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Goldstone bar mitzvah saga exposes moral decadence of Jewish leadership– and burgeoning universalism in the grassroots

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A great post at Open Shuhada Street does the tick-tock on the Goldstone bar mitzvah story. And absolutely nails the divided political culture of the Jewish community between neoconservative leaders and the burgeoning grassroots. I gather the author is Doron Isaacs. Boy the internet gets me excited.

Many South African Jews went to synagogue on Friday evening 16 April knowing that their rabbis would address the Goldstone barring. Their relatively coordinated message seems to have been two-fold: (1) Goldstone should not be barred from his grandson’s bar mitzvah, and according to the communal leadership might not actually have been, and (2) nobody should forget that he is a traitor to the Jewish people. A good example is the sermon given by Rabbi Yossi Goldman, President of the SA Rabbinical Association, at Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg. Rabbi Goldman said he would "defend [Goldstone’s] right as a Jew to come to shul". However he said that Goldstone "may not be counted to a minyan (the quorum of ten Jewish men required for certain prayers)" and indicated that he would possibly have denied Goldstone an Aliyah (the honour of being called to the Torah), explaining that this "one can forfeit such privilege by inappropriate behaviour". He also denounced Goldstone saying he had not only betrayed Israel and the Jewish people, but also his own grandmother.

…It was at this point, on 19 April, when most other communal bodies seemed to be in full retreat that SAZF [South African Zionist Federation] Chairperson Avrom Krengel made clear that his organisation would in fact protest if Goldstone decided to attend the bar mitzvah. This put to rest any lingering doubts that the situation was being misrepresented in the press.

[Activist Zackie] Achmat, still waiting for a lawyers letter from the Chief Rabbi, immediately issued the following short statement:

It is reported that the SAZF is still threatening to protest at the Sandton Shul if Justice Richard Goldstone changes his mind and dares to attend his grandson’s barmitzvah.

I call upon the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Dr Warren Goldstein to publicly denounce this fascist threat by the SAZF.

The Chief Rabbi did not denounce the SAZF threat, but it was reported soon thereafter he had withdrawn his threat to sue. 

Two days later, now a week into the crisis, on 21 April, the Chief Rabbi attempted to recover lost ground by writing an op-ed piece in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper in which he wrote of the “ancient and sacred principle: open synagogues”. He said Goldstone was welcome to attend the bar mitzvah, but reiterated his criticisms of Goldstone, who, he claimed, “has done so much wrong in the world.”

This was to backfire almost as badly as his threat of legal action against Achmat. 

The following day, as reported on the front page, Goldstone finally broke his silence through a letter to the Business Day, in response to the Chief Rabbi’s piece. In it he remarked that the Chief Rabbi’s “rhetoric about “open synagogues” simply does not coincide with how my family and I have been treated”. He went on to say: “I must state that at no time whatsoever has the chief rabbi reached out to my family.” And concluded by stating: “The questionable and unfortunate approach of the chief rabbi, in all the circumstances, makes it less, and not more, possible for me to do so.”

At this point a second wave of opinion pieces, blogs, speeches and letters appeared. A small selection would include Tony Karon’s piece in the Nation, Larry Derfner’s scorching article in the Jerusalem Post, Judge Albie Sachs’ talk at the Cape Town Press Club, Judge Dennis Davis’ further rebuke of the Chief Rabbi, and  Zapiro’s brilliant cartoon (top of this article) in the Mail & Guardian, an invitation to hold the bar mitzvah in California, and a letter signed by US Rabbis in support of Goldstone.

…Jewish leaders often claim to be concerned, above all else, with anti-semitism. The echoes of anti-semitism inherent in their targeting Goldstone, in a place of Jewish worship, for being a traitorous Jew, obviously eluded the mainstream Jewish leaders. Nor were they hindered by the damage to Judaism’s reputation caused by their actions. But the SAUPJ statement, picked up in various media, including the Citizen, Sowetan and Cape Times, was important in confirming for observers that the Jewish community is not monolythic in its intolerance. In fact, the groundswell of backlash against the actions of the SAZF, SAJBD, Chief Rabbi, Beth Din and Sandton Shul point to the underlying, and underestimated, tolerance of the majority of Jews.

A statement also emerged from the Cape Council of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, stating that it “has registered its deep regret that a religious milestone has been politicised and disagrees with the manner in which this matter has been handled.” Although this statement was reported on in the JTA on 20 April, it was only e-mailed out to the Jewish community on 23 April, indicating, perhaps some trepidation. This was the first, and it seems still only, public criticism by a major organ of the SA Jewish community of this affair. Albeit late and weak, it is nevertheless important. Generally however, there was no moral leadership offered by official Jewish leaders.

…On 24 April it was widely reported that the South African Jewish leaders had reached Goldstone, assured him that no protests would take place, and that on that basis he had declared his intention to attend the bar mitzvah. Such interest had been generated in the story that the news was carried by, amongst others, CNN, the New York Times, Haaretz, the Mail & Guardian, Eye-Witness News and further publicised by the World Jewish Congress

On publicising this, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies made the somewhat authoritarian-sounding request that “all parties immediately desist all public activities on this matter”. This is of course unlikely. 

As noted above various Jewish institutions seem to have conducted themselves disgracefully in colluding in an “agreement” that Goldstone would not attend his grandson’s bar mitzvah, and thereafter, when the story broke and an outcry ensued, they seem to have lied to the public. 

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Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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