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.
2020 matriculants in a class of their own
The 2020 matric group will go down in history as being the most versatile and resilient year ever. True, these young people had no choice, it was a matter of sink or swim…
They went into matric, believing they knew exactly what they were in for, whether they were prepared for it or not. However, then the world turned upside down with the coronavirus pandemic, and so too did their year.
Nothing they expected happened when it was supposed to. Nothing they had longed for was available to them. And all the years of expectation they had built for their final year of school was set aside for a whole new reality.
I can’t blame them for being disappointed. We all spend 12 years of school looking forward to that final year which includes being the elders of the school, prefects, the matric dance, and various other once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
These young guns had to make urgent plans to adapt and make the most of their year. While the schools did what they could, every matric scholar had to find a way of making this work for themself.
They had to dig deep to master their work under lockdown and, more often than not, the only contact they had with friends and teachers was online.
Yet their results were astounding, and they came through … with flying colours!
This is our annual matric results edition, which much like everything else to do with matric 2020, didn’t come out when it was expected to. We normally begin our year of newspapers in mid-January with the matric edition.
And although this special edition was delayed by the release of the results, our rock-star matriculants didn’t disappoint. I’m incredibly proud of them all. Kol hakavod!
In some schools, the 2020 results were better than ever – go figure!
I can’t help but wonder how their bizarre matric year will set the tone for the rest of their lives. Resilience and versatility are character traits that can only serve them well.
Would that we were all able to adapt quickly to any situation and make the most of it, with outstanding results. People who are capable of this can literally take on any task because they make it work for them. I have to say, I’m expecting great things from this year of matriculants.
Having said that, their challenges aren’t over yet.
Imagine having applied to three universities around the country and not knowing exactly which one was going to accept you and what degree you could do. Exactly! Instead of having two months or thereabouts to get ready for university, they had a matter of days.
So, they hung around for two months waiting for the moment they could make these life-changing, urgent decisions and act on them. Talking about living the phrase, “Hurry up and wait!”
And then there are those matriculants who planned to go on one of the Masa programmes to Israel. These include study programmes, internships, service learning, and Jewish studies. Many young people in our community take up these incredible subsidised opportunities. But this year, the 2020 matriculants who were anticipating leaving soon after the December holidays are still waiting…
These youngsters came home from their holidays all geared up to go. Then Israel closed the airport for 10 days. And it remained closed.
They are still waiting to hear when they are going to leave. They can do nothing but wait. They can’t start another course or get a job because they might be given 24 hours’ notice before they leave. So, they wait and wait, anxiously trying to fill their time. They were all looking forward to Purim in Israel, and now they may still be here for Pesach.
Thank goodness they are part of the versatile and adaptable 2020 group!
Talking about being given 24-hours’ notice to fly to Israel, our page one story is truly phenomenal. A group of South African olim had also been waiting for ages to make this massive move. Many had sold homes, packed up, and were ready to leave.
But when you are given 24 hours to leave your home permanently, it’s never enough time to say goodbye. Having said that, what a unique experience their journey to their new home has been!
International Women’s Day
As a newspaper, we don’t often commemorate international days like Women’s Day, not least of all because we have our own national Women’s Day.
But a highly intelligent male 15-year-old told me the other day that he’s so bored with modern-day feminists as they are all man-haters. I realised then that it was important to take every opportunity to dispel myths and strengthen the move towards equality and ridding ourselves of gender violence.
Feminists of any description aren’t man-haters, they are simply people fighting for women’s equality. Their struggle is around reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, and against sexual harassment and sexual violence.
I do understand that there may be some women who don’t like men, but that has nothing to do with them being feminists.
Men can also be feminists. It simply means being involved in progressing equal rights and opportunities for women, and it encompasses the social, political, and economic arenas. I would love to say that in South Africa we are past the need to campaign for change, but we aren’t.
While in our community women have far more power than in most, there is still disparity in pay, and mothers are more often than not left to look after their children (mostly on their own) while their husbands pursue their careers.
In society in general, women are the main breadwinners but also the ones who earn the least. They are estimated to earn between 15% and 17% less than men for the same jobs.
While these issues exist and need a concerted effort to sort out, because of our enormous problem of violence and abuse of women, that has to be our focus.
And this has an impact on our community too.
