WhatsApp messages use Jewish community to sow divisions
As social media in South Africa last week became a minefield of fake news and incitement amidst civil unrest, one WhatsApp user attempted to draw the South African Jewish community into the fray.
Messages written by someone who called himself “Ari Goldberg – Israeli peacekeeper” were full of profanities and hate speech against the Indian community, including the line, “The Jews in Israel will kill you.”
They were posted with images of Israeli flags on a group called “Durban Support”. According to a member of the group, most of the people on it were members of the Indian community.
The person also changed the topic of the group from “Durban Support” to “Mossad is watching you!” and “SA must burn and die”. Members of the group told its admin to remove the user, which it did. However, the damage he caused may have the long-term effect of sowing divisions between the Jewish and Indian communities where none existed before.
The messages were shared with SA Jewish Report chairperson and tech guru Howard Sackstein, who immediately tried to put out the fire by emphasising that they were created to sow division and hatred at a time when communities are feeling vulnerable.
“This is clearly fake nonsense specifically sent to try ferment racial hatred,” he responded to the person who queried it. “It’s quite obvious from the following – the guy claims to be an ‘Israeli peace keeper’, but Israel doesn’t deploy peace keepers anywhere. The number used [to send the messages on WhatsApp] is American, not Israeli. India and Israel have a very close relationship.
“The telephone number is unlisted on True Caller, which means it has been used specifically to send this message – a clear sign of someone trying to incite hatred. People who use fake numbers would never put their names to a message.
“The number is registered in Sioux Falls South Dakota, United States,” Sackstein said. “I have searched, and there appears to be no Jewish community in Sioux Falls South Dakota. I have googled, and there is no Ari Goldberg in Sioux Falls South Dakota. All this means is that someone thinks this is a good time to try create racial hatred between Jews and Indians where none exists. One has to ask, what sort of sick person would do this?”
He requested that his message be sent to the WhatsApp group where the ugly messages were posted. “People must know that political looters and criminals must be exposed and dealt with. I have been to India four times, and many of my close friends are Indian – no fake instigator will ever drive a wedge between us.”
So, why would someone create a message like this, hoping to stir up hatred and divisions between Jews and Indians? “In vulnerable times like last week, we see the best and worst in people,” said local social-media expert Sarah Hoffman. “We have witnessed people trying to rebuild, but we’ve also witnessed existing prejudices and burning hatred. When people are under pressure, it’s an opportune time to make such kind of comments.” She encouraged people to disassociate themselves actively from such comments if they are shared on a WhatsApp group, and to encourage the group admin to block the user.
In the wider context, “We have seen massive polarisation of society globally, as witnessed during elections in the United States and Israel, and in political divisions in South Africa,” said local tech expert Arthur Goldstuck. “As a result, individuals feel emboldened to stir the pot with a mixture of their own bigotry and their desire to see the worst happen to the ‘other’. Refusal to acknowledge the rights of those with different views is a ‘pandemic’ in itself. Our own community witnesses this daily, as do others, and religious and political leaders don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand their own roles in either condoning or failing to condemn such attitudes.
“You don’t have to be an extremist to be a bigot, and that’s part of the problem,” he said. “Ordinary people who see themselves as decent and even reasonable develop blind spots when it comes to other races, nationalities, and political views. Blind support of populist leaders has created a massive us-and-them crisis in which everyone loses. The resultant chaos allows agents provocateur to behave with impunity, confident they won’t have to face consequences, and relish in their apparent power to sow further division.
“Multicultural society is detested by bigots, and the antipathy towards multiculturalism in our own community provides fuel for the expression of hatred towards others. Only if we move from an ‘us-and-them’ mentality to a ‘we’ mentality can we reduced bigotry.”
Said Karen Allen, senior research advisor on emerging threats in Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, “We see this [kind of message] at times of heightened tension and unrest. People stir the pot by tossing divisions into the mix, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. For example, we saw it during the xenophobic attacks or at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Often there are more users on these platforms during difficult times, so it’s an opportunity to amplify messages. They aim to drive divisions at certain points in time.
