Israel Apartheid Week

An open letter to the Student Representative Council of the University of Cape Town in response to hosting the annual hate fest in April 2019: The Israeli Apartheid Week.

By Stephen Schulman, a UCT alumnus living in Israel

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Hall Of Hate. Jameson Memorial Hall is UCT’s venue during its annual ‘Israel Hate Week.

Dear members of the UCT SRC,

Now that the new year of 2019 has arrived it came to my notice that you, as in the past, and as is your custom, in the merry month of April, hosted that annual hate fest: the Israeli Apartheid Week.

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As a past graduate of our proud university and even though many moons have passed, I still feel a kinship to this great institution and its students and therefore would like to draw your attention to certain cogent facts and to engage you in a frank open discussion. I am certain that your studies and exposure to the benefits of academia of my alma mater have endowed you with qualities of intellectual and moral integrity and have instilled in you the virtues of disinterested enquiry, dispassionate objectivity and courtesy that shall enable you to weigh my words and honour me with a reply.

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You label Israel an “apartheid state”.

To deserve that label, a country must fulfil certain criteria. Apartheid was official government policy, legislated, executed and also condoned and ideologically justified by the main Afrikaner churches. Black people were discriminated against, disenfranchised, relocated, dispossessed and relegated to the fringes of society while there were strict laws against miscegenation and racial intercourse.

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The high-profile marriage in 2018 between Arab-Israeli news anchor, reporter, and television host Lucy Aharish, a Muslim (left), and Israeli film and television actor Tzahi Halevi and a Jew. (Photo: Meir Edery)

Unfortunately, nowadays the term “apartheid” has been too often incorrectly applied to any form of discrimination, been devalued and has consequently lost its original context.

Now, does the State of Israel fulfil the criteria to be so labeled? Does it have an official policy of racial discrimination to groups within its borders?

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Firstly, all citizens irrespective of race or religion have full equality.There are Arabs serving in the diplomatic corps and an Arab judge in the supreme court. In the Knesset (Israeli parliament) the current minister of communications is a Druse. There are Arab parties in the Knesset and even though they see themselves as Palestinians and their views are often inimical to the state, as Israel is a democratic country, they have the right to express their opinions, which they freely do. Arab citizens are an integral part of the work force and partake fully in society. In my Medical Health Fund and in hospitals and clinics, there are Arab doctors and nurses with Arabs and Jews together in the hospital wards. I have been treated by Arab doctors and nurses and wait my turn in line after other Arab citizens to see a doctor. There is mingling in cinemas, restaurants and supermarkets. Just recently a well-known and popular TV presenter who happens to be a Moslem Arab married a Jew. Is this “apartheid“?

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Israel has freedom of religion and religious sites are protected by law. The Bahai faith so viciously persecuted in Iran has magnificent gardens and buildings in Haifa. A great number of Christian pilgrims visit our country. The LGBT community lives and works freely here. Do these same conditions exist in the Middle Eastern countries surrounding us, in Gaza and the West Bank?

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You profess a deep and lasting concern for the Palestinian community. Let us now examine a few facts. In 1948, the United Nations declared Israel as a legitimate state with a right to stand amongst the community of nations. The Israel War of Independence ensued as the fledging state’s Arab neighbors refused to abide by the UN resolution, acknowledge Israel’s existence, avowed to destroy it, “push the Jews into the sea” and promptly invaded the country. In the aftermath of the war, approximately 600,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees. Moreover, approximately 850,000 Jews who had been living in the Arab countries many centuries before Islam dominated the area, were persecuted, subjected to pogroms, disenfranchised, dispossessed and expelled.

image010 (3).pngIn the name of justice for all, a most relevant and pertinent question would be to enquire about the fate of these 850,000 Jewish refugees. The answer is quite simple: the vast majority were accepted with open arms by the fledgling state while a smaller number having European passports chose to move there. Today, Jews from Arab countries and their descendants are an integral part of modern-day Israel.

Israel did not push them into squalid refugee camps and keep them there to fester as hostages as the Arab countries have done to their fellow Moslems. Israel did not deny them full citizenship and opportunities. You profess deep concern for the Palestinians’ rights. Lebanon restricts them to refugee camps, denies them basic rights such as citizenship, health care, employment and education and disqualifies them from owning property. Moreover, they are barred from studying or practicing in twenty professions. Lebanon continues to ignore calls by various human rights groups to the Lebanese authorities to end discrimination against Palestinians.

Is this not “apartheid” in its true sense?

In reality, the policy and actions of Lebanon are closer to the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany. In the wake of the Gulf War, many Gulf states, Qatar included, used the opportunity to expel the Palestinians living there. Saudi Arabia has imprisoned many and in Syria, thousands have been tortured and murdered. Is there an Arab country that has accepted their co-religionists the Palestinian refugees, given them citizenship and full rights as Israel has done to the Jews expelled from the Arab countries?  In the name of full justice and moral consistency, why have you never raised your voices in protest? Why have you not devoted a week to this cause?

The SRC has always stated its awareness of and devotion to causes for human rights.

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Turkey under Erdogan has summarily dismissed over 100, 000 civil servants, purged the army, jailed many in the opposition and effectively silenced the free press either by laws or intimidation.

Iran is under dictatorship, executing, jailing and torturing many of its citizens, persecuting religious minorities such a the Bahai and actively developing and spreading terrorism throughout the globe.

Saudi Arabia denies gender equality, has religious intolerance ad has executed over 500 people in the last few years.

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China has forcibly relocated over 1000,000 Moslem Uighurs, incarcerated, executed and harvested the organs of members of the Falun Gong sect. and let us not forget, amongst others, its maltreatment of the Tibetans.

Yet, in the light of all these well-known gross abuses, the SRC has chosen to remain silent. Why is this so?

Is it because you don’t wish to offend and bite the hand that feeds you when Saudi Arabia and China invest large sums of money in SA?

You quite rightly state your pride in being an African university and your involvement in the affairs of the continent and so it should be. Nevertheless, you remain silent in the face of injustices. To name a few:

Zimbabwe is corrupt and oppressive towards its own people. There is slavery in the Sudan and many fellow Africans suffer under incompetent and corrupt rulers. I saw in your group picture where you happily and contentedly sit, that with the exception of one white person that you are all Africans, so in raising your voices you cannot be accused of racism. You have been empowered by your fellow students to speak out. Why is there silence on your part?

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Hall Of Hate. Jameson Memorial Hall is UCT’s venue during its annual ‘Israel Hate Week.

When I was at UCT, the SRC saw beyond campus politics, was involved, protested and demonstrated against government apartheid policies. South Africa – your country, the country of your forefathers and your future generations – is mired in deep corruption with its leaders filling their pockets at the expense of the ordinary citizen. Poverty, neglect and crime is rampant. In your site, I searched in vain for any pronouncements of your concern or activism.  It is incomprehensible that you should choose silence!

