The Syrian road
What has Syria got to do with us? The dreadful brutality comes immediately into our homes via computer screens and cellphones, writes SAJR editor GEOFF SIFRIN
SAJR editor Geoff Sifrin
What has Syria got to do with us? As Jews go through their Holy Days, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah and others, the dreadful images from that country permeate the news. War is always heartless. But with Facebook and Twitter, its brutality comes immediately into our homes via computer screens and cellphones.
It doesn’t stop with the 100 000 killed, millions of refugees, or nerve-gas attacks in which some 1 400 civilians, including children, reportedly died. News channels have now published a photojournalist’s pictures of four barbaric executions by rebels in a Syrian town which shocked even the most war-hardened. Websites warned viewers about their “graphic, disturbing” material.
Amidst a cheering crowd, men had their throats cut and their severed heads held aloft. In one scene a line of young boys sits on a wall a few feet away, watching a dead man’s head being dumped on his body. Then a child is led by the hand past the corpse. An eyewitness told Time that the killers belonged to ISIS – an Al-Qaida faction fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The photographer, whose identity has been concealed to protect him, said: “That scene in Syria, that moment, was like a scene from the Middle Ages, the kind of thing you read about in history books.
“The war in Syria has reached the point where a person can be mercilessly killed in front of hundreds of people who enjoy the spectacle. As a human being I would never have wished to see what I saw. But as a journalist, I have a camera and a responsibility.
“I have a responsibility to share what I saw that day. That’s why I am making this statement and that’s why I took the photographs. I will close this chapter soon and try never to remember it.”
Instinctively, our sympathies are for the men executed. But then we are told they belong to the cruel Shabiha gangs – Assad loyalists who stalk rebel areas, slaughtering women and children. Who to feel sorry for?
Wars are embedded in most peoples’ history and psyche. For Jews, Yom Kippur evokes a particular trauma, recalling the frantic period in 1973 when Israeli soldiers were desperately rushing to their units after being summoned from synagogues on the Holy Day, as Egypt and Syria launched massive surprise attacks in the Sinai and Golan.
Jewish South Africans and other Diaspora Jews went to Israel as volunteers, as they did in 1967 for the Six Day War.
Those battles between Israel and the Arab countries were fought between formal armies with tanks, artillery, aircraft and chains of command operating according to international rules of combat. Not that it makes them less frightening, but at least some kind of structure regulated how soldiers behaved. Civil wars like the Syrian one are more chaotic, allowing a free-for-all to the most barbaric human depravities, like the ones described above.
What can we do about Syria from here at the bottom of Africa? Nothing, really. Just trying to understand who the villains and victims are, is almost impossible.
South Africans are not incapable of such things. Remember the necklacing in the 1990s, when mobs watched as petrol-filled tyres were placed around the necks of suspected “collaborators” and set alight?
We had another taste during the xenophobic attacks on Somalis, Mozambicans and others in 2007. But fortunately, the broad mass of South Africans was horrified, and put an end to it.
Other countries – like Rwanda – which have gone through massacres of their own citizens, have tried to expiate the horrors through tribunals and truth commissions. Justice is not achievable, but it can provide a catharsis and a possible road forward.
One wonders, though, whether Syria is capable of taking this route. Whichever the case, Syrian children like those who witnessed the slaughter and beheadings, will be traumatised and brutalised forever.
This will be the legacy of the present atrocities.
- Geoff Sifrin is the editor of the SA Jewish Report. This leader appeared in the print edition of the newspaper on 16 September 2013.
Just get vaccinated
As the dust settles on the violence and looting that took place last week, the community has bonded in raising funds and gathering essential goods for those sorely affected by the chaos. These include our community in KwaZulu-Natal.
I was astonished to see people, many of whom were fasting on Tisha B’Av, making their way into townships to help clean up over the weekend. The kindness and generosity of our community has, again, come to the fore.
Literally millions of rand has been raised in days to help people, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal. People who have barely left their homes in months made their way to help pack boxes and sort through essentials that were destined for Durban.
It was amazing how the horror of the pandemic took a back seat to the crazed looting, burning, and madness that was believed to have been caused by Zuma’s cronies, now known as the “dirty dozen”.
For a week, our focus shifted to another devastating situation in our country.