“Also, social media allows for a much wider reach. Imagine that this person took to the streets of Durban with a loudhailer, he would reach only a certain number of people,” she said. “But on social media, the way the algorithm is designed, it amplifies such messages. So even if you share this message online to say it’s awful, the fact that you shared it propels it further.”
Therefore, she advises that users don’t re-share something abusive or hateful, even if it’s to criticise it. “South Africa is a divided country,” she said. “Touchstone issues include race and sometimes the divisions between certain communities. The fact that social media and messaging platforms can be anonymous means that often there’s little consequence for it.”
However, South Africa’s new Cybercrimes Act, which has just been signed into law, may start to have an impact. “Malicious communications on social-media platforms are offences under the Act. Part two of the Act makes it an offence to incite damage to property or threaten to damage property or persons,” Allen said.
Furthermore, “if tweets, messages, or conversations include fake or deliberately manipulated images, the offences may amount to cyber forgery. Simply re-sharing deliberately manipulated content that is malicious could make any one of us unwittingly assistants in committing a crime.”
Sackstein said that these messages aren’t necessarily created to support one side or the other, but to “create as much chaos as possible, because if you destabilise your opponent, it weakens them”. That’s why someone writing a message like this may be a person who would “benefit from additional racial strife”, and the Jewish community is just a tool for them to achieve that. Tomorrow, they could post a similar message trying to create discord amongst other communities.
“It’s important that we understand the context and the dangers. It’s a deliberate attempt to sabotage. Be very careful what you share or forward as you are possibly being manipulated,” he said.
Meanwhile, Police Minister Bheki Cele said in a speech on 13 July, “We issue a stern warning to those circulating inflammatory messages on social-media platforms which are aimed at inciting violence and disregard of the law. Those who engage in such acts will be liable for criminal offence and can receive a fine or be sentenced to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years.”
SA Jewry’s pandemic response unique and robust, experts say
The South African Jewish community’s response to the pandemic has been singled out as unique, efficient, and robust in an academic paper that tracks how the community galvanised itself from March to October 2020.
From the start of hard lockdown, “It became apparent to me that our response as a community was unusually speedy, pro-active, and comprehensive,” says Leah Gilbert on what motivated her to write the paper. “I was impressed with the fact that we used the expertise available among us to inform the community. In addition, the quick emergence of support programmes for people who were infected was unique.”
Gilbert is emeritus professor of Health Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she taught and researched health and disease in the social context for 35 years. Her daughter and fellow author of the article, Shirli Gilbert, is professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London, and academic director of the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre.
The article has already been accessed almost 1 000 times online, a high number for an academic study of this kind. The authors hope it will be useful for understanding communal responses to the pandemic in South Africa and in other communities worldwide.
Of all the Jewish communities in the world, why did they decide to focus on this one? “During the first lockdown in Johannesburg, observing through my professional lens my society’s relationship to health and disease, I had the idea of documenting our community’s response to the pandemic,” says the elder Gilbert.
“It began with the first SA Jewish Report webinar with medical experts, and the subsequent dissemination and sharing of knowledge and activities,” she says. “I approached my daughter, whose research focuses on the South African Jewish community, and we started collecting relevant material.
“The community’s response to the pandemic spanned the gamut from physical and mental health to religious observance, home schooling, financial relief, food aid, and social-welfare support,” Gilbert says. “The common theme among the initiatives was the efficiency with which resources were mobilised, something possible only because of a robust and highly centralised pre-existing communal infrastructure and strong networks of social capital.”
In their paper, they note that, “The unique response of the South African Jewish community to COVID-19 must be understood within the larger context of the relationship between Jews and health. Scholarship suggests that Jews have a heightened concern for health relative to other groups.”
