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Trauma and forgiveness at heart of new novel

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Johannesburg in the 1970s is the setting of a newly published novel, We Were the Newmans, by Beverley Lester, where the quiet innocence of a Highveld spring afternoon is shattered by an unimaginable act of violence in a Jewish family.

Some survive, some don’t, and the novel follows ripples of trauma from South Africa to the United Kingdom to Chile and back again, against a South Africa trying to forge a path of healing through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from London, where she lives and practices as psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, and lecturer, Lester says that while such acts of violence in a Jewish family seem almost unheard of, she knows of a number of such atrocities that occurred in Jewish homes while she was growing up in Johannesburg.

“It’s not unknown. Some were a result of mental health, some as a result of the loss of affluence. Just because we’re Jewish, doesn’t mean we aren’t safeguarded from intense despair,” she says. “For example, in a lot of shuls in London, on the inside of the toilet doors is information for women in case they are being abused. For some, it may be their only moment of safety and privacy to get help. It shows that it can happen anywhere.”

This is Lester’s first novel, and it centres on the fictional character of Ruth Newman, a teenager growing up in a typical Johannesburg Jewish family. The rhythm of their lives is familiar and ordinary: driving through the Karoo for family holidays, Shabbat dinners where underlying resentments simmer along with the chicken soup, Thursday night supper at the local steakhouse, and what seem like minor squabbles between parents.

But Ruth is suddenly ripped from that world and spends years in London, where she heals but also becomes a shell of herself. Time in Chile brings her into confrontation with other traumas, and the way women create rituals for healing when family members simply disappear under a despotic regime. But it’s when she finally returns to the country of her birth that she faces how much she is willing to forgive.

Lester was born in London and grew up in South Africa and Israel. She studied law in Johannesburg, and worked in publishing in Tel Aviv before settling in the United Kingdom. She is particularly interested in transgenerational trauma. She has written three children’s stories and a collection of short stories.

She was motivated to write the book as long as 15 years ago. Reflecting on a friend’s early death, she realised she would regret it one day if she didn’t give more attention to her writing. Her work as a therapist ties into writing, she says. “Therapy is largely about managing, negotiating, and thinking about ourselves in relation to loss. It’s about holding people’s stories. Often people struggle with forgiveness and how to move on without bitterness. The book looks at these questions.”

In addition, Lester was profoundly affected by a documentary about the TRC that she saw at the cinema a few years ago which included interviews with perpetrators and victims of apartheid. “The lights went up afterwards, the audience was mostly South African, and everyone was sobbing, including me. I couldn’t stop crying, and felt overwhelmed with guilt, shame, and confusion about my South African identity.”

This feeling of “if only” infuses the novel, where Ruth grows up in sheltered suburbia, coming of age in a space of naiveté while the country burns. Just as the Soweto riots of June 1976 burst a bubble of ignorance, Ruth’s own confrontation with reality follows in October 1976, when violence ruptures her happy youth.

Lester says it’s no coincidence that she placed the event in 1976. “Those were years of brutality, and the event was very much a response to that environment. The personal is political, and the political is personal.”

The characters are richly drawn, and their voices ring authentically true. Lester says she “breathed in” a South African voice during her childhood, which flows onto the page. One character, an elderly black woman named Constance, shares her experience of the TRC in the form of letters, and Lester writes her voice in a way that is real and raw. The author says she was conscious about writing the characters “with integrity”.

It’s a tough time for writers, Lester says, as some publishers are nervous about authors writing characters that are different to themselves in case of a backlash that they aren’t written authentically. But Lester feels it’s a shame to force writers to write about only their experiences, believing writing is a way to bridge gaps in understanding each other.

The period that Ruth spends in Chile explores the important role that women play in healing broken societies. For example, the arpillera is a tapestry that women made using materials from their missing loved ones’ clothes, and the La Cuenca is a Latin American couples’ dance that women danced on their own, with a photograph of their loved one.

“If we look at the recent murder of [London resident] Sarah Everard, most of the mourning and protest has been driven by devastated women,” says Lester. “Women have always found ways to demonstrate, to say, ‘Stop, you are destroying us!’ Can you arrest a woman for making a tapestry? No, you can’t, but they were significant and important forms of storytelling and resistance.”

Lester says that while her characters are “hugely damaged”, she wanted to “create a feeling that maybe people can get a second chance. If we have compassion for the characters, maybe we can find compassion for ourselves. We don’t hear enough about people who have never recovered [mentally] from atrocities like the Holocaust. People and life are complicated.”

When it comes to generational trauma, Lester says, “Your history is your history. It gives us our compassion and empathy. I’m hoping that this book is about compassion and recognising the complexity of being human.”

