Whatever the truth of the backward and forward between Judge Richard Goldstone and the Sandton Shul is, the heated words that have made it into the press speak of a major blowup behind the scenes. True to form, the community, in the guise of the Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, has made a belated attempt to brush it all over and play the nice guys. But the truth is obvious to anyone reading between the lines, and even more so if you have (as I have) grown up inside the South African Jewish community. The South African Jews are once again rallying to the support of one of the world’s remaining apartheid states, now implicated in committing war crimes by the United Nations.

This tunnel-visioned and mindless support of Israel regardless of its behaviour is indicative of a dangerous fanaticism at the heart of this community. This peculiar dualism is a common characteristic of many religious observers in modern times, caught as they are between their imperilled, outdated traditions and the tidal waves of science and reason that have battered all but their most quaint religious notions to dust. However there is something particular to the tone of the Jewish voice that sets it apart from the rest. These kinds of scandals help us to understand why.

To take a step back, the furore centres on a UN report which Goldstone delivered in his role as the head of a UN inquiry into the Israeli operations in Gaza in late 2008/early 2009. The conclusion the judge came to in January this year was that both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, committed war crimes and that the Israelis, specifically, had intentionally targeted civilians during these operations.

Fast forward to this month when, so the story went, the Sandton Shul sought to bar Goldstone from attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah as a expression of their distaste for his conclusions on Israel. Chief Rabbi Goldstein was quick to point out that this was false, and that Goldstone was welcome to attend on the basis that, as a matter of principle, synagogues are open to all (Jews, one presumes).

However, this is not where the story ends. In the subtext of the public statements from both the shul and other representatives is the idea that Goldstone’s presence will draw a large crowd of Zionist protestors, and that this will mar the occasion. This is the equivalent of saying “well dear, of course you can have that extra hamantaschen! But don’t come crying to me when you get fat”.

The problem here is not that the officials are running around trying to look like the most open and tolerant faith since Rabbi Jesus tried to bless the meek, but that this should draw a crowd of hecklers in the first place. What, pray tell, are the “Zionists” protesting?

And here is the rub: the bulk of South African Jews seem unable to accept any criticism of Israel, in whatever form, from anyone. The sting, one imagines, is all that more intense in that it’s flowing from the pen of a South African Jew. In a much, much tinier way I have experienced the same kind of reaction to an earlier blog post of mine about Judaism in South Africa. The feedback I received more than any other was unrelated to my content but merely that criticism of Jews should not be made publically by a Jew.

My position on religion of all kinds is well-known — and I have no part in my birth religion, or any other for that matter. But even if I were an ardent participant in this religion, why would I be so attached to the lily-white reputation that Israel and its supporters around the world seek to further? Even Americans, the world’s greatest patriots, engage in passionate criticism of their government when appropriate. In general, wrongdoing by the US military is condemned and doesn’t result in judges being harangued by a mob simply for daring to doubt the goodness of Uncle Sam.

But this is precisely what Jews in South Africa — and elsewhere — do the moment Israel comes under fire for anything. This kind of loyalty is not only misplaced but is simply a reflex. When Jews hear Israel they hear Jews, and when they hear Jews being criticised there is an almost primal fire that ignites and the post-rationalisations start. The presumption of innocence is not “until proven guilty” but absolute.

And unlike in Israel itself, it seems to make no difference if the current government is right- or left-leaning. The idea of Israel is merged with all its actions and granted wholesale amnesty in the minds of this community. They can do no wrong.

In fact, what an eminent judge — and, for that matter, an eminent Jew — is saying in no uncertain terms is there is something here to be ashamed of. The Israeli army, endorsed by the government of Israel, committed the kinds of atrocities Jews are quick to attach phrases like “never again” to when it comes to their own wellbeing. The brutality in the way the Palestinian civilians were treated during the Gaza operations, and, let’s face it, are treated on an ongoing basis, is something supporters of Israel should be most horrified by. If they love this little nation in the desert they should hate those who behave as criminals in its name.

Start this debate with a Zionist — and for Zionist you can read a large part of the South African mainstream Jewish community — and you will be told that the Palestinians started it, and that Israel is just trying to defend itself. This is the same tired defence that’s trotted out again and again. In this instance — and one can only presume the voraciousness of the response is a reflection of this — this is a story that can’t fly. The criticism is not being made by Hamas or Syria. And it’s not an argument about whether Israel has a right to defend itself. It is being made by a South African Jew in the name of the United Nations, and the charge is one of using excessive and illegal force against unarmed innocents.

Quite apart from whether any religion has a place in the modern world, and whether it is a good enough reason to place ourselves apart from others, detest inter-marriage and go to war, this kind of event provides the opportunity for people who declare themselves a group based on religion to show us what that religion is made of. If it can be used in any way to excuse abuses, and the ranks close in front of those who deserve no defence, then these people and these communities must be treated with the contempt they deserve.

I am quite certain that Richard Goldstone would not concur with many of the views I have expressed here, that he would take a more reasonable line and — for all I know — may be a practising Jew himself. All the worse for the Zionist bigots if he is. So I am not writing here in his defence, but rather focusing attention on the real issue: that there is a community of people in our country, in this time, as we grapple with the ghosts of our own racist, separatist past, who thoughtlessly defend a nation whose human rights record lies in shreds, the extent of that shredding highlighted and documented by one of their own. They are out of step with even the least noble sentiments of our post-apartheid leadership.

I say again: something to be ashamed of.


  • Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders of VWV Interactive, for many years the premier creative web business in the country, winning numerous Loeries and various international awards. In 2001, Jarred co-founded Cambrient, which has, in its six-year history, built the leading local content management system and serviced an impressive list of corporate customers. Cambrient Contentsuite is also the engine behind Moneyweb.


Jarred Cinman

Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders...

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