Yasher Koah, South African Jewry

The "machers" did not speak for the community on the Goldstone bar mitzva.

By LARRY DERFNER
May 5, 2010 22:36
4 minute read.
Larry Derfner

larry derfner 58. (photo credit: d)

 
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Here's some little-known, encouraging news from the Diaspora: The South African Jewish community was overwhelmingly opposed to the threatened protests outside the bar mitzva of  Richard Goldstone’s grandson. The community’s big machers and rabbis, who are now pretending they meant no harm, were acting only in their own name and that of an extremist minority.

This picture emerges from the recent letters, editorials and stories in the South African Jewish Report, the widely-circulated national Jewish paper. In the past two weekly issues, the letters from local Jews ran 15-4 against the would-be protests. (The bar mitzva went off without incident in Johannesburg last Saturday. Goldstone, who now lives in Washington DC, had cancelled plans to attend “in the interest of my grandson” after the protests were announced, but the ensuing international coverage led the macherdom to back down, enabling him to take part after all. The demonstration had been planned by Avrom Krengel, head of the South African Zionist Federation, supported by his brother Zev, head of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and “koshered” by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.)

Most of the letters against the protest came from people making it clear that they didn’t necessarily agree with Goldstone’s UN report. Many emphatically didn’t like the report, or him for writing it.

“Goldstone certainly does not have my affection, but this ugly display of punishing his grandson and family is totally beyond the pale,” wrote a man from Cape Town. A man from Johannesburg wrote that while he disapproved of Goldstone’s handling of the war investigation, he was distressed that “our community has been hijacked by right-wingers whose intolerance of others’ thoughts and beliefs goes against the grain of Jewish ethos, and of the liberal views of past Jewish leaders and chief rabbis.”

The South African Jewish Report, while “hold[ing] no brief for Goldstone,” in the words of its editorial, went on to say: “South African Jewry will move beyond this distressing saga of the past three weeks. It is strong and vibrant. A pity, though, that it took worldwide coverage and condemnation of the threats of protest outside the shul – and the ‘deal’ made with the family that Goldstone wouldn’t attend – to bring home the mistake that had been made.”

(It was the Jewish Report, a privately-owned paper that isn’t controlled by any official Jewish body, which broke the story about the planned protests. It covered the fast-growing controversy intensively and evenhandedly. This took some courage. “Some rabbis are seething and talking about loshan hora on the part of the paper,” the Report noted, using the biblical term for slander.)

IN ANSWER to my questions, Editor Geoff Sifrin e-mailed me that the paper received a “flood” of letters along the same lines as those published. “Most felt that targeting the Goldstone Report was legitimate and necessary, but targeting the man in this way – and making his grandson take the flak at his bar mitzva – was unacceptable,” wrote Sifrin.


A minority of letter-writers agreed with a man from George, who wrote: “Goldstone must face the consequences of his behavior – and it is he, not us, who has created the unfortunate circumstances around his grandson’s bar mitzva.” But there was also one letter from a Johannesburg man that read: “Goldstone and his team did their best under difficult circumstances to give as accurate a picture as possible of the situation in Gaza at the time... I was deeply wounded to read what appears to have been done to fellow human beings by fellow Jews.”

It would be great if that were the attitude of most Jews in South Africa, the rest of the Diaspora and, of course, Israel. But I can’t say it’s a vile thing to be angry at Goldstone and his report (even if you haven’t read it), or to bridle at any criticism of Operation Cast Lead. I think it’s awfully closed-minded and shows a kind of moral myopia. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of. But I can’t say that the common, knee-jerk Jewish contempt for Goldstone and his report sinks to the level of being vile.

But threatening to protest outside his grandson’s bar mitzva, then pretending you’re not stopping him from attending or, God forbid, hurting the bar mitzva boy and his family, no, you’re just exercising your democratic right to protest – that’s vile.

And I think everyone assumed that South African Jewry at large – probably the most Zionist community in the world – was behind this move by the big machers, or at least didn’t mind it. But they did. And many of them came out publicly against it, sending a torrent of letters to the national Jewish newspaper, which acted like a newspaper, not a propaganda organ.

And while I wish the Jewish Report and the majority of letter-writers weren’t so quick to put down the Goldstone Report, I’d also say their opposition to it makes their strong, at times fierce, support for his right to enjoy the bar mitzva that much more decent. Moreover, being as outspoken as they were against the mean-spiritedness of the rich, powerful leaders of their community took guts.

The South Africans have just written a proud chapter in 21st century Jewish history. In these fearful, often chilling, times, they’re an example.

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