  • ‘We Were the Newmans’ is available on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

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BDS boycott ‘creating divisions among ordinary South Africans’

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“I felt targeted because I’m Jewish. It’s antisemitic,” said a businessman affected by an alleged boycott of companies purported to support Israel.

A group of 300 South African hardware stores supposedly cancelled contracts with “SA-based suppliers and companies that have relations with or who have shown support for Israel”. The executive director of Africa4Palestine (formerly Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa), Muhammed Desai, last week described the boycott as “heartwarming”.

“Many people have been pressured by their community to be part of a boycott and cause harm,” said this businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This affects ordinary South Africans because it destroys long-term business relationships.”

Although there has been an impact on his company, it seems not many businesses have felt the impact of the boycott. Other suppliers listed by Desai told the SA Jewish Report that no contracts had been cancelled. “None of our relationships or sales into any of the hardware stores in South Africa have been compromised,” said one supplier, who asked not to be named.

“I can state categorically that this has had no impact on our business,” said another supplier who wanted to remain anonymous. “Our order book is full.”

“As the ‘rainbow nation’, this is just aggressively encouraging divisions that were never there before,” said the first businessman. “People are making business decisions based on religion rather than good business principles. These enforced divisions are what worry me more than anything. What happened to the South Africa that we know? This radical stance is completely nonsensical,” he said.

Desai went on to declare, “Today, standing with Israel, having ties with Israel, or serving in the Israeli military have all, correctly, become similar to, in the past, having stood with apartheid South Africa or with Nazi Germany. To stand with Israel today is now synonymous with saying, ‘I stand with Germany’ during the Holocaust or declaring, ‘I stand with South Africa’ during apartheid.”

He said Africa4Palestine welcomed “this ethical position as a morally sound example to other stores in South Africa and the African continent to emulate so that we can truly create apartheid-Israeli-free zones. Your efforts have served as another great blow to those who believe they can support the Israeli regime on the one hand, and take money and profits from principled and moral South African people.”

If the language of boycotting Jewish businesses and creating “Israeli-free zones” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn said, “In his congratulatory letter to the boycotters, Desai compares Israel to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The irony of his use of Holocaust terminology is also not lost on us Jews. Nazi Germany also came to our minds when we read this letter. We remember that the Holocaust began with the boycotting of Jewish businesses.

“We aren’t fooled by his couching of words or references to those who ‘have relations with or who have shown support for Israel’ and those ‘standing with Israel, having ties with Israel’. What he actually means is Jews. According to the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre study in 2019, 90% of South African Jews support Israel, so invariably, what Desai is calling for is the boycott of Jewish businesses.

“The delight that he takes in potentially destroying these Jewish businesses is gut-wrenching, not least because of the fragile and precarious economic climate in South Africa. Will Desai and the BDS organisations rejoice in the jobs lost by these businesses?

“His so-called victory of boycotts of Jewish business won’t have an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All these threats achieve is attempted intimidation of local South African Jews who hold an opinion different to BDS. The South African Jewish community won’t be intimidated. It’s effect will be only to harm South African businesses trying desperately to survive and retain jobs,” Kahn said.

“Our Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion. There’s no rider that excludes Jews and people who have a connection to Israel. Nor does it call for the destruction of livelihoods of people for daring to believe differently.”

Desai issued a statement saying that the accusation of antisemitism was “a deliberate misrepresentation”, but then reiterated that “we welcome South Africans shunning, boycotting, and ending relations with suppliers and companies that are trading with, have links to, or are supportive of Israel”.

In response to the SAJBD’s statement on the matter, published on Facebook, Africa4Palestine’s Bram Hanekom wrote, “The 300 hardware stores can buy the things they need from other South African owned and ethical businesses.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public diplomacy at the South African Zionist Federation, noted that “the boycott of Jewish businesses has a long history in the BDS movement going back more than a decade, with Jewish businesses or those with Jewish management frequently targeted. What’s more, commercial boycotts against Israel have been a complete failure internationally. Since the boycott movement started, trade between Israel and South Africa has actually increased on average.

“BDS has many other failed boycott attempts,” he said. “One that comes to mind is the failed Woolworths ‘tomato’ boycott, which also produced zero results, other than a pig’s head placed in the kosher section of a supermarket. BDS may be trying to intimidate smaller Jewish businesses, but as yet, it hasn’t shown any signs that it has the capability of undertaking a full-fledged boycott campaign.”

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SAZF takes on Judge Desai for his conduct

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The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has predictably come in for some heavy criticism by the anti-Israel lobby for lodging a complaint against retired Judge Siraj Desai with the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC).