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Consequently, your official platform is full of platitudes that unfortunately are devoid of any content. I find it pitiful that you find time to single out Israel while willfully ignoring the rampant injustices around you. I find it pitiful and morally repugnant that you turn a blind eye to many egregious violations of human rights and let hatred, racism and anti-Semitism blind your reason. I find it saddening that you, the student council are devoid of any moral compass and are stained with moral cowardice.

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I level these charges against you. They are serious. If I have erred, I shall gladly stand to be corrected. I look forward to your reply. If not, then you will have affirmed all my accusations.

Stephen Schulman

Ramat Hasharon,

Israel.

 

 

 

Israel’s New Paradigm for Peace with Gaza

By Ben Levitas 

Former Chairman of the SAZF (Cape Council)

I watched on a Television screen monitoring the Israel/Gaza border as 3 Gazans cut a hole in the border fence, went through the no-man’s land area, clamoured up an anti-Tank ditch and entered Israeli territory, where they lit fires on the Israeli side and damaged some property. While the operation lasted for several minutes, although the Gazan’s were unobscured and well within sniper range, no shots or even warning shots were fired from the Israel side. Contrary to popular misconception Israel practices staggering restraint to ensure that no Gazans are harmed, unless they threaten Israeli lives. I also watched as Hamas cynically use paraplegics with artificial limbs to run towards the border fence, by paying them to do so. But again Israel refrains over and over to fire on them.

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With Murderous Intent. Gazans trying to cut through barbed-wire fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

In South Africa more people are murdered in one week, than have been killed in the misnamed “genocide” that has been occurring since the beginning of the weekly protests by tens of thousands of Gazans along the Gaza border.

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The Beauty And The beast. Beneath the veneer of South Africa’s natural beauty, is an unnatural reality of 57 people murdered every day.

Recently, Gazans fired over 700 rockets into Israel during a 2 day period. No nation state can sanction or condone such aggression. Even one rocket is too much. Moreover, just this past week Gazans launched waves of incendiary arson attacks on Israel, starting more than 30 fires of farmlands, during the extremely dry summer months, when temperatures soar to 40 degrees Celsius. While on the border, I witnessed Israeli fire trucks roaming the area, ever ready to immediately quelch these fires before they spread. No nation stand would stand for this type of aggression which is aimed to burn civilian activities and animal life.!

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Gunning For Israel. Rockets are fired from Gaza toward Israel, May 5, 2019 | Photo: Reuters

But Israel seems to be ready to deploy a new strategy, which is aimed at making the lives of Gazans more hopeful, than the constant dose of repression meted out by their rulers, Hamas. The average Gazan finds himself between a rock and a hard place, as state sanctioned brutality and even murder is the order of the day. Hamas also exerts almost complete economic control over the daily lives of its citizens and dishes out food and benefits only to those that toe its line. Even the fate of the Qatari money, which is handed out in cash to the Gazan authorities, finds its way first to those loyal to Hamas. Israel permits the Qatari’s to do so, in order to improve the daily lives of the Gazans.

There is a strong perception in Israel, that they need to find another way to improve the quality of life of the ordinary citizens of Gaza, by taking unilateral steps, which cannot be impeded by Hamas. I was present at a briefing by the Head of the Regional council of Sderot, Mr Ophir Liebstein, close to the Gazan border when he spoke passionately about his desire to proceed with this new vision. He visualizes establishing hospitals, schools and even High-tech industries along the Gazan border, which will be aimed at offering Gazans an alternative to break free from the futility of life currently on the menu in Gaza. By seeing that cooperation offers hope and a way out of the cycle of violence, more and more Gazans will not support Hamas and choose to support those willing to work together with Israel.

Many Israelis have also realized that they can’t leave Gaza to try to sort out its own problems as failure to do so is detrimentally affecting Israel. Raw sewage, which is spewing into the sea and finding its way onto Israeli beaches, because Gaza has squandered the money granted to it by the European Union to build sewage plants, is an example. Israel, at its own expense has set aside an amount of 15 Billion Shekels (63 Billion Rands) to build sewage plants in Israeli territory which will funnel waste water and sewage from Gaza, and once purified allow the return of treated water back to Gaza to assist them to grow crops. Israel is also laying a new water pipeline into Gaza that will more than double the supply of drinking water to the people of Gaza.

This new strategy has also manifested in a policy of rewarding Hamas for acting responsibly. Just today, instead of targeting the arsonists which they could easily do, Israel has offered to increase the supply of diesel to Gaza and has offered a reprieve to Gazan fishermen by extending their fishing zone, on the condition that Hamas restrain and stop these arson attacks.

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Adding Fuel To The Fire? Despite ‘Balloon Terror’ during June 2019, Israel allows diesel into Gaza

Israelis are realizing that just because the people of Gaza have been burdened by a government that does not have their best interests at heart, that there is nevertheless something they can do to ameliorate the daily living conditions of the Gazan’s daily lives. Israel is stepping up to show clearly that there is another way than conflict, and that way of cooperation offers the only path to a better life and a long term solution to coexistence.

COGAT

 

IMG_6009 (1).jpgBen Levitas – Former Chairman of the SAZF Cape Council. Has a BA from the Hebrew University: MSc from London School of Economics and an MBA from University of Pretoria. Founded Boston House College and is an entrepreneur.

 

The Israel Brief- 24-27 June 2019

 

The Israel Brief – 24 June 2019 – Economic plan for Palestinians revealed. 18 Brits kicked off BA flight for bomb threat. Likud and Blue and White deny coalition talks.

 

 

 

The Israel Brief – 25 June 2019 – Update on rape case. 13 fires in South and we check out the Bahrain confab.

 

 

 

The Israel Brief – 27 June 2019 – Did Russia spoof navigation system? Wrapping up Bahrain. Ehud Barak reenters politics. Space IL nixes second trip to the moon?

Tseva Adom (code red)

By Bev Goldman

head of Israel Section, SAICC / SA Israel Chamber of Commerce Johannesburg, South Africa.

Time passes, memories fade, events are forgotten.  I needed to remind myself of past traumas in Israel, and I did.

In 2001, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Brigades and other terrorist groups began launching Qassam rockets at Sderot (the small town that lies about a mile outside of the Gaza Strip in the western Negev Desert) as part of the Second Intifada (2000-2005), and have continued intermittently since then.

Not only continued but intensified!

In a single day in November 2018, more than 460 rockets were launched into the south of Israel, cruelly outmatched a few months later when over a 24-hour period in May 2019, 500 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza.

Back in 2002, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) installed a radar warning system known as Shakhar Adom, or ‘red dawn’.  It operated as follows: an alarm was sounded across the town when the IDF realised that a rocket was inbound. It worked extremely well, and citizens mostly had time – about 15 seconds – to find shelter from the inevitable destruction which followed.

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One Israeli schoolteacher finds a unique way to help her class cope with the fear and panic in the face of Hamas rocket fire.

