t acted unfairly in this matter, as according to its policy, it had offered students two out of three assessment opportunities. We consulted external legal counsel, and were advised not to pursue further action.

“We feel strongly that no student should have to choose between utilising all three assessment opportunities or observing their faith,” he says. “Such policy couldn’t be reasonable and fair. We are encouraged that the university has a new draft proposal for dealing with assessments and religious days (of various religions) and will meet the registrar and deputy-registrar to review this draft proposal and the timetable for 2022 to ensure that no future assessments are scheduled over our yom tov.

“We were informed that the University of Cape Town scheduled tests on yom tov, and that alternative arrangements were made for affected students,” Brivik says.

SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn says, “The SAJBD assisted students with exams and assessments on chaggim and Shabbat at Wits [University of the Witwatersrand] and Varsity College, and these have been resolved. We have been working closely with Unisa [University of South Africa] in resolving the same situation. At this time, alternate assessments have been arranged for 44 of 72 exams, with 28 to be resolved in coming weeks.”

Stellenbosch University Media Manager Martin Viljoen told the SA Jewish Report that “Stellenbosch University deems the concerns and rights of our various faith communities, including our Jewish student community, in the highest regard. We value and respect our Jewish student community and its holy and spiritual celebrations. The matter concerning the scheduling of tests on major Jewish holidays has thus received the required attention, while further engagements with the SAJBD are scheduled for later this month.”

He says the university didn’t purposefully schedule tests on Yom Kippur. “Due to the shift in the academic calendar, it was a bona fide mistake that this holiday wasn’t on the radar of the scheduling team which normally takes great care not to schedule on religious holidays.

“The assessment periods this year are all condensed because of COVID-19. There are implications for moving any assessment, and scheduling takes approximately four weeks to finalise. Consequently, any change will potentially affect our entire undergraduate and intermediary post-graduate student population,” he says.

“Concerned students were linked to the faculties of law, engineering, and economic and management sciences. After consultation with these faculties and other stakeholders, as well as meetings to consider suitable solutions, our conclusion is that our arrangements for flexible assessments make provision for students to write two out of three assessments,” he says. “This is to allow flexibility for students who fall ill on the day of an assessment, have an emergency or unforeseen delay getting to an exam venue, or have social, cultural, or religious obligations.”

But he says the university has arranged that modules of the faculty of engineering with assessments scheduled for 16 September [Yom Kippur], as well as on a Saturday, be moved to allow for two assessment opportunities. This is because that schedule leaves only one assessment opportunity free for Jewish students.

“The matter of scheduling assessments on religious holidays will be added to the agenda of the relevant academic governance structures to come to an institutional decision,” he says. “This year has brought about many challenges. We ask for your understanding of the limited options given our condensed academic calendar, while we commit to taking this matter forward for an optimal scheduling solution in years to come.”

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New Miss SA caught in anti-Israel crossfire

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Newly crowned Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, is looking forward to taking part in the Miss Universe pageant later this year despite the sinister forces trying to prevent her from going to Israel, where the competition is to be held.

The graceful beauty has found herself in the middle of controversy just a few days into her reign following calls by local anti-Israel lobbyists to boycott the 70th Miss Universe competition, due to be held in Eilat in December.

The 24-year-old Bachelor of Law graduate from the University of Pretoria is bracing herself for further calls by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions activists as the glittering pageant draws closer.

This week she told the SA Jewish Report that the Miss South Africa pageant had transformed her life and she looked forward to repeating this at Miss Universe.

“I found it empowering with so many positive things to take away from it. I also met nine other talented and wonderful fellow Miss South Africa 2021 sisters who made the journey so incredibly amazing. I look forward to repeating this at the Miss Universe pageant in December – to challenge myself once again, to learn and to meet women from around the globe who want to give back.”

She said she wouldn’t be the woman she is today had it not been for the women who had invested in her. “It’s only natural that I pay it forward. I aspire to be an empowered woman who inspires other women.”

