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Stellenbosch University discriminates against Israeli academics

Professor Shifrah Sagy of Ben Gurion University in the Negev found out she had been excluded from attending a conference at Stellenbosch University when she saw that the names of her and fellow delegates from Israel had simply been erased from the programme.

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TALI FEINBERG

The conference, titled “Recognition, Reparation and Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma” is to be held at the university from 5 to 9 December.

Professor Arie Nadler of Tel Aviv University, who was also due to present at the conference, described his experience. “About ten days ago, [conference organiser and chairperson] Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela informed me that there were calls to remove Israeli scholars from the programme, and wished to consult on how to overcome this hurdle.”

The organisations calling for the boycott include the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and South African Jews for a Free Palestine.

Two to three days later, Gobodo-Madikizela had a meeting, “after which she wrote that the issue was resolved, and all Israelis were welcome, and their safety was guaranteed. I made preparations to go to Stellenbosch. I then learned that pressure was mounting, and conference leaders had decided to take all Israelis off the programme. In other words, we were to be silenced due to our nationality.

“Throughout this affair, Gobodo-Madikizela invested in efforts to rectify the situation and not give up to the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions]-related pressures and threats,” Nadler said. “Yet, it seems to me that she was alone on the frontline, in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to protect her Israeli colleagues, or risk the dismantling of the project.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Gobodo-Madikizela said that the decision to exclude the Israelis went against her personal and professional values. She said she had worked extensively with Israelis in dialogue with Palestinians.

It is clear that the professor was pressurised into making the decision, and she hinted that threats of violence towards one particular academic was the reason she had to capitulate.

Sagy described herself and fellow Israeli delegates as “peace activists”, as they are all deeply invested in reconciliation work in the region. Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, from Al-Quds University, was also disinvited. He is the founder of the Wasatia movement of moderate Islam, and took Palestinian students on a groundbreaking trip to Auschwitz.

Professor Raya Morag of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was to deliver a lecture titled “Perpetrator trauma, current Israeli cinema, and speaking truth to power”, which “deals with current Israeli documentary cinema’s objection to the occupation, and its call to the Israeli government to recognise our ethical obligation to the Palestinians”.

Sagy thinks the Israelis’ work towards reconciliation and dialogue “frightened” those who opposed their visit. “They don’t want normalisation between Israelis and Palestinians,” she said.

Said Nadler, “Science is based on free sharing of thoughts and findings by all. It is a hollow venture when certain people cannot speak in public because of their gender, nationality, colour, or religion. This is discrimination of the most violent kind.”

The Rector of Hebrew University, Professor Barak Medina, wrote to the Rector of Stellenbosch University, Professor Wim de Williers, to express his concern that “conference organisers have succumbed to [the] political pressure directed against all Israeli academics, violating basic principles of academic freedom and debate. We find this entirely unacceptable and uncollegial.

“Even the so-called Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel formally recognises academic freedom and freedom of expression, and does not endorse discrimination on the basis of citizenship,” he wrote.

Ironically, Stellenbosch University describes itself as pursuing an “inspiring vision – to be inclusive, innovative and future focused… This is done through broadening access to the institution.”

In a media statement, the university’s management said it supported the handling of the matter, saying, “Free and constructive academic discourse at the university takes place in the framework of our commitment to justice and healing for all… The conference offers an opportunity for conversation with academics who find themselves in the midst of a contemporary situation of trauma.”

South Africans expressed their outrage on social media at the decision to exclude Israeli delegates. “As an old ‘Matie’ myself, I am shocked to see how Stellenbosch University is favouring politics above academics. I do not believe that this portraits [sic] the general sentiment of most educated South Africans,” said one man on Twitter.

Brenda Stern wrote on Facebook, “Once again, SA bows to BDS hate and loses an opportunity to contribute to peace and reconciliation… Shame on you Stellenbosch University, you just silenced academic freedom!”

Describing the boycott as “racist and anti-Semitic”, Ben Swartz, the National Chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, said, “It is unfathomable that not only were Israelis disinvited, but even Palestinians working in the space of conflict resolution. This shows the anti-peace agenda of BDS that needs to be confronted. We call on Stellenbosch University to uphold freedom of expression and to support – not stymie – efforts to reach peace.”

Wendy Kahn, the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said that the board had been in discussion with the university’s leadership. “This capitulation to the bullying tactics of the BDS has no place in academia. The organisers of the conference have restricted the narrative of the conference to views that are consistent with their own. This does not bode well for academic values and principles at their institution.”

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Jp

    Nov 29, 2018 at 1:22 pm

    ‘Sadly ironic considering the title of the conference. Stellenbosch have a chance to salvage their reputation by reinviting the Israelis. Otherwise they will be tainted with the same ugly blemish that UJ gained due to similar BDS thuggery in 2011.’

