Musings and thoughts from the 125th anniversary of the World Zionist Organisation and Congress recently held in Basel, Switzerland

By Rolene Marks

It doesn’t matter where I am in the world or what I am doing, if I hear the opening strains of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, my heart swells and my eyes tear up. The feeling of pervasive pride is visceral. It is not just that I am a proud Israel, it is the knowledge that the words have sustained Jews in our darkest times – and also our greatest triumphs. Whether it be the scenes of Jews singing in Bergen-Belsen after liberation or Linoy Ashram standing proudly on the podium as she receives Olympic gold, I get the feels.

So you can imagine what I felt last week in Basel, Switzerland as I joined my WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organisation) delegation and over a thousand others as we stood in the Stadtcasino, 125 years after the first Zionist Congress and sang the anthem of the country that had been but a dream a century and a quarter before.

Members of WIZO delegation

Over a hundred years ago, when a young journalist called Theodore Herzl, recognising the growing threat of antisemitism and motivated by the sham trial of French Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, wrote an article and then two books called The Jewish State and Altneuland, where he presented his vision of what that would be. Herzl recognised that this state could only manifest in the ancestral and historical homeland of the Jewish people – Eretz Yisrael, then called Palestine. The Romans, seeking to wipe out any reference to Jewish history and culture had named it thus. 

“The Jews who will it shall achieve their State. We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind,” Herzl said.

Herzl also famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream”. And so they gathered in Basel, laying the foundations of willing a Jewish state. From these seeds would spring forth the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Just a couple of years later, the Women’s International Zionist Organisation would be founded. All of these organisations, would help prepare the land and the ingathering of the exiles for what would be the fulfillment of the Zionist dream – a Jewish state.

“Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it,” mused Theodor Herzl.

Dr. Theodor Herzl.

Herzl, like Moses millennia before him, would lead his people to the Promised Land – but never enter it himself. Herzl died on the 3 July 1904, in Edlach, a village inside Reichenau an der Rax, Lower Austria, having been diagnosed with a heart issue earlier in the year, of cardiac sclerosis. A day before his death, he told the Reverend William H. Hechler: “Greet Palestine for me. I gave my heart’s blood for my people.” He certainly did.

Herzl’s vision would come to life with the birth of the modern state of Israel in our ancient, ancestral homeland. The Jewish people had come home.

In Basel some 125 years later we would gather to celebrate this vision and pay homage to the man who inspired hope in so many. And gather we did from the four corners of the world, 1 400 Zionists, representing different communities and ages and holding many different opinions. We were all there – the organisations, the social media personalities, familiar faces, those whose opinions veered to the right, those firmly in the centre and those to the left. In the city that birthed the modern Zionist movement, we debated, argued, agreed and discussed.

A stand out moment for me was the honouring of Druze Sheikh, Mowafaq Tarif and the presence of Emirati Sheikh Ahmed Ubeid Al Mansur.

 WIZO delegates with Sheikh al Mansur

Yaakov Hagoel, the chairperson of the World Zionist Organization, said of Al Mansur, “Herzl never dreamed that the day would come that a brave Arab leader would participate in a Zionist Conference together with thousands of Jews from all over the world whose goal is to strengthen and develop the independent and sovereign state of Israel.”

This gathering in Basel was not just a prime opportunity to pay tribute to Herzl or to discuss the challenges facing the Jewish world like rising antisemitism, the Iranian threat or how we will contribute to the fight against climate change; but also allowed us a moment to stop and take stock and marvel at the miracle that is the embodiment of our dream – the state of Israel.

In the presence of our President, Isaac Herzog, whose own family story is a reflection of Jewish history and First lady, Michal, we took a moment to look back – and forward to the future – of what Israel has achieved in a matter of a few decades. When Herzl envisioned a state that would see “the world be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness and whatever we attempt there for our own benefit would redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind”, I don’t think even his wildest imagination could see what we have achieved.

In that hallowed halls, in the presence of the President and in the company of those who from generation to generation take up that promise to keep building, singing Hatikvah has never sounded so sweet.

 In the footsteps of Herzl on the balcony of Les Trois Rois Hotel

Standing on the balcony of “Les Trois Rois”, where the iconic visionary once stood I contemplated what he must be thinking as he watched on from high in the heavens.

How proud he must be. His will is no longer a dream. It is a reality. And it is ours.

Herzl and I reflect

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Celebrating Passover

From a people to a nation we relive the long journey to freedom

By Justin Amler

The greatest story in history is upon once again.

And oh… what a story it is.

It is a story about a people who went from slavery to freedom, from hopelessness to belief, from an uncertain future to one filled with destiny.

It is a story about courage, about faith, about belief and about miracles – one that took the natural order of life and flipped it around.

And even though many others will try to culturally appropriate it, as they do with everything else about us, and claim it’s about all humankind, it was and is and remains a quintessential Jewish story.

For it is our story – perhaps our greatest story – of a time when we grew from a people into a nation.

About 3500 years ago, we were slaves in Egypt, condemned to a life of hardship and bondage, a seemingly bleak existence. And if it wasn’t for the actions of one man, guided by God, the story of the Jewish people might have ended right there.

But it didn’t end.

Instead, it led to the greatest adventure in all of Jewish history – an adventure continuing today.

And through all the wanderings in the desert, the many miracles Hashem performed, the gift of the Ten Commandments, and of course the ultimate return to our land of Israel – where we remain today.

Pesach is a story of such inspiration, because although thousands of years have passed, we continue to celebrate it as if it just happened.

And in a way it did. Because every single moment of every single day, Jews continue to fight for their homeland, their identity, their culture, and their history. And we have to fight, because every single moment of every single day there are those who continue to try take it from us, to uproot us from our land, to appropriate our history as if it’s their own, to rob us of our past, of our stories, of our nationhood and of our identity.

We cannot afford to remain silent.

But the Jews, while few in number, are a strong people whose foundations are built on stronger things than crumbling empires and dusty buildings. Our foundations are built on almost 4000 years of a promise, of a mission, and of a shared destiny among us.

And even though there are some, even among us, who continue to try spread division through arbitrary things like skin colour and food, they will fail in the end, because we, as a people, are far stronger than the petty divisiveness they sow.

When we left Egypt, we were not white or black or brown and we were not Mizrachi or Ashkenazim or any other designated identity that some are overly obsessed about these days.

We were Israelites.

We were Jews.

We were a people forged in the sands of time and held together by a promise of a God we could not see – a promise without an expiry date. A promise that, despite the many differing views among us, has held us together.

 We don’t need to get ‘woke,’ because we’ve been awake for a very long time.

So, on this Pesach and on every other day, let’s celebrate our freedom, our history, our culture and all the things that make us who we are.

In this world in which we are constantly under attack, let’s stand together and keep our Jewish identity alive, for it is one we should all hold onto proudly.

About the writer:

Justin Amler is a noted South African-born, Australia-based writer and commentator on international issues affecting Israel and the Jewish world.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).


By Adv. Craig Snoyman

With Senate Judiciary Committee  interviewing  Katanji Brown Jackson to be the first black  female justice  on the Supreme Court of America bench, it’s worth remembering that she may be taking  “a Jewish seat”,  that of Stephen Breyer, the judge for whom she once clerked.

Ketanji Brown Jackson set to become the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The first Jewish judge was appointed in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. Louis Brandeis, arguably the brightest,  most farseeing, progressive justice of the 20th century, graduated from Harvard at age 20, with the highest marks ever achieved by a student. In an age of  antisemitic resistance, Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell (who later pushed for quotas on Jewish students) opposed the appointment of its alumni’s most brilliant student as a Supreme Court justice due to his religion.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), the first Jew to sit on the high court was an enthusiastic supporter of Zionism. Brandeis University in Waltham , Mass., was named after him.

His was the first confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court justice. Until that point, the Senate simply voted yay or nay. While he waited 125 days between his nomination on Jan. 28, 1916, and his confirmation on June 1, 1916, the longest wait that anyone had waited until then. This hardly compares to  Republican nominee Janice Rogers Brown, the first black female nominee for the appointment  as Circuit Court of Appeal, whose nomination was delayed by two years before the Democrats allowed her to take her position – all due to her conservative judicial outlook.

Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell pushed for quotas on Jewish students and opposed the appointment of Louis Brandeis  – one of its Harvard’s most brilliant students – as a Supreme Court justice because he was Jewish.

Brandeis, a social justice crusader(sic) and a leading Zionist, predicted the crash of ’29 because he realised that the bankers were taking all of the possible payoffs and none of the risks and predicted that things would go bust.

In 1932, Brandeis was joined by a second Jewish justice, Benjamin Cardozo. Antisemitism was still very much in ‘evidence’ on the  Supreme Court Bench, notably Justice  James Clark McReynolds, who   refused to speak to Brandeis for three years after his confirmation. During Cardozo’s swearing-in, McReynolds read a newspaper muttering:

 “Another one.”

Cardozo was born  to a distinguished Sephardic Jewish family. His father, Albert Cardozo, resigned as a New York State judge under threat of impeachment after he was discovered to have sold preferments to his nephew and to his patron. He only served three years on the Supreme Court bench.

