A blessing and a curse

The rabbi hired to bless a conference then cursed Israel

Hired to bless a political conference, Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked took the opportunity to curse Israel. The biblical story of Balaam, inverted, comes to mind. Hired to curse Israel, the wily wizard blessed it at the end. The hireling rabbi, though, went one better than his prototype. To the glee of knaves and leeches gathered there, the rabbi of Beit Emanuel, Johannesburg served up both: a blessing on them and a curse on Israel.

Members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), emphatic enemies of the Jewish state, heard it directly from the donkey’s mouth, as it were. Israel, the rabbi’s own country, could take a lesson in religious freedom and tolerance from South Africa. “It is a source of strength and pride to South Africans as much as it is a source of shame and distress for all Jews,” he added. A hall thick with anti-Zionists erupted in delight. For testimony to how much anti-Zionism that hall contained, BDS workers sold ‘Made in Palestine’ mementoes at a table during tea break.

Shaked chose the right occasion for his curse. By party edict, ANC members are forbidden to ever set foot in the country that Jews built. Schooled to believe that European settler colonists used the Holocaust to descend on Palestine and steal it from under the nose of the natives, delegates were bound to love Shaked. The words of this elder of Zion would have strummed on every bigoted nerve in that gathering. As if thieving land from born and bred Palestinians were not enough, Zionists had no tolerance for other religions. Whether the Israeli’s words were understood or not, they were grist to the mill.

Across town the Shaked curse raised another storm. The community was up in arms. Jews of different stamp and hue, Reform and Progressives among them, doubted that such an audience would have understood Shaked correctly. What would politicians, black brown white, know or care about the Kotel and conversion divides between Orthodox and non-Orthodox ? The rabbi’s words on religious freedom and tolerance were surely lost on that gathering.

Lost – no. Without careful elucidation the words were surely taken at their plain meaning: Israel makes life difficult for Christians and Muslims, and Jews the world over felt ashamed of their Jewish country.

At the community’s anger, Shaked really began to sound like the hitman Balaam expostulating to his king who was not happy. It was not for him, complained the rabbi, to say what the Jewish community wanted him to say. He had a more elevated calling, namely –

  • To hold a mirror up to society
  • To speak the truth
  • To hold Israel accountable
  • To demand equality and justice

With this grand self-appointment as a firebrand prophet-cum-watchdog, the rabbi stuck his Left foot forward. Wisdom resides on the Left. He, in common with Jewish progressives on the other side of the world, both synagogue-going and secular, has big pretensions. As prosecutor, judge and jury all in one he would keep Israel up to the mark. ‘Tough love,’ as Barak Obama, the progressive’s idol, called it, before revealing just how tough his love for Israel could be.

I am here to ensure that Israel is the best it can be Shaked told a Jewish paper.

Undaunted the oracle of Beit Emmanuel had stepped into the big shoes of the prophet Amos:

You alone have I singled out Of all the families of the earth – That is why I will call you to account For all your iniquities. (Amos 3:2)

In support of his calling the oracle of Beit Emmanuel will unpack time-honored Jewish values and even Divine commands, especially Tikkun olam and “Be kind to the stranger in your midst”. But the cover proves to be paper thin. Trendy politics, not timeless precepts, peep through when the going gets tough.

Take Jewish opposition to the immigration policy of President Trump. Jewish temples, to help immigrants evade deportation, were declared sanctuaries. Now a “sanctuary” in the bible served as a city of refuge. It was there for when a Jew committed manslaughter, to prevent him being killed outright by revenge seekers. Can the law be culled to give foreigners the right to enter a country without correct papers, and to stay on? Is a conservative temple analogous to a city sanctuary, there to save a man’s life? Would it allow a temple to be declared a place where the law of the land may not be enforced? Or is it merely a good excuse for Jewish progressives to join the anti-Trump campaign?

Shaked addressed political delegates in Johannesburg. He knew that under their ANC party in power, South Africa is run by criminals for criminals. The rabbi was invited to explain how he applied his calling to hold a mirror up to society.

There he stood, before an assembly of plunderers of public assets, of complicit office bearers and servile cowards. He had been invited as a Jew to pray for them. He had the podium and the people in his hands. He had an immediate and devastating issue to address. The country was in a death spiral thanks to greed and criminality infecting the ruling party from the head down. Why did he hold his mirror to Jewish divides over praying and conversion in Israel, far removed from that gathering?

  • Because having ‘a go’ at Israel is a popular, an easy and a trendy thing to do?
  • Because having ‘a go’ at a rotten political set, his client, would be a whole lot more difficult and unpopular?
  • Because hysterical with hurt over the Kotel and conversion decisions of Israel’s elect, the rabbi sought to massage his own wounds before a captive audience?

Shaked cast himself as a fearless speaker of Truth. Surely then he would be ultra careful with words, to prevent his audience hearing, and taking away the wrong information?

Then why leave the impression that Israel could do with a lesson in allowing Christians and Muslims freedom to practice their faiths, and in tolerance towards other faiths?

  • Because it would resonate in that den of Israel-haters?Because he had been invited on the strength of his ties with a BDS icon, Ahmed Kathrada?
  • Because he succumbed to a vengeful urge to hurt Israel after Israel had hurt him by backtracking on Kotel and conversion policies?

Shaked took the platform to speak the truth and to hold Israel accountable. Violence is an indictment on South African society, with the world’s highest murder rate.  Here, to paraphrase him, was a source of shame and distress for all South Africans. He let the opportunity slip for holding up his own country, Israel as a benchmark for SA. Data was produced to show that Israel could hardly have been better. Instead Shaked chose to rant over a religious rift between Jews.

Could he provide an example or two when Israel managed to clear any high bar he set for it? Could he provide at least one example when he publicly acknowledged that “Israel was the best it could be?”

He failed to do so, because when progressives want Israel to be the best it can be, it never is for them. Because to praise Israel would be to depart from their script. Because ‘tough love’ is not love but, as Barak Obama indisputably revealed at the end, it is a mean feeling about the Jewish state.

As a self-appointed moral watchdog Shaked sets the bar for Israel higher than for any other country. Indeed perhaps he sets it high enough to be sure that Israel will never clear the bar. He doesn’t want it to – not before Israel follows the prescribed wisdom of the progressive Left.

Taking up the progressive Left’s demands, Israel haters wait and watch. How high can Israel jump? At the merest shiver of the fallen bar the court of public opinion is transported into a frenzy of scorn and condemnation. And instead of a light unto the nations, Shaked and his cohorts turn Israel into the world’s polecat.

About the Author
The writer is a prolific author of novels and non-fiction, essayist and commentator on ‘Enemies of Zion’ which happens also to be the title of his latest book. His works are The Paymaster, 1998; Hadrian’s Echo, 2012; Contributor to ‘War by other means: Israel and its detractors’, 2012; Enemies of Zion, (for publication 2017); and Balaam’s curse ( a novel in progress)
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