They also write that “unlike other diaspora communities, in South Africa, a great deal of emphasis has historically been placed on communal unity”. Another unique factor is that “following the transition [to democracy], communal investment in outreach has expanded significantly”.
“Taken together, the centrality of health, robust communal infrastructure, and strong community social capital against the background of the Jewish community’s particular positioning in post-apartheid South Africa helps to account for the uniquely co-ordinated, energetic, and multipronged nature of the community’s pandemic response.”
However, the community also faced many challenges during the pandemic. “The ageing nature of the Jewish community in South Africa meant that the percentage of vulnerable people was relatively high,” says the elder Gilbert.
“This higher risk profile helps to explain the motivation for the quick and powerful mobilisation of resources. There was some friction around the question of how support for Jewish communal welfare fitted alongside South African Jews’ commitment to broader South African society. On the whole, however, evidence suggests that community support for both ‘inreach’ and ‘outreach’ initiatives has been generous and widespread.
“The pandemic has also been difficult for this community in particular because of the extent to which Jewish families are dispersed across the world, which meant long periods of time for families to be apart.”
Another challenge has been resources, especially financial. As they write, “despite the robustness of the community’s infrastructure and its still considerable resources, there are concerns about its long-term health and prospects. On 19 June , the Chev [Chevrah Kadisha] was forced for the first time in its 132-year history to call for emergency financial support. Its work in both residential care and financial assistance – sectors especially impacted by the pandemic – left it severely exposed, and with almost no state support and overwhelming reliance on private donor funds, it was placed under unprecedented strain.
“The community remains highly vigilant, and co-ordinated leadership continues to be delivered by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the office of the chief rabbi, and the Chevrah Kadisha, together with other organisations and in partnership with Jewish experts,” they write in their conclusion. “Some cracks, however, are already beginning to show. The extent to which it will be possible to retain the strength and co-ordination of these responses as the pandemic’s severe effects persist remains to be seen.”
They researched their subject by collecting data from all issues of South African Jewish publications during the period under study (March to October 2020). This included the SA Jewish Report, the Cape Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Life, and Jewish Affairs, as well as websites, social media, and other public communications of major communal institutions, the office of the chief rabbi, and Jewish-led relief initiatives and organisations. “The analysis of the data took two months, after which we wrote up the article itself,” says the younger Gilbert.
The SA Jewish Report was one of their prime resources, “since it provided granular detail of what was happening on a weekly basis, both events and ongoing discussions and debates. The SA Jewish Report webinars were also key as they were helping to provide support and access to information that the community needed,” she says.
Asked how they think the South African Jewish community will emerge from the pandemic, they say, “The conclusion [of the paper] is a paradoxical one. On the one hand, the article emphasises the robustness of the community’s infrastructure and its considerable resources, which have allowed it to mount an impressive response to the pandemic.
“On the other hand, the enormous challenges posed by the pandemic have also heightened existing feelings of precariousness and vulnerability within the community. The economic future of largely self-funded Jewish communal organisations is uncertain, emigration is ongoing and possibly increasing, and the self-employed (among whom Jews are strongly represented) have been hard-hit,” according to the elder Gilbert.
Asked if they will conduct research on the South African Jewish community in future, the younger Gilbert says, “My historical research on the South African Jewish community is ongoing. I’m working on a study of German Jews who came to South Africa in the 1930s, as well as a special journal issue on South African Jews co-edited with Professor Adam Mendelsohn. In October-November 2021, I’ll be teaching a six-part online course on Jews in South Africa for the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre. Everyone is welcome.”
- The academic paper can be accessed by searching “South African Jewish Responses to COVID-19” on Google.
- The Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre course can be accessed by looking at the “What’s On” tab on www.sirmartingilbertlearningcentre.org
JNF-SA trail commemorates “Great Jewish Escape”
Between 1945 and 1948, up to 300 000 Holocaust survivors and Jewish partisans were rescued across war-ravaged Europe in preparation to enter British-occupied eretz Yisrael before the declaration of the Jewish state. Yet, the remarkable achievements of the Bricha (escape or flight) Movement have been all but forgotten in Israel today.