But as the damage is being weighed up and the true toll on the economic and political playing field is tallied, the rest of us return to the reality of the pandemic and that level 4 lockdown is still with us. The number of people with COVID-19 is still extremely high, but it’s dropping. This is a huge relief.
There is undoubtedly hope in the air, and that hope comes in the form of an injection, a jab, a shot, or a vaccination – call it what you will.
Never before have I witnessed people crying with joy when they receive a vaccination. And many are willing to wait quietly, in their masks and keeping a social distance, for hours on end just to get that small vial of muti vaccinated into their arm.
I know I was quite emotional when I had my first jab. It felt like one step towards freedom. One step towards being able to live a life without so many restrictions. As I was vaccinated, I pictured myself surrounded by my loved ones at a dinner table.
Isn’t it amazing how regular events that we took for granted have become something we long for?
While most people I know just want to be vaccinated for all the same reasons I do, I don’t understand why there are others who seem to look for excuses not to. Now, normally (if there is such a thing), I believe in letting people follow their own path. If they don’t agree with my views, so be it. They don’t have to.
However, the only way we are going to get to population or mass immunity is if more than 65% of the population is vaccinated. So, it isn’t as simple as looking the other way.
To get to the point where we can’t carry coronavirus and make someone else sick, many more of us need to have one of the vaccines on offer in South Africa. At this stage, we are vaccinating about 200 000 people a day. So far, we have given 5.5 million individual doses. The government’s aim is to vaccinate 300 000 a day.
According to the most recent research done by experts at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, nearly one in four are still hesitant to be vaccinated. And one in 15 are strongly opposed to it. Their reasons vary from not trusting that the vaccines have been tested for long enough to vaccinations being a global plot. I have heard and read the most ridiculous reasons for not getting vaccinated. The point is, those people who are dying and very ill in hospital are generally not vaccinated. Isn’t that enough of a reason to get the vaccine?
The reality is that as a nation, we can avoid a fourth wave. The sooner we’re all vaccinated, the sooner we can resume a semblance of normality.
Can you picture it: going to the cinema, dinner in a cosy restaurant, parties where we dance with each other.
Imagine going to a concert in the park with people all around us, dancing, smiling, and laughing. It seems almost like a dream.
The idea of going to shul and sitting next to a friend and enjoying a brocha afterwards seems like a fond memory.
Just being able to walk down the street and smile at people and see them smiling back at you would be so pleasurable. And South Africa is one of the few countries in which strangers smiling and greeting each other happens all the time.
The truth is, this isn’t that far off if we all just get vaccinated. Everyone from the age of 35 and older can get their jabs now.
In the next few weeks, the SA Jewish Report is going to focus on trying to dispel myths and answer any questions, worries, or concerns about vaccines so that we are all armed with all the facts.
This Sunday, if you are registered on the Electronic Vaccination Data System, you can go along to The Base Shul in Glenhazel where they are vaccinating. Anyone is welcome as long as he or she has their identity document and is registered. You can be on a medical aid, but you don’t have to be. You certainly don’t have to be Jewish.
Our responsibility isn’t just to get ourselves and those in our family above 35 vaccinated, it extends to those in our circle or those we know. What if the security guard at your office block has had difficulty registering and/or getting somewhere that he could be vaccinated? Don’t let him wait, help him to get there.
The same goes for your domestic workers, gardeners, other staff, or even that woman you know down the road. Do a mitzvah, help someone or a number of people to get vaccinated.
Make it your commitment to get yourself vaccinated, and everyone you know who wants to be protected against this killer coronavirus.
As a community, let’s do the right thing. We have seen too much death and illness, it’s time to bring it to an end.
And it’s not about which drug will work better and will there be a hospital bed if you get very ill with COVID-19. It’s all about doing everything you can to prevent you, me, and everyone else from getting this virus.
Let’s do it!
Madness takes its toll
This week, the words of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, “…madness takes its toll” keep playing in my head. We are living through what feels like a surreal and devasting time. In truth, it’s a time of national shame.
It seems fitting that this weekend is Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the temple and so many other losses.
Not only are we in level 4 lockdown and our COVID-19 numbers are still soaring, but an uprising has spread through the country. People have the right to protest, but they don’t have the right to destroy property, loot, and steal.