Jewish Justice Benjamin N Cardozo appointment to the supreme Court was met with hostility by sitting Associate judge, JusticeJames Clark McReynolds, who  refused to speak to Brandeis for three years after his confirmation.

With the passing of Cardozo, the baton was handed over to Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter was the first nominee to appear  at his own confirmation hearing. He adopted the position that his public record spoke for itself and  said it would be inappropriate for him to add or subtract from his lengthy public record. He refused to answer questions.

McReynolds earned another racist footnote by refusing to  attend the swearing-in of  Frankfurter, stating:

 “My God, another Jew on the court!”  

He then joined with fellow justices Pierce Butler and Willis Van Devanter in urging President Herbert Hoover not to “afflict the court with another Jew.”  McReynolds was quoted as saying “Huh, it seems that the only way you can get on the Supreme Court these days is to be either the son of a criminal or a Jew, or both.”

Frankfurter had been an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the prelude to WWII. Although an immigrant himself, he supported Roosevelt’s  recommendations  that no assistance be given to the Jews of Nazi Europe. However, he believed  in cultural assimilation and in a society based on  meritocracy. He believed that talent and  brains were more important  than race, religion, or class. In 1948, he  hired the Court’s first black law clerk, William Coleman Jr, the same year Apartheid became the official policy in South Africa. He almost crossed paths with a future  SCOTUS, Ruth Ginsburg. She was recommended for a clerkship with  him, and for all his belief in meritocracy, Frankfurter said that he wasn’t ready to hire a woman.

Architect of the legal fight for women’s rights in the 1970s, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg subsequently served 27 years on the nation’s highest court.

It was the case of  Baker v Carr,  dealing with the redrawing of electoral districts that saw the end of Frankfurter’s career. He was vehement in his objection to bringing the Court into politics, warning that it would lead the Court  down a dangerous road where the Court could one day be called upon to determine winners and losers in national elections. He was so incensed by the final decision that  he suffered a stroke shortly afterwards, which he blamed on the stress of the  case. This stroke resulted in his retirement. The decision also took its toll  on the other justices, none more so than  Justice Charles Evans Whittaker, who struggled to come to a decision one way or the other. Skipping the final vote, he resigned right after the decision and died soon after.

Even though Frankfurter had married a minister’s daughter, he insisted that his funeral include reciting Kaddish, read by his former law clerk, a practicing, orthodox Jew.

“I came into this world a Jew  … I think it is fitting that I should leave as a Jew.”

This allowed for another Jew to find a judicial place on the bench. In 1962 President John F Kennedy appointed his Secretary of Labour, Arthur Goldberg, to the Supreme Court. A distinguishing feature of his tenure was his writing of the Escobedo v. Illinois  judgment establishing the right of a suspect to have a lawyer present during interrogation – setting out the framework for Miranda and the ”Miranda rights” of an arrested suspect.

Justice of the US Supreme Court and subsequently US Ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg speaking with Golda Meir. (Credit: Moshe Milner, GPO.)

Only three years after his appointment and upon  the death of Adlai Stevenson, President Johnson asked Goldberg to become the United States ambassador to the United Nations. This allowed Johnson to appoint his good friend Abe Fortas to the “Jewish seat”.

Abe Fortas  (right) was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Johnson (left)  on July 28, 1965, to a seat vacated by Justice Arthur Goldberg.  

When Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his resignation effective upon the confirmation of his successor,  the frontrunner was Fortas.  Warren had even arranged for an appointment at the White House for Fortas.  Fortas blew his chances  when he appeared before the Senate judiciary committee –  the first time a sitting Justice had ever done so.  The appearance was a disaster.  The vote for his appointment resulted in a filibuster and Fortis requested that his nomination be withdrawn.  Because of revelations arising from and as a result of the confirmation hearings, Fortas resigned his position on the Supreme Court. 

A second nomination for a Jew to be appointed as the chief justice was contemplated by President Johnson, who by this time was running a lame-duck presidency. He proposed that Goldberg accept the position and asked President Richard Nixon to appoint him. Nixon refused. Goldberg subsequently became the president of the  American Jewish Committee.

With the resignation of  Fortas  came the end of  53 years of a Supreme Court “Jewish seat”.  Not until 1993, with Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, would another Jewish justice be appointed to the court.

Ginsberg is probably the most popular of the recent Supreme Court justices.  Noted for her fiery dissents,  she entered into Pop Culture.  She inspired nail art, Halloween costumes, coffee mugs and even a colouring-in book.  She obtained the ultimate acclaim of the youth by inspiring tattoos and that of the moneyed class by being depicted as a bobble-head doll. Talking heads made her a media icon, spitting out witty insults known as “ginsburns”.  Yet, even with her liberal outlook, her love of opera led to an unlikely friendship with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a noted conservative. The two opera-lovers even donned powdered wigs and wore 18th century costumes to appear in a stage production of ‘Strauss’.

Ginsberg was raised in an Orthodox home and rebelled when she was excluded from the minyan of mourners after the death of her mother.  She said it felt like women didn’t really count in the Jewish world, which went strongly against her world outlook. But she always acknowledged her Jewishness publicly. In her chambers, there was a large silver mezuzah on her doorpost, and hanging on her wall was an artistic  Hebrew-lettered rendition of “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof “(Justice, justice shall you pursue). 

While on the bench, Ginsberg was joined by Elena Kagan. Kagan is the only Supreme  Court Justice to have argued with  her family  rabbi and come out ahead. Kagan demanded that she have a real bat mitzvah, not just a party. She wanted a religious bat mitzvah, on a Shabbat morning, where she could read from the Torah. Rabbi Riskin, now Chief Rabbi of Efrat, didn’t agree to having Kagan read from the Torah but she did get to read from the Book of Ruth and her ceremony took place on a Friday night.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan

There is, of course, the most famous Supreme Court Justice who never was – Merrick Garland, now United States Attorney General. Nominated by President Obama, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican majority refused to conduct the hearings necessary to advance the vote to the Senate at large, and Garland’s nomination expired on January 3, 2017, with the end of the session of Congress, 293 days after it had been submitted to the Senate, handsomely beating the waiting period of Justice Brandeis.

But  my favourite story is about  the retiring Justice Stephen Breyer,  which I recently read in Tablet magazine.

Breyer was  to be attending  a shul service and he was contacted by the rabbi who wanted to give him an Aliyah (the honour accorded to a worshiper of being called up to read an assigned passage from the Torah).  The rabbi asked him for his Hebrew name. He said he wasn’t  sure  and would have to contact his brother to find out what it was.  Breyer then sent a message to the rabbi that his name was Shlomo ben Yitzchak.  At the Shabbat service, the rabbi told him that he had the same name as that of  the foremost commentator on the Bible and Talmud – Rashi.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer holds up a copy of the U.S. Constitution as he announces he his retirement from the bench. (REUTERS)

Sometime later , and while in England,  he was recognised when  attending a Sabbath shul service. The famous judge was  asked if he wanted an Aliyah and what his Hebrew name was.   Breyer, by this time, had forgotten what he had been told was his Hebrew name.  After initially hesitating,  he stated “My name is the same as Rashi” and was called to the Torah.

Over the recent past, it has  become clear, that the Supreme Court has become welcoming for all groups, even if the judiciary hearing proceedings are not. Breyer’s former clerk may take her seat, which has now become a seat for a “black female judge”. It was not long ago, however, that Jews and Blacks fought together against oppression and in furtherance of civil rights. One hopes that this fight will continue on these hallowed benches with the Jewish seats and the Black female seats marching side by side,  pursuing justice.

About the writer:

Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

PURIM – Averting Catastrophe

As Israel celebrates this week the joyous holiday of Purim which tells of the near-destruction of the Jewish people as plotted by ‘Haman’, the conniving evil adviser to the Persian King Ahasuerus, and as salvation today is sought from the ongoing mass slaughter in Ukraine at the hands of the evil Putin, it is illuminating to return to the Purim of 1953  as told by Dr. Yosef Begun and Larry Pfeffer. Their incisive perspectives first appeared in The Jerusalem Post in 2014. It was a time when after 1948 – the year of Israel’s independence –  that the USSR under Joseph Stalin was getting increasingly antisemitic, when it became clear that Israel would not be turning “red”.

Purim 1953

By Dr. Yosef Begun and Larry Pfeffer

Yosef Begun’s memories from Moscow

Two years after the end of World War II in 1945, I was 15 and started my studies in a technical high-school of the aviation industry. I was lucky since a year later, in 1948, “the years of late Stalinism” began with all kind of discrimination and persecution of Jews. Jewish students were not accepted at our school. 1948 began tragically. I remember well a cold day in January. I was coming home late frozen, looking forward to a hot supper. Right away I see that Mamma is very upset: she is silent with her hands resting in her lap.

What has happened?” I ask.

Mikhoels is dead. It was an automobile accident.” she replied.

