Columns

Earlier this week I attended the World Jewish Congress’s National Community Directors Forum.  My counterparts from 45 countries met in Prague to share our experiences and work together to find solutions to the challenges we all face.

I joined executive directors from countries such as Spain, Turkey, Georgia, Costa Rica, Germany, Ukraine, Ireland, Hungary, the US, France,  Greece, Finland, Norway, Moldova, The Netherlands, Brazil, the UK, Peru, Canada, the UK, Australia to mention but a few of the remarkable individuals that came around the table to address the real issues facing Global Jewry today.

We discussed the escalating levels of antisemitism internationally, focusing on ways that we can address this disturbing trend.  Frightening to note the growing neo-Nazi incidents throughout Europe, as well as the manner in which the anti-Israel activists are using this cause as a platform to launch anti- Jewish hatred.  I was asked to present a paper addressing our specific challenges in this area.

Although we in South Africa do not experience the same level of threat against religious practices in our own country, challenges to practices such as Brit Milah and Schitah are becoming serious problems in other countries, impacting on their way of Jewish life.

An issue that does affect us in South Africa alongside communities internationally is the growing phenomenon of cyber hate.  Antisemitic hatred and threats through the `anti-social media’ is certainly something plaguing Jewish communities everywhere and it was great to have an opportunity to engage on this important topic.

It was also special that South Africa’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic, HE Franki Verwey joined us for dinner during the conference.

I was asked to present a tribute to former President of the SAJBD and Co-Chairman of the WJC Policy Council Mervyn Smith , who had passed away the previous day. Mervyn had not only made a significant contribution to SA Jewry, but had also played an important role in the international platform.

The World Jewish Congress has developed some outstanding programmes and departments to support our work as communal leaders around the world and it was a wonderful opportunity to work with this important global body.  I look forward to ongoing interaction with this important forum.

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Wendy Kahn writes on the group’s bullying protest outside of the SAJBD Gauteng’s twenty years of democracy conference Celebrating SA democracy free of Intimidation In the early days of our young democracy, South Africans embraced the image of the rainbow – the beautiful spectrum of colours that would stand together celebrating the diversity of their fledgling nation.

We were so proud of our young democracy, one that celebrated differences, and respected them. Every South African’s right to his or her own beliefs, values and affiliations were a cornerstone of the new nation. We pledged ourselves to the principles of freedom of speech providing every South African with the right to express themselves without fear or prejudice.

The Bill of Rights in our internationally acclaimed constitution enshrined “the rights of all people in our country and affirms the democratic values of dignity, equality and freedom”. It furthermore guaranteed Freedom of religion, belief and opinion in section 15, Freedom of Expression in section 16 and Freedom of association in section 18.

Yet these pivotal principles of our democracy were forgotten yesterday when a protest orchestrated by BDS SA descended on the SA Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng Conference.

Gauteng Jewry was due to gather on Sunday for its biennial conference with the theme celebrating South Africa’s 20 years of Freedom. The Jewish community along with our fellow South African citizens rejoices in the miracle of our nation, and its members likewise wanted to remember the struggle for our young democracy, to commemorate its achievements and focus on the future.

However BDS SA and the factions within the ANCYL chose to cynically protest this gathering of Jewish South Africans, as well as smearing the Jewish community with insults. Based on their disagreeing with our community’s connection to Israel, they decided to demonstrate against our celebration of this important 20 year milestone. This is something altogether new in our country. Since when do we try and intimidate fellow South African citizens from participating in their country’s heritage? Who gives anyone the right to determine who can and cannot rejoice in the principles of democracy?

The foundations of this country are built on respect and tolerance. These were certainly not in evidence yesterday. Tweeted Braam Hanekom, “The ANC should waste not time speaking to the @sajbd they are racist, Zionist, Islamophobic, supporters of murdering Palestinian children”. Suggested Lwazi Samya, “Maybe the ANCYL should mobilise against the Jewish Board of Deputies”. Zunaid Seedat tells us to, “vat jou goede en voetsek!” while Nazeer Guman comments, “Zionism threatens true freedom in SA: Ban it!!!” These kind of inflammatory and provocative emails run diametrically counter to what our democratic society is all about.

So far as the Middle East issue is concerned, the SAJBD has frequently stated its stance on the Palestinian and Israeli situation, calling for a negotiated settlement resulting in two countries for two nations living side by side with secure borders. This is in line with our government’s stance which was reiterated frequently through the recent war.

I don’t ask BDS SA to hold by these views, knowing that their belief is that Israel should not exist at all. But what I do ask is that they have enough respect for their fellow South African citizens to not allow the conflict in the Middle East to jeopardize the relations between fellow South Africans. I ask that the dignity and respect enshrined in our constitution be upheld and that the dreadful intimidation that we have seen in the past weeks, culminating in Sunday events, be curbed.