Last week, the SAZF lodged a complaint with the JCC against the judge, who recently took up the position of the Legal Services Ombudsman.

The SAZF said Desai’s actions and conduct over many years was plainly in breach of the code of judicial conduct and “entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer”.

This was a bombshell complaint against Desai, who is a well-known social activist and respected jurist described by many as the “people’s judge”.

The detailed complaint against him spans many years from 2009 till the present, highlighting Desai’s actions and conduct connecting him to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and the pro-Palestinian movement.

The SAZF said that Desai’s alleged misconduct included his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his judicial office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his judicial office to promote a partisan political cause.

Desai, who served the legal profession for 43 years, retired as a Western Cape High Court judge last year, and almost immediately accepted the ombud position having been appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The objective of the ombud is to advance and safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa But more importantly, it’s to ensure fair, efficient, and effective investigation of complaints of alleged misconduct by legal practitioners.

Former Judge Rex van Schalkwyk of the Rule of Law Project told the SA Jewish Report, “This isn’t about whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Did Judge Desai conform with the ethics that constrain him as a judge? Having looked at the complaint, there is at least a case that needs to be answered. Judge Desai must give an explanation about his conduct. It’s legitimate for this issue to have been brought to the professional body of the JSC [Judicial Service Commission] and to be dealt with specifically in accordance with the principle of law not in accordance with the political issues which will cloud the complaint.”

The SAZF has been lambasted for the complaint, which it lodged on 10 June, by members of Africa4Palestine and the South African BDS Coalition. They have set up a Facebook page called “Hands off Judge Desai”.

The anti-Israel lobbyists described the complaint as “spurious” and “baseless”, and called it a “vengeful attack”. Africa4Palestine criticised the “questionable” timing of the complaint, saying that it was an attempt to distract from its complaint lodged against the country’s outgoing Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Last Friday, 11 June, the JCC appeal panel said it was continuing its deliberations on Mogoeng Mogoeng’s appeal against a misconduct finding for his remarks about Israel brought by Africa4Palestine.

Earlier this year, the JCC found that Mogoeng had contravened the code of judicial conduct with comments made during a webinar in June last year and subsequently at a prayer meeting where he declared that he would never apologise for the views he expressed. In the webinar, hosted by the Jerusalem Post, he said he believed South Africa would do well to consider adopting a more objective stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said “hatred” of the Jewish state could “attract unprecedented curses upon our nation”.

In his March ruling, Judge Phineas Mojapelo stressed that “judges are to stay out of politics”.

The South African BDS Coalition said the SAZF’s complaint against Desai was in “retaliation for the failure to secure a seat at the Constitutional Court by Judge Unterhalter” accusing him of being an “apologist for Zionism”. Earlier this year, the SA BDS Coalition demanded that Unterhalter not be selected to the Constitutional Court for his association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Rolene Marks, SAZF’s legal forum spokesperson said, “At issue here, is the role that judges play in our society. The reason that there is a judicial code of conduct is that judges need to be seen not to be promoting political causes since they may have to rule on them at some stage. However, it’s clear through his comments that although Judge Desai is entitled to his views in terms of freedom of speech, he is bound by the judicial code of conduct, and his actions fall outside of that.”

According to the SAZF, last year, Desai while being interviewed on an Iranian YouTube channel, made “inappropriate comments” likening Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela.

“To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights, and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions,” the statement said.

It added that Desai also made “several other shocking remarks” during the interview regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States – an important trading and diplomatic partner of South Africa – as the “great Satan” which demonstrated that Desai had “engaged in conduct incompatible with his status as a judge of the high court.”

According to the SAZF, Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby.

In 2009, Desai was part of a South African delegation of pro-Palestinian activists that was to take part in a protest known as “the Gaza Freedom March” organised by the Palestine Solidarity Alliance. It was during this time that the Cairo Declaration was signed which was a call for a global movement for Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel. The SAZF said Desai “lent his stature as a judge to the drafting and issuing of the declaration”.

In 2015, he gave an order in a review application brought by pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist organisations and activists against the City of Cape Town. There is allegedly no record in the judgment of him having disclosed his interest in BDS to the parties in that case, according to the complaint.

In 2018, Desai welcomed Hamas during its visit to South Africa and said, “We hope to make an intellectual contribution to the resolution of the Palestinian issue, but we take our leadership from you, you are the leadership on the ground.”

“This, despite the fact that the Hamas charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the state of Israel. Using the prestige of the judicial office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the judicial code of conduct,” said the complaint.

“Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the judicial code,” said the SAZF. “It’s therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account.”

Desai told News24 through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, that he was “unapologetic in his stance in condemnation of apartheid Israel”.

