South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein: I Know Apartheid Firsthand (INTERVIEW)
Rabbi Warren Goldstein grew up in South Africa. He is also a regular visitor to Israel. With those two experiences, he is quick to respond with historical context to critics who call Israel an “apartheid state.”
“When you use such a false analogy, you’re defaming the Jewish state and then offending the real victims of apartheid,” Goldstein tells JNS.org. “And I think as a South African who grew up under apartheid, albeit towards the waning years of apartheid, I know apartheid firsthand, I know Israel firsthand, and they couldn’t be further apart in the analogy.”
Goldstein, who has served as the Chief Rabbi of South Africa since 2005, will visit Los Angeles and San Diego from April 11-16, in part to promote his new book, The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, written with Rabbi Berel Wein.
Charles Jaffe, one of the founders of the San Diego-based Chai South Africa nonprofit —a “group of former South Africans living in the United States deeply concerned about the needs of the elderly, physically and mentally challenged, the mentally ill and ‘children in need’ living in residential homes in southern Africa,” according to its mission statement—helped arrange an April 15 talk by Goldstein at Congregation Adat Yeshurun of La Jolla, Calif. He says Goldstein “has an in-depth knowledge of the situation and the importance of the work in South Africa as far as Jewish souls are concerned, and that feeds straight into [the Chai South Africa] mission statement.”
“To have such a brilliant mind endorse us, and come and speak to our constituents and a broader constituency, is just an absolute honor for us,” Jaffe tells JNS.org.
In the following interview with JNS.org, Goldstein discusses the campaign to delegitimize Israel, the contemporary South African Jewish community, and what he hopes to accomplish on his U.S. trip.
JNS.org: Given the history of South Africa, what is your response to those who analogize Israel to an “apartheid state”?
Rabbi Goldstein: “It’s a modern-day blood libel in that it’s based on lies and it is defamation of the Jewish state and also–and here’s where the South African angle comes in, as well– it is desecrating the memory of the real victims of apartheid. Because if everything is apartheid, then nothing is apartheid.
“If there is an analogy, then I would say that Israel is like the ANC (African National Congress) of the Middle East, because what the South African experience proved is that you can’t make peace on your own. For all the years the ANC wanted to make peace, it couldn’t; it had to turn to the armed struggle because there was no credible negotiating partner on the other side, and so too [we see in] Israel. We all know that the greatest dream of any Israeli is peace; Israel wants the wars to end. But you can’t make peace on your own, you need to have someone on the other side who’s prepared to come and meet you halfway.”
JNS.org: What is the South African Jewish community’s strategy regarding the proposed placement of “Occupied Palestinian Territory” labels on goods originating in West Bank Jewish communities?
Rabbi Goldstein: “The community is fighting it on many levels—[including] political engagement with the government, to persuade them not to support this. Legal action has been launched, led by the Zionist Federation of South Africa,…challenging [the proposed legislation] on the procedural side of it, to say that it’s unconstitutional, that it hasn’t met the minimum standards of administrative justice. And so, there’s the political, there’s the legal, and then there’s also the media front, where we’ve got a media team here that’s very active in the South African media, putting out opinion articles, writing letters to the editor and challenging any kind of misinformation as it comes along.”
JNS.org: Do you see any lingering effects, in South Africa and elsewhere, from the controversial and now partially retracted 2009 report by South African judge Richard Goldstone that accused Israel of war crimes?
Rabbi Goldstein: “I think there’s no doubt that given the credibility of Judge Goldstone in the international community and in South Africa, his initial report did a lot of damage to Israel. At the time, I wrote an opinion article that was published in the press here in South Africa, in which I criticized his report on a legal basis, both from a substantive point of view as well as a procedural point of view.
“The issue really is challenging in the court of public opinion, so to speak, and so therefore I think his partial retraction went some way on that but can never really undo the damage that was done at the time. It’s all part of this ongoing international campaign which seeks to delegitimize Israel, and I think that this is really a cause which is important for every single Jew to get involved in. It’s something [about which] I personally have written many articles in defense of Israel, here in the South African press and overseas as well.
“Defending the justice of the course of the state of Israel [is a passion for me]—not to say that Israel doesn’t make mistakes–all human beings do. But by and large, it is a moral country, with an army that abides to standards of morality that no other army currently or in history has ever abided by.”
JNS.org: What are the goals of your U.S. trip in April?
Rabbi Goldstein: “Firstly, there is this global Jewish people, klal yisrael, and we’re all part of that, and I think that there need to be bonds and connections between Jewish communities around the world. That’s an important part of what this visit is about, about strengthening connections between South African Jews and American Jewish communities.
“A second aspect is, obviously there are a lot of South Africans who immigrated and live in America, and that’s always nice to reconnect with people who were a part of the South African Jewish community and still feel a sense of connection, a bond, and even a responsibility.
“And then also, the book which I just published, co-authored with Rabbi Berel Wein, The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, is a book which has, I believe, an important message for the Jewish world today. The American Jewish community, outside of Israel, is the major Jewish community of the world, so if this book has an important, relevant message for Jews today, I want to try and get that message out. The book is not about history or geography, it’s really about values for today, and I seek to articulate certain key values for the Jewish people today, such as the importance of derech eretz (appropriate behavior), and character, and decency, and ethics.”
JNS.org: How would you compare and contrast the South African Jewish community you grew up in with modern South African Jewry?
Rabbi Goldstein: “The biggest difference, I would say, is that now we live in a democracy and in a normal country. Growing up in apartheid South Africa was living in an abnormal country; there was no democracy, or very limited forms of democracy. As long as you were white, you could vote, and that impacted upon everybody. Now there’s a normal society there, it’s got problems. All societies and all countries have problems. South Africa has particularly serious challenges because it is rebuilding a country after decades of apartheid and centuries of colonialism, and those present serious challenges, and it’s a country with many different facets. It’s got a tremendously developed and powerful economy, and yet, side-by-side with that, there’s a lot of poverty as well.
“So the Jewish community in a certain sense is uniquely positioned, to contribute to the rebuilding of the society and to help with the humanitarian efforts, in helping to alleviate the suffering of many people. So it’s a very interesting and dynamic country, with serious challenges at the same time, and I think South African Jewish community’s numbers are now stable. For a number of years, there was a very strong outflow of Jews emigrating, and numbers have stabilized. The school numbers are in fact on the increase across all the Jewish day schools, and I think the community now understands its place within the broader society and has come to terms with the opportunities as well as the challenges.”
South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein will serve as Shabbat Scholar in Residence at Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills from April 12-13—contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-278-1911 for information. Goldstein will then hold a book launch for “The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis” at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles at 4 p.m. April 14—register at www.museumoftolerance.com/legacy. Finally, Goldstein will speak at Congregation Adat Yeshurun of La Jolla, Calif., at 6 p.m. April 15—contact email@example.com or 858-535-1196 for information.