Mswane was crowned Miss South Africa on Saturday, 16 October, at the Grand Arena, GrandWest, in Cape Town. Calls for her to boycott the Miss Universe pageant started even before she took possession of her new car or settled into the luxurious Miss SA Sandton apartment.

The Miss South Africa organisation said it wouldn’t get involved in a “political war of words”.

Stephanie Weil, the managing director of Nine Squared Communications & Events, which owns the rights to Miss South Africa, told the SA Jewish Report she had nothing further to say.

Mswane who comes from the rural village of KwaSokhulu in Richards Bay in KwaZulu Natal is an inspiring role model. She said she hoped to make an impact on unemployment through her initiative #BeReady, which offers services and training to youth to equip them to start their own enterprises.

Last week, Mandla Mandela, the grandson of the late former president, Nelson Mandela, called on Mswane to snub the Miss Universe competition.

In a statement that he shared on Instagram, Mandela accused Israel of being an apartheid state and claimed the country “violates the fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people and commits crimes against humanity”.

He called on countries to “bolster efforts” to isolate Israel and cut all ties, and urged all African countries to withdraw from the Miss Universe pageant.

Former Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, criticised Mandela’s calls for a boycott in a video posted on various social media platforms.

“All I can say is: how dare you?” Idan said in the clip, addressing Mandela. “How dare you, as a man, try to tell an organisation for women and women empowerment what to do? This is an opportunity that millions of women dream of having, to go on the world stage and represent their people, their nation, and their culture. Not governments, not politics, and definitely not your political agenda.”

Idan also criticised Mandela for using the term “apartheid” to “attack Israel”, arguing that the word has been used against Israel by “radical Islamists, terrorist organisations, and the Iranian regime, all of whom hate women and women’s rights”.

“Please allow Miss South Africa to go and experience Israel up close, on the ground, and let her be the judge for herself,” she said. “I’m positive, just like me, she will be shocked to see that the Israeli government consists of Muslims, Jews, Arabs, [and] Christians. Those people not only get to vote on policies, but they’re also part of the Knesset, have political parties, and some of them are even Israeli ambassadors to the world.”

Idan concluded her video by telling Mswane, “I hope that you will enjoy your trip, and learn not only about Israel, but about other beautiful countries. This is what the Miss Universe pageant is about.”

Idan, who is Muslim and was the first Miss Iraq in 45 years, received death threats and was forced to leave her home after posting a selfie on Instagram with former Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant with the caption “Peace and love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.”

Mandela responded to Idan’s video with another rambling statement in which he questioned her “blind spot” support for Israel and her “lack of moral fibre” and asked, “Don’t Palestinian women also have human rights?”

Idan told The Algemeiner, “I’d like to warn beauty queens to prepare for an army of bots that will probably harass their social media posts while they’re in Israel with hashtags ‘end the occupation’ and ‘free Palestine’. They shouldn’t worry, those aren’t even real people but fake accounts used by a few propagandists to intimidate them. This is a cheap tactic to silence them. Just keep doing what you are doing. Stay confidently beautiful.”

Reeva Forman, the honorary life vice-president of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), said Mandela shouldn’t be allowed to undermine the empowerment of South African women. “He must cease his attempts to undermine the empowerment of women, to harness it for his long-standing hateful anti-Israel agenda,” said this former model and 1983 Businesswoman of the Year.

Forman said his call to boycott the pageant “should be dismissed as eroding the aspirations of South African women who wish to shine on the international stage”.

The SAZF said that Israel regularly hosted international sporting and cultural events, including Eurovision and the Giro d’Italia, and that more countries in the region are signing peace agreements. “Furthermore, FIFA has recently spoken of hosting the World Cup in the country. Israel is a thriving multicultural democracy, and accusations that it’s similar to the former South African government are beyond ridiculous. In fact, one of Israel’s recent entrants to Miss Universe is a woman of Ethiopian descent,” the statement read.

