(JTA) — South Africa’s president has taken heat for not cutting off ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine — but his country’s chief rabbi sees an opportunity in the relationship to lobby for an imprisoned Jew.
South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein wants his country’s president to advocate for Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in Russia in March, in a meeting this weekend with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Mr President – you are in a unique position to intercede on his behalf,” Goldstein wrote in a letter to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday. “Please speak directly to President Putin and urge him to release Gershkovich, whose ongoing incarceration is a violation of human rights, international press freedom and the rule of law.”
Ramaphosa has not yet responded the letter, sent on the eve of a mission of African leaders that he is leading to promote peace between Russia and Ukraine. The delegation was in Kyiv on Friday and is due to meet with Putin on Saturday.
Unlike the United States and many European countries, which support Ukraine, Ramaphosa declared in a lengthy statement last month that “South Africa will not take sides in a contest between global powers.” The United States, however, has accused South Africa of arming Russia.
In his letter, Goldstein cited the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, which sought allies on both sides of the Cold War. He also referred to South Africa’s being part of BRICS, a consortium of nations that includes Russia and South Africa in addition to Brazil, India and China.
Goldstein appealed to the struggle against apartheid to advocate for the release of Geshkovich, who was arrested for espionage in late March and has since been held without trial. Gershkovich is the son of Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union, and Jewish organizations and supporters around the world have advocated for him to be released. The United States government and Wall Street Journal say the accusations against him are spurious, and other countries have also condemned his arrest.
“We know from our own bitter history here in South Africa, how the apartheid regime cloaked tyranny and cruelty in the garments of sham legal processes, including detention without trial,” Goldstein wrote. “Mr President, you are in a position of particular influence given South Africa’s BRICS leadership and your government’s close relations with Russia. I appeal to you — in your personal capacity and through all available government diplomatic channels — to intervene to secure his release, so that he can return home safely to his family in the US.”
Ramaphosa does not appear to have commented publicly on Gershkovich’s detainment.