In 2007, a young 7-year old Israeli girl by the name of Shakhar complained about her name being associated with the warning system.  In true Israeli style, ensuring that as little discomfort as possible would affect the citizens, authorities changed the name to Tseva Adom – meaning ‘red colour’ or ‘code red’ – and Tseva Adom became known across the Jewish world as ‘15 seconds’ – the difference between life and death.

Seventeen years: 17 years during which the citizens of Sderot, and later those of other cities and towns near Gaza, have lived with the terror of imminent attack, imminent destruction, imminent death. 17 years of treading softly, holding one’s breath, praying that children and spouses have reached safety in time, wondering when the next warning would come.  17 years of angst, of apprehension, of foreboding – how do people live like that?

Three years after the first radar warning was installed in Sderot, it was installed in Ashkelon, a city lying north of the Gaza Strip near the Mediterranean coast, further away from Gaza than Sderot, then also under siege from rockets and imminent death.  But aha!  Ashkelon did better than Sderot.  Why?  Because its citizens had 30 seconds’ warning instead of 15 – much more time to find shelter.  And did the citizens of Ashkelon cope with that trauma? 30 seconds – the difference between life and death. Not quite shades of Sophie’s Choice, but near enough.

While everyone involved suffered unimaginable horrors, it was the children who really bore the brunt of the attacks. Post-traumatic stress disorders, hyperactivity, problems with sleeping, detachment from friends, from activities, from integration into any social world – that was then, but those children who are now adults are still traumatised, still terrified, still emotionally fragile. Yet because the actual number of deaths caused by the rockets was very low, what happened there has taken a back seat as people continued to live every day and to marginalise their horrific experiences. And as for the media?  Of course, there were no stories – there seldom are, when they concern Israeli tragedies.

The New ‘Normal’

Let’s fast-forward 17 years and look at Sderot today, and at Ashkelon, and at the other parts of Israel where breathing is less often taken for granted and instead has become a symptom of apprehension. Sderot is now home to three converted bomb shelters that were adapted to meet the needs of teenagers for space and their own activities. Each can accommodate about 50 teens, and each can expand to make room for at least another 20. The best part of this is that those children are already gathered in bomb shelters: should there be a Tseva Adom warning, it will have no effect either on them or their pursuits, except psychologically and emotionally – does that matter?

According to NGO officials who visited Sderot to show support specifically to the teenagers, ‘We came into this large two-floor bomb shelter and it was like coming into someone’s living room. There are comfortable sofas, a well-stocked kitchen, a giant TV on the wall and downstairs there is a games room and a homework room. Everything is well maintained by the kids.”  In this safe environment, the children are given leadership training courses, they are encouraged to interact socially with one another and establish healthy relationships, and they are assisted with their schoolwork.

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No Kidding! Tzeva Adom (Code Red): Helping Children Deal with Terror at school.

Almost normal – almost, but not quite.  These are tomorrow’s leaders of Israel: passive victims of the worst kind of hatred and enmity.  Can their future be predicted? I wonder.

In the latest incident in March this year, Ashkelon was once again targeted from Gaza and Israeli families were woken up once again by the sound of air-raid sirens from Hamas rocket fire. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad determined yet again to create as much devastation as possible in the city, firing rockets and launching several airborne incendiary devices (including kites); and there was a cross-border arson attack in which Palestinians breached the Gaza security fence and burned whatever they could find in the area.

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Destination Israel. A missile fired from Gaza aimed at Israel’s civilian population.

More of the same trauma, the same anguish, the same shattering blows to the lives of those living there. Unceasing, and now focusing on central Israel, Tel Aviv, other vulnerable cities.

What is life like for those who live under this constant barrage of attack, combined with the hatred that initiates it?  How do the people of south Israel, wanting nothing more than peaceful lives and opportunities to enjoy life, cope with these perpetual offensives?  And what about those Palestinians who want much the same as the Israelis, but who are held hostage by their corrupt and devious leadership, forced to endure terror and torture for ideologies with which they may well disagree, as seen in the many on-the-ground normal everyday relationships that have developed between them and Israelis in their neighbourhoods?

The sound of the siren – the Tseva Adom – remains terrifying for Israelis in the south of the country, even though the attacks are less frequent than they used to be. When the siren goes off, they must drop everything, run to bomb shelters and ensure that their families are with them.  They are often too afraid to leave their homes and venture out to do the tasks any normal family does, because the sirens might go again, at any moment.  They fear the slamming of doors, the backfiring of cars and trucks, unusual music being played: to many of them, these strange noises sound like that dreadful sign. They cannot even stop and freeze in panic in case they don’t make it to the shelter in time. These are offensives of wartime, yet the world refuses to believe Israel is in a constant war with her enemies because the numbers of casualties are so low.

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Sderot has been described by some of its citizens, with gallows humour, as “the biggest bull’s-eye on the map of Israel”.  When the bombing began at the turn of the century, and because of its “proximity to the border and the concentration of Hamas-led amateur bomb-makers on the other side, Sderot has (and has) a unique civic claim: on a rocket-per-head-of-population basis, it is the most targeted town in Israel, indeed the world.” That’s quite a reputation for Sderot: Hamas is making sure that other Israeli towns gain the same reputation.

I remember years back, during the infamous Vietnam war, that one of the most iconic photos to come out of that tragedy was the one entitled “Vietnam Napalm 1972”.  The caption read: South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places on June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing.” 
That photo, and others from that time, and the explanatory texts, made history. They were distributed widely; the world was shocked and stunned; the anger was palpable.

Israel has had more than its fair share of tragedies, of bombings, of fires, of in-bed murders, of terror attacks, yet whenever these have happened, world opinion has been quiet.  Jewish lives – Israeli lives – are far less important than those of many others.  We number so few in the world’s population that the thinking probably is that we have no standing.  Like putting one’s finger into a glass of water, pulling it out and seeing no difference whatsoever in the level of water, so too with murdering a few Israelis here and there, some children, teenagers and the aged, the end effect is negligible.  Not worthy of media attention.  Not worthy of comment.

It is what it is….

 

 

Bev Goldman.jpgBev Goldman worked for many years in education and journalism, and she holds a master’s degree in Feminist Literature. Prior to joining the SA Zionist Federation where she dealt with media and education for 12 years, she was the editor of the ‘Who’s Who’ of Southern Africa; a member of WordWize which taught English language skills to Russian and Polish immigrants in South Africa; an occasional lecturer in English at RAU (now the University of Johannesburg); and Director of Educational Programmes at Allenby In-Home Studies.  Currently she runs the Media Team Israel for the SA Zionist Federation; she sits on the Board of Governors of the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre (RCHCC); she is the National Vice-President of the Union of Jewish Women South Africa; she is an executive member of the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW); and she edits and proofs Masters and PhD dissertations.

 

Bahrain Conference: If only the Palestinian leadership really wished for peace

*Credit: this article originally appeared in “The Australian” (26 June 2019)

By Alex Ryvchin

co-Chief Executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

The economic component of the Trump administration’s intensely awaited plan to achieve an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been released.