I must confess that at that time I didn’t feel anything special. People were perishing every day. During that period I didn’t know who was this famous Yiddish actor and director of the State Jewish Theater and the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which was very helpful in the fight against Hitler. In my youth there was no place either for the Yiddish theater or for its great actor Solomon Mikhoels. I was very assimilated, like many others of my generation whom the Soviet regime deprived of Jewish education and Jewish identity. Mamma and some relatives went for the last farewell to the great Jewish actor and director of Yiddish Theater. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, Mamma had a “classical” Jewish girl’s education in the cheder of her shtetl and respected everything Jewish. I was brought up as a Soviet citizen who studied to be an aviation engineer and literally did not know the “difference between Mordechai and Haman”. As a 15-year boy, I had something “more important” to do that day… Till now I feel ashamed for this.

Portrait of a Monster. To the great relief of many, Joseph Stalin  died of a massive heart attack on March 5, 1953. Revered as the man who helped save his nation from Nazi domination, he is no less remembered as the mass murderer of the century, having overseen the deaths of between 8 million and 20 million of his own people.

At the time, we still could not imagine what difficult times were only beginning for us. Soon rumors began to circulate, each more terrifying than the one before. For example, at the great automobile factory Zavod imeni Stalina (Plant of Stalin’s name). in Moscow, they said that “a group of saboteurs” was uncovered, consisting of top engineers, all of whom were Jews. The newspapers wrote about “cosmopolitans” who did not love the Soviet homeland and Russian people and were “kowtowing” before the West. Almost all of the names of such people were Jewish. There were rumors about closing down the Yiddish Theater… At that time we knew nothing about the arrests, torture, trials and execution of Jewish cultural and public figures. There were hints, rumors and much uncertainty which contributed to our sense of fear of what was to come.

Then came January 1953, when there were announcements about the “murderers in white coats”. Once again the Jews. Antisemitic articles appeared in the central newspapers Pravda, Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda. Therewere caricatures in Krokodil, with exaggerated Jewish noses and sinister faces… The newspapers printed letters from workers demanding that the “Zionist agents” should be rooted out and punished. No one knew who these “Zionist agents” were, but the papers explained that American Jewish organizations were recruiting Soviet Jews in order to harm Soviet people. Every Jew was, therefore, suspect… Many Jewish specialists were fired and rumors also circulated about the imminent deportation of Jews from Moscow. It was said that Jews themselves asked to be sent to distant regions to be saved from the “people’s anger”. Like many others, I thought that the newspapers could not lie… I hated those “Zionists” who were planning to harm our country. Because of them it would be bad for all Jews… Only one hope remained. Our great leader, Comrade Stalin, wouldn’t allow this! He saved us from the fascists and he knows that we love this country. He would determine who were the enemies and saboteurs. And our enemies, not just the Jewish ones, always got what they deserved.

Power of Purim. Bottom left shows Stalin on the bedroom floor of his dacha outside Moscow following his collapse. Beria, secret police chief, is not hiding his joy. The tombstone (bottom right) reveals the Jewish victims of Stalin era state led antisemitism. The gate over the rail tracks is taken from the Vorkuta Gulag camp entrance in the 1930s and says: “Labor in the USSR is a matter of Honor and Glory”. The physicians in front of the Communist hammer and sickle icon are the accused in the infamous Soviet “Doctors’ Plot”. The men with the rifles depict the execution of leading Jewish cultural and political figures in the USSR and Czechoslovakia. The train, the nearby crowd and skull allude to Stalin’s rumored plans to deport Soviet Jewry and the likelihood of large number of potential victims if Stalin had not collapsed on Purim 1953.

Fear was a constant companion of every Jewish family in the Soviet Union. The mass propaganda affected everyone. In January 1953, I was on holiday at a small rest home near Moscow. Those who relaxed there were mostly simple, uneducated, hard workers, who spent their time playing dominoes. However, everyone showed up at a lecture on “the international situation of the USSR.” In fact the hall was full and people were turned away. After the lecturer from the city committee of the Party sounded off about the machinations of “western world reactionaries” and the Soviet struggle for peace, he was peppered with questions about the main topic at the time: “What will we do with those doctors – the murderers in white coats?” Waiving his right arm, the lecturer stated with pathos: “The criminals have confessed. There will be a trial!”

Four days after Purim, when Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, I was already 20 but was terrified. I thought that now, finally, “they” would come after us; there was no longer anyone to protect us… One of the closest men to Stalin and fellow Georgian, Lavrentiy Beria, became Minister of Internal Affairs and on April 4 it was announced that the “case against the doctors” had been fabricated by members of the State Security service, including its Deputy Minister Mikhael Ryumin. All of them had been arrested and quickly executed. Beria himself was arrested, secretly tried and shot.

The Soviet “Haman” and a Pharaoh of our time, who had planned soon after the Holocaust another major program against Jews, collapsed on March 1, 1953. In a symbolic and miraculous way that day coincided with a joyous Jewish holiday and entered Jewish history as “Purim 1953”. 3,000,000 Jews of the Soviet Union and its colonies were saved from the great disaster. One can only surmise what would have happened if Stalin didn’t die just then. The possibilities included mass deportation of the Jews – following the model of Stalin’s murderous wartime deportations of the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. Disagreements among historians about what Stalin had planned continue to this day.

The truth about antisemitic Soviet actions was hidden from the public for many years until the Soviet regime collapsed at the beginning of the 1990-s. Only then did Soviet citizens, including I, become aware of the following.

 In 1948 and 1949, a group of Russian Jewish writers were arrested, among them the most prominent were Peretz Markish, David Hofstein, David Bergelson, Itzik Fefer, Leib Kvitko. Famous actor Benjamin Zuskin, who played leading roles in Mikhoels’ theater, was also arrested. All of them and some other Jewish cultural figures were members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) during the war. Together with them, some prominent public figures were arrested: Solomon Lozovsky, the former Deputy Foreign Minister, Boris Shimeliovich, the chief doctor of the big Moscow clinic, academic Lina Stern, a specialist of physiology. Altogether there were 14 Jews, defendants in the “JAC trial”. All the accusations were invented – as for example that the leaders of JAC were going to give up the Crimean peninsula to America. The real “crime” of Jewish writers was their activity in Jewish culture.

Savage Stalin. Jewish cultural icons executed – David Bergelson (left), Peretz Markish (centre left), Izi Kharik (centre right – Yiddish poet killed in 1937 during The Great Purge), and Solomon Mikhoels (right).

By preserving Yiddishkeit , even at a very low intensity, they were an obstacle to Stalin’s plan to accomplish the Soviet “final solution of Jewish question” by total assimilation of Jews. After three years of interrogations and tortures, all the Jewish defenders – with the exception of academic Lina Stern then 73 – were sentenced to death. On August 12, 1952, they were shot in the Lubyanka KGB dungeon. Many other Jews, mostly Jewish cultural and leading public figures, were arrested and sent for long terms to forced labor camps. Some of these people died under interrogation. In 1949 famous Yiddish writer, Der Nister, was arrested and died in the Gulag in 1950. Yitzhak Nusinov died in prison. Shmuel Persov and Miriam Zheleznov were shot. Solomon Bregman, the deputy minister died in prison in January 1953.

The Night of the Murdered Poets” – Aug 12 1952. The flower of Yiddish literary culture in the Soviet Union, Stalin’s victims- David Bergelson, Peretz Markish, Leib Kvitko, and Solomon Lozovsky. 
Joel Sprayregen, a Chicago attorney and activist, later wrote. “Stalin believed he could crush the Jews of Russia with one stroke of mass murder by destroying their culture and language in the darkness of one Moscow night.

Larry Pfeffer’s memories from Budapest

I was ten-years-old in Budapest when Stalin collapsed and died. I only recall the pervasive sense of mourning in the city. Black flags and black drapes were hanging from the buildings. The newspapers’ front page had a picture of Stalin within a thick black frame. As far as I recall on the eve of Purim 1953, I acted in a Purimshpiel in the Orthodox community complex auditorium. Sundays and afternoons, I attended cheder in that complex since age six. Probably this was one of the few operating cheders left in the Communist empire. Periodically, I saw the principal, Shlomo Grossberg – in fact, like others students, attended his wedding in the Orthodox complex courtyard where the chupah was. Suddenly there were rumors in the “Kazincy” central Orthodox synagogue that Shlomo was arrested by the Hungarian secret police. Grownups didn’t discuss such matters with children. Perhaps they also didn’t know what really happened. I recall Shlomo returning to his position maybe eight to ten months later and his face showed that he went through very difficult times. I recently met him in Israel and learned that he was arrested on Purim 1953 for  a “Zionist” show trial. I didn’t want to ask him how he was treated, because I didn’t want to bring back painful memories.

Even as a child I often heard typical Communist propaganda about “Titoist traitors”, the “imperialists and their lackeys”, and “capitalist warmongers” – especially during the Korean war. In Hungary I was not aware of the scale of the Stalin’s terror against Jews and that it was not limited to the USSR: anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist trials were organized also in the Kremlin’s colonies. Only long after I escaped from Hungary in late 1956, did I become aware of the following events.

