How can SA’s faith communities contribute to peace in Middle East? Religious leaders Rabbi Warren Goldstein and Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana offer their views.
Goldstein | Don’t strengthen the hand of extremism
Dear Archbishop Thabo Makgoba,
In your recent letter to Anglican church members, you attack Israel in very harsh terms, casting it as evil, unjust and comparable with apartheid South Africa.
You are making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church. Allow me to explain. Archbishop, we have known each other for many years and worked together for the good of South Africa on a number of important matters.
I fondly recall how we joined forces in protesting the corruption of state capture and being part of the civil society movement to restore integrity to our country.
On this matter regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, I wish to express my deep disappointment in the moral confusion of your letter and disregard for the facts.
[Those facts are] that Israel is the only free democracy in the Middle East – a country whose citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity or any other marker, have the right to vote and to serve in government.
At this very moment, it is an Arab-Islamic party that has shifted the balance of power in government and is a central member of a coalition that looks set to remove Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from power.
In what sense of the word can this be called apartheid? It is a defamation of the Jewish state, disrespectful to the victims of apartheid and a dangerous lie, which brings to mind the Christian blood libels against Jews in medieval Europe.
If, Archbishop, you are referring to the continued absence of a Palestinian state in the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza, the onus for this falls squarely on Palestinian leadership.
In 1947, it was the Arab world that rejected the UN resolution proposing the establishment of a Jewish and Palestinian state side by side.
Instead, the armies of five neighbouring countries invaded the small, nascent Jewish state of only 600 000 Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors.
And then, between 1948 and 1967, these territories were in the hands of Jordan and Egypt, respectively, and still there was no Palestinian state.
Since the Six-Day War in 1967, these areas have been under Israeli control, with successive Israeli governments making substantive offers for the establishment of a Palestinian state in these territories, with Jerusalem as its capital. Each of them has been turned down.
This is not a dispute over land. It never has been. It is about the Palestinian leadership’s ongoing refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state at all.
The Hamas charter calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state and its leaders call for the beheading of Jewish citizens and the total genocide of Jews, wherever they may be.
It is this murderous ideology that inspires them to murder as many civilians as they can and to use their people as human shields to protect their rockets. It is indisputable that if Israel laid down its arms tomorrow, there would be another holocaust of the 6 million Jews who live there.
Hamas in the south, Hezbollah in the north and Iran to the east have all made that abundantly clear. Hamas is a military dictatorship oppressing the Palestinian people and is driven by the most violent, extreme form of Islam, one repudiated by many moderate Muslim leaders.
Adherents to this murderous ideology, which is openly stated in Hamas’ charter, cannot be negotiated with.
Peace could be achieved and the heartbreaking suffering of the Palestinian people could be immediately alleviated with the establishment of a Palestinian state, living in peace, side by side with Israel, were it not for the violent, extremist ideology of Hamas that seeks the total annihilation of the Jewish state.
Archbishop, in your support for Hamas, you are not only perpetuating the suffering of Palestinians and working against peace in this painful conflict, you are on the wrong side of history and in neglect of your most basic moral duty to protect the Anglican church of southern Africa, which is your parish.
For while you castigate Israel for defending itself against violent extremists, know that the very same violent religious ideology drives extremists right here on our borders – and their intended victims are your Christian congregations.
In northern Mozambique, there is a religious war being waged by Ansar al-Sunna, known locally as al-Shabaab, a militant Islamist group that pledges allegiance to Islamic State and shares the same violent ideology as Hamas, both of which are funded by Iran.
The Institute for Security Studies has confirmed that there are now South African citizens who have crossed over the border into Mozambique to join Ansar al-Sunna.
There have been BBC reports of beheadings of children in this conflict and, in recent years, more than 700 000 people have been displaced and more than 5 000 have been killed.
You reserve your criticism for Israel alone – the only safe place for Christians to practise their faith in the entire Middle East; the only free democracy in the region.
Why do your church resolutions and public statements assert that today’s Jews are not the Jews of the Bible and that we have no legitimate claim to the land of Israel? How dare you?
We, the Jewish people, are the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And there has been an unbroken Jewish presence in the land of Israel from the moment God said to Abraham in the Book of Genesis: “Go forth to the land that I will show you.”
I think it’s time for your church to have a public discussion on these issues and, indeed, for all religious leaders to reflect deeply on this ideological battle between violent religious extremists and people of faith who are moderate and decent.
As religious leaders – Muslim, Christian and Jewish – now more than ever, we need to come together to stand up against the violent religious extremism that threatens us all.