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Kacev heads up Jewish education network that will benefit SA

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The former director of the South African Board of Jewish Education, Rabbi Craig Kacev, has been selected as pedagogical director of a new project called the Global Jewish Education Resource Centre, in partnership with Israel’s Diaspora Affairs ministry.

For the first time, there will be one organisation liaising with Jewish schools throughout the world, creating a global Jewish education network.

The initiative includes a global educational and professional network that will work with experts and providers across all continents and in different languages. It will pioneer the development of educational content, training of teachers, support of school leadership, building of virtual platforms to share ideas and initiatives, and the provision of professional consulting services to individual schools.

The need for this initiative was recognised during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many communities in the diaspora were struggling to cope with the closure of schools and the transition to virtual learning while facing a shortage of Jewish Studies teachers and high-quality curriculum resources.

The initiative will include the creation of connections and dialogue between Jewish school students, teachers, and principals around the world. The initiative is in partnership with Herzog College, Israel’s leading academic college for teacher education in the religious sector. It’s renowned for its expertise in teacher training, professional development, and designing innovative digital content.

Kacev made aliyah earlier this year. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Israel, he says “this new initiative, in response to the impact of the pandemic, has goals uniquely linked to what schools have experienced over the past year and a half. It also seeks to capitalise on the past for the benefit of Jewish schools in the future. The initiative seeks to make a difference in areas of leadership, teachers, and content, with a focus on enhancing Jewish learning.

“That said, it’s also intended to respond to current trends such as distance learning, social and emotional needs, project-based learning, and other areas where schools need support. Herzog College brings a team of high-level educators doing research and teaching in many spheres, and we hope to ensure that schools around the world benefit from this expertise. We don’t claim to know everything, nor do we intend to be an organisation that forces solutions on schools. This is intended to be a platform that provides support. Working with as many partners in the field, it aims to serve each school in its areas of need.”

Kacev says he took the role on “with much trepidation. The responsibility is substantial, and the pressure to bring an offering that adds value to as many Jewish schools as possible around the world isn’t to be underestimated.”

As director of pedagogy, he will be guiding the educational team on the approach and content that it will use in teacher education, content development, and student engagement opportunities.

“While we will start with a few offerings, this will grow rather quickly. There are many existing organisations developing content or offering services to the field. I hope to work with as many of these as possible to bring their expertise to a larger audience, and then have the Global Resource Centre bring its added offering to the field. We are also hoping to develop more cost-effective models for schools to access high-quality content.”

Kacev says he was drawn to the role because, “having dedicated myself to Jewish education for the past 25 years, this is where I wanted to remain. Now, I will be able to bring all that I learned along the way to Jewish schools across the globe. I have a sense of many of the common needs across the Jewish educational world, and I’m learning about the specific needs in each country. I believe that I bring a broad and deep understanding of Jewish education, together with the experience of working on a large scale. One quickly learns that if systems are developed correctly then even if the platform or organisation is huge, the customer feels that their needs are being met. We hope to achieve that on a substantial scale for schools and especially Jewish educators around the world.”

On the importance and uniqueness of this project, he says, “There are many providers in the field and many countries have umbrella organisations serving their Jewish schools. But there is no one organisation that is looking to provide a global address for all that’s available while developing meta-curricula, worldwide teacher networks, and looking to harness the substantial expertise in the field for the benefit of all. This is also an initiative that Israel is investing in, and will continue to invest in with substantial funds, together with philanthropists around the world interested in Jewish education.”

At a ceremony last week, Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich signed a 38 million shekel (R160 million) agreement with Herzog College to lead the two-year project.

So, how soon will the project reach Jewish schools in South Africa? “Whatever part of the offering goes live after the chaggim in October 2021 will be available to all Jewish schools around the world,” says Kacev. “Teachers will be able to find content, get assistance in finding specific content, join worldwide networks on many topics moderated by experts in their fields, and join the ongoing online courses. As the project develops, there will be specific initiatives together with Jewish schools in South Africa based on their needs and requests.”

Regarding the specific challenges facing South African Jewish schools that the project can assist with, Kacev says, “South Africa, like many other places could benefit from ongoing teacher education, opportunities for educational leaders to share with colleagues and learn from experts around the world, and high-quality curriculum content and materials. The extent to which the Jewish schools stand to benefit from the initiative will depend on their proactive use of the resource centre.

“That said, I have a special place in my heart for South Africa, and hope to ensure that they do benefit from all that the initiative offers. There will also be opportunities for schools to benefit from additional investment in our area of responsibility if there is partner funding from the community. We hope to find that sort of support over time, as has been the case in Europe and South America to date.”

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