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‘Vaccine apartheid’ – the latest anti-Israel libel

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Israel

Mike Shingange, the first deputy president of the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU), lambasted Israel for “war crimes and violation of international law” in relation to vaccines in an opinion piece on Eyewitness News (EWN) last Thursday, 4 March.

“Apartheid Israel has never cared for the lives of Palestinians, and the outbreak of coronavirus has further highlighted the sheer disregard for the lives of the Palestinian people,” he wrote. “The outbreak of the virus has exacerbated the problems faced by the people of Gaza.”

Israel continues to be demonised the world over as it forges ahead with its vaccination rollout. Accusations of “vaccine apartheid”, refusal to assist Palestinians, and other falsities abound, all the while ignoring the true extent to which the Jewish state is, in fact, offering help to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Shingange accuses “apartheid Israel” of blockading vaccines destined for healthcare workers in the Gaza Strip, saying it is “one of the biggest atrocities that hasn’t received the attention it deserves, and it continues unabated due to the deafening silence of the international community”.

He further asserts that Israel hasn’t offered any of its own vaccines to a struggling Palestinian healthcare infrastructure which “has been demolished by countless Israel military attacks”.

He goes on to write, “As an occupying power, apartheid Israel has vehemently refused to share its stock with Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The Israeli government has failed to ensure that the occupied territories have adequate medical supplies, including a comprehensive plan for infection control and prevention.”

Shingange’s accusation about the “blockade” of vaccines comes weeks after the issue was resolved. In February, Palestinian officials accused Israel of preventing the first shipment of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine (co-developed by Israel’s Hadassah Hospital together with Russia’s health authorities) from entering the Gaza Strip. Israeli legislators reportedly feared that the vaccines would land in the hands of Hamas, but ultimately approved the transfer within two days. A vaccination drive has since been launched in the Gaza region.

Shingange’s allegations about Israel’s refusal to assist the Palestinians have no basis in fact, says Sara Gon, policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations.

“If Israel were an individual, this letter would be defamatory,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “I would challenge him to cite all his sources.

“Shingange clearly knows nothing about the fact that the Palestinians are administratively autonomous. He knows nothing about Oslo, and is repeating falsehoods that have already been debunked.”

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, agrees. “NEHAWU’s malicious comment on this issue should be rejected with the contempt that it deserves,” he says. “The spread of medical-related blood libels against the Jewish people has a dangerous history, and we strongly reject this malevolent libel against the Jewish state.”

Vaccine-inspired accusations against Israel are sadly further expression of anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric within the context of the pandemic, says Gon.

“COVID-19 has produced a range of libels that have one common element: the Jews, the Zionists, and/or the state of Israel are to blame for the pandemic or stand to gain from it,” she says.

According to Gon, in the first week of January, Sky News, CNN, and the BBC News channel all misrepresented the story about Israel and COVID-19 vaccinations and Israel’s alleged obligation and failure to vaccinate Palestinians. This contradicts the Oslo Accords, which affirms the legal administration of the PA over the Gaza Strip and Palestinian areas of the West Bank, including healthcare services and vaccinations.

Says Gon, “Israeli media monitors, lawyers, journalists and others have pointed out that Israel has no such obligation because Palestinian Arabs aren’t Israeli citizens.”

Says Polovin, “Under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians are accountable for the vaccination of the population under their control. Palestinian officials have themselves repeatedly confirmed this point. The PA has been able to procure vaccines from a variety of sources including the COVAX [COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access] facility in the same way South Africa does.”

Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, stressed that the Oslo Accords granted the PA full autonomy and responsibility.

“Israel cannot decide what the PA can buy or from where,” he says. “Imagine if we dictated to the PA on its health system, telling it which vaccines to take.

“We cannot win either way. If Israel does nothing, it’s blamed. If it does anything, it’s also blamed.”

“Israel will ensure that whatever medical supplies need to enter Gaza, will enter. The fact that it may not arrive relates not to Israel but to those who control Gaza. When corrupt terrorists like Hamas are in control, do you really believe supplies will go to where they are needed most?”

Indeed, reports have emerged that the Palestinian leadership has siphoned off some of the vaccines that have arrived in Gaza to date, distributing them amongst the ranks of the ruling party only. Israel, on the other hand, has reportedly vaccinated more Arab Muslim men, women, and children as a percent of its total population than any other Arab country in the Middle East region.

While Israel is under no obligation to do so, it has made a concerted effort to assist Gaza with its vaccination programme in spite of repeated refusals and illogical decisions.

“In 2020, the PA refused planeloads and millions of dollars of healthcare assistance from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to fight COVID-19 because the UAE planes landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport,” says Gon. “The PA tried to obtain an entire vaccine inventory free of charge, but international organisations and state powers were unwilling to comply. So, Israel supplied PA government officials with an initial batch.”

About 20% of necessary vaccines are expected to be donated to the PA, she says.

“Holding out for free vaccines accounted for months-long delays in PA acquisition,” Gon says. “Had the PA asked Israel for assistance, it would be farther along in vaccinating its public.”