This year’s theme of International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. I’m asking every one of our readers to challenge themselves to stand up against the abuse of women. It’s often the smallest correction in what people say that has the biggest impact. Join me in choosing to challenge myself to fight for women’s rights.
Inject suitable caution into Purim festivities
The excitement is palpable. As more and more doctors and healthcare workers are vaccinated, there is a sense that we are slowly on our way out of this quagmire of illness, separation, and death.
So many of these frontline doctors, nurses, and others in the healthcare industry have put their lives on the line to save ours. No oath or commitment is strong enough to make people do that. It’s pure determination to save lives that’s behind this – a life mission. The kavod that should go to these people is immeasurable.
And to see so many of them, who themselves may have comorbidities or vulnerable family members, rejoicing after getting their vaccine is exciting.
It means that the rest of our vaccines aren’t far behind, especially seeing as the next batch of vaccines is due to arrive in South Africa this weekend.
What we must remember is that these healthcare workers are, in fact, testing the vaccine for us. The vaccine isn’t yet registered for commercial use globally, in spite of it being rolled out in the United States, United Kingdom, and here. So, once again they are putting themselves at risk so we know how effective the vaccine is and what – if any – side effects there are.
Having said that, it’s clear that healthcare workers feel very confident in this vaccine.
You may wonder why we temporarily changed the format of our front page this week to photographs only and no stories. The simple truth is because these men and women being vaccinated is history in the making. We will look back on this time as a turning point in our pandemic crisis. Or at least, we hope we will be able to do so.
It was around this time last year that the Wuhan flu began to hit home. It began to sink in that this dreaded illness that had hit China and other parts of the world was heading this way.
For so many, Purim last year was the last Jewish festival that was celebrated in what was then the normal way. It was festive. It was bonding and celebratory. People took it for granted that they were safe when they hugged each other, danced together, shared a plate of hummus, or dipped into their finger food. Even sharing hamantaschen with friends was totally acceptable.
We took our health and safety for granted when we surrounded ourselves closely with friends and family. We also thought nothing of kissing and being unmasked – yes, even on Purim – with people we didn’t live with.
One year later, and so much has changed. Masks are the norm, and part of our protection from this dreaded coronavirus. Being separate is the rule. And, trying to find a way to celebrate Purim while still observing all the COVID-19 safety protocols is the call.
Our rabbis, Hatzolah, and doctors have put out a stern warning to us to totally downscale celebration of this fabulous chag.
In the words of doctors, they are “urging and appealing to everyone to make sure that this festival of Purim isn’t the catalyst for the beginning of another surge of coronavirus”.
While they aren’t saying we shouldn’t celebrate, they are saying that “this isn’t the time for communal meals, events, and senseless alcohol consumption”. They ask that we keep our seudot to “each person’s home/family bubble”.
They are dissuading people from sending and delivering mishloach manot to lots of friends and family as this could spread COVID-19. They suggest limiting this to a minimal number of people.
While, like us, they would love to celebrate Purim as we have always done, they have seen the ravages of this deadly virus up close, and want to guide us in doing what’s right to prevent a further surge.
The rabbis particularly ask that we limit our seudot to our nuclear family and focus on the “preservation of life” this year in the hope that next year, we can celebrate in the manner we are accustomed to.
Hatzolah gives some great tips in how to safeguard ourselves over Purim this year. This includes making sure all surfaces are sanitised and that people who don’t live together remain two metres apart at any given time. They also encourage plated food, and individually bottled drinks. They recommend having seudot outside and with as few people as possible, avoiding the elderly and people with comorbidities.
The vitally important take-home information this week is that we are on the right path but we are a long way from safety and security in terms of COVID-19.
It’s 100% up to us to keep our guard up, keep social distances, wash and sanitise our hands. You know the drill by now.
It’s too easy to let it go when the numbers are low. So easy! Nobody believes that when the numbers are low, they can get the virus. In fact, most people who have contracted the virus were shocked and never believed it would happen to them.
It’s exciting that the rollout has begun, and our healthcare workers are getting vaccinated. It’s brilliant and a sign of great things to come. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we won’t get there in the next few months.
The light is bright but it’s way down the line. We need to accept that we will still be wearing our masks through the middle of this year. We are most likely still going to have a third surge no matter how quickly we vaccinate two thirds of the population.
So, let’s lift our spirits because there is hope in sight, but let’s make a commitment to stay safe over Purim no matter how difficult that is.