I don’t believe this is all about Jacob Zuma being incarcerated, but I do believe it’s a multipronged problem that has been building up. And while I believe that poverty is a major part of the problem right now, there is also lawlessness because you cannot eat a television set or a cell phone. However, there are so many people starving, and about 75% of young adults are unemployed. This has to be addressed.
It’s easy to expect the government to wave a magic wand, but that isn’t going to happen in the midst of a pandemic that’s sweeping through this country. And so, I understand why there is a feeling of despondence.
However, trashing malls and businesses is hardly going to provide jobs or feed the poor. Instead, it destroys already stressed livelihoods and creates much more unemployment.
Like most of you, I have had messages from former South Africans abroad asking if we are okay because they are watching what’s happening on the news. It clearly looks horrific, and it is, what with more than 75 killed and many more injured. Also businesses and malls have been gutted, as have homes and vehicles.
But looking out from my suburban window, I see only calm and quiet. Such is the dichotomy of our country. However, our community in KwaZulu-Natal is having a tough time, and we don’t know exactly what will happen.
This and so much fake news disseminated on social media has led to dread and fear. The number of malls that were trashed (fictitiously) in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg really got to people. There were videos of destruction that were years old, and some weren’t even from South Africa. You have probably read it or watched it and believed it until someone hopefully told you otherwise.
And, much like when we first experienced lockdown, fear and panic has led to the mass buying of food and petrol just in case… The problem is that while we don’t lack essential items right now in Gauteng, we may do if people don’t stop buying what they don’t need en masse.
As we have witnessed fear buying before, we have also witnessed the country in flames before.
Just recently, we commemorated the national youth uprising on 16 June 1974, which was a horrific time in South Africa. The country also appeared to be on the brink of civil war after the death of Chris Hani in April 1993. And, if you think back to round about this time last year in the United States, the mayhem that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers wasn’t dissimilar.
It definitely makes it much harder to deal with this as our country still feels the onslaught of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which so many people have fallen ill and died. It’s a double whammy – or a war on two fronts.
However, we’re not facing the end of our country or a war. Yes, the government has to take this in hand, and our president is trying hard to do this. The situation is extremely volatile and needs to be handled carefully. But handled, it will be.
This isn’t a time to look at everything that’s happening as the end. It isn’t. This, too, shall pass.
In fact, we were in a strangely worse situation when our former president, Jacob Zuma, was in charge with his and his cronies’ proverbial hands in the national coffers. They clearly set a horrible example for what’s happening now.
The big difference is that now we have national leaders who are trying to stop this. Then, it was almost impossible to take on the country’s leadership.
Right now, there has to be hope when you see communities forming to defend shopping centres and buildings in their areas. You see people coming out in droves to help fix those premises and business that were destroyed.
I’m astonished at the goodwill that’s coming from our community and the majority of people in this country. I do have a sense of people feeling real shame about what has happened and continues to happen.
It’s so clear that the majority of South Africans aren’t behind the trouble. Most of us are peace loving people who want to lead honest, good lives. A small number have caused this, and the full might of the law must be brought to deal with them. We need to work out exactly what was behind this uprising, though, because that’s the only way to move forward.
I know that people are feeling despondent and scared, but I’m hopeful that, with most of us wanting the same thing, we’ll get it. We’ll find a way to rebuild our economy, give jobs to the jobless, and be proud of our country once again.
As our wise Rabbi Eitan Ash said in a video this week, “South Africa is a miraculous country” and “We always come through”. He added: “I am not saying it isn’t tough, it’s so tough, but if ever there is a time to be strong and positive, it’s now.”
I couldn’t agree more. We need to be calm, work together as a community, and help do what needs to be done. We need to stay focused on being positive and uplifting those around us.
With Mandela Day on Sunday, it seems fitting to end with a quote from Madiba: “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.”
May our country be blessed with peace and prosperity!
The right to speak out
I recall that when I was growing up, people around me would say that Jews shouldn’t stand up against the government because we were lucky to have a home here. If we made a noise and upset the powers that be, there was fear that the government might kick us out of South Africa.
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps the words you heard weren’t exactly the same but something similar.
