Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images
South African Jews sound the alarm as government reaches out to Hamas
Pretoria’s stance “reprehensible,” Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein tells Jewish Insider, as government says Israel has no right to defend itself
South Africa’s Jewish community is on a collision course with the country’s government, following official expressions of solidarity with Hamas after the terrorist group massacred more than 1,400 people in Israel on Oct. 7.
Pretoria announced that it would recall all of its diplomats from Israel on Monday in protest of the war with Hamas and threatened to expel Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Eliav Belotsercovsky — a move that came after the government said Israel has no right to defend itself using military means. Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s international relations minister spoke on the phone last month with Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh and traveled to Tehran to meet with her Iranian counterpart, as well as President Ebrahim Raisi, in recent weeks.
Domestically, South Africa’s government has been lashing out at supporters of Israel, threatening the leadership of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the umbrella organization that represents the more than 50,000 members of the country’s Jewish community, for criticizing what it said in a recent statement was Pretoria’s “ill-considered, immoral and ultimately self-defeating stance.”
South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein gave a fiery address condemning the government at a pro-Israel rally the week after the Hamas attack. After Pandor’s diplomatic outreach to Iran and Hamas, Goldstein changed the Prayer for the Republic of South Africa — said regularly at congregations across the country — from asking God to protect “the president and the deputy president all members of the government,” to asking for protection for “all the people of this country,” a measure, he wrote in a letter to South African rabbis, that was taken in “extreme situations, for government violations of morality so grotesque they undermine the integrity of praying.”
On the day that Hamas killed over 1,400 people in Israel and took over 240 hostages, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, known as DIRCO, called “for the immediate cessation of violence” and criticized Israel for “illegal occupation of Palestinian land, continued settlement expansion” and more. The statement neither referred to nor condemned the terrorist attack, referring only to Israeli ills.
The SAJBD and South Africa Zionist Federation accused DIRCO and Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor in October of laying “the blame and justification for Hamas’s heinous crimes at the door of the Jewish State…As a community, we are appalled and deeply saddened that DIRCO was unable to show the slightest bit of empathy for the callous murder of Jewish life.”
After Pandor’s call with Hamas and the terrorist organization’s claim that she expressed support for their attack on Israel, Zev Krengel, vice president of SAJBD, argued in media interviews that Pandor was “taking orders” from Iran and that South Africa’s government “has been hijacked by Islamic jihadists.”
“She’s making it easier for babies to be murdered and massacred,” Krengel said
DIRCO, however, said that Pandor “reiterated South Africa’s solidarity and support for the people of Palestine and expressed sadness and regret for the loss of innocent lives, both Palestinians and Israelis,” in her call with Haniyeh.
Pandor did not express “sadness and regret” for the loss of Israeli lives to Israeli officials, whether in the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria or to anyone in the government in Jerusalem, Israel’s Foreign Ministry confirmed to Jewish Insider this week.
Krengel also noted that Pandor had not publicly called for the return of South African-born hostages held by Hamas in Gaza nor helped 800 South Africans evacuate from Israel when the war started. Though Israel’s official numbers state that Hamas is holding one South African in Gaza, JI found that at least three were born in South Africa: Chana Peri, 79, of Kibbutz Nirim;, Aviva Siegal, 64, of Kfar Azza; and Daniel Peretz, 22, an IDF soldier.
Goldstein told JI that there are “a lot of community efforts around all of the hostages to raise public awareness…to keep the story top of mind, in community and broader society.”
In an Oct. 30 statement titled “South Africa calls for the International community to hold Israel accountable for breaches of International Law,” DIRCO doubled down on its rhetoric against Israel and threatened the Jewish community with legal action.
DIRCO said that “Israel does not have the ‘right to defend itself’ using military means…The notion of Israel’s right to defend itself through military means has been used…to justify the unlawful use of force by Israel on people of Palestine.”
“Those that have encouraged and materially supported the unlawful use of force by Israel…should therefore be investigated for aiding and abetting the breaches of international law,” DIRCO stated.
The South African government ministry condemned Krengel for “unethical” statements, “disinformation… related to the beheading of children in Israel” and “dehumanization tactics…which has resulted in the huge casualties we see today.”
“Given the potentially libelous nature of his utterances, more commentary on this will be done at a later stage,” DIRCO warned.
SAJBD pointed out in a statement that “instead of campaigning for Hamas to release the hostages, something that could make a ceasefire possible, Minister Pandor has attacked the South African Jewish community.”
