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A rabbis pain in choosing between truth ethnic loyalty

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By Allistar Sparks

(source: BusinessDay, Published Thursday, 05/08/2010)

The avalanche of personal abuse hurled at me for suggesting that Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein owed Judge Richard Goldstein an apology now that Israel had officially confirmed several of his comission’s most serious findings about the Gaza War was no surprise. This has become the standard response to anyone who criticises Israel. It is organised and obviously intended to intimidate and thus deter such criticism One of the letter writers even revealed herself as part of “Media Team Israel.”

But it won’t work in a country where too many of us were denounced for years as anti-South African for exposing the iniquities of apartheid. We became immunised against intimidation.

Meanwhile two new factors are worth noting in this debate. The first is that the full text of the 40-page Israeli report to the United Nations and its Human Rights Council has now emerged, amplifying the initial version on which I based my article two weeks ago. This full report documents 150 ongoing investigations ordered by Israeli Defene Force Advocate General Avichai Mandelblit. Of these 34 are criminal investigations. The report also confirms the use of smoke-screen munitions containing white phosphorous, an allegation repeatedly denied by the Israeli Government.

Although the report goes out of its way to try to justify or at least lessen the culpability of the Israeli soldiers, in doing so it confirms the actuality of all the most serious incidents noted by the Goldstone Commission. It has reportedly angered the Israeli army.

The second factor is that the abusive attacks have been more than counterbalanced by a flood of supporting messages I have received from people of all faiths and races, at home and abroad. One that has touched me most was a blog posting written by Rabbi Brian Walt, a former South African now living in the United States. I am republishing it here because of its moving honesty and sensitivity — and because I think it comes closest to reflecting the importance of truth-telling as part of reconciliation and justice that was so powerfully expressed by Professor Ariel Dorfman in his Nelson Mandela Lecture last Saturday. Rabbi Walt writes: “Now that the official Israeli response has confirmed several of the most shocking36described in the Goldstone report, Allister Sparks, a prominent South African journalist, has publicly challenged members of the South African Jewish community and Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, in particular, to apologize for their public attack on Judge Goldstone. (The American Jewish leadership and community was as vicious in its attack on Judge Goldstone.) Israel’s report confirms several of the egregious moral violations described in the Report including a lethal attack on a mosque during a prayer service, on a house where a family with 100 members was hiding on the orders of Israel Defense Force, and the killing of a Palestinian holding a white flag by an Israeli marksmen.” (At this point Rabbi Walt quotes a lengthy passage from my article in which I cite Chief Rabbi Goldstein’s statement that Judge Goldstone should have recused himself from the commission, and ask what moral priorities he is posing here. Does he mean that it is a Jewish person’s inherent duty either to set aside his professional ethics and find in favour of the state of Israel regardless of the meris of the case – or, if that is unaccceptable, to recuse himself? But that for a Jew to find against Israel is traitorous?) “As a rabbi and an ex-South African, I find Sparks’ challenge particularly important. When I interviewed Judge Goldstone, I asked him about those who claimed he was a “traitor to his people.” He responded by referring to his experience as a white person during Apartheid. In words that reminded me of my own experience, he said that during Apartheid all white critics of Apartheid were called traitors and were attacked mercilessly, sometimes physically. He and many other courageous whites acted on their conscience, despite these charges of disloyalty to one’s race/group. Sparks points to the inspiring example one such white South African, Rev. Beyers Naude, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, who publicly stated that Apartheid was a flagrant moral violation of the core ethic of Christianity. He was persecuted for his stand by the government and suffered vicious attack from members of his community church, but he stood firm. I was a young Jewish student at the University of Cape Town at the time and I was so inspired by Naude who after being expelled from his church, founded the Christian Institute to explore Christian values in an Apartheid Society. I still have copies of their publications on my bookshelves, all of which explore Christian values in relation to a series of issues: education, workers rights, medical care and other topics. Each publication examines how the inequality, discrimination and injustice in the particular area violates core Christian values.” (Here Rabbi Walt interrupts his text to quote again from my column about how how I had heard Naude, challenged by his church to choose betweeen its doctrine in support of apartheid and his commitment to the nonracial Christian Institute he had founded – in other words between his moral principles and his loyalty to his own people and their church — and boldly announced: “I choose God before man.”) “Over the past years and especially over the past few months I have had conversations with many of my rabbinic colleagues about the challenge of speaking truthfully about Israeli policy. Most American liberal rabbis carefully choose what we say about Israel as we know that speaking truthfully could mean the loss of our jobs and income. While many of us speak out on some issues, we all are also silent about issues that call for truth-telling. Understandably, and sadly, many of us join in campaigns of our communities to support Israeli government policies that we know violate core Jewish values, the values that are the reason we became rabbis in the first place. We feel torn between loyalty to our people and loyalty to the values of our tradition” or as Beyers Naude put it, between God and Man. I, like all rabbis, face this dilemma all the time. Do I tell the truth and face the vicious attacks from others about “treason” or tribal disloyalty? On what issues will I speak out and on what issues will I be silent? What will be the cost be for me, for my family, for my ability to function as a rabbi? At what point does my silence entail the abdication of the very essence of what it means to be a rabbi. Thank you Allister Sparks, for posing the question to the Chief Rabbi and raising this difficult and important question for me, all rabbis and Jews. And thank you again, to Judge Goldstone for courageously putting moral (for me, religious) values above loyalty to any state, tribe or community. You challenge and inspire us all.” There was a response to Rabbi Walt’s blog posting, from one Keren Batiyovb, which read: “Right on and beautifully spoken, as always. Your post reminded me of a recent quote by Richard Falk: “A Jew must honour conscience and truthfulness above tribal identities should these conflict”.