The Jewish National Fund of South Africa (JNF-SA) is trying to change that by creating the Shvi Bricha walking trail in the Carmel mountain range in Israel’s north. It symbolises the thousands of kilometres traversed on foot by the Bricha Movement to freedom.
The Bricha – the Great Jewish Escape – was the topic of a webinar hosted by the JNF-SA and the South African Zionist Federation last week.
Pre-eminent Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer wrote one of the only books on the Bricha, published in 1974. He explained how in July 1944, Abba Kovner, a Jewish partisan commander, travelled to Soviet-occupied Vilnius in Lithuania to convince the authorities to let the Jews leave.
“It was a hopeless endeavour,” said Bauer. Zionist youth movements became active leaders in the Bricha, the clandestine, underground movement to rescue partisans (and later, survivors and those who were hidden) to smuggle them out of Europe.
After the war, millions of people were on the move throughout Europe. At first, there were no separate displaced persons camps for Jewish survivors, and they had to fight for recognition of their Jewish national identity. The Bricha Movement was central to these efforts.
In September 1945, the first shlichim (emissaries) from eretz Yisrael arrived in Europe to co-ordinate the Great Jewish Escape. One was Tzvi Netzer, himself an escapee from Europe just two years before, proficient in German, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish. Bricha leaders had to bribe many border officials across Europe to allow people to pass into different countries, from Poland to Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Allied-occupied Germany and Austria. They needed graphic designers to forge visas and other official documents. Sometimes, the Jewish groups pretended to be Greeks returning home. They spoke Hebrew, passing it off as Greek to the none-the-wiser Polish authorities. The entire operation was funded by the Joint (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee).
Many gathered in displaced persons camps, and then eventually moved on to Greece, Italy, and France and then on to eretz Yisrael by ship as part of “Aliyah Bet” in defiance of the British naval blockade curbing Jewish immigration before 1948.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said Bauer. “It was the largest illegal mass movement in Europe in the twentieth century. Without the Bricha, there would have been no state of Israel. The Holocaust almost destroyed the hope of a Jewish state. Vast numbers of potential immigrants were killed. The displaced persons camps and the Bricha put pressure on the British and United States to help create the state.”
Professor Avinoam Patt from the University of Connecticut is the author of Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and the Bricha after the Holocaust. He noted that about 75% to 80% of Holocaust survivors were aged between 17 and 35. Most had lost their entire families and their homes. They faced enduring antisemitism in Europe (such as the devastating Kielce pogrom in Poland in 1946) and had to take control of their lives. With other avenues closed and feeling unwelcome in Europe, many embraced Zionism, helping to revive Zionist youth movements decimated in the war. Some set up kibbutzim – communal farms – in Europe, to learn agriculture in preparation for aliyah.
“The Bricha Trail is now an open-air museum and major educational tool of the Great Jewish Escape,” said Dr Omri Bone from the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the JNF-SA’s parent body. He lauded JNF-SA for its efforts to make this become a reality.
Dr Miri Nehari, a clinical and educational psychologist, is the chairperson of the Bricha Legacy Association in Israel. She is the daughter of Tzvi Netzer. “The Bricha isn’t known, spoken about, or researched in Israel,” she said. “The Shvi Habricha is the only commemoration for the Bricha Movement. The association receives no funding from the state. Its main argument is that it didn’t take place on the soil of Israel.” She says the neglect of the Bricha reflects a deeper ambivalence about the Holocaust and its role in the formation of the state of Israel.
Hopefully, JNF-SA’s efforts will start to change all that.
Taliban takeover – a booster shot for radical Islamists
The rapid assumption of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan as the United States (US) withdrew its forces will have ramifications far beyond Central Asia, not least for Israel, according to veteran US diplomat and academic Ambassador Dennis Ross.