  2. Martin

    Nov 30, 2018 at 5:42 am

    ‘Please find Stellenbosch University’s statement below:

    30 November 2018

    An objective of the Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma conference at Stellenbosch University is to bring together scholars and practitioners to deliberate on important questions relating to historical wounding and haunting legacies as a result of trans-generational trauma.

    To name but a few: What is the appropriate response to the echoes of historical wounding that extend far beyond the generation that experienced the trauma directly? What strategies might quell the haunting repercussions of genocide, slavery, colonial oppression, and mass violence that play out in the lives of affected individuals and groups from both sides of these acts? 

    It is therefore regrettable that the Israeli | Palestinian narrative has now spilled over to the conference, achieving exactly the opposite of the vision for the event, and in the process attempting to vilify Stellenbosch University and Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, chair of the conference committee and incumbent of the Research Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at the University.

    I would like to state the following unequivocally:   

    Stellenbosch University supports freedom of expression and academic freedom, and is no way anti-Semitic or anti-Palestinian.

    Terminology such as “disinvited, uninvited or invitation unilaterally cancelled” in reference to speakers who will no longer be attending, is simply not true. At no point did the conference organisers or Stellenbosch University request or suggest that any speaker should withdraw from the event. Neither were any individuals singled out or vilified on Stellenbosch University’s social media platforms. The University has no control over the newsletters or social media platforms of external organisations. Prof Gobodo-Madikizela continued her engagement with the various role players in a spirit of reconciliation, expressing regret over their withdrawal and assuring them of their safety in South Africa if they were to attend.

    When the first statement expressing opposition to the participation of Israeli speakers came to the attention of the organisers, a strategic decision was taken to remove the names of individuals and their institutions from the website (not from the programme) as a precautionary measure to prevent academics and their institutions from being targeted, and to prevent the conference from derailing.

    Israeli delegates decided to withdraw their participation as a result of circumstances beyond the control of the University and the conference organising committee.

    The most disappointing outcome of this sequence of events is the absence of robust debate on the Israeli | Palestinian issue at the conference.

    Prof Wim de Villiers

    Rector and Vice-Chancellor

  3. Robert Polaco

    Dec 1, 2018 at 8:54 am

    ‘Shame on you Stellenbosch University, you just silenced academic freedom!”

    This doesn’t come as a surprise. Sad that many uninformed and misinformed minds are indoctrinated by those with anti-Semitic sentiments. In essence, people can’t give what they don’t have. Internally battling unresolved issues of prejudice and a lack of integrity to stand for what is morally right. I’m of the mind that Israel does its best to diffuse the current mindset of people that have negatively charged by the Palestinian agenda, educating the public and of course that God would go before them.’

  4. Jp

    Dec 6, 2018 at 7:47 am

    ‘@Martin

    Thank you for posting the rectors statement.  It would seem the situation is complex & perhaps Stellenbosch deserves our support & sympathy as they are a civil,  educatuonal organization that has fallen victim to a militant group of BDS thugs. The university should be a safe space for debate & strives to be one – BDS have destroyed that safe space.’

  5. Nas

    Dec 6, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    ‘Academic freedom only seems to apply to some.’

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Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family

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Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.

The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.

Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.

“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.

“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”

Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’

“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”

Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”

By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.

“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”

He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.

Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”

He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.

Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”

Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.

“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”

Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.

“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.

“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”

To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit: https://givechak.co.il/yeonatan/en

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Emotions run high as JSC denies discrimination

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The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has called for a face-to-face meeting with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) to resolve tensions following the recent JSC interviews of Jewish judges, which the Board described as discriminatory.

The JSC this week denied that its interviews of Jewish candidates for appointment to the Bench were discriminatory and anti-constitutional. It said it was “factually incorrect” to say that Jewish applicants were targeted at interviews.

The Board told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 5 May, that this week’s JSC statement was “unfortunate”.

Said National Director Wendy Kahn, “The SAJBD had already requested a meeting with the JSC prior to it issuing this statement. Notwithstanding the JSC’s denial this week that it had done anything wrong, we believe that the nature of the questions put to the candidates was irregular and discriminatory, and as such, in conflict with the fundamental constitutional right of all South Africans to equality and freedom of belief and association. It’s unfortunate to politicise such an august body.”

She said the Board continued to call for a face-to-face meeting with the JSC as it believed it was a “more constructive way” to address issues than through the media.

In recent weeks, the SAJBD accused the JSC of targeting Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter when they were asked questions about their Jewish identity and practice. It also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.

In a statement last week, Kahn said, “Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny. Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.

“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practice except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid. It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board.

“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.”

In response, the JSC said this Tuesday that the SAJBD was selectively quoting parts of the interviews.

It rejected claims that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices except those of the Jewish faith. It also labelled the claims by the SAJBD as factually inaccurate.

“The questions relating to the association with the SAJBD dealt with concerns that the organisation supports Zionism which is viewed as a discriminatory form of nationalism and potentially in conflict with the values contained in the South African Constitution,” read the statement.