Forman said that Israel had also actively been involved in the fight against gender-based violence in South Africa, supporting women’s shelters and organisations teaching young girls how to defend themselves against attack.

“Mandla Mandela is no poster child for women’s rights, specifically his well-publicised failure to honour his commitments to previous relationships, along with other public indiscretions. We encourage Mandla to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, who visited Israel himself and brought home a message of peace and dialogue to all concerned,” she said.

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A giant has fallen: the passing of John Moshal

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Though he hailed from the smaller Jewish community of Durban, the impact of philanthropist and communal patriarch John Moshal was felt across the length and breadth of the South African Jewish community. His death at the age of 81 in London on Tuesday, 26 October, is an unquantifiable loss, but he leaves a legacy that will reverberate across generations and around the world.

While he cared deeply for all Jews and the wider community, his passing will be most keenly felt in the KwaZulu-Natal Jewish community. It was in Durban that he was born on 30 March 1940, and where he committed himself to a lifetime of service, becoming honorary life president of the Council of KwaZulu-Natal Jewry.

Born John Hillel Moshal, he was educated at Durban Preparatory School and Durban High School (DHS) and the University of Natal, where he graduated in chemical engineering. “More than 100 years ago, John’s father, Max, and my father, Phil, were at DHS together,” says Roger Ellison. “A generation later [1953 to 1957], John and I were also at DHS together, closely followed three years later by my brother Brian and John’s brother Brian.”

“He would always refer to the Moshal family legacy, which started when his family first arrived in South Africa in the late 1800s,” says Durban resident Alana Baranov, who had the honour of working on a book about the Moshal family. “The book was called Setting a Quiet Example, and that’s such a great way to describe John,” she says.

“He would always tell me that the word ‘Moshal’ translates to the word ‘example’, and that he was proud of the legacy of his uncle, Sol, who in his day was the doyen of the community. John really wanted to mirror his life, and walk in his and his ancestor’s footsteps,” says Baranov.

Moshal started Control Logic, and built it into the largest industrial electronics company in South Africa. He sold 50% to Engelhard Industries and this share passed to Anglo American Corporation. In 1984, he sold out completely and moved on to his other interests. His business activities were many and varied, allowing him to pursue the philanthropy that was so central to his ethos.

Community member Cheryl Unterslak says, “John came from very humble beginnings, and would refer to himself as a ‘simple engineer’. He always fought injustice, backed the underdog, and disliked bullies of any kind, be it at school, the pulpit, in community affairs, and in general.”

“He always stressed that he was a team with [his wife] Anna, and that the family did everything together as a team,” says Baranov. “He named the family trust JAKAMaR, after each family member: John, Anna, Karyn, Anthony, Martin, and Richard.”

Through this humanitarian foundation, he established a number of upliftment projects around the world. These included Chiva Africa, which provided HIV/Aids training for local health professionals; the Moshal Scholarship Programme, which has provided hundreds of full scholarships to needy students; the importing of refurbished computers and their distribution to disadvantaged KwaZulu-Natal schools; DIVOTE, which rehabilitates victims of terrorism in Israel; and assisting homeless, abandoned, and abused Jewish children in the Ukraine through the Tikva project.

Unterslak worked with Moshal on a number of causes, including DIVOTE, Talmud Torah, and the PJ Library. “When he started DIVOTE, his goal was to be able to give every Jewish person in South Africa the opportunity to support victims of terror in Israel. John could have done all his chesed for the families on his own, but he chose to be able to give everyone the opportunity.

“John cared deeply for all the Jewish children in the KwaZulu-Natal region and since 2005, regardless of what school they were in, ensured that they would be able to receive Jewish education,” she says. “He believed passionately that Jewish education should start as young as possible, and that one had to give a child the opportunity to know what it is to be a Jew, including the rich history of the Jewish community of KwaZulu-Natal. He remembered his lessons at the Talmud Torah classes in Durban, and had an old sepia photograph wearing a Talmud Torah blazer, from which the logo that we use for Talmud Torah emanated.”