Formally titled Peace to Prosperity, the proposal contains a three-pronged program of investment and reforms to transform the Palestinian economy and society through the injection of $US50 billion ($71.8bn) of foreign investment, opportunities for ­ordinary Palestinians in employment, education, even recreation, and the establishment of a transparent and competent Palestinian administration, without which businesses will have no confidence to invest and Palestinian institutions will continue to wither.

The plan assumes, correctly, that peace building and viable Palestinian self-government will ­require far more than glamorous signing ceremonies on manicured lawns. In offering unprecedented opportunities while maintaining diplomatic and economic pressure on the bloated, inert Palestinian leadership, US President Donald Trump has overthrown the old discredited order of attempting to get the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith by extracting upfront concessions from Israel.

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Jared Kushner describes the “deal of the century” as “opportunity of the century”

Yet the latest proposal, astute as it may be, is destined to fail, just like more conventional diplomatic efforts of previous administrations. This is because the Trump plan, like all others, is founded on an irredeemable fallacy: that the Palestinian leadership wants to end the conflict.

Long before the Trump plan was tabled or its contents were revealed, it was predictably rejected out of hand by the Palestinian leadership. Any plan that promises to “empower the Palestinian people” and “improve the public sector’s ability to serve its people” is a threat to the status quo by which the leaders of the Palestinian movement have attained personal status and wealth while shedding all accountability to the people they claim to serve.

Saeb Erekat, the perennial “chief negotiator” for the Palestinians, announced a boycott of the regional conference in Bahrain at which the plan is being presented. Erekat’s three-decade career as a negotiator has resulted in three rejections of a two-state solution, which would have delivered the Palestinians statehood over territory equivalent in size to 100 per cent of the area of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in east Jerusalem, an end to the blockade of Gaza and a solution to the Palestinian refugee ­problem.

The equally longstanding and self-serving Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who lauded Saddam Hussein for “standing up for Arab rights, Arab dignity, Arab pride” following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and notoriously opposed the historic Oslo Accords because they recognised Israel, called the Bahrain conference “delusional, irresponsible” and “an insult to our intelligence”.

Ashrawi has a Sydney Peace Prize to her name and the adoration of Bob Carr and parts of the global left, but not a single, tangible legislative or diplomatic achievement in three decades of public life.

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The petulant refusal of the Palestinian leadership to even consider a proposal intended to offer ordinary Palestinians an alternative to war, conflict and victimhood is a betrayal and a crime but is impeccably consistent with earlier Palestinian responses to international efforts aimed at giving them statehood.

When in 1937 the British first proposed resolving competing Jewish and Arab claims to the land through partition and the creation of a first-ever independent Arab Palestinian state, alongside a Jewish state on just 4 per cent of the British Mandate territory, the reaction of the Palestinian leadership was an outright “no”, backed by widespread violence and calls for the “liberation of the country and establishment of an Arab government”.

When the UN held consultations throughout the country in 1947, again seeking to mediate peacefully rival claims to the land, the Arab leaders boycotted the proceedings.

Periodically, some Palestinian leaders have admitted that their strategy of boycott backed by violence has been utterly ruinous. Palestinian jurist Henry Cattan admitted the 1947 boycott had been “unfortunate”.

Palestinian unionist Majdi Shella ­admitted the Palestinians “have a long tradition of boycotting ­everything. Sometimes boycotting is the easier road. If you want to do nothing, boycott.”

Yet the Palestinians have refined their instinct for rejection and political self-immolation to such an extent that they appear to know no other path.

This is why Palestinian rioters destroyed greenhouses left to them by the Israelis following the unilateral ­Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. This is why last year Palestinians in Gaza set fire to the Kerem Shalom border crossing through which medicine, aid and consumer products intended for the Palestinians are transferred.

Far from holding Palestinian leaders accountable for their betrayal of their own people, instead supporters of the Palestinian cause in the West uncritically have backed the latest Palestinian boycott, thereby making themselves complicit in the entrenched ­culture of violence, corruption and bigotry of the Palestinian leadership.

After all, just as Palestinian leaders have been enriched by their own obstructionism, one wonders what anti-Israel activists would do with themselves if the Palestinians ever chose peace and prosperity over perpetual conflict.

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Palestinians hold up placards outside the UN headquarters in Beirut to protest against a US-sponsored Middle East economic conference in Bahrain. Picture: AFP

Perhaps the most telling statement on the Trump proposal came from a senior Saudi diplomat who called the Palestinians “irresponsible” for refusing even to entertain a proposal intended to provide immense benefits for their own people.

“History and Allah have brought a real opportunity,” the diplomat said. “The blood conflict had lasted too long. The Saudis and all Gulf states plus Egypt and Jordan realise that the age of war with Israel is over.”

It took the Arab nations three failed invasions of Israel and decades of economic warfare and fruitless diplomatic skirmishes finally to recognise that the Jewish state is neither temporary nor a threat to their interests. One wonders how many more decades of boycott and bloodshed will be needed before Palestinian leaders finally chart a new and constructive course.

 

Alex Ryvchin - profile picAlex Ryvchin writes and speaks on the Arab-Israeli conflict, foreign and national affairs, antisemitism and the Holocaust, and religion and identity, and is a regular commentator on TV and radio. His first book is the internationally acclaimed,  “The Anti-Israel Agenda – Inside the Political War on the Jewish State”, (Gefen Publishing House, 2017). His new book, on the history of Zionism, will be released in September 2019. He is the co-Chief Executive of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

 

**Feature picture: Reuters

 

Back To Africa

Originally from South Africa, Paul Hirschson returned to Africa as Israeli ambassador to Senegal and six other West African countries.  Following his tenure, he reflects on the experience with Lay Of The Land.

By Rolene Marks and David E. Kaplan

Seated in a bustling coffee shop in Tel Aviv Ambassador Paul Hirschson was far removed from downtown Dakar. Nevertheless, like Tel Aviv, Hirschson will tell you “Dakar is a cosmopolitan city whose identity is based on its melting pot of peoples.” Looking around at the packed tables of  animated Tel Avivians besides us, it was hard not to recognise a similarity of ethnic diversity.

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Hands On. Ambassador Paul Hirschson in West Africa.

Housing 25% of the country’s population and 80% of its economic activity, “Dakar is Senegal’s veritable engine room,’ he says.

So is Tel Aviv Israel’s engine room!

Culture, climate and a history of overcoming adversity – “there are a lot of similarities.”

Dakar is one of Africa’s great cultural and economic hubs. It is also home to a unique MASHAV-supported project helping Senegalese learn drip irrigation. Before returning to Israel at the end of his tenure as ambassador, Hirschson visited agricultural projects Israel was supporting, such as small farms east of Dakar in the plains of Senegal, nestled beneath the giant baobab trees.

“Agriculture is the anchor of what we are doing there,” says Hirschson.

