Rabbibrian's Blog

A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

On Rabbinic Integrity: “Principles, truth and justice before ethnic or group loyalty”

Posted by rabbibrian on July 23, 2010

Now that the official Israeli response has confirmed several of the most shocking events described 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.

Sparks writes, “For Judge Richard Goldstone, particularly, this is a personal vindication, for he was excoriated by leading members of the local Jewish community for chairing the commission.  He was told his commission’s findings were lies; that he was naive and gullible for accepting the version of events given by terrorists; and that, since he is a Jew, he was a traitor to his people.

His critics were given support by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who chastised Goldstone for “doing great damage to the state of Israel”. He should have recused himself instead, Goldstein said, and taken no part in the investigating mission.

I have had difficulty understanding what the chief rabbi meant by this.

Goldstein is a trained lawyer as well as a rabbi. Did he mean that no Jew, however professionally disciplined — and Judge Goldstone’s legal reputation is among the highest in the world — can be objective when it comes to a matter involving Israel?

And if so, does that involve Jews individually or collectively as well, or just the interests of the state of Israel? Or did 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 merits of a case or, if that is unacceptable, to recuse himself? But that for a Jew to find against Israel is traitorous?

What are the moral priorities being expressed here?

We are not dealing with an ordinary individual in this matter, but with the head of a major religion in a multiracial, multireligious and constitutionally secular state.

We secularists need to know what a religious leader in our community means when he seeks to impose such an ethical dictum on a prominent member of his faith — someone who was a founding father of our Constitutional Court and an interpreter of our infinitely important national constitution in this new democracy.”

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 claim 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.

Sparks comments:

I attended the Dutch Reformed Church service in Linden, Johannesburg, at which Naude had to respond to the church leaders’ demand that he choose between the church’s doctrine of support for Apartheid and his commitment to the nonracial Christian Institute he had founded.

So I ask the chief rabbi that same question today: what is your choice? Then, at the level of plain human decency, don’t you think, Chief Rabbi Goldstein and those members of the Orthodox Jewish community and the South African Zionist Federation whom you lead, that you owe Judge Goldstone an apology? A public, abject apology.”

In other words, Naude was forced to choose between his moral principles and his loyalty to his own people and their church.

I heard Naude announce his decision that memorable day before the glitterati of Afrikaner nationalism in the packed pews before him. Smilingly, boldly, he told them simply: “I choose God before man.”

In other words, principles, truth and justice before ethnic or group loyalty. It was the defining moment of that great man’s life.

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.

For an analysis of the official Israeli response to the Goldstone Report I recommend the blog post of Magnes Zionist.

4 Responses to “On Rabbinic Integrity: “Principles, truth and justice before ethnic or group loyalty””

  1. Keren Batiyov said

    Right on and beautifully spoken, as you 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”. ~Richard Falk

  2. Gerald ColesKolsky said

    Thanks, Brian, for this very morally evocative commentary, particularly with respect to the issues around rabbis taking or fearing to take a stand on Israel’s policies and actions. The responsibility for that extends, of course, both to the leadership of the various forms of Judaism in the U.S., as well as to problems at the congregational level.

    Nationally, for example, the Reform leadership, which often takes excellent positions of U.S. national issues, has an “our Israel, right or wrong” policy on Israel and, of course, was part of the anti-Goldstone chorus. Related problems can be found for the other streams of U.S. Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstruction, or Secular-Humanist. In these,the leadership either speaks even forcefully than the Reform leadership for all Israeli policy and actions or is silent on them. These national contexts put great pressure on a rabbi wanting to take openly critical, moral positions on Israel.

    Then there are problems at the congregational level, where responsibility (I really mean “blame”)also must fall. For example, even when an overwhelming number of congregants share a critical view of Israel, and thereby could provide a rabbi the support needed to be a moral voice, the congregants are silent, a silence stemming from a number of mindsets, such as (1) congregations shouldn’t take “political” stands (even when the issue involves fundamental Jewish moral principles); (2) congregations and rabbis exist primarily for “spiritual,” not “political” purposes (as though this bifurcation were real); (3) even when a majority of a congregation is critical of Israel, that majority fails to speak out in unison, purportedly or actually fearing that speaking out will alienate a minority of “Israel, right or wrong” congregants; a decision that thereby allows the minority to rule on this moral issue; (4) congregations fear that speaking out will, as you suggest in your commentary, be traitorous (i.e., the congregation will be “race traitors”). These problems at the congregational level usually occur in combination.

    In other words, while rabbis surely have moral responsibilities and face moral dilemmas regarding speaking out on Israel, there’s a broader context of responsibility that makes rabbinical decisions on the matter very, very hard.

  3. Vicky said

    I’m not Jewish, but I have a strong interest in Judaism as a religion and a way of life. A few years ago I started to attend various classes at a local synagogue. Unfortunately, the strongly Zionist flavour of that particular community made it impossible for me to stay there. It was made quite clear to me on several occasions that a person with my political views wasn’t welcome, and as time passed I realised that my views couldn’t change. Hippos aren’t suddenly going to start hatching from eggs, and illegal occupation isn’t suddenly going to become justifiable. And so I had to leave. I don’t know how different my treatment would have been if I had been a Jew, but the experience has left me with a great respect for anybody who is prepared to stand up and be counted in spite of community pressure to fall in with the status quo. Integrity can be a very isolating thing.

    Last Thursday was the fourth time I participated in Ta’anit Tzedek. It’s becoming a cherished if bittersweet part of every month. Thank you to the rabbis who began it. You’re in my prayer every day.

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