Polovin agrees. “Not only has Israel provided the Palestinians with thousands of doses out of its own stockpile, it has worked to facilitate a supply of the vaccine to the PA from other sources, including [so far] 10 000 doses from Russia, and 37 000 doses from the World Health Organization.”

A plan is also in place for Israel to inoculate about 100 000 Palestinian workers from the country’s own supply, and Jerusalem is part of an effort to help procure about four million more doses from the government in Moscow. Still, the Palestinians continue to reject much of the assistance.

“The media have simply ignored these facts, and continue to promulgate the vaccine libel against Israel,” says Gon. “In a grotesque inversion of roles, the Palestinians have now belatedly jumped on the Israel-demonisation bandwagon that the Western media have provided for them.”

Therefore, Shingange is simply perpetuating a false narrative, says Keinan.

“Why should we address open lies that have nothing to do with reality?” he says. “Instead of writing these claims, perhaps Shingange should ask whether a worker’s union like his could be allowed to exist in Gaza under Hamas. It is the reason why vaccines aren’t reaching people.”

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Saluting Zan Swartzberg – one of the 800 who fought for Israel

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Zan Swartzberg from Bethlehem in the Free State was one of 800 South African Machal volunteers who heeded Israel’s call for help after it was surrounded by seven armies determined to obliterate it in 1948. He was just 21.

As he celebrated his 94th birthday and the launch of his fourth book this past weekend, he recalled those heady and harrowing days. “My first book is called The Hammers: A Personal Story of the 1948-1949 Israeli War of Independence. It’s called The Hammers because we flew huge American B17 flying fortresses. Three of them, day and night, for weeks on end. In other words, we hammered them, so our official name was The Hammers,” Swartzberg says.

As Israel mourns those lost in defence of the country and to terrorism on Yom Hazikaron, and celebrates its 73rd year of independence on Yom Ha’atzmaut, the man who was there at the start says the country shouldn’t be taken for granted.

His memories are still vivid of joining thousands of other Machal volunteers in fighting for Israel’s independence, and the enormous stress and challenges they faced.

“Many were World War II veterans, and knew the odds were against us,” says Swartzberg. “An air shuttle service was started to transport volunteers, and I needed to get 100 hours of experience, so I got it on the shuttle flights. Each flight could take only 19 volunteers at a time. The South African government was aware of the volunteers heading off to fight, but turned a blind eye. We should always be grateful for that.”

His latest book, launched on Sunday, is titled I Salute you Sir!. “This is because a few years ago, I got a call late one evening from an Israeli official, inviting me and my wife, Noreen, to celebrate Israel’s independence. He said, ‘Are you Zan Swartzberg? Are you still alive?’ A special meeting was arranged with President Benjamin Netanyahu. And when he saw the ribbons on my windbreaker, he knew exactly who I was. He came and put his hand out and said, ‘I salute you sir’.”

The book tells other fascinating stories. “First, how my father escaped Lithuania, and about the Jew hatred that we as schoolchildren went through in Bethlehem.” It also tells how the Swartzbergs were reunited with their long-lost daughter, and how his brother Joe cheated death – twice.

Speaking at the book launch, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft of the Small Jewish Communities Association described how “Zan [or Zundel which is his full Jewish name], for most of his life has lived in Bethlehem. He remains to this day on his farm proudly named Masada Farm/Loch Katrine Farm in the Bethlehem district.” Swartzberg’s wife, Noreen, describes her husband as a “proud Jew”, which motivated him to name the farm Masada.

Describing Swartzberg as “an ardent Zionist” Silberhaft said, “It’s a remarkable fact that of the approximately 3 000 Jews from around the world who volunteered to fight for the Jewish state in its time of supreme need, more than a quarter came from South Africa, whose Jewish community at the time numbered barely 100 000 souls. Only the United States, whose Jewish population was fifty times larger, produced more volunteers for the cause. Since then, it has always been a matter of great pride to him to be able to claim to have been one of ‘South Africa’s 800’.

“Having obtained an international radio operator’s licence prior to this, Zan joined the Israeli army and became a radio operator and air gunner in the fledgling Israeli Air Force. He was in the air force division from 1948 to 1949, serving in the famed 69th squadron, and was also an instructor in radio telegraphy.

“A number of the 800 South African volunteers went on to achieve considerable fame and success. They included Judge Cecil Margo, who played a key role in the establishment of the Israeli Air Force, anti-apartheid hero Arthur Goldreich, former Woolworths Chief Executive David Susman, and former Johannesburg mayor Eddie Magid.

“After the war, Zan devoted himself to various pursuits. He was a yachtsman, served in the merchant navy, and later in army commandos. In due course, he became a business man and then a farmer. In collaboration with Lorraine Houston, he has become an increasingly prolific author.”

His second book, published in July 2019, was titled Ovamboland Border War: An exercise in Futility, focusing on South Africa’s border war in then South West Africa. The following April, his third book was published about the realisation of his life-long dream of sailing the open sea. Titled Survival, The Voyage of Yacht Black Jed, it told of his yacht trip from East London, South Africa, to Villamoura, Portugal.