Baranov says “John was proud of the fact that his office in his later decades was his childhood home that bought and restored to its former glory. He would spend his days when he was living in Durban in his office, surrounded by the memories of his childhood and family.”

His interests and passions were wide and varied. “He had the most amazing rock and gemstone collection that he could talk about for hours!” says Baranov. “He also had an incredible collection of watches. What was also surprising for a chemical engineer was that he really loved the ancient texts from ancient Rome and Greece, and he read a lot of that.”

Affectionately known as the “corporate grandfather” of the business world, “he always had time to listen to everyone who came to him for business or community advice”, says Unterslak. “John always said that he was there ‘to put oil on the squeak’. And he did that in abundance! He changed people’s lives, and treated everyone the same no matter if they were head of a corporation, a school child, or a beggar.

“John kept notes from every single meeting,” she says. “In those notebooks, some of his enormous generosity is recorded. He was a giant of a man, an absolute tzaddik. His legacy in the Durban Jewish community, the South African Jewish community, and the greater community in South Africa and overseas is enormous. John always said that he didn’t like to invest in brick and mortar, and I know that the legacy he built is much, much greater than any structure.”

“John was always so proud of Anna, and they were a great team,” Unterslak says. “He got an enormous amount of naches, happiness, and pride from all his children and grandchildren. The whole family continues his legacy.”

“He would always tell me his favourite quote from Pirkei Avot: ‘It’s not for us to complete the task, but neither can we step aside from it’,” says Baranov. “He would speak about how his family would travel ‘below the radar’, but ‘when we leave, we leave a world of good in our wake’. That’s really what he embodied.”

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Conman made SA Jewish community part of scam

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In late May 2021, the South African Jewish community was feeling especially vulnerable after weeks of anti-Israel sentiment. So, when an Israeli newspaper reported that a man with seemingly strong influence had threatened to pull funding from South Africa if President Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t dial back the anti-Israel rhetoric, many members of the community shared the news.

But the message was from a sophisticated con-artist who was drawing the South African Jewish community into his web of deception. Now, another victim of the man who calls himself David E. Sassoon has come forward, telling the SA Jewish Report that Sassoon is a “sophisticated scammer” who plays on people’s emotions – even the emotions of an entire community – and uses them for his own game.

The man has come forward because of dynamics abroad. In June 2021, the Jewish Chronicle in the United Kingdom wrote an article describing Sassoon as “a conman who threatened South Africa” in his latest scam, following a number of articles it had written about him in the past.

Sassoon immediately tried to sue the Jewish Chronicle. But the SA Jewish Report understands that in mid-September, a Washington DC judge threw the lawsuit out, and Bruce Fein, the DC-based lawyer who brought the case against the Jewish Chronicle (and was on Sassoon’s board of directors), has parted company with Sassoon.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source says, “Don’t do business with the man who calls himself David E. Sassoon. We don’t know if that’s even his real name. He’s a sophisticated scam artist and fraudster. But we were blinded by him.”

In his letter, Sassoon said he would pull $40 million (R590 million) of investment in Johannesburg energy company Bluedrop and a further $50 billion (R737 billion) of investments in South Africa over the next five years if the South African government continued its “bias or hostility, especially based on false narratives, lies, and deception” about Israel. It sounded like solid support of the Jewish community, but beneath it was a shaky foundation.

First, the threat to Ramaphosa wasn’t reported in any media except one Israeli newspaper. In South Africa, journalists were reporting the opposite – that David E. Sassoon planned to invest in the country as well as in local start-up Bluedrop Energy. It appears both stories were fed to particular media outlets who took them at face value.

Another discrepancy was that Sassoon gave Ramaphosa a “deadline” of 20 May 2021 to respond to his threats, but on 26 May 2021, the South African media started reporting the opposite – that the Sassoon Group had approved $50 billion (R737 billion) for possible investment in South Africa over five years.

