Jewish security organisation plays fast and loose with law

Yael Even Or
News
"He had me around the neck and he was huge so I had very little capacity to do anything much… I fell down and we went down the stairs and then we got into this car park …"

Two other guys grabbed me. There were about ten guys in the car park. A guy who wasn’t in black--he was just wearing pants and a shirt--grabbed me. He cable tied my arms behind my back… and then they threw me on the concrete in front of a car and pulled my jersey over my head… and this one guy kept on shouting at me, 'Don’t look at me, don’t look at me.' … He kept on shouting, 'What’s your name? What’s your name?'

And I kept on telling him my name. I kept on saying 'it’s Emily,' but he wasn’t really listening and every time I’d say my name he just pushed my head into the concrete in front of this car and he’d shout, ‘Don’t try look at me, what’s your name bitch?' Over and over and over...

Emily Craven took part in a protest action against Israel’s policies in a Jewish community celebration for Israeli Independence Day in April. During an authorised demonstration outside Johannesburg's Gold Reef City, eight activists were able to get into the venue. Among them were Emily, Uyanda Mabece, Thando Meth, and Kwara Kekena. Last week, the four of them pressed charges of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm against a security organisation called the CSO.

“The problem is that there were no markings or anything on their uniforms. In fact some were not wearing uniforms which made it difficult to identify them,” says the group’s lawyer Nadeem Mahomed, “The protesters knew them to be CSO because the CSO ran the security for the event.”

Security ghost

CSO was founded in 1993, as a transformation of an organization called Jasper. Most of the synagogues, Jewish schools and Jewish functions throughout South Africa are secured by CSO. Some facilities have their own volunteers to whom CSO provides training and supervision.

Even though the organisation has been around for twenty years, it is not easy to trace its activity or find records of its registrations, directors and members. A search shows that the first time CSO was formally documented with the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) was in 2007 when it applied for registration. By law, every private security entity in the country must be registered with PSIRA.

The organisation is registered as an in-house security entity. One of the requirements for this registration is to have all security officers affiliated with the company registered with PSIRA separately. However, the CSO record for 2007 shows that only one security officer was affiliated with the organization, Mark Notelovitz, who is a former CSO national chairman. But there were many more security officers at that time than just Notelovitz. A body that secured numerous events, was present in dozens of schools and synagogues and was familiar to the Jewish community was a ghost for the most part.

“I had a few incidents with CSO,” recalls activist Zackie Achmat. “I remember my first visit to Habonim. I arrived at the gate and [one of them said] on their walkie talkie, ‘The Arab has arrived.’”

Habonim Dror is a Jewish youth movement. It is obliged to use the CSO security officers, some of whom are armed, for different events including a summer camp that takes place once a year. As an activist, Achmat arrived at Habonim camp to give talks for a few years in a row. Nevertheless, on his visit in 2010, he experienced another incident with the CSO.

“On my arrival I was chatting on my phone and the CSO took very long to open the gate. Finally they opened the gate. Then they insisted on taking my phone off me to search the phone and I refused. I said: ‘I don’t want to do this. There’s nothing on my phone.’ They claimed that I photographed them in order to identify them, but I didn’t. They don’t have the right to search people. That’s an invasion of privacy.” Eventually Achmat was convinced to show them his phone. He was promised an apology but never got it. That was his last visit to Habonim camp.

“They operated outside the law for a long time,” says a member of the community who refused to identify himself due to his fear of repercussions. “They didn’t even try to be legal. Only after what happened with Zackie did they start registering.”

Only at the end of 2011 did CSO take the registration process more seriously, when the organisation registered its operation in Johannesburg, and gradually registered 65 of its security officers. In Cape Town, however, the organisation only registered in January this year with 34 affiliated security officers. There is no indication of CSO anywhere else under its name.

Achmat still accuses CSO of being an armed militia. “I fully understand why Jewish people in our country need and deserve protection,” he says, “but that protection should come from the state.”

“If you are a dissident voice you’ll get accosted by the CSO”

Other people don’t see a problem with the existence of the CSO but rather with its methods. Judge Dennis Davis of the Cape High Court says, “There were threats against synagogues. There was a legitimate anxiety. I don’t have a problem with that. My problem is that there have been too many stories of people being intimidated by the CSO in meetings. If you are a dissident voice you can be sure as hell that if you go to a meeting you are going to get accosted by the CSO people.”

When Hani Abu-haikal, a Palestinian from Hebron, visited South Africa in 2008 at the invitation of Jewish organisers, he stayed in a guest-house in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Glenhazel in Johannesburg. He came to South Africa to give talks on the Palestinian struggle and was waiting outside his guest-house for a friend to pick him up when a car stopped and a few security people approached him. They demanded that he show them his passport. “That’s one of the reasons I thought they showed up there especially for me. How did they know I was a foreigner and to ask me for my passport?”, asks Abu-haikal.