State Murder. It was among the most notorious show trials of the 20th century, the prosecution and sentencing to death of  the Jew Rudolf Slánský, Czechoslovakia’s leading communist, who had been arrested in a brutal purge ordered by Stalin and said to have been tortured into a confession. (Photograph: BBC)

On November 20, 1952, Rudolf Slánský, the second most powerful in Czechoslovakia, and thirteen other leading Czechoslovak communists, were arrested and tortured. Two received life sentence and the rest, including Slánský, were shot. Slánský and ten more of the arrested were Jews. The trumped up accusation was being “Titoists” and “spying” for the “Western capitalists and imperialists” – typical of Moscow directed show trials of that time.

Raoul Wallenberg, who did so much for humanity, fell into the hands of the Russians on January 17, 1945 – a day before the Russians drove out the Germans and occupied the Pest side of the city. Wallenberg disappeared into the Russian dungeons and the Gulag. His fate is still unknown. Reliable and highly respected investigators, such as Professor Irwin Cotler (former Canadian Minister of Justice), clearly stated that Wallenberg was probably alive for decades after his abduction.

In 1952/53 a Moscow directed “Wallenberg” and “Zionist” show trial was in preparation in Budapest. Leaders of Hungary’s Jewry: Lajos Stöckler, Miklós Domonkos and Dr. László Benedek were arrested – along with two non-Jews who worked with Wallenberg: Pál Szalai and Károly Szabó. They were tortured to force them to “confess” the “crimes” invented by the “script”, according to which in 1945 they “murdered” Wallenberg in Budapest. (Szalai and Szabó rescued many Jews during the Holocaust. At Wallenberg’s request, Szalai met with German general August Schmidthuber and prevented the murder of Budapest ghetto’s 70,000 inhabitants.) Other Jewish leaders were arrested and accused of “Zionist crimes” and “spying for the “capitalists and imperialists.”

Stalin’s Show Trials.  The purges through the courts came to an end with Stalin’s demise following Purim 1953.

The antisemitic “Doctors’ Plot” and Budapest show trials stopped and the danger to Jews in the Soviet Union and its colonies was prevented by Stalin’s sudden – possibly assisted – collapse on March 1, 1953, which was Purim, and his subsequent death a few days later.

The accused doctors, the accused in Budapest, and probably large number of Jews and others living in Soviet Union and its empire were saved when Stalin collapsed on Purim 1953.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Soul of Salonica

Violent endings and new beginnings are the weave in this tormented tapestry of three great faiths and peoples inhabiting this bewilderingly exotic city

By Alex Rose

Thessaloniki  – also known as Salonica – is today the second largest city in Greece. Once the second largest city in the Byzantine Empire and later the second busiest port in the Ottoman Empire, I was fascinated to read in Lay of the Land,When Jews Thrive, the World Thrives”, that Israel’s 2022 Genesis Price recipient, Dr. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, was born and educated in this ageless cultural crossroad.

“The Jerusalem of the Balkans”. According to the 1913 census, the city’s population was 157,889, comprising 61,439 Jews, 39,956 Orthodox Greeks, 45,867 Turks, 6,263 Bulgarians and 4,364 “foreigners.”

For me, it is of particular interest in that my maternal grandmother and a cousin were the only family members to find their way from Salonica to Jerusalem shortly prior to the commencement of WWII.

So they too were spared the horrors that befell the Jewish community there under the Nazis.

Out in Time. The writer’s maternal grandmother Reina Calderone, who left Salonica for Jerusalem shortly before the outbreak of WWII.(Courtesy Alex Rose)

Salonica City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950” by historian  Mark Mazower is described by  the Guardian’s Jan Morris as “A tremendous book about a city unique not just in Europe, but in the entire history of humanity.” The 509 page book consisting of of 23 chapters and includes a number of historical photographs, provides a history of a fascinating, turbulent city and a brilliant guide to Salonica’s rich past.   It unearths the buried past and recounts the haunting story of how the three great faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism  – that shared the city were driven apart.

Europe meet the Orient. The history of a bewilderingly exotic city of clashing cultures and peoples, from the glories of Suleiman the Magnificent to its nadir under Nazi occupation.
Salonica is the point where the wonders and horrors of the Orient and Europe have met over the centuries.

Salonika’s  initial character was Byzantine – a synthesis of imperial Rome, the Greek language and Orthodox  Christian faith. Subsequently, the big upheaval was the advance of the Ottoman Turks into the Balkans from Anatolia in the 14th century.

Lost Legacy. Little remains from the 2,000-year presence of Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, though its contribution has been pivotal to the city’s culture, society and economy.

Under the rule of the Ottoman Sultans, one of the most extraordinary and diverse societies in Europe, lived for five centuries amid its minarets and cypresses on the shore of the Aegean, alongside its Roman ruins and Byzantine monasteries. Egyptian merchants and Ukrainian slaves, Spanish-speaking rabbis – refugees from the Iberian Inquisition – and Turkish pashas rubbed shoulders with Orthodox shopkeepers, Sufi dervishes and Albanian brigands.

Thriving Jewish Life. A Jewish family from Thessaloniki, Greece seen in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

In essence, it was generally inhabited by people of the three faiths who for the most part lived peacefully.

Flames over Salonica. In 1917, a massive fire roared through the Mediterranean port city of Salonica, Greece, then home to the largest and most dynamic Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jewish community in the world is depicted in this “Study for 1917 Fire —Salonika” (2016) by Harry I. Naar (Courtesy of Naar via JTA)

Mazower describes in Chapter  16 ‘The Great Fire’ of 1917, as “one of the seminal issues.”  He quotes the British journalist and author Collinson Owens:

“……the wailing families, the crash of falling houses as the flames tore along, swept by the wind; and in the narrow streets, a slow moving mass  of pack-donkeys, loaded carts, camels carrying enormous loads; Greek boy scouts [doing excellent work]; soldiers of all nations as yet unorganized to do anything  definite; ancient wooden fire-engines that creaked pathetically as they spat out ineffectual trickles of water; and people carrying beds [hundreds of flock and feather beds], wardrobes, mirrors, pots and pans, sewing  machines [every family made a desperate endeavor to save its sewing machine] and a general collection of rubbish.”

The damage was  almost incomprehensible.

No less than three quarters of the old city had been destroyed, according to an official report. Close to ten thousand buildings were destroyed and over 70,000 people had lost their homes. The Jewish community was worse effected, for the fire had consumed its historic quarters; most of its thirty-seven synagogues were gone, its libraries , schools, club buildings and offices.

Surviving Synagogues. The Yad Lezikaron Synagogue in Thessaloniki commemorating the victims of the Holocaust which the writer’s wife  Renee visited in 2015. Out of 40 synagogues before WWII, only left are the  Monastir and Yad  lazikaron, the last working synagogue, which includes the ‘remains’ from the destroyed synagogues. (Photo Alex Rose)

In Salonica, fires were such a regular occurrence that prayers against them formed part of the local Yom Kippur (holiest day of the year in Judaism) service. This fire dwarfed all previous fires suffered by Salonica as it destroyed the essence of the Ottoman town, and its Jewish core. Out of the ashes, an entirely new town began to emerge, one molded  in the image of the Greek state and its society.

The Shoah

In Chapter 22, Mazower addresses, “Genocide”. On 6 April 1941, German troops  attacked Greece from the north and three days later entered Salonica. The country was partitioned, while Salonica and its region were among  the strategically vital areas which remained  under the control of the German army.  As the resultant death toll rose, fear of famine gripped the population. Emaciated adults were collapsing on the pavements. The wife of the Swiss consul  upon arriving home at the end of 1941, reported:

 “The specter of a contrived  extermination of a whole population cannot be dismissed as a hallucination conjured up by starved stomachs, but rather viewed as a logical appraisal of German  behavior in Greece since the invasion of Russia.”

Around this time, Hitler’s ideological commissar, Alfred Rosenberg was setting up a research center in Frankfurt for the study of world Jewry. When Greece fell , he immediately sent a team to Salonica – “one of the main Jewish centers, as you yourself know”, he told Martin Bormann. In October 1941, Heinrich Himmler warned Hitler that the city’s large Jewish population posed a threat to German security.

Alfred the Monster. Nazi theorist and ideologue Alfred Rosenberg  who played a decisive role in shaping Nazi philosophy and ideology, sent a ‘team” to Salonica.

It came as a shock when on July 8, 1942, the local Wehrmacht commander in Salonica instructed all male Jews aged between 18 and 45 to present themselves for registration. From eight o’clock in the morning, the following Saturday, 9,000 Jewish men stood in lines in Plateia Eleftherias while their names were taken down. The round-up on July 11 helps one to realize how the Final Solution unfolded: not only through instructions from Berlin, but also through the voluntary participation and initiatives of local  authorities.

Something less than 5% of Salonika’s Jewish population escaped deportation compared with perhaps 50% in the Greek capital a year later.

Lost World

In Chapter 3, “The Arrival of the Sephardim”, we read and lament of so much of the Jewish character of the city that was lost.

