INTERVIEW: ‘I Could Not Remain Silent’

By Reuvain Borchardt

Rabbi Warren Goldstein speaking at the AIPAC Congressional Summit in Washington.

Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, spoke with Hamodia after delivering a speech in Washington at the AIPAC Congressional Summit. At the summit, 1,600 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) delegates heard from congressional leaders and others. 

In his speech, which came as the South African government condemned Israel and filed a genocide claim with the International Court of Justice over Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, Rabbi Goldstein said, “Don’t judge [South Africa] by its government, sinking under the weight of corruption and ineptitude that, according to latest opinion polls, has long since lost the support of the majority of South Africans and, with upcoming elections, the country will enter a new era of coalitions and change.” Rabbi Goldstein said his country has “millions of hard-working, fair-minded, politically centrist and moderate men and women, people of good will, who aspire to the same values cherished in America and Israel.”

In South African politics, Israel is not an election issue. It’s not even in the top 10 issues. So it’s not like this government has campaigned around its approach to Israel and gotten a mandate from the previous election and implemented it. It doesn’t feature in elections, so they operate without a mandate. 

And they don’t represent the country’s views, because you’ve got these huge evangelical churches in South Africa, which, by and large, are comprised of members who are supportive of Israel.

There was a poll done, which I referred to in my speech, that said that the government’s position against Israel now has made voters less likely to vote for the government, rather than more likely. 

But generally, there’s very little public polling. I’m basing my view on the fact that, having spoken to a lot of the leadership within these churches, there’s a lot of positivity towards Israel. Many of them have gone on trips to Israel. 

I think it’s part of the government’s alignment with Iran, China, and Russia, which is very unfortunate, given that South Africa is actually a true democracy. By so associating itself with tyrants, the South African government is betraying the democratic and free identity of the society.

I have said on record in the past that by what they’ve done, they have promoted antisemitism in the world. Because if you accuse the Jewish state of genocide, then effectively you are saying that whoever supports Israel is a supporter of genocide, and that makes it open season on Jews. 

So the effect of it is to promote global antisemitism.

I felt a sense that it’s something that really had to be done. 

This is such an act of immorality, and to remain silent in the face of it would be a form of shtikah k’hodaah. It’s totally unacceptable. 

And I believe strongly that that is what it means to live in a free democracy. It’s part of the rules of engagement with the society. And South Africa, for all of its faults, is a true, free democracy, with a free press, an independent judiciary, rule of law, a Constitution, and a Bill of Rights.

Rabbi Goldstein at an address delivered at a prayer gathering at Yeshiva College in Johannesburg, October 9, 2023.

Independent. It’s a community structure.

Not at all. 

Yes. We have a tefillah l’shlom hamalchus, as do many kehillos in countries around the world. I removed the government from the prayer — so we’re praying now for the country. We pray for the people of the country, the welfare and success of the country. 

We pray for the medinah, not the memshalah.

We have amongst the lowest rates of antisemitism in the world on the streets. No one thinks twice about wearing yarmulkes, walking to shul, etc. Baruch Hashem, attacks are almost unheard of. 

Again, there’s a real difference between the government and the people. The people of South Africa, as I said in my speech to AIPAC, on the whole are moderate, G-d-fearing, religious people. There’s a natural derech eretz, and an acceptance of Jews. There’s a warmth, and a real spirit of acceptance of all different kinds of people. 

Because we live in a constitutional democracy, the government has to support the community, because we are citizens of the country. They have absolutely no choice. It’s in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. If we have a pro-Israel rally, they send the police to defend the rally. In a constitutional democracy, in a free country, the government need not like you for it to have to accord you equality and freedom before the law.

And this is something I’ve said to my community: You don’t want to live in a country in which you need the goodwill of the government to live. If you need their goodwill, you’re not living in a free society, and you must get out. Because if they wake up tomorrow morning, and they don’t like you, then you’re in danger. 

I’ve been involved in politics before. When the previous president, Jacob Zuma, was involved in wholescale corruption, what was called “state capture,” I joined the public protests against him at the time because I felt it was a threat to the future of the country. And, again, I felt it was shtikah k’hodaah. And that it was important for Torah and kiddush Hashem, that if there’s an avlah happening in the world, then the Torah community has to speak. Otherwise, it looks like we’re endorsing the avlah.

There has definitely been an increase in antisemitism. But overall, the rates of antisemitic incidents in South Africa are amongst the lowest in the world. 

There’s an ethos of tolerance and diversity and non-racialim in South Africa, as I’ve mentioned, and relationships on the ground are very good — even post-October 7. That has, baruch Hashem, been a great brachah.

There are about 55,000 Jews. 

Around 90% of the people who are affiliated with shuls are affiliated with Orthodox. In Johannesburg it’s even 95%. Of course, that doesn’t mean they necessarily are shomer Shabbos.

Of the overall kehillah, around 20% in Johannesburg are shomer Shabbos.

But there’s a constant growth in levels of Yiddishkeit

You mentioned about the Shabbos Project. The original vision was to bring an awareness of Shabbos to the community as a whole — because a large percentage of the kehillah that is affiliated with Orthodox synagogues are not shomer Shabbos. We wanted to give people a chance to taste Shabbos k’hilchaso for a full 25 hours.

The Shabbos Project is done on Parashas Vayera, and that came a few weeks after October 7. We were preparing to celebrate 10 years of the Shabbos Project. But once October 7 happened, we switched the whole framing of it towards solidarity with Eretz Yisrael and Klal Yisrael

And the amazing thing about this year’s Shabbos Project was the response in Eretz Yisrael. The Shabbos Project is volunteer-driven. The activities that happen most years in more than 1,500 cities with thousands of volunteers, it’s really a people’s movement. 

What happened in Eretz Yisrael is that there was an outpouring from the ground, from the volunteers who really wanted to do something. 

There was tremendous chizuk in that. There were challah-bakes, Shabbos dinners, and people keeping Shabbos. These were done in all kinds of places with tremendous resilience.

Rabbi Goldstein presenting Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog with his book “Shabbos: A Day to Create Yourself”

South African Jews are very traditional Jews and proud Zionists; 99% have been very supportive of Eretz Yisrael.

One of the things that I’m currently working on is learning about Shabbos during the week. I have a new book called Shabbos: A Day to Create Yourself. The bibliography has more than 200 sefarim, going into all the mekoros about Shabbos — MidrashimGemarosRishonimAcharonim

It looks at all the hashkafos of Shabbos, built around the sevaros of the Ramban and his approach to mitzvos — how mitzvos shape middoshashkafos. The Ramban also talks about how “v’chai bahem” is both in Olam Hazeh and in Olam Haba.

So the structure of the book looks at how Shabbos improves middos and hashkafos, and how it becomes a formula for happiness. 

This book was published last year, and part of the vision is to set up many learning groups to study this book, which has been translated into Hebrew, Spanish, and French. We already have hundreds of groups learning the book in North America alone, with tens of thousands of books between these groups. 

What I’m really looking to do is grow those numbers of learning groups.

There are generous partners and donors who really would like to see the book shared as much as possible. Those who are ready to set up learning groups to learn the book together can get sponsored copies of the book to help them get their learning group started, provided that they pay for postage.

Anyone who wants to take advantage of this offer can contact book has a lot of deep hashkafah in it, with a lot of mekoros in the footnotes — it can be at a deeper level, for anyone who wants to go into the mekoros, or it can be learned at a basic level. 

Photos courtesy of Office of the Chief Rabbi

This interview originally appeared in Hamodia Prime magazine.

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