To mark the celebration of his 94th birthday, Silberhaft surprised Swartzberg by presenting him with the mittens he wore as a Machalnik. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, I donated my bomber jacket and mittens to the Machal Museum in Israel. I don’t know how he did it, but when he handed me those mittens on my birthday, I was so emotional. The tears poured … I was gobsmacked. And then I asked him to please re-donate them to the museum.”

With less than 10 known Machalniks still alive, Swartzberg feels grateful to have been there and to be able to tell the story of Israel’s miraculous fight to survive. He recalls how while walking in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, Israelis would stop him and thank him for his service to the founding of their country. “They don’t forget what the Machalniks did. I feel so privileged that I played a small part in the birth of a Jewish state.”

  • Zan Swartzberg’s books can be bought on Amazon.

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SA’s unique connection to Israel makes Israelis feel at home

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Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut are generally tough days for Israelis in the diaspora as it isn’t easy to experience them properly thousands of kilometres away from Israel.

But in South Africa, many Israelis say it’s easier.

“The first few years in South Africa, I was amazed at how similar Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut felt to how it is in Israel,” says Israeli ambassador Lior Keinan. “I made a point of visiting different communities and schools on Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It felt so familiar. They played the same songs and danced the same dances. It was a relief.”

Liat Amar Arran, the local Jewish Agency representative and the director of the Israel Centre, agrees. When she moved here, she thought these particular days would be when she would be most needed with her “personal stories and sense of connection” with Israel. “Instead, I met a community that was already strongly connected and was very involved in commemorating and celebrating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. It was amazing.”

For South African Jewry, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut showcase their connection with Israel.

“Yom Hazikaron is an incredibly important day when we commemorate those who fell protecting Israel. Without those who have given their lives to keep am Yisrael [the people of Israel] alive, we wouldn’t feel protected here in South Africa,” says South African Zionist Federation National Chairperson Rowan Polovin. “It’s really important to realise exactly what the people of Israel have gone through to keep Israel alive.”

For Israelis living here, it’s a lot more personal.

“Being here on Yom Hazikaron has extra special meaning for me,” says Keinan. “I’m fortunate that none of my family has been killed in action. However, one of my best friends who I studied with in high school was killed in the second Lebanon War. Ashi Novik was a South African who moved to Israel. So now, for me to be an ambassador in South Africa, I can look at the memorial of all the South Africans who paid the ultimate price for Israel, and I see the name of my high school friend. When I light a candle for him personally and all those whose names are on the memorial, I feel like I’m closing the circle. I knew him in the past, and now I’m here honouring his memory.”

Habonim Dror Southern Africa shaliach Lior Agiv says learning to appreciate Yom Hazikaron has been a process.

“As a young child, these days of Zikaron and Atzmaut always seemed to be something amorphic. Hearing my father’s stories of all the wars he had taken part in, watching these series and movies on TV, it all remained a bit abstract. As I grew up and my army chapter was getting closer, I started to wonder more about the meaning of these days.

“All these feelings grew much stronger after my army days near Ramallah. Since then, every year, no matter where I’m located, I honour these days by lightning a neshama candle for my fallen friends and try to deepen my knowledge of our wars and fallen ones.”

Batya Shmueli, also a shaliach in South Africa, says, “I was born on the African continent in Ethiopia, and at the age of 11, my family fulfilled our dream of returning to Jerusalem. Returning to Africa as an Israeli to do a mission with my family is closing a huge circle. We will connect with our brothers and sisters and remember the loved ones who fell and sacrificed their lives in various wars for the sake of the people of Israel and future generations,” she says.

“Independence Day is a day in which we stop for a moment and look at the fact that we have a state and a home for the Jewish people,” she says.

Arran says that everyone in Israel knows someone who has been killed, which is why Yom Hazikaron is felt so keenly. “My good childhood friend, Ariel, was killed in the army,” she says. “My brother-in-law lost his entire unit in a helicopter crash. Everyone knows someone that has been killed.”

Lee Salama, a Habonim shaliach in Cape Town, says, “In officer boot camp in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], we have a saying, ‘We have to realise that in order for us to be able to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, there were people who had to die.’ And then we have this beautiful transition to Yom Ha’atzmaut and celebrating life.”

Says Polovin, “Yom Ha’atzmaut is an incredible celebration of everything Israel has accomplished in its very short 73 years. No matter where you look, Israel is a ‘light to the nations’ showing the way. Whether it’s technology, medical advancements, or even showing the world how to recover and rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic, Israel is at the head of the pack.”

Says Keinan, “The beauty of going straight from the sombre day of Yom Hazikaron to the happy day of Yom Ha’atzmaut shows us that from great pain and sorrow can come the greatest joy. The suffering and pain, and the joy and celebration, are really just two sides of the coin.”

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Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film

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(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.

Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.

While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.

Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.

Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.

“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.

“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”

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