By1668, the Jews were such an integral part of Salonica that it seemed impossible to imagine they had not always been there.  And indeed there had been Jews in the city before there were any Christians. At the conclusion in the paragraph prior to Chapter 23 – “Aftermath” – we find according to German records, approximately  45,000 people reached Auschwitz  from Salonica and within a few hours of arrival, most of them had been murdered  in the gas chambers.

Hell on Wheels. A railway officer walks in front of a train that was used by the Nazis to carry Jews from Thessaloniki  (Salonica) to Auschwitz during the WWII. (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

The tragedy of this transition is captured in Devin E. Naar’s 18 August 2017 article in Times of Israel, ‘A century ago, Jewish Salonica burned’, which he describes in his sad subhead:

“The home to the largest and most dynamic Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jewish community in the world was rebuilt, only to be destroyed anew”

Salonica had suffered from a series of fires in its history, but during the four centuries under the benign rule of the Ottoman Empire, the city’s residents were permitted to rebuild without much state interference. Not so after ‘The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917’. The Greek government, which had only recently annexed Salonica during the Balkan Wars (1912-13), saw in the fire an opportunity to transform once and for all Jewish and Ottoman Salonica into Greek Thessaloniki.

They Came, They Conquered, They Murdered. Invasion of German army into Greece spelled disaster for most the Jews of Salonica.. (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)

As much as Salonika’s Jewish community rebounded from the fire of 1917, the destruction wrought by the German occupation was insurmountable. Beyond the dispossession, deportation and murder of almost all of Salonika’s Jews by the Nazis, the entire character of the city was irrevocably transformed. Several dozen synagogues, with the exception of one or two, were destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators; visual traces of the Jewish presence in the built environment were gone.  

A journalist further lamented:

The most important thing that the fire destroyed was the Jewish soul of Salonica. It is a terrible story.”

About the Writer:

Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until emigrating to the USA in 1977 where he spent 26 years as an engineering consultant, much of it at Westinghouse. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York ( Committee for Accuracy in the Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon. His writings appear frequently in Times of Israel – The Blog.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

The Importance of Memory

By Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive, Holocaust Educational Trust

Today we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration and death camp.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. We remember them as the people they were before they were victims – as members of families and communities, as teachers or doctors, people who dreamed of travelling, or playing football for their favourite team. Ordinary people with lives ahead of them

Jewish life before the Holocaust

And we can’t help but remember what happened to them – how they were marked out and identified as Jewish, how they were stripped of their property and their rights, how they were stripped of their citizenship and forced out of their homes. How they were forced into ghettos, and starved and beaten and tortured. And how, eventually, they were taken to ravines and fields and purpose-built death camps across Europe and murdered, in their millions, simply because they were Jewish.

For decades after the war, the human stories of the Holocaust were missing from the public discourse. People knew about the Nazis, they knew about Hitler, they knew that there had been gas chambers. But they didn’t know the human face of those whose lives ended in those gas chambers. The victims were alien, abstract, a homogenous group of 6 million. And they certainly didn’t know the stories of the survivors.

Smiling faces of Jewish kids before the horror was to befall them.

There were lots of reasons – survivors were rebuilding their lives; they did not want to keep reopening their deepest and darkest wounds. And even when survivors did speak, they were met with disbelief, or simply with disinterest. Across the world, countries were rebuilding and trying to move on from the war, and stories of the atrocities faced by survivors were a painful reminder of a past that everyone wanted to forget.

Two of the five girls in this photograph—taken in Humenné, Slovakia, around 1936—are known to have been sent to Auschwitz, Poland, on March 25, 1942, as part of the first official transport of Jews to the death camp. Neither Anna Herskovic (second from left) nor Lea Friedman (fourth from left) survived. (Photo courtesy the Grossman and Gross families)

How times have changed.

There is a lot that paved the way for the change we now see – the televised trial of Eichmann, Schindler’s List in cinemas around the world, survivors gathering in Israel for the first time – and the passage of time. But today, looking back, what I see is the tenacity of survivors who, in their retirement especially, were determined that the world would know what happened to them. In the years since they have been tireless in their efforts to affect change, and to ensure that the horrors of the past would never be forgotten.

Two young Jewish women wearing the yellow star in Paris. Wearing of the star was made compulsory in occupied France in 1942. (PHOTO: KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GAMMA-KEYSTONE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Today, around the world, communities of all faiths and none, of all backgrounds, in countries who were once occupied by the Nazis and those who were not, will pause for a moment to remember the Holocaust. They will remember the horrors of the past, and they will commit to ensuring its legacy continues. Holocaust Memorial Day has become internationally recognised and integrated into calendars across the globe.

And today those survivors who were not heard for so many years are in the spotlight. Their stories are being told, their voices are being heard, and their legacy is being cemented.

That is not to say that our work is done. Antisemitism continues to be an issue globally. Holocaust distortion continues to grow more prevalent, whether in the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic, in social media ‘jokes’, or in the comparisons of Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto. There is a huge amount of work to be done to ensure that the hatred that led to the Holocaust is understood and addressed, and that the integrity and truth of the past is preserved.

Elie Wiesel once said that to forget the dead is akin to killing them a second time. Today on Holocaust Memorial Day, they are not forgotten.

About the writer:

Karen Pollock CBE, Chief Executive, Holocaust Educational Trust. She started her professional life working for the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism (PCAA), where she became Director. She joined the Holocaust Educational Trust as Communications Director in 1998 and became the Trust’s Chief Executive in 2000. She was a founding Trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and is a member of the Council of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust Council at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. She is a Vice President of the Jewish Leadership Council, a trustee of the Community Security Trust and an Advisor to the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. In 2012 Karen was awarded an MBE for her services to education in the UK. In 2020, she was awarded a CBE for services to Holocaust education.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Bnei and Bnot Mitzvah and the Quest for Meaning

By Richelle Budd Caplan

Yad Vashem

As a mother, I know first-hand about the special bond between siblings. Although they are ultimately individuals with different personalities, they remain linked in a meaningful way that is often difficult to describe in words – especially when they have developed their own form of communication that others in their orbit are not privy to comprehend.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Developing meaningful links, whether between siblings or friends, is an important part of childhood and maturation. Over the years, a number of international barmitzvah programs have been initiated in an effort to cultivate meaningful connections among Jewish people. For instance, the well-known Jewish social action project in the 1970s and 1980s to bar/bat mitzvah with your “twin” in the Former Soviet Union. These twinning ceremonies at the time acknowledged that not all Jewish children were free to celebrate their coming of age and raised awareness about the “Jewish refuseniks” behind the Iron Curtain. Some of these Jewish youngsters even wore bracelets engraved with the names of the refuseniks who were in Soviet jails, such as Ida Nudel; Yuli Edelstein; Anatoly Sharansky (who we know as Natan Sharansky) and others. Following the massive exodus of Soviet Jewry approximately thirty years ago, breaking these bracelets had special meaning for those who had bonded with them on their respective wrists.

Yad Vashem has launched a unique twinning bar/bat mitzvah program that has been successful in providing scores of young people with a memorable experience by connecting with Jewish children who were unable to have a bar/bat mitzvah during the Holocaust. Although this twinning program has been successfully undertaken, some families have concerns.

Jalen Schlosberg receives a certificate from Cynthia Wroclawski, Manager of the Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project, during his Bar Mitzvah celebration, at the Synagogue in Yad Vashem Jerusalem (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Recently a Hebrew school teacher who attended a professional development seminar in Yad Vashem related that one of her pupils who was enrolled in this twinning program wanted to discontinue his participation because his parents were concerned that it was too depressing. In the eyes of his parents, their child’s time would be better spent playing sports. This example is not unique, unfortunately.

On the basis of recent surveys, a significant number of millennials and Gen Z are unable to name a single German Nazi concentration camp or ghetto. This lack of knowledge severs yet another bond between the Jewish people and the younger generations. Yet, despite this concern, and perhaps because of it, some Jewish parents still want their children around bar/bat mitzvah age to learn about the Holocaust.

So how can we convince families that the study of the Holocaust will not traumatize or depress their children? How do we encourage young adults that this subject matter can imbue their lives with meaning, especially by learning about the many stories of courage and sacrifice made by “their people” during the Holocaust?

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Every generation has often modified celebrations of rites of passage in Jewish tradition depending on the circumstances of the given place and time – especially in periods of danger and persecution. Emphasizing how Jewish families sought to celebrate and observe Jewish rituals and holidays, despite great risk, can encourage young people to connect with their history. After all, many Jewish youngsters who lost their families and communities struggled to maintain traditional customs and never had a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony during the Holocaust. In the words of Itzhak Reznik, “My parents were religious, but by the time I turned thirteen, I didn’t know I was supposed to be celebrating. All I wanted to do was survive.”  The lack of food, religious articles, and places of worship made it extremely difficult to celebrate festivals and ceremonies.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

For example, Tomi Reichental was born in 1935 in Piestany, Slovakia. He and his family were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944. On 18 December  1944, it was Tomi’s brother’s thirteenth birthday. Tomi remembers that “the small stove in the corner of the room had wood burning in it. Mysteriously, several potatoes appeared which were sliced and put on the stove to bake.” He recalls that a family friend entered the room, carrying a piece of black bread that had been cut in slices, spread with margarine and layered to resemble a cream cake. According to Tomi, their friend saved her rations for at least two days which meant that she went hungry to give some happiness to his family. He states that, “The gloom lifted and celebratory humor ensued with mazel tov wishes, embraces, kisses and well-wishing from friends. This is how my brother crossed from childhood to adulthood.” Tomi, along with his mother, aunt and brother, survived the Holocaust, and moved to Ireland after the war.