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Israel’s Man In West Africa. Ambassador Paul Hirschson in front of the iconic Mosque of the Divinity in Dakar. (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

“There is no country more perfectly poised to help Africa than the State of Israel,” says Hirschson, who was Israel’s man in Dakar from August 2015 to August 2018.  It was an active period of diplomatic outreach as an increasing number of African countries warmed to the State of Israel. “Bilateral ties between Israel and countries on the continent that the Jewish state had previously no established relations are growing,” he says. This is born out by Israel recently opening its twelfth Embassy in Africa, this time in Kigali, Rwanda and rumours abound of the possible establishing of formal ties with Sudan.

“Such relations are of mutual benefit,” he says. For Israel it represents a strategic outreach  but for West Africa “we are able to provide Israel’s groundbreaking technologies in agriculture, cyber security, counterterrorism, medicine, water management and other fields. We help provide much needed solutions to many of the challenges facing the continent today.”

The history of relations between Israel and the African continent is both heartwarming and complex.

It would seem almost natural that African countries would seek to build bridges with Israel. “Many of these countries have a historical and political trajectory that mirrors that of the Jewish State,” points out Hirschson noting that it was the legendary Golda Meir, Israel’s first female Prime Minister who recognized as Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in the 1950s, the great potential for Israel to help Africa.

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Facing The Press. Israeli Ambassador to Senegal Paul Hirschson speaks at a press conference, September 2015. Photo: Israel au Sénégal / Facebook

“Meir recognized that African countries and Israel share similar tragic pasts, having endured multiple wars and struggles for independence against foreign powers who ruled their ancestral homelands,” he says.

Listening to Hirschson, we were reminded of Theodore Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism also wrote about what he saw as two peoples whose mutual histories of slavery and colonisation mirrored each other.

There is still one other question arising out of the disaster of nations which remains unsolved to this day, and whose profound tragedy, only a Jew can comprehend. This is the African question. Just call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold. Their children grew up in strange lands, the objects of contempt and hostility because their complexions were different. I am not ashamed to say, though I may expose myself to ridicule for saying so, that once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”

It is well over 100 years that Herzl wrote these empathetic words and “Israel is proud to be in Africa not to exploit  but to enrich,” says Hirschson.

While today relations between Israel and the continent are strengthening, it seems that in West Africa “something quite extraordinary” is taking place reflected by the visits of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, over the last few years.

In 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to visit Africa in nearly three decades, with a trip to Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. A year later he attended a meeting in Liberia of heads of state from the West African regional group, Ecowas. Regrettably, an Israel-Africa summit that was supposed to take place in Togo in October 2017 was cancelled but the mood is changing reflected in the statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when

Chad and Israel renewed diplomatic ties describing it as:

a partnership… to forge a prosperous and secure future for our countries”.

Ambassador Hirschson has strong ties and a passion for the African continent. Born and raised in South Africa to a family that played an active part in the struggle against Apartheid, Hirschson has an affinity to the people of the continent.

He is most proud of his grandfather, Issy Wolfson who was an anti-Apartheid activist and a trade unionist and “the only union representative to stand in a parliamentary election.” Growing up in a family at the forefront of the anti-Apartheid movement, “has had a huge impact on me; it gets into the DNA.”

Africa Outreach

“Africa and Islam meet in a harmonious way in Senegal,” says Hirschson, a country which has had a turbulent and troubling history. “For 300 years, slaves were exported from a small island off its coast called Goree, where visitors can see the dank cells where people were imprisoned until shipped to the New World.  The “Door Of No Return” still there, says it all! But from this tragic past has arisen a success story, a democracy in West Africa with a unique form of localised Islam and a colourful local culture.”

Hirschson says, he met with many in Africa “who identify Israelis with the West but are acutely aware that we are not European.” This impacts on their understanding and “although Muslims in Senegal and West Africa may have an affinity for the Islamic world and the Palestinian cause, they differentiate it from relations with Israel.”

Now, with Senegal last year joining the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the next two years – alongside Egypt, Japan, Ukraine and Uruguay – “it is potentially a very important ally for Israel.” The Embassy in Senegal is also responsible for six other countries in West Africa – Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde.

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Israel – A Friend In Deed. As there is no Israeli embassy in Sierra Leone – one of the poorest countries in the world according to UN indicators – Israel sent in 2014 medicines, clean water, blankets and other needed items via its embassy in Senegal.

Shared Experience

Hirschson explains that Israel is able “to have a unique conversation” with Africa. There is an explanation of ‘salvation’ why Africa became known for Jews as the “new exile from exile”.

“What few people are aware is that when Jews fled from the Spanish peninsular during the horrendous persecution of the Inquisition of the 15th century, it was to the African continent they first took refuge; this is why there were such large Jewish communities in north Africa from Morocco to Egypt.” When introducing himself in Africa, Hirschson would relate that “our first engagement with Africa was 3000 years ago when we were slaves in  Egypt. The second was some 2500 years ago when the Iraqis (Babylonians) conquered our first state and a part of my people escaped south and were given refuge in Ethiopia. Our third engagement was 500 years ago when we were exiled from Europe during the Spanish Inquisition. And our fourth engagement with Africa is Israel’s outreach today as a nation state that is independent. Today, Israelis live all over Africa. Africans hear the same story as our story of being slaves, conquered, colonised, exiled, and regaining independence in modern times. It’s the same narrative.”

Helping Hand

Situated in one of the most neglected regions in the world, Senegal as with many parts of West Africa are in dire need of both humanitarian and economic aid. During the 2014 Ebola crisis that placed thousands at risk, the tiny state of Israel  was according to a statement by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York, the world’s largest per-capita contributor to halting the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

“We have the ability to win hearts and minds in places like Senegal,” says Hirschson. “Unfortunately, it sometime takes outbreaks of diseases or natural catastrophes like floods, landslides and earthquakes for the world to notice the scope of our contributions.”

In Guinea, with whom “Israel renewed diplomatic relations in 2016, we built in 2017 an Intensive Care Unit in an economically depressed neighborhood and ran an agricultural training course for Guinean agronomists in Israel.”

During the same period, “We established the only Dialysis Center in Sierra Leone and was the first country in the world to deliver humanitarian aid to Sierra Leone following the devastating mudslides which killed over 1000 people in 2017.”  In 2015, “Twenty-five children from The Gambia and in 2018 the same number from Senegal were sent to Israel for life-saving heart treatment.”

Good relations with Africa can be mutually beneficial and “there is little doubt of  an increasing appreciation of Israel by Africans. It is appreciated that Israel was the fourth country in the world to recognize Senegal’s independence.”

Ambassador Hirschson asserts that Israel is “a perfect match” for Africa with agricultural, water, security and smart phone technology.

“Our farming conditions are almost an exact mirror image of the Senegalese farms. It is almost ‘copy & paste’,” says Hirschson.

“We built hundreds of smallhold-family farms in Senegal and trained 1500 family farmers in modern agricultural technologies and systems.”