We need to come together to support the forces of freedom, democracy and tolerance that make peace possible; and we need to pray to our Father in Heaven to bless humanity with the fulfilment of the divine promise of a time when “nation will not lift up sword against nation and neither will they learn war any more”.
Yours sincerely, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Rabbi Goldstein is the chief rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of SA
Mpumlwana | Mind-set shift and broader understanding is needed
An uneasy “ceasefire” prevails between Israel and Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Even as this holds out, secondary hostilities between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli support groups are spreading across the world.
This may begin a fresh season of street conflicts in countries very far from the Holy Land. In South Africa, too, the waves of protests against the Israeli storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Israeli bombardments of Gaza have been as vibrant as in the various cities of the world.
The protests in places such as Sea Point, Cape Town, with concentrations of Jewish communities and synagogues, have the potential of posing a security threat for Jewish worshippers.
However, such protests should avoid the optics of focus on South African citizens of Jewish faith. Such a perception would undermine and threaten decades of South African religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration.
Through mutual tolerance and interfaith collaboration on national affairs, much can be achieved – especially today in the Covid-19 combat, when we must stand together.
We must be very clear that opposition to Israeli government policies does not become opposition to the Jewish faith and its adherents.
The Israeli government is not Judaism. In that spirit, standing together as communities of faith in the national concerns of South Africa does not mean a common position on the Israel-Palestine question. We have all been exposed to varying points of view on the matter and our understanding of the geography, political history and religious significance of the area will not be on the same level.
This is precisely why there have been public differences of opinion between Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein and Reverend Frank Chikane.
They have been exposed to different experiences and realities. It is [a measure] of their maturity as faith leaders that they have both publicly committed to make a pilgrimage together to the Holy Land, to find a common perspective either way, or to agree to disagree.
Whatever the outcome of such a visit, there should be a greater commitment of the people of faith in South Africa to engage courageously from the love ethic of our different faiths – and with our global partners – to work for a just and lasting peace in the holy land.
If South African faith communities can model a readiness to stand together on the justice principles of our Constitution and the best values of their faiths, it might create a platform for South Africa to promote solutions of coexistence – even the difficult prospect of a unitary democratic state in the Holy Land – for all three Abrahamic faiths, with justice and security for all.
How do Christians contribute to this, when there are such stark differences of thinking and expression about Israel among South African Christian voices?
Last July, we had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Yishai Fleisher from Israel representing the Jewish community of Hebron, as well as a broadcaster on The Land of Israel network.
The rabbi outlined a strong case not only for the occupation of Palestinian territory, but also for Israeli ownership of the biblical “land of Israel”.
This speaks to the same conceptualisation championed last year by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, on the promise of God to Abraham of the biblical land of Israel. There are many Christians who believe that this position is an expression of the Christian duty of faith.
Also last year, we heard from Palestinian Christians, from pastors who minister to Christian congregations on a daily basis.
They are the same communities of converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ who have been in the Holy Land since the days of the apostles.
They had a different story to tell – that they were part of the Palestinian nation, which included both Muslims and Christians: a nation of 6 million people who have human rights in today’s context of the global universal civil rights regime.
These rights were not obtained in the days of Joshua’s conquest or of King Saul. Today, international law regulated through the UN binds all countries – and that includes the state of Israel.
One should not blame South African churches for not knowing and appreciating this, or for their confusion over these matters.
It’s mostly an honest problem requiring a generous understanding and a loving engagement on our different understandings of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the changes it introduces to the position of the Old Testament on race and human relationships.
Our churches are caught between, on the one hand, the texts of scripture that appear to give today’s state of Israel the execution mandate of the Old Testament texts and, on the other, Jesus’ call to his followers to [uphold] justice and love for all human beings without discrimination.
As Jesus says: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets [Matthew 7:12].”
In attempting to understand what is required of our churches, we offer the 2014 statement of former SA Council of Churches general secretary, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Tutu said at the time: “It requires a mind-set shift. A mind-set shift that recognises that attempting to perpetuate the current status quo is to damn future generations to violence and insecurity. A mind-set shift that stops regarding legitimate criticism of a state’s policies as an attack on Judaism. A mind-set shift that begins at home and ripples out across communities and nations and regions – to the diaspora scattered across the world we share. The only world we share.”
This mind-set shift rests on our ability to fully understand the broader nuances related to the Israel-Palestine question.
Bishop Mpumlwana is general secretary of the SA Council of Churches