Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein has been accused of hardening attitudes in the Jewish community with his vociferous and creative defence of Israel, writes Bobby Jordan. The chief rabbi himself sees it as his duty to defend the country
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein talks in symphonies. If his back were turned he could be a conductor: hands leaping out sideways, head bobbing away like a maestro.
But this is not a concert hall and today there is no orchestra; Goldstein is expounding on the Arab-Israeli conflict, throwing his hands up, waving them around.
Even with hands expostulating, it seems Goldstein does not have enough signals to conduct the complex debate in his head. There is something frantic about the way his fingers mulch the air between us, then return, one hand at a time, to rest on the tip of his grey-tipped beard.
These are trying times for South Africa’s chief rabbi.
More than any other national religious leader, Goldstein must straddle an uncomfortable divide within his community and without, in this case between opposing views on the Middle East.
It is a divide that has become the address for a host of fundamental issues regarding human conduct: right versus wrong, David versus Goliath, tyranny versus democracy — familiar contests for many South Africans.
It is testament to the unfortunate inheritance of his office that Goldstein must remind me there is more to being the chief rabbi than mediating the Zionist debate.
“We should be careful that the Jewish community and my office don’ t become a one-issue thing,” Goldstein says.
The rabbi is right; there are plenty of other issues to talk about — something that is, for him at least, a talking point in itself: why do people like to talk about the Jews?
“When there’s a disproportionate focus on what Jews are doing, it touches on a form of anti-Semitism,” says Goldstein, adding that the problem stems largely from people conflating Zionism with Judaism, when criticism of Israel morphs dangerously into negative sentiment towards Jews.
By way of example, Goldstein points to recent anti-Semitic comments made by deputy foreign affairs minister Fatima Hajaig, who recently told a pro-Palestinian rally in Lenasia, Johannesburg, that “Jews control America”.
Says Goldstein: “What (Hajaig) shows is how the anti-Israel sentiment switches quickly into anti-Jewish sentiment — in practical terms the one switches into the other, they are two sides of the same coin.
“When the debate around the Middle East lurches towards demonisation and disproportionality. .. when that criticism becomes disproportionate, it lurches into anti-Semitism. ”
Some would say the chief rabbi’s public utterances have not helped dispel this conflation of Israel with Judaism. Many within his community label him a hardline orthodox conservative, a man who justifies any action by Israel as God’s will.
Goldstein says such criticism is unjustified: “I just do what I believe to be right. If and when the backlash comes, then it comes.
“What we need to do is create an atmosphere of tolerance in the country.
“There’s almost a sense that certain views on certain things are not acceptable. I can explain the way I see the Arab-Israeli conflict, but there are voices in South African society that say, hey, that’s not a legitimate position.
“They say, not only do I disagree with you, w hat you are saying is immoral and must be silenced. .. and you have no right to say it.
“ I have no problem with vehement disagreement, but every voice has to be heard,” Goldstein says.
The rabbi is also quick to counter talk that the Jewish community is less than optimistic about South Africa’s future — and that the Jews are frontrunners in a middle-class exodus from the new South Africa.
On the contrary, Goldstein says, the vast majority of Jews are committed to nation-building in whatever way they can.
“I think the Jewish community has always been very engaged with South Africa and with solving issues at any societal level. I’m proud of the contribution my community is making,” he says.
His view is shared by many influential religious and business leaders, who point to the chief rabbi’s energetic support for social-development projects. Goldstein’s public-speaking schedule is legendary, his performance heartfelt and polished.
Virtually single-handed, he has launched the Community Active Patrol , a crime-fighting initiative in Johannesburg that is said to have reduced contact crime by 80% in some areas.
Goldstein denies Jews are emigrating in droves, and says the community punches way above its weight in terms of nation-building: “One of the things I’ve found most surprising has been the sheer scale and number of outreach organisations driven by the Jewish community — it’s really on an incredible scale.
“And then there are all the contributions to the building of the new South Africa, whether it’s economics, law, medicine, media or politics.”
Political morality aside, Goldstein wears a kind of down-to-earth humanity that has warmed the heart of luminaries such as former president Nelson Mandela, who insisted on Goldstein to sanctify his marriage to Graça Machel at a private function prior to the formal ceremony.