During a concert by an Israeli artist on Wits Campus last year BDS protesters chanted dubula e juda – ‘Shoot the Jew’. BDS SA Coordinator Mohammed Desai justified the singing in an interview, “Just like you would say kill the Boer at funeral during the eighties it wasn’t about killing white people, it was used as a way of identifying with the apartheid regime”. According to Desai, “The whole idea anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion”.

Unfortunately we are now regularly seeing anti-Israel sentiment crossing the line into overtly anti-Jewish rhetoric. Over the past 2 months we have seen antisemitism statistics rise in SA from 52 for the entire 2013 to 116 for the 7 weeks over the Gaza war. Jewish South Africans were targeted intimidated and threatened by those holding different views about that conflict.

While we recognise the right to protest about international conflict like this one, when this deteriorates into hate speech and intimidation this crosses the line.

MEC Lusufi, in his very warm address at the conference, acknowledged that “the Jewish community enjoy a special place in the struggle for democracy and freedom”. He also spoke of the need for peace and reconciliation in order to build on these achievements and overcome the country’s problems. How unfortunate it was that the protesters outside could not hear this pivotal message. Had they done so, they may have realized that threatening their fellow South Africans and forbidding them a place in our democracy is not conducive to building a healthy society.

South Africa is a country for all. It is a country where diversity is celebrated and alternate views respected. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies will continue to celebrate our democracy as proud and involved South African citizens. We will not be intimidated by those who do not represent the values of our constitution and our Bill of Rights, but seek instead to silence and sideline those who do not share their views.

 

Wendy Kahn is the National Director of the SAJBD

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Members of the Jewish and Japanese communities, diplomats, business leaders and Holocaust survivors packed into the Abe Abrahamson Auditorium at Beyachad last Wednesday to remember Chiune Sugihara, the heroic Japanese diplomat who exceeded his authority to issue 6000 life-saving visas to Jewish refugees during World War II. The event took place under the combined auspices of the SAJBD Gauteng Council, Embassy of Japan and Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. Amongst those famously saved from almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis by Sugihara were most of the members of the Mir Yeshiva, which was able to relocate to Shanghai for the duration of the war. Four of those present at the function were Johannesburg descendants of those survivors, Rabbis Yossy Goldman and Weinberg and Rebbetzins Rochel Ehrman and Chaya Sternstein.

In her message of welcome and introduction SAJBD Diplomatic Liaison Aviva Moses, who headed up the initiative, stressed the enduring example Chiune Sugihara had set by his heroic actions. In ‘a period of utter desperation’, he had stood out and shone through the fundamental humanity he displayed, and in today’s turbulent times, it was a lesson the world at large needed more than ever to take to heart.

“No matter what continent we live on, our world is in turmoil. We are bombarded on a daily basis with news of torment, terror, death and destruction. And there has never been a time when is has been more important for every individual to rediscover his or her humanity, because without this intrinsic component of our being, what are we?” she said.

The keynote address was given by Hugh Raichlin, a well-known and popular speaker on Jewish life in countries throughout the world and who recently added Japan to the growing list of places he has lectured on. In addition to speaking (with accompanying audio-visual material) on the life and achievements of Sugihara, Raichlin gave an overview of the Jewish connection to Japan since the 1860s combined with entertaining insights into the nature of Japanese society today. As depicted by him, Sugihara emerged as a genuinely saintly man who to the end refused to take any special credit for what he had done. Raichlin also stressed the unfailing support provided by Sugihara’s wife, Yukiko, and the crucial involvement of the family of the young Solly Ganor. Excerpts from a video interview with the latter especially arranged for the occasion were also screened.

Rabbi Goldman and Rabbi Weinberg spoke about their own fathers, both of whom were provided with visas by Sugihara. Rabbi Weinberg said that his father, the only one of eleven siblings who survived the Holocaust, would relate his story to his family on the first night of Chanukah every year. This had instilled in his children an awareness of how important it was to remember and be grateful to their benefactors. Similarly, Rabbi Goldman’s father was the only survivor of his family in Poland. On his behalf, as well as that of his descendants – amongst them nearly eighty great-grandchildren, Rabbi

“I thank you for the gift of life, for the gift of the generations. G-d bless Mr Sugihara’s precious soul” he said.

Messages were also given by Japanese Ambassador Yutaka Yoshizawa, SAJBD Chairman and Holocaust educator Mary Kluk and Tali Nates, Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. Ambassador Yoshiwaza noted that in Japanese culture, it was at this time of the year that the spirits of one’s ancestors were believed to return, and therefore it was a time when those who had passed away were traditionally remembered. This included remembering both the two million Japanese who had died during World War II together with acknowledging the death and suffering Japan had inflicted against others during those years. Against this background, he said, the legacy of Sugihara shone even brighter.