A Survivor’s Testimony. Tomi Reichental addressing students about the Holocaust.

Bilha Shefer was born in Germany in 1932, and after Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, escaped with her family to the Netherlands, where they were eventually deported to the Westerbork transit camp. From Westerbork, they were sent to Bergen-Belsen and eventually released via a one-time prisoner exchange in which Jews were exchanged for German Templers. 

Upon arriving in Bergen-Belsen, Bilha remembers that her mother gathered the family and pulled out a jar of strawberry jam that she liked. According to Bilha, everyone was surprised by this rare treasure. Bilha’s mother proudly proclaimed: “Mazal Tov – it’s your bat mitzvah, your birthday.”  Bilha’s mother had hidden the jar in her bag throughout their journey in order to celebrate Bilha’s bat mitzvah.

Yosef “Tommy” Lapid‘s bar mitzvah took place during the height of the Nazi occupation of Budapest.

Tommy recalls how a perfume bottle was broken to mark his bar mitzvah, thrown to the ground by his mother in an act of resistance, to preserve the integrity of her family: harkening back to a more refined past and to hold fast to the humanity that had been stripped away from them. Surviving the Shoah with his mother, Tommy would later, following a successful career in journalism, serve as Israel’s Minister of Justice and Deputy Prime Minister. His son, Yair Lapid is today Alternate Prime Minister of Israel and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Tommy Lapid reporting from the trial of Adolph  Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961

Ultimately, most teenage Holocaust victims never had an opportunity to celebrate their bar/bat mitzvah. Some Holocaust survivors have had special bar mitzvah ceremonies in their golden years at the Western Wall or in neighborhood synagogues as part of their need to find closure and celebrate this rite of passage as part of their Jewish identity.

For example, Yaacov Wexler, a member of Yad Vashem’s staff, had his bar mitzvah in Yad Vashem’s synagogue. Wexler, a baby at the time that he was rescued by Polish Catholic parents, decided to return to the Jewish people over a decade ago and live in Israel. Wexler’s bar mitzvah was celebrated in the presence of another young Polish-Jewish boy who survived the Holocaust – Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. Bar/bat mitzvah children may be encouraged to learn about the story of Yaacov Wexler, a Holocaust survivor who decided to reconnect to his Jewish roots.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Robert Powell‘s mother escaped Nazi persecution in Europe, keeping her Jewish identity a secret to her US-born children. At the age of sixty-five, Robert decided to have a bar mitzvah ceremony after he discovered his family roots.  In Robert’s words, my ancestors had a “determination to keep alive our Jewish heritage. Our legacy. Our Jewishness. It only remains for me to honor them by living fully and openly…”

Bar/bat mitzvah programs can provide an opportunity to embark on a personal, meaningful journey. For instance, a few years ago, a Jewish family in the New York area turned to Yad Vashem to mark their daughter’s bat mitzvah by twinning with a Holocaust victim. The bat mitzvah girl requested to know more about her twin’s family. After examining the Pages of Testimony, the family asked Yad Vashem to connect them with the twin’s surviving relatives in Israel. As a result, the two families became close. Since the Israeli family had a son studying in the United States, the bat mitzvah girl invited him to attend her celebration. He did. Entering the event hall, he saw a beautifully framed certificate featuring his aunt’s name. In her speech, the bat mitzvah girl told her guests the story of her adopted twin, and how this Page of Testimony enhanced her bat mitzvah preparations. Through Yad Vashem’s twinning program, this Jewish American family not only fostered a connection with a Holocaust victim but also developed a direct relationship with an Israeli family.

(Courtesy of Yad Vashem)

Yad Vashem hopes that its twinning program will further encourage bar/bat mitzvah aged youths to learn more about the vibrant tapestry of Jewish life before the Holocaust and become inspired by Holocaust survivors’ stories of resilience. This educational process can have a positive impact on bar/bat mitzvah children who are building their “Jewish bedrock”, committing themselves to Jewish continuity and embarking on a life-long quest for meaning.

About the writer:

Richelle Budd Caplan

Living in Israel since 1993, Richelle Budd Caplan is Director of International Relations and Projects of the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem. A graduate of Brandeis University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with many articles on Holocaust education widely published, Caplan is an active member of the Israeli delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and has developed Holocaust-related projects with numerous international organizations and institutions.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Education is Eternal – Netzach Yisrael

Improving the education system for Israel’s Haredi community will help to improve their economic situation – and the country’s

By Rolene Marks

Rabbi Menachem Bombach is a man with a mission. The charismatic Rabbi, raised in the ultra-religious neighbourhood of Jerusalem known as Mea Shearim and who did not speak Hebrew until the age of 20, has a plan to bring about significant change to the Haredi approach to education.

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to the Israeli central Bureau of Statistics, the Haredi community makes up about 12% of the population, with an estimated size of roughly 1 million people – and is amongst the most poor, with 50% living below the poverty line. The Haredi community is also the fastest growing community.

The employment rate of Haredi men is at 51% compared to secular men at 87%. The rate for Haredi women in the workplace is 76% but many are forced to take low paying jobs as a result of their lack of skills.

Even though there is a larger percentage of Haredi women who are employed in the work force, it does not necessarily ensure an improvement in living conditions and the economic situation for the community.

It is clear that this cannot continue – if it does, the effects will be catastrophic.

Enter Rabbi Bombach.

Rabbi Bombach has identified a crucial element to ensuring that this alarming trend is corrected. The Rabbi believes that the key to fixing this growing problem which perpetuates the cycle of poverty, is reforming the Haredi education system. The more members of the community who are educated and receive a matriculation certificate, with skills in significant subjects like maths, English and even Hebrew, the more they will be able to enter into the workplace – and get better jobs. He believes that the current economic situation would not continue if members of the Haredi community were more integrated and productive in society.

Inspired by this, Rabbi Bombach started “Netzach Yisrael”. Established in 2017, Netzach is an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) network of educational institutions (elementary through to post-high school) whose mission it is to provide its students with an outstanding education and in parallel, work towards a bagrut (matriculation) certificate, which is a prerequisite for higher education in Israel. These studies include mathematics, English, the sciences and civics for both elementary and high school students.

Rabbi Bombach has always been drawn to education. When he was just 12-years-old, he would often lead his peers in Shabbat afternoon prayers. He knew that education would be part of his future.

The Rabbi would go on to study after he finished his schooling and met other students from different communities and societies, including Arabs, secular Jews and others. It was eye-opening. Integrating with other people went a long way to breaking down pre-conceived stereotypes and prejudices and opened his eyes to the ability to stay Haredi – while meeting other people.

Bombach believes in the philosophy that “Jews need to radiate light to each other”.

And so Netzach Yisrael was started. At first, many in the community were skeptical and did not want to send their children to school, but slowly it started to grow and now there are over 1000 students at 11 different educational facilities, with at least 3 700 students attending virtually.

Time for Change. Through a new yeshiva system that he founded in  in Israel, Rabbi Menachem Bombach is determined on reducing poverty in the Haredi community through education, preparing them to attend college and enter the workforce.

There have been several notable success stories. One young student is excelling as an activist talking about climate change, a topic that one would not expect members of the Haredi community to be vocal about. At least 95% of the students who have come through the Netzach Yisrael programme are fully integrated and have gone on to university. This aligns with the focus of having modern, pragmatic Haredim and will improve the economic situation of the community.

Netzach Yisrael’s vision is that the academic programme empowers graduates to create a strong, financially viable future for themselves, their future families, and the Israeli economy, while remaining strongly connected to their core values of Torah observance.

The ethos and values of the Netzach Yisrael programme are very clear – Torah and the worship of G-d by instilling the foundations of faith, worshiping G-d, and the study of Torah as a way of life, Education furthering Derech Eretz, truth, virtue and love of Israel, imparting knowledge, life, social and learning skills and striving for excellence and cultivating personal and social responsibility that is reflected in working for the common good and involvement in the community.

Bombach in Action. This Hasidic Educator is changing the face of Haredi education in Israel

Over seventy years ago, when the State of Israel was formed, the only choice for Haredim was to study Torah,” says Rabbi Bombach. “This was not good for the majority. We can combine religious and secular studies, while maintaining the connection with the community,” he says.

Bucking Tradition. Despite being vilified by his co-religionists, Rabbi Bombach teaches secular subjects to boys.

Today, the proof of success is in the growing statistics of students who have thrived in the Netzach Yisrael programme and continue to excel in tertiary education and beyond. The once skeptical parents are writing glowing testimonials and there is no doubt that Israel will benefit. This truly is proof that a great education, combined with dedications and knowledge of your roots and community – is eternal.

