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UK Chief Rabbi Mirvis to attend Limmud in Dec

Newly-appointed Cape Town raised UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis says he will attend Limmud there in December. For the mean time it’s still ‘no go’ in SA.

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ANT KATZ

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has said that he will attend Limmud in the UK in December – a precedent-setting move which will see the first serving chief rabbi to attend the event since its inception in 1980.

The recently-appointed former Capetonian Chief Rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth, said he was “very pleased to be participating” in Limmud – a cross-communal education conference.

A spokesman at the London Beth Din (LBD) says it still harbours reservations about Orthodox rabbis attending. The dayanim did recognise, however, that the decision was the prerogative of the Chief Rabbi. The LBD retained “every confidence” in Rabbi Mirvis and offered him “every support”.

Chief Rabbi Mirvis told JC.com: “One of my primary functions is as teacher of the community. I see Limmud as an opportunity to teach Torah to large numbers of people who want to learn.”

His predecessor, Lord Jonathan Sacks, although he attended Limmud before becoming Chief Rabbi, stayed away after taking office. In 1995 Lord Sacks told US rabbis they were free to attend the event at their own discretion. But, for the most part, Orthodox rabbis have heeded the wishes of the LBD which had opposed their attendance.

The LBD dayanim remain “seriously concerned” at Limmud blurring “the distinction between authentic Orthodox Judaism and non-Orthodox Jewish beliefs and practices”.

Steve Pack, president of the United Synagogue (UK equivalent of the UOS) said he “wholeheartedly” welcomed Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ move.

“Limmud is one of Anglo-Jewry’s greatest achievements and exports,” said Pack. “I know that participants will enjoy hearing from the Chief Rabbi and benefit from learning with him.”

Oliver Marcus, co-chairman of Limmud UK’s December event, said they were “delighted” at Rabbi Mirvis’ decision “to join us at Limmud conference as a presenter and a participant”.

SA Orthodox rabbis have also taken a decision not to participate in the fast-growing Limmud-SA.

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is inundated with last minute matters relating to The Shabbos Project (happening this weekend) and could not be contacted for comment. His office told Jewish Report, however, that the decision not to use Limmud as an educational platform had been taken in conjunction with the South African Rabbinical Association.

The local event has not hosted a South African Orthodox rabbi as a delegate or speaker, but Limmud locally does attract an ever-increasing number of frum delegates.

Wayne Sussman – national co-chairman of Limmud-SA – told Jewish Report on Monday that he would be travelling this week and that one of the other co-chairmen would comment on the matter, but no comment had been received at the time of us going to print.

 

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An aliyah flight of biblical proportions

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It was an aliyah flight that came together as if guided by the hand of G-d. The South Africans, presently the pariahs of the world thanks to the COVID-19 variant discovered here, were told about it just less than 24 hours before. And it wasn’t just any flight they were joining, but an historic aliyah of Ethiopian Jews who had been waiting decades to come to the Jewish state.

“We were like the Jews leaving Mitzrayim,” says oleh Rabbi Craig Kacev, who read the Megillah in the middle of Addis Ababa Airport on Ta’anit Esther (The Fast of Esther). He spoke to the SA Jewish Report from Haifa, where he and his wife are in quarantine at the same hostel where 286 Ethiopian olim are isolating.

“It was fascinating and exciting to see first-hand the effort Israel makes to continue the ingathering of the exiles,” he said. “There was such joy in witnessing history.”

Liat Amar Arran, the director of the Israel Centre South Africa, says the flight was a “miracle”.

“We had a group of about 20 people who wanted to make aliyah, but there were no flights. Everyone told me to wait, but I said people have jobs lined up, or no place to live here, and I’m not giving up. Then this Ethiopian flight was approved – one of only five aliyah flights from around the world.

“Shai Felder, the head of the aliyah department, said he could try and organise a bigger plane from Ethiopia to add our olim, but he wasn’t convinced it could happen, and he said I might need to give up. I said I’m not giving up, I’m counting on this option,” says Amar Arran.

“I told the South African olim to go for COVID-19 tests as they might be able to get on a flight tomorrow. At this point, we were just praying. Everyone said I was crazy, that you couldn’t do this so last minute. I said I would rather wait till the last minute and try. Well, 12 people had COVID-19 tests, and there were 12 seats available on the plane. It was due to many good people working together that they got on that flight.”

“Getting to Israel was never certain,” says Kacev. “We were asked if we were willing to take a chance and have our COVID-19 tests last Wednesday [24 February 2021] in the hope that we would get on this flight. We did the tests, and late on Wednesday, we were told there was space on the flight going the next day. We had been living out of suitcases for weeks already in the hope that we could go, but from that point, it was still a complete whirlwind – but was also beautifully organised.