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Field Of Dreams. With Israel’s helping hand, lettuce is grown on a MASHAV farm in Senegal. Photo: MASHAV

In recent years, Israel’s expertise in security technology is increasing sought. With the defeat of ISIS, “many of its members are returning home to Africa and pose a threat to fledgling democracies and the stability of fragile states,” says Hirschson. “This provides a fertile ground for terror, and Israel has the proven experience, expertise and technology to help. African countries are aware of the threat of fundamentalism, and poverty creates perfect conditions for extremism to flourish.”

An encouraging development, “is that some countries have come to understand that they can have friendly ties with both Israel and Palestinians; that it is no more a case of one or the other. This is a valuable lesson that more developed countries around the world can heed.”

Looking at Israel “through the lens of self-improvement and not only politics is mutually beneficial, and the next big challenge will be getting farming done right and hopefully convert farmers into entrepreneurs,” says the ambassador.

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Conversing Over Coffee. Lay Of The Land correspondents David E. Kaplan and Rolene Marks with Ambassador Paul Hirschson (right) for exclusive interview in Tel Aviv.

“Netanyahu’s warm embrace of Africa,” asserts Hirschson, “coupled with the growing needs of African countries is starting to bear real fruit.

With shared narratives and a growing affinity for each other, it makes total sense that the next great love affair with Israel is born in Africa. 

 

 

 

*Feature picture: Having A Field Day. An animated Ambassador Paul Hirschson at a small farm project supported by Israel in Senegal. (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

The Israel Brief- 17-20 June 2019

 

The Israel Brief – 17 June 2019 – Israel sends water to Gaza. US envoy supports Ambassador Friedman’s statement on West Bank. Rivlin hosts Muslim leaders and Trump Heights on Golan.

 

 

The Israel Brief – 18 June 2019 – Police indict 46 year old Palestinian man for rape of 7 year old girl. PM of Malaysia antisemitic comments. Hamas say new level of understanding with Israel.

 

 

The Israel Brief – 19 June 2019 – Update on rape case. John Cusack tweet and AOC concentration camp comparison.

 

 

 

The Israel Brief – 20 June 2019 – Don’t test us says Netanyahu. IAEA recognise Palestinian state and Bahrain says yes to 6 Israeli journalists.

 

 

 

 

 

Big Ben might be silent, but warning bells are chiming in London – for Jews!

The article JEWXIT: COULD 300,000 JEWS FLEE THE UK? by Hannah Gal published in The Jerusalem Post on the June 12 is creating a stir.

It suggests that one in three British Jews have considered leaving the UK due to rising antisemitism and refers to a 2018 poll by The Jewish Chronicle, that “British Jews between 35 and 54 years old are most concerned about the prospect of a Corbyn-led Labour government, with over half of those surveyed giving emigration serious consideration.”

Revealing prevailing fear among families was a quote from an enraged Jewish mother  that “It is almost unreal to me that my daughter’s university choice is determined by her fear of antisemitism.”

She laments that “antisemitism is becoming a part of everyday life.”

This “everyday life” antisemitism, says another mother, is being exacerbated by an atmosphere created by the Leader of the Opposition and possible future Prime Minister:

I used to wear a Magen David (Star of David) but now I am hesitant. Corbyn’s passive aggressive support of anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments has created a climate where it is now okay to lash out at things Jewish. His actions speak louder than his words – his regular attendances at events and rallies that lobby for Palestine, coupled with pronounced silences whenever there is a tragedy involving Jewish or Israelis, tells me the allegations are not only well founded, but they are telling of a new kind of neoliberal socialist blood which Corbyn has created in the UK.”

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Walking Alone. Quarter of Jewish students in UK “fear antisemitic attacks on campus”.

The increasing anxiety level within the Jewish community recently led former chairman of the Conservative Party, Andrew Feldman, to pen a letter to Jeremy Corbyn saying:

I want you to know that many Jewish people in the United Kingdom are seriously contemplating their future here in the event of you becoming prime minister. This is because they can see that Labour, a party with a proud tradition of tolerance and inclusiveness, is now a hotbed of feelings against Israel and therefore the Jewish people. Quietly, discreetly and extremely reluctantly, they are making their contingency plans, and this would be a tragedy.”

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Future UK Prime Minster? Jeremy Corbyn leading a demonstration in London July 2014 against Israeli during Operation Protective Edge that began following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas.

In response to the article, former South African and today a resident in London, UK, Chris Manson writes:

The nature and level of the anxieties raised in the article is entirely commensurate with the evidence that is all  around.

Indeed, the only surprise to me is how long it seems to have taken to sink in!

There are many factors that inform that this situation has evolved over at least the past twenty years. As such, it is unlikely also to be just something transient.

 These are some of them but by no means all:

  1. The education profession is entirely dominated by a sort of post-modernist neo-Marxist orthodoxy.

The view disseminated by this establishment is rigidly anti-Israeli and unconditionally supportive of all her enemies.

Hence, this is the view held by educated young people, and to differ from it invites ridicule at best, but more likely ostracism or outright attack.

Nowhere is this culture more entrenched  than in the universities. That is why one reference in the article is to the selection of university being dominated by consideration of which campus, relatively speaking, may be less hostile.

  1. The “celebration” and elevation of multi-culturalism to totemic status. As part of the process of expiation of perceived Imperialist guilt, it has become a requirement of modernity, anti-racist purity and “progressive” political views to ascribe an almost sacred degree of absolute moral value to the views of the historic and contemporary immigrant communities.

Out of such communities were drawn the majority by far of British recruits for I.S.I.L.

For years, these groupings and many more mainstream organisations have campaigned also on behalf of the Palestinian cause.

Thus, over time the prevailing view has distilled into the perception that Israel is a sort of psychopathic “entity”, brutal, racist and simply vile in every way.

Anyone daring to even timidly question this this is simply tarred with the same brush.

These are crimes perpetrated by the Jews. Inevitably by implication, British Jewry provide a legitimate target. Payback for the defenceless victims of global “Zionism”.

  1. British thought and direction of travel is skewed by the dominance and power of London; this is where the zeitgeist of the nation is defined. Factors (1) & (2) above are dominant in this location which also largely explains the Brexit division.
  2. Jeremy Corbyn has always been an unrepentant advocate of the overthrow of Israel by any means.

The new recruits to Labour who form his praetorian guard, are social media people informed by factors (1) to (3) above. How surprising can it be that the amalgam of this is now reflected in a casual antisemitism for it is indeed an aspect of contemporary cool: along with anti-sexism, multiculturalism, climate change activism, Trump hatred and so on.

  1. If Corbyn wins the next election which he may well, and this could be sooner rather than later, we can expect an exacerbation of antisemitism as it will then enjoy a thinly disguised State sanction. Rather like South Africa as is clear from a recent article published on Lay Of  The LandI think therefore that for the Anglo Jewish community in the United Kingdom, the options are what they more or less have eternally been everywhere.

Remain, keep a low profile, disguise yourself, hope that things will get better and discretely work to that end.

Or, accept that sadly, the tide has turned here for the foreseeable future and get out while hanging on to the passport!