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While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Ruth’s Roots Revealed

By Adv. Craig Snoyman

In September 2016 a solitary, single, slightly tired woman arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. She did  not find the streets  paved with gold, nor were the people particularly friendly. With no family or friends, or even acquaintances, she has arrived in xenophobic South Africa with little fanfare and no more than a suitcase, a small amount of money and bucket-loads of grit and determination.

She made her way to the room that she had found on the internet and rented.  This too, did not match what had been advertised. The room formed part of a larger house that was sub-let to  other tenants as well.  A small , grubby dingy room with a communal toilet and kitchen, substantially misrepresented by the photos that appeared on the website, was to be her new home for the  immediate future. Not even having unpacked, she took a walk to the corner cafe,  bought some cleaning detergent and got down to work, scrubbing down her room and the toilet. She was determined to make the best of whatever hurdles confronted her.

She was different from the other Zimbabweans. She was not an economic migrant. She was here for a higher purpose. She was here to convert to Judaism. For someone who knew nothing about Johannesburg, the area  in which she had  selected to live was slightly out of the more heavily populated Jewish suburbs, but it was within easy  walking distance of  an orthodox shul. This had been her priority.

 Ruth (not her real name) had been in contact with the Union of Orthodox Synagogues  of South Africa. She had been told that there were inadequate facilities in Zimbabwe for her to convert. If she wanted to convert, she would have to do this in South Africa. So she gave up her comfortable life in an affluent area of Harare  and came to stay in the heart  of  the unknown, dangerous Johannesburg.

It was about two weeks after she arrived that I first met Ruth. It was on a Friday night, when walking back from shul. By coincidence, I had gone to that shul to make a minyon (required quorum of ten Jewish male adults). She was a new face in the congregation.  The congregation is small and even with a mechitzah (participation separating men and women), you couldn’t really miss her.  It is a very small congregation, usually all male,  Ashkenazi and (to be politically incorrect) all white.

Ruth, the only woman present, was none of the above.

After the service, she was walking home with the head of security and headed in the same direction as me. The Security head asked me to walk her home as she lived only a few houses away from me, in the same street. With little further ado, she came to our Shabbas table and revealed to us the amazing story behind her desire to convert. 

Ruth had grown up in one of the leafy green suburbs in Harare,  part of a close-knit family. She had cared for her grandmother during her illness, but it was only on her deathbed, that her mother told Ruth that her grandfather was Jewish. Ruth was stunned!

And so began the investigation. Ruth’s aunt (her mother’s sister) had also been aware of the secret but had been sworn to secrecy. She told Ruth what she knew. Her grandfather was a well-known Jewish merchant who lived in a small town in the southern part  of Rhodesia. She knew his name and she knew the name of the shop that he owned. Ruth went to  the town to see what she could find out.  However, this small outpost no longer had a Jewish community,  and the trail ran cold.  She had made various inquiries over the past ten years, including approaching Africa’s travelling rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Silverhaft, but had come no closer to discovering the truth.

Rabbi Moshe Silverhaft

What remained unsaid, but what all of us realised, was that we were talking about colonial Rhodesia and love across the colour line was absolutely taboo at the time. Had anyone been aware of what had happened it would have resulted in a scandal that might well have ruined this man’s  reputation and certainly his livelihood.

Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe in the early 1900s.

Her interest in Judaism had been sparked  and she embarked on a course of discovery to learn more about Judaism and to discover more about her Jewish roots. The course of this road led to a trip to Israel, accompanied by her daughter.  She had done some studying in Israel but wasn’t really ready to proceed further. She returned to Zimbabwe and resumed her life. Her daughter remained in Israel, converted, married, and is living in Israel.

Some years had passed, she was now more settled and had decided to  proceed on her journey. It was now time for her to convert.

It was a  coincidence that she had chosen to come to South Africa to convert. It was a coincidence that she had chosen to rent accommodation in the same street in which we live. It was a coincidence  that I had gone to that shul that night. It was a coincidence that Ruth had accepted our Shabbas meal invitation. By a further  coincidence,  the only Zimbabwean that we knew, just happened to be Jewish. Coincidently, he also just happened to have grown up in that very town where her grandfather had lived. He  just happened to be the son of the reverend who conducted the religious services in the small town, where everybody knew everybody. As the son of the “makulu-baas” (the big boss) of the Jewish community in the town, if anybody had any information about that time, it would be him.  Further coincidently, he and his family just happened to be living around the corner from us. Again, just by coincidence, he had not severed his relationship with Zimbabwe when he emigrated, regularly returning  to Zimbabwe  on business.

And so Ruth was introduced to Boaz, who after hearing two sentences from Ruth, completed the description of the shop, the shops next to her grandfather’s shop as well as a general description of the town. He also  knew who presently owned  the shop.  More importantly, he remembered  her grandfather!

Opening a book entitled “Famous Jews of Rhodesia”, Boaz directed Ruth’s attention to a potted biography of her grandfather, together with  a picture of him.  After ten years of dead-ends, it took only  two weeks in South Africa for her grandfather to be revealed to her.

Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi) – Jewish Community exploring project

A few weeks after Ruth’s initial shock, Boaz  went on a business trip to Zimbabwe and took Ruth to visit the gravesite of her grandfather.

Arriving as a stranger in a strange land, Ruth has now learned of her past, formed a durable support base and having spent five tough years following the long, winding, and difficult road to an Orthodox conversion. This morning she went  to the mikveh  and participated in small socially distanced  se’udah (festive meal). In a touching gesture, when she announced her new Hebrew name, she had also adopted her grandfather’s surname. Her long  road continues to wind its way, leading to Jerusalem.

In her process of conversion, Ruth would follow in a 3,500 year tradition of observant Jewish women immersing themselves in a ritual purification bath (mikveh).

The unspoken,  but  equally incredible part of the story is about her grandfather. He was by all accounts a very prominent member of the Jewish community. He held national congregational  office and was married to his wife for many years. He and his wife never had children. In Ruth’s own small way, the stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone. She is now a proud Jewess; she has a son that has converted recently at his yeshiva in Israel and soon to be married. She also has a wonderful Kibutznik daughter and son-in-law with two beautiful grandchildren. Her family is  a shoot that   has  grown  from the stump of Zimbabwean Jewry, it is  a branch that has borne new fruit.    

 “Isn’t it wonderful,” says Ruth, “how Hashem reveals the jigsaw pieces and lets us put them together, for us to create our own puzzle.”

About the writer:

Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

A Rabbi and a Self-Hating Jew walk into court with a Newspaper

By Adv. Craig Snoyman

South African Jewry is resilient. They know that their government is vociferously anti-Israel and that when an incident flares up in the Middle East between the Israel and its neighbours, they know to keep their heads down and try and weather the storm.  This time, the captain of the ship was on the starboard, plotting a course to safety and became a target.

Two weeks ago, a three-quarter page article appeared in South Africa’s most widely read national newspaper, the Sunday Times. The headlines blazed:

 “A chief rabbi who is a disgrace to his faith and to human decency.

This prominently placed article was written by a former politician, who is now well past his sell-by date. Once a cabinet minister in the Thabo Mbeki cabinet, his star has faded, but he tries his best to appear news-worthy whenever he can. His sure-safe recipe is knocking Israel or the Jews.  He can do this because he was born a Jew and it’s therefore “acceptable”. It always makes for great conversation when a Jew publicly attacks another Jew, even if the first “Jew” has not an iota of Jewishness, save for the accident of his birth.  This was the situation with our self-hating “Jew”, Ronnie Kasrils. His target was the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, and he could hardly fail!

The Rabbi vs the Rebel. Ronnie Kasrils’ article in the Sunday Times attacking South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, Warren Goldstein.

Kasrils, who has very publicly renounced his Jewishness, has pooh-poohed the idea that the Jews were chosen by God. He has declared that Jewishness is merely a charade for Jews to hide their racism and their Zionist exclusivity. His article, which he called an open letter to the President, was much of the same.  Many didn’t read past the headline.  It was a sickening headline. In fact it is exceedingly difficult to find a more disturbing headline than this, in any mainstream newspaper anywhere in the free world. It was incredible that a newspaper was prepared to print it. How does one react to big, bold in-your- face print that says – “A chief rabbi who is a disgrace to his faith and to human decency”.

