South African cleric tries unorthodox method to ease tensions with Israel

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.

Photo credit: Facebook | Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

South Africa's chief rabbi recently waded into the deepening diplomatic rift between his country and Israel, which has been simmering for the past four months since the outbreak of war in Gaza.

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein sought to distance greater South Africa from the ruling African National Congress (ANC)'s stance on Gaza.

He sharply criticised Pretoria for leading international support for Palestine, including the militant Hamas group that controls Gaza, in its struggle against the Jewish state.

He has been at odds with his country since South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice for alleged genocide by Israeli forces in Gaza.

"I tried to tell the government and people of Israel (during my recent trip there) that the bond between the Jews of South Africa and Israel can never be broken, no matter what the ANC does."

Rabbi Goldstein outlined the long history and close ties between his community and the Jewish homeland.

He criticised the ANC for its role in leading the condemnation of Israel's military response to Hamas attacks last October.

Fighting between Israel and Hamas has since claimed at least 31,000 lives, mostly women and children, according to Gaza health officials. The Israeli military, however, says that around 9,000 Hamas fighters have been killed.

As the fighting continues, diplomatic relations between Israel and Pretoria have plummeted to a new low. As a result of South Africa's official position on the conflict, diplomacy between Israel and Pretoria is now virtually non-existent.

Rabbi Goldstein says he felt he had to step into the resulting void in the interests of maintaining the long-standing ties between the Jewish communities of South Africa and Israel.

A relatively respected figure both locally and internationally, Goldstein has been Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa since 2005. He is the first indigenous rabbi to hold the position and the youngest to do so, being 32 years old at the time of his appointment.

"As Chief Rabbi of South Africa, I recently undertook a diplomatic mission to Israel amidst hostility from the South African government and a breakdown in communication between the two countries," he said in a social media post last week.

He met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and other senior government officials, where he assured them of the support of "the Jewish community and millions of non-Jews in South Africa".

"The purpose of my trip was to establish a strong parallel diplomatic channel between the people of South Africa and the Jewish state," he added.

That parallel channel, it seems, is far from the government and its political leaders.

"I told them that the African National Congress government does not speak on our behalf and that we stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel in its struggle against the forces of evil.

"When I met with President Herzog, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz and Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli, I assured them that despite the ANC government's morally repugnant support for Hamas and Iran, most South Africans have distanced themselves from the ANC's position.

South African lawyers told the ICJ judges that the Jewish state's response to the surprise attack by Hamas militants on 7 October was 'genocidal'. Hamas launched the attack, killing some 695 Israeli civilians, including 36 children, and 373 Israeli security forces. Israel's response initially claimed the lives of 1,000 Hamas fighters, according to Israeli officials.

Hamas militants also captured 253 Israelis, foreigners and soldiers in the 7 October attack and abducted them to Gaza, according to the Israeli government.

At least 20 of these hostages have reportedly died since then, while 78 have been released, mainly through negotiations with third countries.

In response, Israel recalled its ambassador to Pretoria after South Africa downgraded its relations with Israel.

Israel's national airline, El Al, also announced at the end of January that direct flights between Johannesburg and Tel Aviv would be 'temporarily' suspended from the end of March.

By contrast, MPs from South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party - and ANC officials in general - have taken to wearing keffiyeh scarves, a symbol of Palestinian resistance and independence, at all public events.

US President Joe Biden said last week that Israel's response had been "over the top".

In public remarks on 26 February, Biden indicated that he expected a ceasefire to be called by next Monday.

"Millions of South African Christians pray for and support Israel," the Chief Rabbi said.

"Israel has many allies and friends in South Africa who are ashamed of their government's support for terrorist regimes and despots. Moreover, the ANC's support has fallen to 40 per cent and is still falling.

"The current foreign policy of the ANC government, which associates our country with the world's worst terrorist states and tyrants, is not in the interests of the South African people," said the Chief Rabbi.

"South Africa has much to gain from Israel's innovation, people, technology and economy," he added.

"Our bond with Israel, forged in exile and sanctified by divine promise, will never be broken," Rabbi Goldstein concluded.

The ANC has not officially responded to the Chief Rabbi's 'mission' or his comments.

The ruling party claims that as a fellow liberation movement it is morally obliged to oppose Israel's treatment of the Palestinian people in general and its 'genocidal' response to Hamas's 7 October attacks in particular.