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Johannesburg Rabbi Under Attack After Inviting Mandela to Temple

September 20, 1990
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A Reform rabbi here has received at least 23 death threats from anonymous Jewish callers after inviting African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to address his synagogue last Friday evening.

Rabbi Adi Assabi of Temple Shalom, a United Progressive congregation, has also been sharply criticized by the South African Zionist Federation, which reflects the mainstream Jewish establishment in South Africa.

And the more liberal South African Association of Progressive Rabbis has pointedly dissociated itself from Assabi’s remarks in defense of the invitation, believed to be the first ever extended by a South African synagogue to the anti-apartheid leader.

Assabi was roundly denounced by fellow Jews mainly for suggesting that anti-Zionism cannot always be equated with anti-Semitism.

The packed synagogue heard Mandela condemn all manifestations of anti-Semitism and declare that ANC membership is open to everyone.

But the ANC deputy president, who was freed by the government this year after 28 years in prison, is not a favorite with most South African Jews.

They were outraged by his expressions of solidarity with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and by photographs that appeared in the world press of Mandela embracing Arafat when they met after his release from jail.

Addressing the Reform congregation, the yarmulka-clad Mandela said, “If Zionism means the right of the Jewish people to seize territory and deny the Palestinian people the right to self-determination, we condemn it.

REITERATES STAND ON ZIONISM

“If Zionism means the right of the Jewish people to secure their country, to live and fully express their culture and traditions, we consider it a healthy movement. This we understand Zionism to be,” Mandela said, reiterating a stance he articulated last month in Oslo, Norway, and earlier this summer in New York.

Significantly, the death threats were made after Assabi announced Mandela’s appearance but before he spoke. As a result, police and armed security guards patrolled the temple grounds Friday evening.

Before the service began, pamphlets were passed out by a youth wearing a yarmulka, who said he represented a group called People for Racial Peace and Harmony in Africa. The literature contained anti-ANC propaganda and described Mandela as a power-hungry despot.

Assabi, who believes that Jews should be more vocal in their opposition to apartheid, said, “I invited Dr. Mandela to address my congregation, because whenever he has met with Jews since his release, there have been mud-slinging matches based on a misunderstanding of the relation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.”

The Zionist Federation statement attacking Assabi did not mention Mandela. It said the federation wanted to draw public attention to the fact that Assabi “does not represent or speak in the name of the Jewish community of South Africa. He represents a very small minority of the Jewish community.”

The statement went on to affirm the federation’s uncritical backing of Israel. “We support the government of the day in Israel, especially in these times of serious crisis,” it said.

“We totally dissociate ourselves from Rabbi Assabi’s assertion that anti-Zionism is distinct from anti-Semitism. We dare never to fall into the trap of our archenemies, who claim that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.” They are “one and the same thing,” the statement insisted.

Rabbi Arthur Seltzer, chairman of the South African Association of Progressive Rabbis, stressed that Assabi was not a member of his association and therefore could not speak for it.

“He had every right to speak as he did, but his remarks reflect his personal views only,” Seltzer said.

Assabi said most of his congregation has been supportive, but he received five resignations in three days and expects more. “Most of the people who criticized me were not even at the service,” he said.

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