It has been a distressing week for those who care about the Israel – South Africa relationship. The South African Government’s decision to recall its ambassador to Israel “because of the grave and indiscriminate nature of the latest Israeli attack” in the Gaza confrontation, without even a cursory examination of the facts, is alarming. This comes against the background of the ruling ANC party’s stated intention to downgrade the SA embassy in Israel. However, recent days have also shown another side to the South African reality.
In an address last Thursday in Johannesburg to a gathering of some 200 Jewish communal leaders and local dignitaries, marking the opening of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism’s (SAUPJ) biennial conference, the Chief Justice of South Africa, the Honorable Mogoeng Mogoeng, sounded a very different tune.
At the event, which showcased the Temple Israel Heritage Center, Hillbrow – a recently launched non-profit devoted to the “Pursuit of Justice” and “Tikkun Olam”, South Africa’s top judge, sharing a podium with Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan and the President of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, paid tribute to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Weiler (z”l), the founding Rabbi of Temple Israel and of Progressive Judaism in South Africa, for his vision leading to the establishment of the MC Weiler School in Alexandra Township – which was kept open since the 1940’s in defiance of the Apartheid government’s policy of inferior education for black South Africans. (Rabbi Weiler and his wife Una were also well known for their work with bereaved families in Israel, having themselves lost two sons, Adam and Gideon, who fell in defense of the Jewish State). The judge proposed that Rabbi Weiler’s vision be replicated throughout the country by establishing many more institutions of higher learning.
Citing the Jewish People’s capacity throughout history for always managing to emerge from the depths of despair, the Chief Justice drew a parallel with the situation currently faced by South Africa – a country which in the Mandela era boasted reserves of 600 Billion Rand and today now faces “junk” status, rampant crime, corruption and continuing deep-seated inequities between the haves and the have-nots. He said that by following the example of the Jewish People by maintaining hope and by genuinely addressing its problems, South Africa’s “land of milk and honey” could be just around the corner.
The judge proceeded to articulate his vision for justice and fixing South African society, inviting the Temple Israel Heritage Center and the Jewish Community generally to play a proactive role and not rely on the government to produce all the answers. But perhaps most significantly for his predominantly Jewish audience, the Chief Justice expressed the hope that Israeli agricultural technology which has succeeded in making the desert bloom, could be employed to transform South Africa’s economy.
Among those present at the event were the iconic anti-Apartheid lawyer, George Bizos, the Deputy Chair of the CRL Rights Commission, Professor David Mosoma, Clr Dr Mpho Phalatse of the City of Johannesburg, members of the diplomatic community, including the USA’s Consul in Johannesburg as well as Rabbis and delegates to the SAUPJ Conference from around South Africa and the world.
The audience was also treated to a performance by the choir of the MC Weiler School which is still going strong to this day.
Buoyed by the upbeat message of the Chief Justice and by the overall positive atmosphere of the event, participants had a glimpse of a possible future South Africa – a shining example of peace and reconciliation as exemplified by Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and their contemporaries, and a very different Israel – South Africa relationship which might be just around the corner: a future in which both Israel and South Africa fulfil their roles as lights unto the nations.