Chag Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
The many inventions of war
War brings out the best and worst in humanity. And we are certainly living through a world war against a virus. The battlefield is different, the enemy is invisible, but humans are all on the same side in this conflict. That’s in spite of some differing views on how we fight the enemy.
One of the incredible things about the worst kinds of wars is the amazing invention and innovation that stems from these awful times.
I couldn’t help wondering about this when reading about the so-called “miracle drug” Israeli scientists have come up with, and listening to talk about other potential medication that might help against COVID-19.
It also struck me that in one year, there have been so many vaccines created against COVID-19, each of them different, but all said to be effective.
Then I thought about Ivermectin, which isn’t a new drug, but something used to treat parasitic infestations. Somewhere along the line, as medical experts got more and more desperate to save lives and protect people from this coronavirus, they found that Ivermectin might be helpful. In fact, there are some who swear it could be much more than that. Read our story on page 3.
Then, there is much talk about this new drug in Israel that has successfully passed its first clinical trial.
The EXO-CD24 inhaler treatment, developed by Professor Nadir Arber at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, was tested on 30 patients with moderate to severe conditions. They all recovered, 29 of them within just three to five days.
This drug was initially formulated to treat cancer patients, and is meant to prevent a cytokine storm (when the body starts to attack its own cells). This reaction appears to happen in severe COVID-19 cases when patients develop acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis this week asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if his country could participate in clinical trials of the drug. But, the truth is that it’s a long way from being proven to be a miracle drug, in spite of Netanyahu dubbing it so.
However, this is just further evidence of the amazing innovation people come up with in a war. In other words, in times of need, people do phenomenal things. Or, necessity is the mother of invention.
Have you noticed those foot sanitiser pumps at the entrance to almost every shop, building, or office block? That certainly wasn’t around before COVID-19.
While inventions abound around the world, Africa has its fair share.
Students from a school in Senegal built a robot to lower the risk of passing COVID-19 between patients and caregivers. The robot is remote controlled via an app. It’s able to move around the rooms of quarantined patients, take their temperatures, and bring them medicine and food.
This is just one of many inventions, most of which we will find out about only long after the pandemic is over. It often seems to happen that the inventions created in wartime don’t see the light of day for many years.
During World War I, a material that was five times more absorbent than cotton was used for surgical dressing for the first time. Red Cross nurses saw its benefit for their own personal hygiene, and the sanitary towel was created. Once the war was over, there was no need for it as a surgical dressing, but its second use took off, and women have been using them ever since.
Tissues, sun lamps, wristwatches, stainless steel, and zips were also just some of the inventions that date back to World War I. So, too, do vegetarian sausages and tea bags.
A tea merchant started sending tea in small bags to his customers during the war. It’s not known if it was on purpose or by accident that one of these bags landed up in water, but it resulted in what we now know as tea bags.
As for soya sausages, they are attributed to an invention by Konrad Adenauer, who was the mayor of Cologne (Germany) during the war, and later became the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949. He researched ways of substituting scarce food items, like meat, with other ingredients, eventually resulting in these sausages.
World War II gave birth to the ballpoint pen, radars, photocopying, jet engines, penicillin, satellites, superglue, and freeze dry coffee. Each has its own story.
My point is that as we are witnessing the scramble to find solutions to stemming COVID-19 and the crises created by the pandemic, we see people creating marvellous products.
Zoom – which has become our most common form of online communication since the beginning of the pandemic – wasn’t the result of the pandemic. It was invented before, but found its footing at the beginning of the pandemic.
However, I’m sure there have been many other more innovative variations on it since the beginning of this war. These will probably lead to some phenomena down the line that will take our technological prowess many steps further. We will then look back at the amazing inventions from this time.
I’m sure those who have challenged themselves on the medical and scientific frontier, which is the frontier of this particular world war, are coming up with much more than just vaccines.
For all we know, someone may have stumbled onto the prevention of the common cold and flu while trying to find a cure for COVID-19, or a way of preventing malaria or tuberculosis.
We will find out down the line…
I know every week, we record history, but this week is special. Being able to capture a photograph of the first Jewish person to get vaccinated in South Africa is an astonishing coup for us. Down the line, people will always be able to see this history in the making. Dr Darren Joseph will go down in our history as being the first person in our community to get the vaccine and we have the visual proof.
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