“We arrived in Addis after 20:00, and had to wait until 03:00 for the next flight. It was Purim night, so I leined the Megillah in the airport, which was packed, but we found a quiet spot.” Kacev says that while the Ethiopians had cell phones and were living a modern life, they also brought a lot of traditional food with them on the plane, as well as musical instruments.

“When we arrived in Israel, there was such rejoicing, with music playing, flags waving, sweets for the children – it was such a simcha.” The welcoming committee included Israeli ministers, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, and even former shaliach to South Africa Danny Adeno Abebe, who himself made the long walk to Israel from Ethiopia as a boy. As the new spokesperson for the ministry of absorption, Abebe told the SA Jewish Report that he was thrilled to see both Ethiopian olim and South Africans finally touch down on Israeli soil.

“It was so nice to see well-known and familiar faces,” says Kacev. “We walked down to the tarmac and were put straight onto buses with our luggage, and driven to Haifa. Because we are quarantining with the Ethiopians, we are being served their traditional food. We asked staff to ‘tone it down’ for us!”

While in quarantine, the Kacevs have been able to speak to their children (who have already made aliyah) through a nearby fence. Many of the Ethiopian olim have done the same, speaking to relatives who settled in Israel before them. “While we had the inconvenience of not being sure when our flight would be, I thought about how these olim from Ethiopia have literally been waiting years. It was so humbling,” says Kacev.

Sean Korb, who was also on the flight with his wife and two young children, says, “If there is one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that we aren’t in control of everything. As 2021 rolled in, we were ready with every document necessary, and were looking forward to being part of the second or third aliyah plane of the New Year, but then Ben Gurion Airport was shut.

“Being thrown between excitement and disappointment was anxiety-provoking to a degree that we have never experienced. Every flight was an option but not an option. Frankfurt, Turkey, Ethiopia were all options, but not for us South Africans. Permission was needed by the Israeli government to allow us to enter on those flights.

“On the morning of 25 February, we had said we will go when we need to go – we cannot push the river anymore. Just a few moments later, we received a call that there was one more option: to fly together with a group of Ethiopians the following day. We were warned not to get our hopes up, but asked to get our COVID-19 tests just in case. Hours later, we received the news that we had made it onto the flight and would need to be at OR Tambo International Airport for our flight leaving in less than 24 hours.

“The rest of our experience was filled with more extremes: the kindness and hospitality of regular Ethiopians helping us with our pram and luggage as we got off in Ethiopia, but also the ruthless security who checked our bags and wanted our son – who was a day away from his first birthday – to walk through security alone. Our pram was taken away twice to be inspected.

“But we made it. Our baby boy turned one in an Ethiopian airport, on Purim, during a pandemic, on our way to Israel. Now we sit in quarantine in a hotel in Haifa, with staff working tirelessly to ensure that more than 400 people are taken care of. We will never forget the way we made our way to the place we want to be.”

Korb says they didn’t realise how historic it would be to fly with this group of Ethiopians. “We didn’t know how many people it was going to be, but it was literally an entire plane filled with young and old. The kids wanted to interact with our two children, and it was incredible to see them play together. There was also a lot of chaos. Everyone wanted to get onto the plane, and was excited and nervous.”

He emphasises how “incredible” Amar Arran and aliyah consultant Ziva Taitz were throughout the experience. “They literally didn’t stop, working 24 hours a day trying to get us to Israel,” Korb says. “They helped us to deal with our expectations, not get our hopes too high, but also to keep up hope. They were professional, organised, and are still helping us. So a huge kol hakavod to them, and their team. We count ourselves extremely blessed to have arrived in Israel on this historic flight.”

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Israel

Not another Israeli election!

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English-Jewish actor/comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was asked by an Israeli television outlet if he knew Israel was headed for another election. His reply summed up the feeling of more than 60% of Israelis who are eligible to vote.

“You’re voting again?! Enough already!” Baron Cohen exclaimed. “It’s like Passover: why is this election different to all others?”

And that’s just the point – it isn’t.

Last December, when the previous Israeli government collapsed, the reality of a fourth election in just two years became uncannily inevitable. But nothing’s changed. Whereas the previous three elections revolved largely around the question of whether or not voters wanted Benjamin Netanyahu as their prime minister, that question, this time around, is even more pressing.

In the previous elections there might have been some mention, albeit on the periphery, of issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the settlements, and military service for ultra-Orthodox men. But during this election campaign, those issues aren’t even being brought up. It’s a contest between “Only Bibi [Netanyahu]” and “anyone but Bibi”.