 

 

*Feature picture – Getty

Let Us Never Forget

Former South African couple in Israel honoured by Lithuanian government in Tel Aviv

By David E. Kaplan

What we are all have in common is an obsession not to betray the dead we left behind, or who left us behind. They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness,” Elie Wiesel, Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor.

For over 20 years, these words inspired Abel and Glenda Levitt to embark on a mission to ensure that the names of murdered Lithuanian Jews do not remain buried with their remains and to educate young Lithuanians to understand why a once vibrant Jewish community that lived amongst their grandparents is today “No More”!

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Towards A Tomorrow Of Tolerance. Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas (left) awards Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv on the 4th June 2019. (Photo D.E. Kaplan.)

In the same week this June that D-Day 70th commemorative ceremonies were held on both sides of the English Channel,  honouring the bravery of the soldiers that participated in the 1944 Normandy landings “that their sacrifice should never be forgotten,” a less conspicuous ceremony was held at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv honouring two different kind of ‘soldiers’ to ensure that the victims of Nazi tyranny  and their collaborators, would also “…never be forgotten”.

Close friends and family, the media, members of the Lithuanian embassy and honoured guests including Bennie Rabinowitz from Cape Town, South Africa, heard addresses before Lithuanian Ambassador,  Edminas Bagdonas, awarded Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Lithuanian Diplomacy Star”. The award was presented “for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and commemoration of historical memory.”

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Remembering Birzh. Bennie Rabinowitz the main benefactor of the Memorial Bridge in Birzh (centre) with Abel Levitt (left) and Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas. (photo D.E. Kaplan)

From Rugby To Roots

Who would have thought that the Levitt’s journey began over a rugby match that was not even played? “It was pure chance that took us on our first trip to Lithuania in 1998,” reveals Abel. “Our son Adam played for Israel’s national rugby team and when we saw they would be playing in Vilnius (Vilna), Glenda and I decided to join the tour as “camp followers” determined to wave the biggest Israeli flag from the stands.”

It was not to be!

The match was cancelled but  not the Levitts’ trip. They had  made arrangements to meet with Jacovas Bunka known as “The Last Jew Of Plungyán”, the town  Abel’s father left in 1913 aboard the Durham Castle for Cape Town.

So, while no flag was unveiled in 1998 at a rugby match, a journey of discovery began for Abel and Glenda that traversed many miles and many years and, on the 17th July 2011, through perseverance and persuasiveness, a Memorial Wall was unveiled at Kaušenai outside Plungyán with the names of those who had been brutally murdered over two days in July 1941.

At that ceremony in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania and diplomatic representatives of ten countries, including Israel, Poland, Japan the USA and Germany, Abel expressed that  the memorial, “allows us to come and stand here in the killing field of Kaušenai and mourn. We do not ask how it happened. WE KNOW.

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No More Nameless. The Memorial Wall at Kaušenai outside Plungyán with the names of those who had been brutally murdered over two days in July 1941 was unveiled in 2011.

We do however ask: WHY?”

“No longer,” continued Abel, “do we speak about 1800 anonymous souls. This Memorial Wall is the tombstone to our martyrs.”

One of the names appearing on the memorial was Abel’s uncle, his father’s brother – Yisrael Levitt.

The Hero of Plungyán

It was from 75-year-old Miriam Lisauskiene, a lawyer in Klaipeda in Western Lithuania –  and whose name Glenda had earlier come across researching at Yad Vashem – that Abel learned of the final few minutes of his uncle’s life that earned him the honorific:

 “The Hero of Plungyán”.

Miriam was revealing her own story of survival; that she was fourteen years old when she stood at the edge of a pit in Ponar outside Vilna waiting for the bullets to pierce her back and thrust her down into oblivion. As the shooting began, she saw her friends fall beside her and one pulled her down as “We were holding hands when the shots were fired.” Scratched by a bullet, Miriam followed her friends into the grave. Later that night, she clawed and crawled her way out over dead bodies and mounds of earth.

It was while Miriam was showing the Levitts a video of her testimony to the Spielberg Foundation that she excitedly jumped up from her chair and pressed pause.

“There’s your uncle, Abel” she animatedly bellowed. “He was so athletic and tall; you look just like him with the same skin colour. I remember him like it was yesterday.”

She related how the Jews were lined up at the edge of the pit, waiting their fate. Yisrael Levitt, who had been one of the stronger men, had been digging his own grave. Suddenly, he turned around, and with his spade, he knocked the gun from the hands of one of the killers and ran. He knew he had little chance, but what little time he had, he would be free. “Miriam did a zigzag movement with her hand, indicating the way my uncle ran towards the forest,” described Abel. “He never made it. As he reached the edge of the field, his eyes fixed upon the trees ahead, a solitary bullet from a hunting rifle with a telescopic lens ended his valiant run for freedom.”

Miriam described how “he was dragged back like a fleeing deer and tossed into the grave”. Shaking with emotion, Miriam said to Abel, “Your uncle was the last Plungyáner to be thrown into the pits; and he was known thereafter as the ‘Hero of Plungyán’.”

From Roundup to Redemption

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Paintings by young school children in Plungyán on their understanding of what happened to the Jews of their town in 1941.

Abel reveals what happened in July 1941 to the Jews of Plungyán. “They were rounded up by the German soldiers and their Lithuanian Nationalist collaborators in the village square about 100 metres from where our family lived in Telz Street. They were then led into the Groyse Synagogue where they were held in indescribable conditions for two weeks. Thereafter they were marched – the elderly taken by cart or lorry; the children carried – to the Kaušenai forest. For two days the sounds of the shooting could be heard in Plungyán, only four kilomtres away.”

There had also been a witness. image008 (4).png

“A Jew by the name of Garb – who incidentally had family in Cape Town – had married a Lithuanian Catholic woman and converted to Catholicism. The local priest pleaded for his life with the German officer who only moments before his execution ordered his release on hearing that Garb had been “baptized”. Garb survived the War and provided detailed testimony of what transpired.”

It was tough hearing Abel speak of the seventy-five schoolgirls who had been raped and murdered. “The priest had begged for their lives and offered to baptize them – but to no avail. They lie buried in a mass grave – covered symbolically with seventy-five slabs – as one climbs the hill.” It was here that Abel discovered that his first cousin, Rosa Levitt, aged twelve, lay buried.

image009 (2).pngIn recent years, when it became impossible to save the synagogue from development – there had been the hope of converting it into a museum to preserve what Jewish life had been like before the Shoah – Abel and Glenda asked the question that paved the path ahead. “If the synagogue is to be demolished, what’s to become of the bricks?”

 

And so it came to be, that 1800 bricks – one for each of the Jews murdered – were salvaged, stored and then used to build a Memorial Wall so that the names of Plungyán’s martyrs will be preserved for all time.

It was the first such undertaking in Lithuania, “possibly the first in Eastern Europe,” says Abel. With more money raised by the Levitts than was needed for the Memorial, “we supported a Tolerance Centre in Plungyán, the eighth in Lithuania and considered one of its finest.”