Ross, who advised the Clinton and Obama Administrations, was interviewed by Carly Maisel in a Lockdown University webinar, broadcast by the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre on 28 August.
“Begun in 2001, Afghanistan was the longest war in US history,” Ross said. “Afghanistan is known as the ‘death knell of empires’, as discovered by the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans.”
President Donald Trump wanted the US out of Afghanistan, what he called a “forever war”. From a high of 150 000 US troops, there were just 2 500 remaining when Joe Biden assumed office in 2021. He, too, was determined to leave Afghanistan. In spite of investment of more than $85 billion [R1.2 trillion] in the Afghan army over 20 years [and more than $1 trillion (R14.6 trillion) spent on the war in total] “there was massive corruption and poor morale. It was a hollow force,” Ross said.
After being vanquished in just six weeks in 2001, the Taliban melted away, bided its time, and regrouped, drawing support from local populations and neighbours such as Pakistan. “Afghan governments looked like foreign implants; they were corrupt and lacked credibility. This helped the Taliban gradually rebuild itself,” said Ross.
The new Taliban government wants international support and recognition. It has therefore sought to project a more moderate image than it had in its first stint in government from 1996-2001. Its pronouncements about being more tolerant towards women’s rights, for example, don’t convince Ross.
“The risk is that the Taliban victory acts as a recruitment tool – a booster shot for radical Sunni Islamists. They have portrayed the US withdrawal as a great victory on social media. They want to show they’re back in business,” said Ross.
So what effect will it have on the region and wider international community?
Iran has a history of hostility and suspicion for the Taliban. They almost went to war in 1998, after the killing of nine Iranian diplomats by the Taliban. Also, the Taliban are radical Sunni Salafists who see Shia Iran as heretics; neither side is tolerant. The Taliban has profited from the opium trade from Afghani poppy fields, fuelling drug addiction in Iran.
Nevertheless, the two have been building a relationship over the past few years, including Iran arming the Taliban. “They have a shared desire to see the defeat of the US everywhere, and seek its humiliation,” said Ross. “Their commentary has been gloating.” He predicts that the new Iranian government will be even more confrontational with the US, and will “want more, for less” in any renegotiated nuclear deal with the US and its allies.
Israel has received support from the US, which has resupplied weapons to Israel after the clashes with Gaza, and continued financial support. “But Israel has always told everyone that ultimately, it needs to depend on itself. This has always been part of the Israeli ethos. It will never ask the US to die for it. Israel will defend itself by itself. The American experience in Afghanistan has only deepened this sense,” said Ross. The security establishment wants the US to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal not because it thinks it’s a good deal, but so that it can buy the time Israel needs to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, by force if needed.
Pakistan has provided sanctuary for Taliban leaders, partly to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan. It has suffered heinous terror attacks by the Taliban, but sees everything through its struggle with India. The world must be wary of a nuclear-armed Pakistan, with growing radicalism.
Russia hasn’t rushed to recognise the Taliban government. It has kept its embassy open, and has a “wait and see” attitude. By conducting military exercises in the former Soviet republic, Tajikistan, President Vladimir Putin is sending a message to the Taliban and other radical Islamists: don’t mess with us, according to Ross. But, “Russia, too, will celebrate every US defeat.”
China may seek to exploit large lithium deposits in Afghanistan, but it, like Russia, fears Islamist insurrection in its vast territory. Getting to the lithium would require major investment, and China may incorporate it into its “Belt and Road” initiative – a grand plan to build supportive infrastructure on China’s main trade routes.
“China and Russia will seek to take some advantage, but will both tread carefully because of profound suspicion of the Taliban,” Ross said.
Looking ahead, Ross said there could be civil strife within the Taliban. “We may face a mess for some time to come in Afghanistan. I’d love to say we achieved something, but at what price? We hoped we would see competence after the chaotic dysfunction of the Trump presidency. It sure doesn’t look like it. We’ll need some foreign policy successes.”
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