And it has divided the country. For months now, protestors have been gathering outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem and at intersections throughout the country, waving flags and banners, and demanding that he step down. Their hatred of Netanyahu seems to sometimes border on obsession. Protestors complain about his stinginess and sponging off wealthy acquaintances and the state, his troubled relations with employees, and his inclination to manipulate facts well before the term “fake news” was popularised by former American President Donald Trump.

But that isn’t the only parallel that can be drawn between the two leaders. Political advisors working during last November’s American presidential election for then Democratic contender Joe Biden, focused on Trump the personality and stayed away from issues.

They were successful. According to a Pew poll, 56% of Biden’s voters said that the main reason they voted for him was because he was not President Trump. Only 9% said their vote had to do with Biden’s positions.

Some of those same advisors have been working in Israel, trying to steer voters away from issues and reinforcing the “anybody but Bibi” camp that has been steadily gaining momentum over recent years.

But like Trump, Netanyahu has his stalwarts who consistently blame the media, judiciary, and “left-wingers” for telling lies and conspiring towards his downfall.

It’s not as though there are no issues in Israel to discuss ahead of these elections. But they are all overshadowed by personalities. For example, Israel has administered more than 7.6 million COVID-19 vaccination doses, making its rollout the fastest in the world. This is something that Netanyahu takes personal credit for.

As he does the fact that – with the help of the Trump administration – he delivered deals to establish diplomatic relations with four formerly hostile Arab countries over the past four months. He also boasts that his administrations have led the country through years of relative security and stability.

Still, it doesn’t change the numbers in his support base. Netanyahu’s advocates merely argue that these things prove he is the best leader for Israel, while his detractors maintain that he has politicised the coronavirus rollout, the economy has shrunk, and the airport is closed.

There is no real reason to think, nor are the polls indicating that Israelis are going to change their voting patterns dramatically come 23 March. A Netanyahu critic isn’t all of a sudden going to cast a ballot for him; and a left-wing voter won’t suddenly support a right-wing party. By and large, the candidates are the same as the last election, which suggests the result will also be.

There’s no guarantee that a fifth election isn’t around the corner. In fact, the feeling in Israel is that it’s all but inevitable.

The public is exhausted by this seemingly endless cycle of ballots. Voters are feeling increasingly apathetic, and many are wondering if this isn’t a case of too much democracy.

Already two years ago, Israelis were complaining of election fatigue; now add people’s weariness with coronavirus and constant lockdowns to the mood, and it’s no surprise that a recent Tel Aviv University study warned of a growing mental-health problem in the country. It found that Israelis are sleeping more, performing less exercise, and are more unhappy.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that in spite of predictions of low turnout because of voter fatigue and concerns about coronavirus, the last elections held exactly a year ago attracted the highest number of voters – 71% – in five years. It goes to show that only fools predict Israeli elections; nobody can know at this stage how the next one will end up.

But if there’s one reason why this month’s election will be different from previous ones, it’s because it will be fought overwhelmingly on the right wing of the Israeli political spectrum. Most of the centre-left and centre parties are expected to decline in support or vanish.

It has spurred some right-wing politicians – Netanyahu among them – to start courting Arab voters, particularly those who have been left jobless and desperate by the pandemic. Netanyahu claims he will win two to three seats from the Arab public, especially after the Joint List, a mainly Arab grouping that secured the biggest-ever vote share in last year’s election, broke up last month.

So maybe it will be Bibi. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe there’ll be a fifth election. Maybe there won’t. It is said that the only predictable thing in the Middle East is that the region is ridiculously unpredictable. Israel is no exception. A joke circulating at the moment: no matter the results, all Israelis will get what they want. No more annoying, nonstop SMS messages.

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Sacks lifts the lid on massive Prasa-related corruption

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Forensic accountant Ryan Sacks last week blew the cover on alleged corruption and financial irregularities within and without the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), exposing for the first time how billions in tax payers’ money was stolen.

Sacks opened a Pandora’s box into corruption during his explosive testimony at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture before Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

What was only meant to be a two-hour appearance at the commission turned into almost two days of riveting testimony. Evidence leader Vas Soni questioned Sacks about his findings into Swifambo, the now liquidated local company behind the notorious, ill-fated, multibillion rand tender to procure locomotives.

Four years ago, the Hawks commissioned Sacks, 43, the director of Crowe Forensics SA to present a cashflow analysis of the corrupt Swifambo tender. He presented his report, which revealed outrageous movements of funds linked to Prasa’s contract with Swifambo Rail Leasing (SRL).

His preliminary report alleged financial irregularities masterminded by a widescale web of corrupt activity within and outside the stricken government-owned entity. However, at the time, his report seemingly fell on deaf ears, he told the commission.

He asked police to furnish him with further information to complete his analysis. He was again ignored, and has not heard from the Hawks regarding Swifambo since.