The South African Jewish community was therefore being used as a pawn in a wider game, with Jews around the world sharing extracts from Sassoon’s letter to Ramaphosa, as reported in the Israeli newspaper. The wider media was also drawn into Sassoon’s lies. News articles about his supposed investments in South Africa remain online today.

When the SA Jewish Report requested the full letter to Ramaphosa, it was filled with spelling and grammatical errors and emotional statements which didn’t add up. The letter also cited the address of Sassoon’s Tel Aviv branch. But when the SA Jewish Report checked this address, it was simply a place to rent a desk. One of the desks was rented by Einat Friedman who is described as “vice-president of public relations for J. Sassoon Group and the spokesperson for the Sassoon family and the Sassoon Family Continuation Trust”.

In his communication, Sassoon said he had bought 51% of “Friedman PR” for $25 million (R428 million), yet the PR company was operating from one desk in Tel Aviv. The source doesn’t know why Friedman’s company would collude with Sassoon, but he says that as far as he knows, they continue to work together.

“The thing is he blows up massive numbers, and when you convert that to rands, it comes to ridiculous amounts – like 30% to 40% of our GDP [gross domestic product],” says the source. “It’s almost like he was saying he was going to buy the country.”

While the source can only guess as to why Sassoon would want to draw the Jewish community into that narrative, he guesses it was one way for Sassoon to see how far he could go, and maybe even make it look like the Jewish community was supporting state capture or trying to control the government, in line with antisemitic tropes.

The source says Bluedrop Energy was introduced to Sassoon through a mutual associate. “He immediately made promises to invest. They found his website, which looked reliable, and saw that his board of directors had a lot of credible people. It also saw that there were issues regarding his reputation, as described by the Jewish Chronicle in the United Kingdom.”

While this was a “red flag”, the start-up believed that the people around Sassoon gave him enough credibility. “He also explained that he was from an ‘intelligence background’, and they don’t always do things ‘above board’,” says the source. “He sounds very educated and understands business, especially in the United States and international markets.”

Bluedrop Energy lost $48 000 (R823 382) to Sassoon, and never saw a cent of investment. “Bluedrop realised all was not as it seems when Sassoon started demanding that they make payments to him. He would get very angry, throwing his toys out of the cot.” The start-up was also made aware that he owed thousands to another company which had done feasibility studies on Bluedrop Energy for Sassoon. “This international company thought he was legitimate. It was a very elaborate scam.”

Though Bluedrop was already wary of Sassoon, it was his letter to Ramaphosa that made the start-up break ties with him. In an official statement, the company told the SA Jewish Report that “Bluedrop Energy is the one who terminated the contract with J. Sassoon Group. Bluedrop took serious exception to his threats and demeaning letter towards our president, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa. We tried hard to convince him to withdraw his letter addressed to President Ramaphosa, but these efforts were in vain. We support and respect all the recognised leaders and structures of the South African government.

“In addition, we took serious exception to Mr Sassoon’s disrespect for the South African media, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and the South African Jewish community in general.”

The source says Sassoon wanted to write more letters to Ramaphosa, but Bluedrop stopped him. “The Jewish community in South Africa has its own leadership, and doesn’t need him to interfere,” he says.

The anonymous source believes Sassoon gets away with it because he seems to have a credible group of supporters on the board of his so-called company, who “allow him to hide behind their reputations”. Though he doesn’t know why upstanding and well-known members of society would allow Sassoon to use their names, he guesses that maybe they benefit from the arrangement.

Sassoon, he says, “lives off what he scams [from] people” and he may be working with his wife, Sharon Levy. “The United States government needs to call him to book because he uses it, knowing that the US has high standing in the international business community. He uses that in his scam.”

Meanwhile, the source says Bluedrop’s composite cylinder manufacturing plant project is still on track, and its official termination of the contract with J. Sassoon had no impact on the project. They are already in talks with reputable potential funders who have expressed interest in the project.”

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