And, for the most part, South African Jews didn’t rock the apartheid boat. They went on with doing what they did, but didn’t make too much noise against what the government was doing. Having said that, it so happens that there were a number of Jewish anti-apartheid activists who were well known for their bravery and for being Jewish.
Everybody knew that Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, Arthur Goldreich, Denis Goldberg, Ruth First, and Harold Wolpe, among others, weren’t just anti-apartheid activists, but were Jewish activists. And this made the mainstream community very uncomfortable during the apartheid era. Many chose to ostracise Jewish activists because they disapproved. The truth is, they may not have disapproved of their political beliefs necessarily, but the fact that as Jews, they were standing up against the government.
I know what I’m saying makes many in our community feel uncomfortable. I apologise for that. My saying it isn’t intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, it’s about asking you to consider who we are in South Africa.
I’m Jewish, yes. I’m also 100% South African. My family has been here for generations, and I’m proud of being South African and Jewish. Both are deeply entrenched in my identity. And as much as I love being a part of this unique special community, I revel in being a part of South African society.
As most of you know by now, I don’t believe I have to hide what I believe to be true, and I’m happy to publish my thoughts. I’m even happy to do it if it challenges the government or the powers that be. I believe that if you don’t stand up against something you believe to be wrong, nothing will change. And, your little voice, no matter how faint it is, is a voice that deserves to be heard.
In the same way we go to the polls and choose the leaders we want, we have a right to voice our opinions and our beliefs as long as we don’t hurt anyone in the process.
Last week, the chief rabbi wrote an opinion piece in Business Day clearly pointing out what he believes to be the government’s failure to roll out vaccines timeously.
It’s important to note that our community has been hard hit by COVID-19 in the third wave. We have all felt the devastation of this coronavirus. Seven members of my family – aged between two and 62 – have COVID-19 right now. Had we all been vaccinated, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be in this situation.
So, can I say I’m very sensitive to this right now?
My point is that there are many members of our community who are angry at the chief rabbi for publicly challenging the government. In their criticism of him, I heard the same kind of sentiment that I recalled as a child – “We shouldn’t rock the boat”; “We shouldn’t challenge the government”; “The government is already on our case because we support Israel, we shouldn’t make a fuss about other issues.”
What’s the alternative? That the chief rabbi and the rest of us just keep our mouths shut and not voice our disapproval about not being vaccinated yet? That we simply eat whatever we are dished? That we accept our fate whatever it is, no questions asked?
I don’t believe that’s who we are. I believe we are people with a moral backbone who look out for those less fortunate. We are a questioning people who don’t settle for what isn’t acceptable. As such, I believe that swallowing what we know isn’t right doesn’t sit well with any of us.
Now, I know that Professor Barry Schoub, an internationally renowned virologist and the chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines, wrote an opinion piece in response to the chief rabbi. This man, also a key member of our community who has guided us through this pandemic, pointed out what he believed was wrong with what Rabbi Goldstein had written.
When I read it, I was uncomfortable, and thought that it should have been discussed behind closed doors. Why? My first instinct was that Jews shouldn’t be arguing with Jews so publicly.
But, on consideration, I changed my mind. There’s nothing wrong with Jews or anyone voicing their opinion. It’s our human right.
I would hope that Professor Schoub and Rabbi Goldstein have nothing against each other but felt the need to voice their knowledgeable opinions. And once the pandemic is over, I’m sure they will break bread together.
Coming back to what I call the “visitors’ mentality”, in which we believe we shouldn’t challenge the authorities. We aren’t visitors here, we are fully fledged South Africans with the same rights as everyone else. Nobody is going to throw us out.
We live in a democracy and we have the right to voice our opinions. We have the right to stand up and say our piece, whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or even Pagan. We are all South Africans with rights.
Nobody is going to punish us for having a voice. We have to get past this visitors’ mentality. Look around you and see what our community contributes to our country. We participate fully in our country and, as such, we have rights that nobody can take from us.
We don’t have to hide our light under a bushel. We don’t have to shy away from being heard. We do have to stand for what’s right as opposed to what’s wrong. That last statement isn’t because of the country we live in but because – as Jews – we’re called upon to be a light unto the nations.
And so, we need to stand up for what’s right and against what’s wrong.
I may or may not have agreed with what the chief rabbi and Professor Schoub said, but I defend their right to say it with all my being.
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