CAPE TOWN, South Africa (JTA) — Talk about shul politics.
In the interest of avoiding a disruption of his grandson’s bar mitzvah, Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the Goldstone report on the 2009 Gaza war, told JTA last week that he would not attend the family simcha next month at a Johannesburg synagogue.
But in case Goldstone has any second thoughts, a leading South African Jewish group announced it is ready to protest should he show up.
“We’ll exercise our constitutional right to protest,” the chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, Avrom Krengel, told the Cape Times on Monday.
Goldstone, a respected Jewish jurist from South Africa, has been persona non grata in the pro-Israel community ever since the release of his U.N. report on the Gaza war, which found that Israel committed war crimes in its three-week war with Hamas in Gaza in 2009. Pro-Israel groups have roundly condemned the report as dangerously one-sided , and it has helped fuel international condemnation of Israel.
Following negotiations between the Zionist federation and Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the synagogue hosting the bar mitzvah service, Goldstone said last week that “In the interests of my grandson, I’ve decided not to attend the ceremony at the synagogue.”
Krengel stressed that Goldstone had not been barred from the bar mitzvah, but that he would not be welcomed if he chose to attend.
“We understand that there’s a bar mitzvah boy involved,” Krengel told JTA last week. “We’re very sensitive to the issues, and at this stage there’s nothing further to say.”
Krengel’s position prompted a torrent of responses from around the Jewish world. Many defended Goldstone’s right to attend the bar mitzvah even as they criticized his report on the Gaza war.
U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House of Representatives Middle East subcommittee, wrote in a letter to Krengel that he was “appalled and utterly disgusted by reports that Judge Goldstone will not be able to attend the bar mitzvah of his grandson due to protest threats by Jewish groups in South Africa.”
Describing himself as “an unapologetic critic of the Goldstone report, and of Judge Richard Goldstone’s badly warped perspective on Israel’s right to defend itself,” Ackerman said there was “absolutely no justification or excuse for carrying legitimate opposition and criticism of Judge Goldstone’s (wretched) professional work into the halls of his family’s synagogue, much less the celebration of a 13- year-old Jewish boy’s ritual acceptance of responsible membership in the Jewish community.”
The World Union for Progressive Judaism sounded a similar note. In a statement, Rabbi Joel Oseran, vice president of international development, and Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani, chairman of the South Africa Association of Progressive Rabbis, expressed their dismay at the deal struck by the leadership of South Africa’s Jewish community.
“While we stand with Israel in disputing some of the findings of the Goldstone Commission’s report, Judaism teaches that judgment and forgiveness are not ours to withhold or to give,” they said.
But Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag, head of South Africa’s Beth Din, or Jewish religious court, said there were strong feelings in the synagogue against Goldstone attending. He praised the arrangement wherein Goldstone would stay away on his own volition, calling it “quite a sensible thing to avert all this unpleasantness.”
Goldstone has done “a tremendous disservice not only to Israel but to the Jewish world,” Kurtstag said. “His name is used by hostile elements in the world against Israel, and this can increase anti-Semitic waves.”
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s representative body, said in a statement that while “certain senior Jewish communal and religious leaders were certainly involved in the discussions around the topic, in no way did they attempt to dictate to or otherwise pressurize the family into arriving at their decision.”
The statement went on, “The SAJBD strongly believes that diversity of opinion in our community needs to be tolerated and respected, whether it emanates from the left, right or center.”
In a separate statement, the Cape Council of the Board of Deputies said it “deeply regrets that a religious milestone has been politicized and disagrees with the manner in which this matter has been handled.”