The article itself was filled with the normal vitriol about Israel and the Jews, but it also made an unjustified and unheard-of attack on Rabbi Goldstein. In fact, the last time that I can remember a chief rabbi of South Africa being so viciously attacked was when Rabbi Rabinowitz attacked the Nationalist government for its policy of Apartheid.  It was an uncalled for, ad-hominem attack on the Chief Rabbi  and a rant against many things Israeli or Zionist.  It was an article that had no place in any respectable publication. Kasrils started off his letter by referring to “the illegal occupation by Israel of Palestinian land” which was “the greatest moral issue of our time”. It only got worse from there.  He referred to the anger at the pain and humiliation inflicted on the Palestinian people, to which was an offence South Africa’s core values of equality, justice and human rights. Clearly, Rabbi Goldstein had no justice or compassion of the hundreds of innocent Palestinians who perished in Israel’s “so-called precision bombing” The Chief Rabbi’s version of “the truth” about Sheikh Jarrah was the same as Apartheid’s eviction policy. Similarly the Chief’s statement that there had been many attempts to create a Palestinian state, was “sheer sophistry”. This was because Israel had colonised Palestine in 1948 and had thereafter engaged in expansion, land theft and ethnic cleansing.  It was the Israeli government that had refused to be a partner for peace, while the Palestinians, even Hamas, “had gone out of their way to consider a two-state solution”. It was the Israelis that had rejected proposals, instead insisting on a Bantustan solution. The Chief Rabbi was “obfuscating” if he suggested otherwise. As for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’ rockets, “Goldstein [had] callously ignored the rain of death poured into the world’s most densely populated concentration camp where two million inhabitants have no place to hide.” How can he support a “people that smash a small densely populated territory to smithereens because they sustained 12 deaths?” Kasrils did not forget to refer to the dubious quote of Richard Falk that “Palestinian resistance to occupation is a legally protected right” and that Israel was violating international law. He also scoffed at the Chief Rabbi’s reliance on “a property-dealing God who presented another peoples land to the so-called chosen” which was in stark contrast to the belief of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. He concluded by holding that “numerous devout Jews interpret the Hebrew bible very differently to Goldstein and his ilk. His views are not representative of Jews in general” and that “Goldstein’s utterances contradict the golden rule of all religions to treat others as you wish them to treat you”.

Up to his Neck. No, Ronnie Kasrils is not wearring a tallit (prayer shawl worn by Jews) but a Palestinian keffiyeh.

With the Jewish community in shell-shock, the response came in last week’s Sunday Times. Entitled “Kasrils breached acceptable boundaries of civilised discourse” virtually every leading organisation within the Jewish establishment attached its name to this public rebuke.  A small photo-replica of the original article with the offensive heading was attached to the Jewish establishment’s response (just in case it could have been forgotten).  In defending the Chief, Kasrils was accused of breaching acceptable boundaries, demonising and defaming the state of Israel and vilifying and crassly impugning “the integrity of the chief rabbi, Dr Warren Goldstein, the public face of the Jewish faith community in South Africa” and inflaming race relations in South Africa. Notably, the Chief Rabbi was not a signatory to the article.

Like any Jew, I know some things and I have an opinion on some things. They don’t always overlap. I have an opinion on Kasrils’ conduct (which might not be fit to publish) and I know something about the law of defamation in South Africa. My opinion based on my knowledge of defamation is that he has opened himself up to a massive lawsuit. Kasrils, who has been on the winning side of a defamation case previously, must also be acutely aware of this as well.

The law of defamation in South Africa balances the existence of various conflicting constitutional rights such as the right to privacy and dignity against the right to freedom of expression and political rights. In principle, to succeed in a defamation case one needs to prove the following: 

(1) there is a statement

(2) it has been published 

(3) it concerns that person

(4) it is defamatory

(5) it has injured that person in his reputation.

The test to be applied to decide whether a statement is defamatory is whether the words complained of, are reasonably capable of conveying to the reasonable reader a meaning defamatory of that person. One does not need to prove falsity. The quantification of damages is dependent on reputation and character, standing in the community and the extent of the publication.

The party being sued has a variety of defences at his disposal. The most common defence is that while the statement appears on the face of it (prima facie) defamatory, the words were used in a non-defamatory sense and special circumstances are set out.  Other defences might include (a) the absence of intention to cause harm (this defence is not available to the media) or (b) that it was made in jest or (c) that the words were spoken in sudden anger as a result of provocation (referred to as “Rixa”) or (d) lack of knowledge of wrongfulness or (e) denial of wrongfulness i.e., that the defamation was not wrongful. 

There are also defences that would apply where the statement was made in the discharge of an official duty such as (f) qualified privilege or where it was made in parliament being (g) absolute privilege. For statements appearing in the media, there are two   defences that are invariably raised, viz. (h) truth and public interest and (i) fair comment. 

When one looks at the requirements that the Chief Rabbi would have to prove, then elements (1)-(3) are self-evident. The crux of the case would be – the reasonable person test.  If this is successful then element (5) falls into place. I regard myself as a reasonable person. On a simple reading of the article, I find it to be unacceptably egregious. On a deeper reading of the article, I find it to be irredeemably and grievously reprehensible and having no redeeming merit. Thus, on the Chief Rabbi’s version, I believe that he cannot but succeed.  As the Chief Rabbi is the pre-eminent Jew in South Africa, I believe that he should qualify for the largest sum of damages ever awarded for defamation in South Africa.

Heading to Court. The man Kasrils has accused of as “a disgrace to human decency”, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony on December 10, 2013. (Sky News, YouTube)

Strategically and tactically the response was brilliant. Whether intentionally or by chance (or should I say by fate, as Rabbis don’t believe in chance), with the stroke of a pen, the people of the book  vindicated the Chief Rabbi. The entire upper echelons of the Jewish Community, unquestionably comprising of reasonable people, found the article to be, not only defamatory, but as exceeding the bounds of civil discourse and both vilifying and crassly impugning the chief rabbi’s integrity.  One can’t get a much stronger condemnation of Kasrils’ statement than that. No doubt the Chief has a superior legal team advising him. His father, Ezra Goldstein was one of the sharpest judges on the South African bench and certainly one of the most compassionate.  But the Chief Rabbi, no doubt, has a Greater Hand guiding him. I think the whole Jewish community would derive immense satisfaction in seeing him nail this ###%##   BIG TIME, through the agency of this Greater Hand.

Kasrils, on the other is not without his defences. He has revelled in his article, has not denied a single word of it and his only complaint is that it was not published in its totality. Various defences are immediately ruled out. Having called the Chief Rabbi an obfuscating sophist whose views, and that of his ilk, are not representative of Jews in general, he can hardly be seen to raise a defence of absence of intention to cause insult, or that they were not intended to defame the Chief Rabbi.  The defence of lack of knowledge of unlawfulness is moot. Many of our jurists hold that it is an element of intention. Whether unlawful forms part of intention or not, Kasril’s   statement falls within this larger category.  So Kasrils is left with a choice of two defences: truth and public interest or fair comment. To succeed in the defence of truth and public interest requires proof that both (1) the statement was true and (2) that its publication was to the benefit of the public. Just on a summary of his statement as set out, it is unlikely that he can prove either. Which leaves Kasrils with one defence, that of fair comment. The elements required to be proven for this defence are (1) that it was a comment and not a statement of fact; and (2) that the comment was “fair” (in that it does not exceed certain limits); and (3) the facts commented on were truly stated and (4) the matter was in the public interest. With several facts indisputably incorrect as well as a response from the entire Jewish establishment that Kasrils’ comment breached acceptable boundaries of civilised discourse, it will be difficult for a judge to hold that this defence has any merit either.

Last but not least, the law also provides the Chief Rabbi with a further useful line of attack. Even if Kasrils were able to show circumstances providing a justification for his statement, such a defence should fail, if it can be shown that he intended to injure the Chief Rabbi in his reputation. As my maths teacher used to say: Quod Erat Demonstratum! (Roughly translated: this which has been proved)

In defamation cases like this, not only is the writer of the article sued, but the publisher is as well. There have been cases where even the distributor and the printer of the newspaper have been sued as well. In this case, it would probably be adequate to sue Kasrils and the owners/ publishers of the Sunday Times.

Like all juicy court cases, there is invariably a twist in the tale.  This one is no different. Following this notorious article, Kasrils was interviewed on a Muslim television channel.  He went on record as stating that he was not responsible for the headlines that appeared above his article, that was done by the newspaper itself. It is almost inconceivable that the largest national newspaper, with top-class legal advisors on tap, could have created such a stupefyingly defamatory headline. Our Supreme Court of Appeal has made it abundantly clear that the public media cannot rely on the absence of animus injuriandi to escape liability, (although it may rely on absence of negligence.) If Kasrils is to be believed, not only would it appear that the Sunday Times had been negligent, but it would seem that a case might be made for malevolent premeditation and malice in choosing the headline.  That the Sunday Times first published and then republished the headlines a week later, when the response was published, places it in a very invidious position. Not only has the headline been published twice in hard copy, but these headlines appear around the world in soft copy and remain on record.

No place to hide!

The newspaper’s legal team are going to have their work cut out for them, in the event of defamation litigation being instituted.

I am one of those South Africans who keeps my head down. I am not part of the Jewish establishment. I don’t know what the Chief Rabbi will do. In response to the article, I have bought a Jewish National Fund Certificate so that a tree will be planted in Israel in the name of Ronnie Kasrils.  I really hope that the Chief Rabbi will sue and get the biggest defamation award ever issued in South Africa and then donates it to a Zionist cause in the name of Kasrils. ….and it all has to published in the Sunday Times!

About the author:

Craig Snoyman is a practising advocate in South Africa.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO) .