“The questions on this score were raised with the two candidates following letters of objection received by the JSC in respect of Judge Unterhalter from various organisations, including the Black Lawyers Association. This is part of JSC practice intended to afford candidates the opportunity to respond to objections lodged against their candidature.”

The statement continued, “It’s not factually correct that other candidates who aren’t of Jewish descent weren’t asked questions related to their religious affiliations.” There were other candidates who were asked questions relating to their religious or cultural beliefs, the statement said.

Said Advocate Mark Oppenheimer, “After watching Judge Unterhalter’s interview, it’s striking how many questions were about his brief stint at the SAJBD and how few questions were about his qualifications. The ratio indicates a failure on the JSC’s behalf to ask pertinent questions about his ability to hold judicial office. The volume and repetition of questions about the Board should be of concern to all South Africans who care about the important attributes of those who take up office at the highest court in the land.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein expressed outrage at the “conduct of the commissioners of the [JSC] in their questioning of the two Jewish judges”, describing it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.

He called on JSC commissioners to retract and apologise for their comments. He also called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on the entire process.

The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant position in the Northern Cape. The JSC also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court Bench. Both have been referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Unterhalter didn’t make the final list of nominees.

Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for appointment to the Constitutional Court.

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Preventing stampedes ‘is a science’

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As the dust settles after the Mount Meron disaster, questions will be asked about how it happened and why. Local expert Professor Efraim Kramer says stopping stampedes requires training, expertise, and planning, as just one “spark” in a crowd can have deadly consequences.

“It’s complex, emotional, and difficult to talk about stampedes, because people die needlessly. Whether it’s a football stadium or Mount Meron, people are going there for joy, yet it turns into tragedy. There’s no real place for blame because it needs a full investigation,” says Kramer.

He shared his perspectives with the SA Jewish Report as an expert in emergency and mass gathering (event) medicine. Kramer is the former head of the division of emergency medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and professor of sports medicine at Pretoria University.

He has specialised in emergency, disaster, and stampede medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the FIFA World Cup Russia in 2018. Since then, he has been actively involved with FIFA Medical. He is also involved in teaching and researching mass gathering medicine, including soccer-stadium stampede prevention and the management of disaster medicine, having been actively involved in assistance missions after earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and volcanoes.

“A stampede is a terrible way to die,” he says. “It’s a slow asphyxiation. You can’t breathe for two to four minutes. The weight of a crowd like that can push over a wall. It’s tons of pressure. Then, if people fall down, they have no time or room to get up, and others trample on them. People either walk [over those who have fallen] or fall over themselves. So you also see severe trauma injuries.”

Kramer says preventing stampedes requires legislation, management, planning, risk assessment, logistics, and most of all, training. “In almost every incident I’ve seen like this, there has been no training. You can have 1 000 policeman and 1 000 stewards, but if no one is trained to recognise the signs of stampedes, they can easily happen. All it takes is one ‘spark’.”

He alludes to one person falling over in a stadium passage, or one fight that broke out in a stadium, which led to many people dying in stampedes in the past.

Kramer explains that medically, responding to a stampede is often counterintuitive to what a medical professional would normally do.

“In other mass disasters, you triage people who aren’t unconscious and prioritise them over unconscious victims who you may leave. But in a stampede, you immediately do CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] on the asphyxiated, non-breathing victims, because they usually have a healthy heart and you want to get oxygen back to that heart. You do CPR for half an hour to get the heart to start pumping again. You do CPR on every single non-breathing person, and then they do survive. So you don’t run it like an accident. You don’t take them to hospital – you work tirelessly on the scene.”

He says in crowded environments, it’s essential to keep the flow of people going. Even if they are walking in a narrow area, like the site where the Mount Meron tragedy occurred, as long as there is a flow of people, it’s likely to be safe. “But as soon as something goes wrong – like someone falling – it quickly perpetuates a vicious cycle.”

One way to keep the flow going is to use megaphones. “You can tell people to stop pushing, that people are getting injured, and to stay where they are. You can tell people that are being crushed to turn on their side, as then they can still breathe. You can control things verbally. Communication is crucial, and it needs to be planned beforehand.”

In his work with football stadiums, other small but significant changes have been implemented to prevent stampedes. For example, tickets are sold offsite to prevent stampedes should tickets run out. In addition, spectators are allowed only to sit in a seat, no one is allowed to stand or sit anywhere else. This controls numbers and keeps pathways open. “In 2021, crowd management is a science that needs to be learnt before disaster strikes and people die,” he says.

Kramer has seen similar numbers of deaths at other stampedes. For example, 43 people died at the Ellis Park Stadium tragedy [in South Africa] exactly 20 years ago. He says this number of fatalities is expected in the first five minutes of a stampede.

While Kramer wants to avoid laying blame, his first impression of the tragedy is that “the system went wrong … from the top, right to the bottom. Now, they’ll have to do what they should have done before – control the amount of people, manage risk, train personnel, and so on. It needs to be a well-oiled machine to stop people from dying.”

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