This was only the beginning.

The Levitts engaged with teachers in Plungyán – today a city of 25,000 –  to educate its youth of the town’s Jewish legacy and why and how there are no Jews left. Art competitions today are held annually for school children on the theme of: “What happened to our Jewish community?”

Some of these art works have been exhibited abroad.

“It is only by educating the young people about what happened,” says Abel, “that we can hope for a better understanding between our peoples, as we follow the words of Almighty God to the prophet Joel:

“Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children
and their children tell their children, from generation to generation.”

While Glenda Levitt noted in her  ceremony address that “there are many worthy causes in this world of ours deserving attention,  Abel and I stumbled unto two subjects which we felt were interwoven like a tapestry – honouring the victims of inexplicable murder and  to ignite in young Lithuanian students an awareness of the vibrant life of a community of Jews who were Lithuanian, how they lived and how they died and are no more.”

The magnitude of the loss was brought home by the Levitt’s son Ari revealing that had certain Jews in Lithuania not read the writing on the wall, the world would not have ever know of:

Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel; Abba Eban, Former Israeli Ambassador  to the US and UN; Amos Oz, Israeli writer and intellectual; Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York; Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laurette for economics; Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laurette chemistry; Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laurette for Literature; Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter and Nobel prize for Literature, Marc Chagall, artist; Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter; J.D. Salinger, author of ‘Catcher in the Rye; Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel; Sir Ronald Harwood, Academy award winner; Michael Levitt, Nobel Laurette for Chemistry and Brian Levitt, Officer of the Order of Canada.

Ari concluded that with his parents, “Being recognised by the Government of Lithuania for their tireless work in preserving the memory and promoting tolerance, they earn their place on the list of achievements of Jews of Lithuanian descent.

A Town Called Birzh

And then we learnt of Birzh!

There was a large poster facing the seated guests at the Lithuanian Embassy with two photos of Jewish life before WWII and the disturbing words:

Commemorating Birzh-Birzai 8.8.1941”.

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Disappearance Of A Community In One Day. The poster of the extermination of the Birzh Jewish community at the award ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv.

It was said that Birzh was a town few people had heard of. To Lithuanians it is known for its beer and breweries, but for Jews whose families lived there since the 16th century, it is remembered “where their Lithuanian neighbours helped massacre its entire Jewish population of 2,400 in 1941,” wrote Bennie Rabinowitz, Gweynne Schire and Dr. Veronica Belling in their article, ‘Remembering Birzh”. Until very recent years, the present-day residents  were unlikely to have ever met a Jew, even though before the war, half its population was Jewish.

 

All this changed when Abel and Glenda visited Rhodes scholar and philanthropist Bennie Rabinowitz in Cape Town in 2014 and asked if he would help sponsor a young Lithuanian, Gabriella, through law school in Israel. With Bennie’s support, Gabriella the granddaughter of the lawyer from Klaipeda, Miriam Lisauskiene would graduate at the IDC Herzliya and is today working at a top law firm in Tel Aviv and was one of the guests at the ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy. However, back at that 2014 meeting in Cape Town, Bennie revealed that his family roots were from Birzh and that besides a photograph of its main Street in the early 1930s, all he had was “just a name.”

What a surprise to Bennie when the Levitts revealed, “we were there two weeks ago.” What alarmed Bennie was the Levitt’s relating that after seeing the mass Jewish graves, they visited the Birzh Museum where it had NO recorded history of Jews.

It was as if Jews never existed in Birzh and yet a 1931 government survey showed that Jews owned 77 of the town’s 99 businesses; owned 12 out of 14 groceries; 9 out of 12 butcheries; 11 out of 12 textile and fur manufacturers; 7 out of 8 leather and shoe business, 3 out of 4 haberdasheries and 28 of 45 factories.

So why no record of Jews in the Birzh Museum?

The date glaring at us on the poster revealed the explanation.

On August 8, 1941, 2400 Jews of Birzh, including 900 children – were stripped naked and shot into pits in the Astravas forest, 3.5 kilometres north of the town. It was carried out by Gestapo officers supported by 70 Lithuanians from Linkuva and Birzh.

Testimony has revealed that when the killers returned to town at 7.00pm – having begun their grisly work at 11.00am – they “walked in singing.”

This June 2019, the townsfolk of Birzh will became more aware of this dark past as a monument to the victims was officially opened.

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Bridging Past, Present And Future. At the official opening of the Memorial Bridge in Birzh, Mayor Vytas Jareckas, Merūnas Jukonis, school’s history teacher Vidmantas Jukonis, and head of Garden department Gailutė Tamulėnienė.

Made of sheets of metal, winding their way on a bridge over water and through the Lithuanian forest, the names of the victims appear on the memorial cut out of the metal with stars of David – small for children, larger for adults. There are three large tablets of stone. One contains the Birzai story in Lithuanian, another in English and the third stone records the major contributors to the project led by Ben Rabinowitz of Cape Town.

The architect of the Memorial is Dr Joseph Rabie, a graduate of the Haifa Technion and a former Capetonian, today living in Paris. His grandfather emigrated to South Africa from Birzh, the Yiddish name for Birzai.

With successive Lithuanian governments accused of minimizing the role of Lithuanians in collaborating in the near total annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry – 96.4%, more than any other country – the award by the Lithuanian government to Abel and Glenda Levitt for their monumental projects to educate is a hopeful sign of new understanding.

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Man On A Mission. Abel Levitt of Kfar Sava (originally of Cape Town, South Africa), a descendant of a Plungyáner, delivering the keynote address at the commemoration ceremony held on 17 July 2011 to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of the Jews of Plungyán. Abel and his wife Glenda were among the primary enablers of the new monument that lists all known names of the town’s Jewish residents killed at this site. Photo: Sonya Meyer (Levitt).

In this new spirit of confronting the past, students at the Birzh Austra High School collected the names of former Jewish citizens of their town and painted them on stones which they then took in a procession – accompanied by the Deputy Mayor –  from the once Birzh ghetto to the mass grave, where they were solemnly placed.

When these local schoolchildren returned home covering the same journey as their town’s earlier mass murderers, they were not “singing”.

Today, Birzh is Judenrein!

That is a fact not to sing about but to remember and mourn.

In the words of Elie Wiesel:

 They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness.”

 

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Bridge Over Troubled Water. A memorial bridge over water through the Lithuanian forest, reveals the names of the Jews murdered in Birzh cut out of the metal with stars of David – small for children, larger for adults. The memorial was officially opened in June 2019

 

The Israel Brief- 11-13 June 2019

 

The Israel Brief – 12 June 2019 – Situation in North and South, Sara Netanyahu signs plea deal, FIFA to investigate Rajoub and Palestinians regret Egypt and Jordan join Bahrain confab.

 

 

The Israel Brief – 13 June 2019 – IDF strikes Hamas targets. Am Yisrael high? IDF reservists address UK Parliament and more.