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Five months ago, under the heading ‘Make Us Count’, the Board embarked on a serious of initiatives aimed at encouraging the Jewish community to become involved and in general get into the spirit of the upcoming national elections. It began with a drive to encourage first-time voters, as well as those living overseas, to ensure that they were registered. We went on to host a number of well-attended functions, including multi-party pre-election debates in Johannesburg and Durban, for community members to hear from and engage with senior representatives of some of the major parties contesting the election. The Make Us Count campaign culminated in the Board’s putting together a multi-faith, trans-national election observer team, with accreditation from the Independent Electoral Commission, to assist in monitoring the voting process and ensuring that everything was fair and above board. This was an inspiring success, and attracted much favourable coverage for the Board and for the Jewish community in general in both the local and overseas media. Around a hundred volunteers from across the religious and ethnic spectrum took part, covering over 250 voting stations in five cities.

All participants I have since been in contact with have expressed the tremendous sense of pride and satisfaction they experienced in being able to contribute in this way. We are very proud that the SAJBD facilitated this very special nation-building exercise, and I congratulate in particular Alana Baranov for heading it up so capably. Watching South African democracy at work was again an inspiring experience. One could not help but be struck by the warm spirit of camaraderie and sense of ownership in the wonderful democracy that we all enjoy. It was a spirit that transcended political affiliation, and made the elections – just like those memorable first elections twenty years ago – a truly unifying experience.

Currently, I am attending the American Jewish Congress (AJC) conference in Washington DC, along with six other South African representatives from the SAJBD. Representatives of some seventy countries are taking part in this important event on the international Jewish calendar. As always, it is an exhilarating experience to join with world Jewry in debating issues of concern to all of us. Over the years, we have established a much-valued partnership with the AJC, who have consistently supported us in times of both challenge and celebration. I look forward to reporting back more fully on the conference after my return.

One of the very complex matters our National office has been dealing with this year has been resolving problems of exams set on Shabbat and Shavuot. Fortunately, it now looks very much like acceptable alternative arrangements will be in place at all the academic institutions concerned, with students, as in years gone by, being able to write their papers immediately after Shabbat/Yom Tov at Beyachad. I will go into further detail regarding these arrangements in a future column, but I can say at this stage that henceforth, rather than having to renegotiate a solution on a year by year basis, we hopefully now have in place an ongoing arrangement that all religiously observant Jewish students will be able to avail themselves of when clashes occur.

• Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM every Friday 12:00-13:00.

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Above Board : 14 February 2014, Mary Kluk

17 February 2014

Parliament Hijacked for Anti-Israel Propaganda Stunt At time writing, we are following up with various government and party leaders regarding the “Solidarity Conference in support of the people of Palestine, Cuba and Western Sahara”, which took place in Parliament last week under the auspices of the International Relations and Cooperation Portfolio Committee. To date, this […]

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Above Board : 24 January 2014

24 January 2014

A definite low point last year was the disruption by anti-Israel demonstrators of a piano recital by Yossi Reshef on Wits University campus. This was a flagrant violation of the right to freedom of expression and association of those attending, as well as being in overt violation of the universities own code of conduct and […]

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MARY KLUK ABOVE BOARD : 25 NOV 2013

28 November 2013

Chanukah, which commences this week, represents amongst other things the resilience of the Jewish people in maintaining their religious and cultural identity under the most difficult circumstances. Historically, Jews have been subjected to all kinds of challenges that have threatened to separate them from their heritage. At worst, this has taken the form of outright […]

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MARY KLUK ABOVE BOARD, 22 NOVEMBER 2013

22 November 2013

The secular year is drawing to a close with a flurry of communal events, whether relating to civil society activities, Holocaust commemoration, the forthcoming Chanukah festivities and inter-faith initiatives. The Board has been, and continues to be involved with these, in partnership with other Jewish organisations as well as with organisations outside the Jewish communal […]

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S. Africa would be wise to ponder its Israel stance

4 November 2013

      The recent disclosure by South Africa‘s International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane that her country would be cooling relations with Israel, comes as no surprise. For years now Pretoria’s formal policy has been to back the Palestinian right to self-determination, while simultaneously supporting Israel’s right to exist. But in practice, as the Israeli-Palestinian […]

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MARY KLUK ABOVE BOARD : 1 NOVEMBER 2013

1 November 2013

A continual challenge for the Jewish community leadership is to combine addressing the internal needs of our Jewish community with helping Jews to also identify with and contribute to the greater national debate in South Africa. In this regard the SAJBD, in addition to pursuing its core mandate of upholding Jewish civil rights, encourages and […]

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