When Abu-haikal, who was on his way to a meeting with senior members of the Jewish community, expressed his astonishment and asked why he had to go through this procedure, the security people claimed that the neighbours called them because of his “middle-eastern” looks. But in the few minutes Abu-haikal was waiting outside he didn’t see anybody. He gave them his passport but they still insisted on going inside the guest-house with him to “make sure he was staying there.” They asked for the key to his room but before they had a chance to go there, Abu-haikal’s friend arrived and told them they had no right to do that. So they gave him his passport back and left. A few months later, members of the Jewish Board of Deputies visited the West Bank. While there they met with Abu-haikal and apologised for the incident.

The security men Abu-haikal met were carrying guns and wore black clothes but they didn’t carry name tags or company badges. They identified themselves as GAP, a security company for Glenhazel residents that shares their control room with CSO, but were alleged by others to be CSO.

According to the Private Security Industry Regulation Act (Act No. 56 of 2001), a security officer must wear a uniform and the uniform must contain two prominently attached badges displaying the security company’s name on each badge. The security officer’s name and PSIRA registration number must be displayed on the front part of the uniform. However, Hani Abuhaikal, Emily Craven and Zackie Achmat say that this was not the case for the men who accosted them. On the contrary, the security men in these cases were definitely not interested in identifying who they were.

The secretive image of the CSO creates fear and speculation among people. For example, says a member of the Jewish community, CSO’s refusal to talk about their well known trips to Israel was the source of rumours that they were trained by Israel’s secret agencies. Meanwhile, according to him, they were getting basic training from a private company from whom anyone can purchase a security course.

Red alert all the time

CSO’s approach has caused some members of the Jewish community to cut ties with the organisation. The rabbi for the Sephardic Synagogue in Sea Point, Cape Town, Ruben Suiza, explains that he chose to replace the CSO with a private security company mainly because they didn’t act in accordance with the guidelines of the rabbinical court derived from the Halakhah (set of religious laws for Jews). “We gave them orders. If it’s green, that’s the process, if it's yellow, that’s the process, if it's red, that’s the process. So first they said, ‘It is red all the time and that’s why you rabbis shouldn’t tell us what to do. We decide.’” As the rabbi of the Sephardic community, Suiza is also present in regular meetings with the police. “The police tell us there’s no threat to the Jewish community. I know there is no immediate threat here so why are you telling me it is red?”

But the CSO activity is not limited to synagogues, schools and Jewish community events. In February 2011, Open Shuhada Street (an organisation campaigning for Palestinian rights) organised a demonstration outside St George's Cathedral in Cape Town. A counter protest took place near them. Zackie Achmat noticed two men in the crowd, who he identified as CSO, carrying firearms. “I went up to them and said why are you carrying guns in a demonstration? It is unlawful and you are coming to intimidate us.”

CSO members often carry firearms while on duty. People who work in the private security industry have to use firearms that are registered and licensed under the business only. A security company has to register all its weapons with the police firearms department and they can only carry firearms lawfully provided by their employer.

Before CSO registered its officers, it had no legal basis to control access to synagogues and other facilities, or to question and search people trying to enter these facilities. Doing so while armed appears to be an additional violation of the law. It is equivalent to private citizens, without any legal approval, arming themselves and presuming to have the authority to police people.

Even upon registration they didn’t manage their firearms lawfully. According to PSIRA, there are no records for firearms applications for the Johannesburg branch. The Cape Town branch only received its firearms license one month ago, on 12 June. An earlier application for CSO to carry firearms was rejected by the police. Even after firearms for a security company are registered, the individual security officers need credentials showing that they have been trained to use them.

CSO is registered under PSIRA’s in-house category. Companies in this category are subject to the same regulations as a standard security company but in practice they are likely to be less closely monitored. The in-house category is usually used by a business, like a supermarket, that wishes to hire security officers and register them under its name instead of hiring the services of an external security company. At best, the CSO registration pushes the limits of the definition of the in-house category. The PSIRA act says that in-house employers, “may only use, permit or direct an employee to protect or safeguard merely his or her own property or other properties, or persons or property on the premises under his control …” CSO’s registration does not say which properties it is protecting.

So who is CSO safeguarding? All Jews? Perhaps not.

When Dustin, a black man, started the process of becoming a Jew he attended a small synagogue that had no security and would only operate on sabbath mornings. He attended regularly for a year and became a part of the community before he decided that it was time to start praying on sabbath evenings as well. In February when he went for the first time to a new synagogue, he was met by security at the entrance. He says they were from CSO. “They looked at me weird and said, ‘We won’t let you in here. This place is out of bounds for people like you,’” recalls Dustin. He tried a different synagogue guarded by a private security company but they wouldn’t let him in either, following instructions from their supervisor at the synagogue. Only after a few weeks was Dustin able to gain access to that synagogue after he came with a known member of the community.