The Jewish organization also noted that “the beheading of Jewish babies is confirmed. It was documented and publicized by Hamas themselves…The accusation feels reminiscent of Holocaust deniers requiring the Jewish community provide proof that six million really did die during the Holocaust.”
“If [Pandor’s] attack on the Jewish community intended to silence and intimidate us, it will not work,” the SAJBD said.
In an interview with JI, Goldstein called DIRCO’s position “a betrayal of Nelson Mandela and everything he stood for.”
After Oct. 7, the South African government had “no natural horror at all at what they witnessed, only justification,” the chief rabbi said. “There was no moral clarity at all.”
Goldstein is the chief rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa. Whether personally observant or not, about 85% of the South African community is affiliated with Orthodox synagogues, 8% with the Progressive (Reform) movement, and fewer with the Masorti (Conservative) movement.
The chief rabbi argued that, while post-apartheid South Africa has always supported the Palestinians, “this is not about the Palestinian cause. This is about Iran’s attack on Israel through its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.”
More broadly, Goldstein said that there is “a whole new world order emerging with Russia, China and Iran [on one side], and for South Africa, a constitutional democracy, to be aligned with these thugs is an unacceptable betrayal of our constitution, of our bill of rights, of everything Mandela dedicated his life to…It is utterly immoral, supporting evil in the world…Either they are useful idiots, or complicit.”
Goldstein pointed out that while his government reaches out to Hamas and Iran, it has mostly ignored jihadism in Africa.
“Hamas is the ideological brother of Boko Haram and ISIS operating in Africa,” he said. “The story of jihadi terror in Africa is not being told at all in Western media. Some of the statistics are horrifying…The West African group, ECOWAS, reported that there were over 1,800 terrorist attacks, killing more than 4,600 people this year. Across the border of South Africa, in Mozambique, ISIS is waging a war.”
“Where are those marches and protests?…That makes South African support for Iran and Hamas all the more reprehensible. What about black African Christians on this continent, who are being murdered?” the chief rabbi asked.
Goldstein was optimistic that the average South African is more sympathetic to Israel’s cause. He argued that the African National Congress, which has dominated the country’s politics since its first democratic elections in 1994, is “completely out of step with the South African people,” and that the party, plagued with corruption scandals as well as chronic electricity blackouts and water shortages, could lose next year’s national elections.
“Most Black South Africans are Christian, conservative and politically moderate. They have a deep, natural Zionism,” Goldstein said. Black South Africans make up over 80% of the country’s population.
When SAJBD and SAZF displayed posters of some of the 239 hostages along with red balloons on Johannesburg’s bustling Nelson Mandela Bridge, they were “not defaced, not removed, which is also an expression of where society is,” the chief rabbi said.
Asked if the Jewish community needs to be concerned about DIRCO targeting its leadership in an official statement, Goldstein defended the strength of South Africa’s democratic institutions and constitution.
“In a real democracy, you don’t have to worry about that,” he said. “I threw down the gauntlet to the government and I have done that in the past…When [former President] Jacob Zuma was at the height of his corruption, I joined civil society protests against him.”
“To the credit of all South Africans, our constitution is supreme and the courts are independent and whatever the courts say is obeyed. We have a bill of rights and the complete freedom to say and do whatever you wish,” the chief rabbi emphasized.
Goldstein reiterated the message he conveyed at the pro-Israel rally, that “the government is not the country.”
Pretoria’s position on Israel is “outrageous, enraging, disgraceful and shameful but not dangerous” to South African Jews, he insisted.
This week, for the first time since the war began, SAJBD also began to express concern about antisemitic attacks on South African Jews in its official statements.
“In uncritically endorsing everything Hamas has been claiming, the government endangers its own Jewish population,” SAJBD warned. “In recent days, we have seen incitement to hatred against the community reach such levels as to comprise explicit calls on public platforms for Jews to be attacked in their homes, their places of work, and, perhaps most chillingly of all, in their schools.”
Goldstein, however, said he is not aware of any threats.
“We have a hostile government, but a very welcoming society,” he said. “There have been a few marches and tension around them…but to the best of my knowledge, there has not been one single incident of physical violence against a Jew since the start of this war. There are [problems] on social media and some cases of verbal assaults.”
“We have crime, but as a Jew you’re safe,” Goldstein added.