Doron Isaacs: The Goldstone Bar Mitzvah saga from beginning to end (at least so far)

The article by Doron Isaacs below is the best exposition of the Goldstone Barmitzvah saga. For the links and cartoon cited in the article visit the Open Shuhada Street Webiste.

I reiterate my view that Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is a neo-conservative who has betrayed the tolerant tradition of former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and I have reason to believe that Goldstein played a less than honest role in the ban on Judge Goldstone. Decency won over indecency in the Jewish community despite the Chief Rabbi’s failure to provide moral leadership.

Zackie Achmat

The Goldstone Bar Mitzvah saga from beginning to end (at least so far) — Doron Isaacs

On the night of Wednesday 14 April 2010 a major news story broke in wide circulation. The SA Jewish Report, released online, carried on page 3 the story that Justice Richard Goldstone, primary author of the Report that followed the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, had been “effectively barred” from attending his grandson’s bar mitzvah.

The original article stated:

Following negotiations between the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol in Sandton, where the event is due to take place, an agreement has been reached with the family. As a result, Justice Goldstone will not be attending the synagogue service.

It quoted South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) chairperson Avrom Krengel as saying that the

SAZF had “interacted” on the matter with the chief rabbi, the Beth Din and others, his organisation was “coming across most forcefully because we represent Israel”.

The same article was republished, almost immediately, by the London Jewish Chronicle (JC) and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), and on the blog of well-known South African activist Zackie Achmat. Achmat included a brief preceding comment in which he said the following in reference to South African Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein:

The Chief Rabbi a neo-conservative who has betrayed the tolerant tradition of the late former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris has blessed this travesty.

Open Shuhada Street (OSS), a South African-based campaign for Palestinian and Israeli human rights, released an early statement condemning the barring of Goldstone from his grandson’s barmitzvah, which was circulated to major news agencies.

Pretty soon major news outlets had picked up the story, including the New York Times, Al Jazeera and South Africa’s Business Day newspaper, amongst many others.

At this point, approximately 24 hours into the saga, various statements started to emerge from the official bodies of South Africa’s organised Jewish community. Almost every initial statement was either dishonest, disingenuous, or both.

The SAZF issued a statement through its Western Cape office, known as the Western Province Zionist Council. The statement was mildly bizarre and grossly dishonest. It attempted to portray the SAZF as the peacemaker, whereas in fact, as later admitted by SAZF chairperson Avrom Krengel, the SAZF was the source of the threats (more below).
However, initially, at least, Avrom Krengel and the national office of the SAZF pursued a similarly disingenuous line, saying, according to the Jerusalem Post, that “the SAZF states unequivocally that at no time was there any suggestion raised by any party that judge Goldstone should be ‘barred’ or ‘banned’ from entering the synagogue”. This might have been technically true, but hardly reconcilable with the open threats of protest which Krengel would later be more brazen about admitting.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBOD) National Chairperson, Zev Krengel, brother of Avrom, also issued a statement of highly questionable veracity. It stated: “Certain senior Jewish communal and religious leaders were certainly involved in the discussions around the topic, but in no way did they attempt to dictate to or otherwise pressurize the family into arriving at their decision.” This is hard to believe given that his own brother had, at the least, actively driven the threats of protest outside the Sandton Shul.

The Chief Rabbi issued a statement denying he had played a role in the barring, saying that at the time he had said that “the barmitzvah of Judge Goldstone’s grandson should go ahead without interference and that Judge Goldstone himself should be allowed to attend”. In the statement the Chief Rabbi also declared his intention to sue Achmat for defamation. This was then widely reported. His later quiet retraction of this threat suggests that his role in the affair was far from kosher (more on that below).
Despite the flaws in these statements, they all pointed towards a retreat which was already in progress. Rather than admitting and retracting the threats and lack of hospitality, the statements generally downplayed such problems, as if it was all just a storm in a tea-cup. But this amounted to a tacit admission that the ‘effective barring’ could not be sustained.

In stark contrast to these statements, a principled and forthright e-mail was sent by Brian Goldberg, Chairperson of the United Herzlia Schools, Cape Town’s Jewish school system, to the parent body in which he stated:

[I]t would have been more appropriate for the SA Zionist Federation and the Synagogue to have bent over backwards to accommodate The Judge and his family, and ensured that there was not even a suggestion of protest.

This was but one example of the unease within the Jewish community, quickly growing to outrage – not with Goldstone this time, but with the Jewish leaders – which began to bubble over and vent itself in e-mails, text messages, and letters to newspapers. This dissatisfaction was of course not uniform, but nevertheless went far beyond traditional dissenting voices deep into the mainstream of the communal base.

At this point, approximately 48 hours into the saga, on 16 April, a second round of statements added to the pressure on Jewish communal leaders:

Open Shuhada Street (OSS) issued a second, detailed statement, which explained the dishonesty of the SAZF media spin and set the bar mitzvah incident against a background of incitement against Goldstone.

United States Congressman, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, himself a critic of the Goldstone Report, released a statement condemning the actions of Avrom Krengel and the SAZF.

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.

On Sunday 18 April, Zackie Achmat formally responded to the Chief Rabbi’s threat of legal action. Achmat said he found the Chief Rabbi’s explanation “altogether unsatisfactory and evasive”. He set out the facts to show how it was, on the Chief Rabbi’s own version, and on the evidence of the original, uncontested SA Jewish Report article, reasonable to conclude that the Chief Rabbi had in fact blessed the outcome. Further, he explained the Chief Rabbi’s involvement with the SAZF, the source of the protest threats.

It was at this point, on 19 April, when most other communal bodies seemed to be in full retreat that SAZF 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.

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.

Another section of the Jewish community — small, and often marginalised — had meanwhile spoken out against the exclusion of Goldstone. The SA Union of Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ), and its umbrella body the World Union, issued a strongly worded statement on 19 April stating plainly:

One can only concur that the pressure placed upon Mr Justice Goldstone to disappear from his grandson’s barmitzvah and his family’s simcha is a disgrace. This “deal” labels the Jewish community as intolerant of difference, meddling in private family matters and careless of the reputation of Judaism as a religion whose founding ancestors were gifted at hospitality.

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.

Interestingly, although perhaps irrelevantly, in the midst of this, on 21 April 2009 the South African Government issued one of its most pointed and strong condemnations of the direction of Israeli policy in the West Bank. Referring to a revised order which gives the Israeli military authority very wide powers to expel and detain Palestinians lacking a proper permit, the South African Government called the new measures a “gross violation of an individual’s human rights … reminiscent of pass laws under apartheid South Africa”.

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.

At least one person has been unable to “desist from all public activities”. Professor Warren Goldstein, Chair of History at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, wrote an entertaining piece in the Huffington Post, about his increasing difficulty in sharing a name with South Africa’s Chief Rabbi. “I’m no longer amused at having to share the name of this fellow–in fact, I think he’s embarrassing…”

  1. #1 by cna training on April 28, 2010 - 7:26 am

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

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