“I’ve heard far too many reports that if you’re a Muslim or somebody who looks like a Muslim or a black person that you’ll be subjected to--what I suppose the standard term will be--racial profiling,” says Judge Davis, who also served in the past as the chairman of the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies. “[CSO members are] basically indoctrinated into a particular world-view … So you profile the good Jew as opposed to the terrible Jew, to the half bad Jew and to Muslims and blacks … ”

The PSIRA act also raises a question that this article couldn’t answer: who directs the CSO’s activities? It is clear who directs the guards who are hired by, say, a supermarket chain, which is registered under the in-house definition. But who oversees the CSO?

“We do not control or dictate to the CSO,” says Reeva Forman, an official with the Jewish Board of Deputies. According to Forman, the CSO is an independent body and in her view it is doing a very good job. “I haven’t heard major complaints about them,” says Forman. “That doesn’t mean there weren’t any but I think that in their [type of] job, especially [for] the ones who do it all the time, they can get a bit abrupt and a person can get a bit offended but we must remember that they are doing it to protect us.” When asked if she thinks there are any dangers for Jews in South Africa Forman said, “No, I’m very proud that South Africa, that is very anti-Israel, [has] one of the lowest anti-Semitic [rates] in the world. I would say dangers for the Jewish people are the same as for all people. It is the crime and violence.”

“The thing was set up in the first place because people were paranoid and it kept going because the only way you can keep it going is to continue to stoke the paranoia,” explains Steven Friedman, a well-known academic and newspaper columnist. “The fact is that the number of violent acts against Jewish people in South Africa because they are Jewish over the last twenty years is zero, literally zero. There hasn’t been one. So how do you keep a massive security facility going which actually isn’t particularly protecting people against anything?”

The CSO apparatus is indeed large according to active members of the Cape Town Jewish community. For example, a brand new building that is being built at Herzlia, a Jewish school, includes facilities for the organisation. A CSO control room inside Highlands House, a home for the Jewish elderly, will apparently be moved to Herzlia once the new building is complete. The sources who provided this information asked to remain anonymous because of their positions in the community. They were concerned about the large amount of money being spent on CSO that comes mainly from the Jewish community through donations to the United Communal Fund (UCF), which has to support many causes including a home for disabled people. They were even more worried that CSO has located its facilities near the community’s most vulnerable groups.

“The way they act puts the community in danger,” said one source. He continued, “The presence of CSO in my kids’ school puts them at higher risk instead of protecting them. I’m a proud member of the Jewish-Zionist community but the CSO has to change its ways. It should start with becoming open and transparent. Then they should stop exercising more power and authority than their expertise allows and what is actually needed.”

“Same as gangs”

When sitting in the front row at the Israeli Independence Day concert, Emily Craven and her friend, waiting for their cue, had a moment of doubt. The event was at its peak. Emotions were high. Some of their friends had already been taken away. Standing up on a stage with “Israeli apartheid stinks” T-shirts and throwing stink bombs is certainly asking for trouble and they knew it.

“You would expect a person in the audience to take a swing at you. You would expect the security to dump you at the doorstep pretty quickly and I suspect that if they would have dumped us in the car park and closed the door behind us I probably wouldn’t be pressing charges because I feel like these are the sorts of risks that you are taking when you do something like this,” says Craven. “But what happened in the garage was something more. It was a kind of extrajudicial punishment. A group of young men who clearly think that they are not only above the law but they are able to mete out the law, that they don’t have to follow procedure, that it’s ok for them to cable tie people, push their heads into floors and try interrogate them … I felt like here’s a group of men who would probably consider themselves completely different from those men who commit violence with impunity, from gangs, but were actually doing the same thing. And that’s why I felt it was important to press the charges.”

CSO responds

In an emailed response to a list of questions for this article, CSO representative Brad Gelbart wrote:

The CSO is an independent, autonomous and national organisation with separate regional entities. It is registered with CIPRO as a company, and with PSIRA as a security company. As such, we endeavour to comply with all their regulations and we are governed by the laws of the country.

The aim of the CSO is to protect Jewish life and the Jewish way of life, monitor threats of anti-Semitism and terrorism, and work with all relevant organisations.

With regard to your interest in Yom Haatzmaut, attached is an article by Rebecca Davis written for Daily Maverick, on events that transpired (http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-04-19-israel-vs-palestine-sa-style/). No new facts have surfaced.

You raise a number of incidences concerning the CSO that have surfaced in the past. We are unaware of any formal actions or claims against us. Should these individuals come forward with a substantiated complaint, we will follow-up with them directly.