He has earned praise for his rousing speeches, including his eulogy at the funeral of his predecessor, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, and at the memorial service held recently for political icon Helen Suzman.
His own inauguration five years ago at a mere 32 years of age — the youngest chief rabbi South Africa has known by at least 20 years — was addressed by then president Thabo Mbeki, under whose watch Goldstein joined the National Religious Leaders Forum.
There is something befitting the times in the rabbi’s blend of wry wit, his easy-going manner, and that endearing rabbinical habit of dropping biblical references about burning bushes and Moses on top of the mountain; there is also something vaguely anachronistic about it.
His bookish air is unsurprising, considering his schooling in middle-class Pretoria, followed by seven years of law school and simultaneous Talmudic studies.
He describes his father, High Court Judge Ezra Goldstein, as a stickler for “bonds of loyalty and commitment and doing the right thing”.
It is both ironic and probably hurtful, therefore, that Goldstein’s critics dismiss him as a loyalist to a regime doing a grievously wrong thing; it is a tag that flaps uncomfortably on a man who considers himself a do-gooder rather than an apologist for a bullying military power.
But it is precisely his public pronouncements in prominent newspaper columns that have , at least according to his critics, defined his rabbinical tenure — at the expense of his charity and development work.
Consider his comments which appeared recently in the Sunday Times: “Forced into war, Israel has conducted itself in a manner which has no precedent in human history.
“It has provided humanitarian aid, medical treatment and basic services to the people of Gaza and has distributed more than 800000 leaflets urging civilians living in targeted areas to evacuate.
“It even sends out mass SMSes to people living in areas about to be bombed.”
Not the kind of pacifist comment one would normally associate with prominent religious leaders.
Where others might speak out against bombing per se, or reiterate the need for a peaceful solution — Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously risked his life to stop “comrades” from necklacing a township askari — Goldstein is more likely to decide to get a tongue piercing than criticise Israel.
By his own admission Goldstein is perhaps more involved in the conflict than he would choose to be; his personal beliefs are very much part of his Middle East equation.
“When you’re sitting on one side it’s always hard to be objective,” he says, punctuating the point with his index finger.
His stance has earned him the wrath of a section of his own Jewish community, including prominent academics and politicians such as former government minister Ronnie Kasrils and Professor Steven Friedman, who have distanced themselves from Israel’s strong-arm tactics in Palestine.
The rabbi has been too quick, his critics say, to condone Israel’s actions.
Says Friedman, who is research associate at the Institute for Democracy in SA and visiting professor of politics and international relations at Rhodes University: “(Goldstein’s) main function in life is not to interpret Jewish tradition and religious teachings to the world — his job is to look after the interests of the Jewish state.
“People like him have been responsible for radically changing this community. It has never been particularly tolerant or open, but the kind of absolutely uncritical identification of the religion with a particular state in the Middle East is new — and he has been a major function in that.”
Goldstein sees things differently.
He says his vociferous pro-Israel stance is a defensive reaction to violent assault from those who would obliterate the Jewish state: he is shielding the weakling, in other words, from the school yard bully.
In Goldstein’s view he is the messenger of truth, not the assassin — and the message of Israel is one of human rights and democracy in a land surrounded by heartless tyranny.
“Israel does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties while Hamas does everything in its power to maximise them,” he wrote in the Sunday Times.
Critics say South Africans have heard these kinds of glib polarities before — during apartheid.
But while the rabbi’s stance on Israel continues to stir up emotions, there is no such controversy around his unwavering support for a democratic South Africa.
Goldstein remains one of this country’s biggest fans, and tempers criticism of policies on crime and corruption with a fervent belief in South Africa’s potential.
His commitment has earned the praise of high-fliers in the Jewish community, such as Discovery Health CEO Adrian Gore: “I’m incredibly impressed with him. He comes across with a certain worldliness quite unusual for a religious leader.
“I also find him incredibly humble. He doesn’t come across as a hierarchical character who is here to tell you what to do,” says Gore.
Perhaps this is because Goldstein hasn’t quite finished figuring it out.
Or perhaps, being a true South African, he has imbibed the painful lesson of our transition: the moral high ground is never a promised land for a chosen few.