Last week, however, Sacks was heard loud and clear when he presented his report after being summoned to do so. His report – until recently kept highly confidential – was presented to the public for the first time.

The report revealed the astonishing movement of funds linked to Prasa’s corrupt contract with SRL, a local company set up only a year before Prasa first advertised the tender. This was under the watch of then Prasa Chief Executive Lucky Montana, who oversaw the shady acquisition.

SRL was the front company in 2012 that clinched a R3.5 billion contract to supply 70 locomotives to Prasa. It had no track record in the rail industry. Swifambo, merely acting as a middleman in the corrupt deal, ordered the locomotives from Spanish supplier Vossloh España.

Prasa ended up paying Swifambo R2.6 billion and in return, received only 13 Afro4000 diesel-electric locomotives. These trains were too tall and totally unsuitable for South African rail specifications, as revealed by Rapport newspaper.

Sacks’ testimony exposed the hundreds of millions in tax payers’ money that should have been used to supply Prasa with new trains but was instead diverted. The money went to Auswell Mashaba, Swifambo’s former managing director, and businessman Makhensa Mabunda, as well as to several entities, high ranking public officials, and individuals linked to them.

Mashaba failed to appear before the commission last week in spite of being served with a summons.

“Last week was the first time that the public and a judge has had the opportunity to hear and see evidence of actual cashflows. It was the first time this real evidence has been produced,” said Bernard Hotz, commercial litigator and head of business crimes and investigations at Werksmans Attorneys.

“Instead of false allegations about Werksmans being a white monopoly capital law firm that was unlawfully appointed to investigate Prasa, the public and the judge focused on the large-scale theft of billions from Prasa, and got to see where those billions went,” Hotz told the SA Jewish Report this week.

According to Sacks, Werksmans Attorneys was appointed by Prasa in 2015 to conduct a forensic investigation into various instances of irregular, fruitless, and wasteful expenditure incurred by Prasa, which had been outlined by the auditor general. Crowe Forensics was appointed by Werksmans as expert forensic accountants to assist it. Sacks was appointed by the Hawks to perform a cashflow analysis relating to the Swifambo tender debacle.

Sacks’ testimony last week revealed how Swifambo funnelled about R80 million of its Prasa earnings to Maria Gomes, an Angolan businesswoman with strong ties to former President Jacob Zuma, and to George Sabelo, a lawyer also with close ties to Zuma. Mashaba has stated in an affidavit that Gomes and Sabelo were introduced to him as fundraisers for the African National Congress. Mashaba allegedly took a handling fee of R8 million for this.

“My report shows payments linked to Mashaba amount to millions,” said Sacks.

The Jacob Zuma Foundation was also shown to have received thousands of rands from Swifambo.

Swifambo was going to earn only about R118 million from the entire deal, according to the contract. Of the R2.6 billion Prasa paid Swifambo, Vossloh had received R1.8 billion.

About R600 million was pocketed by Swifambo, and disbursed inter alia to a number of beneficiaries.

Mabunda received more than R50 million from Swifambo, and was paid a further “consultancy fee” of R88 million by Vossloh when the contract was concluded, records show.

Out of the first payments that were made by Prasa to Swifambo, Vossloh received its first payment only about 116 days after Prasa had paid out the money, the report revealed.

Before that time, there were a lot of payments to various beneficiaries, namely to Mabunda’s group of companies.

The company Sebenza Forwarding, to which former Prasa chairperson Sfiso Buthelezi (former deputy finance minister) is linked, was paid just less than R100 million, according to the report.

As background to the saga, in July 2017, Johannesburg High Court Judge EJ Francis ruled that Prasa had awarded the contract to Swifambo through a “corrupt tender process”, and that Swifambo acted as a front for Spanish manufacturer Vossloh. The court ruled that the contract needed to be set aside.

Swifambo took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), where the SCA agreed that “the tender was procured through corruption”. It also affirmed the high court’s decision that Swifambo had been part of a “fronting practice”. The SCA confirmed that the Afro4000 locomotives Swifambo delivered to Prasa weren’t suited for South African railway lines.

“There’s a sense of vindication,” said Hotz, “At long last the public and Judge Zondo can truly understand admissible evidence and cashflows that show how much was stolen from Prasa and who benefited. It’s high time that people go to jail for this.”

Sacks told the SA Jewish Report, “The financial information shows that this whole Swifambo tender was one massive corrupt exercise. Officials running the state-owned enterprise wanted money and the best way to get it was through procurement and the vehicle within procurement was the tender. They set up fronting companies, gave false motivations for why they needed to spend money, and there was collusion on multiple levels to sign the multibillion rand contract. People allegedly stole money before making the first payments to the supplier, it was brazen.”

Sacks is busy doing a forensic analysis of the VBS banking scandal. We should be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

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