BDS leader in Johannesburg shul on Yomtov

  • Rabbi Saar Shaked
Controversial Progressive Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked has landed himself in hot water once again with members of the broader Jewish community, after the chairman of BDS South Africa attended his shul’s “Open Sukkah” dinner over Sukkot.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Nov 09, 2017

This week, following concerns by the community, members of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ) and the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), issued statements dissociating themselves from BDS.

"It is our belief that interaction with them (BDS) by any of our leaders or individual members, threatens the stability and unity of our Movement. It would serve to drive a wedge not only between the leadership and members of the Progressive Movement, but equally between ourselves and the wider Jewish community,” said the SAUPJ statement.

Professor Farid Esack, chairman of BDS South Africa, attended the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue in Parktown, Johannesburg on first night Sukkot, to the shock of several members of the congregation. News of his visit soon reached the ears of the wider community, causing huge upset.

Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), Ben Swartz, said: “The insult to our community, who we represent, is beyond measure.

“Let's be very clear: Professor Farid Esack... is the head of a movement (BDS) that chanted unapologetically "Shoot the Jew" at a concert at Wits University. Esack led the efforts within the University of Johannesburg to boycott Ben-Gurion University and has been visibly active again in the current calls to implement a boycott at UCT.

“When BDS hosted the infamous airplane hijacker, Leila Khaled, for a national fundraiser in SA, she spoke at the University of Durban. The following day the SRC of the university issued a call for the expulsion of all Jews from the university.

“Under Esack's leadership, BDS has made calls in South Africa to intimidate and (unsuccessfully) boycott toy stores, banks, insurance companies, grocery retailers and pharmacy retailers, all because they are perceived to be ‘Jewish businesses’.”

Swartz recounted a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at Gold Reef City attended by hundreds of Jewish people, in which BDS stormed the concert “hurling stink bombs, screaming, intimidating and even assaulting members of the audience”.

Swartz said all this happened despite BDS having been issued with a court order disallowing them from being within 100 metres of the venue. “This also happened while Esack stood no more than 50 metres from the concert hall entrance, talking to and seemingly directing the protesters all the way through,” says Swartz. He said these were just some of numerous such incidents.

“These have done nothing to harm Israel nor have they helped the Palestinian cause. But they… have festered and driven a hate-filled agenda that has and continues to directly affect, the South African Jewish community,” he said.

Beit Emanuel Synagogue chairperson, Liebe Kellen, sent a response on behalf of the shul to the SA Jewish Report. She said that Esack did not receive a personal invitation to attend; he was responding to an invitation which was extended to the general public.

Kellen said: “Every year Beit Emanuel holds an ‘Open Sukkah’, in keeping with the spirit of the festival... No specific individuals are invited... but posters are put up around the neighbourhood inviting anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, to experience a meal in a sukkah.”

Apparently over the years, Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, Hindus, Bahai and Buddhists, have attended.

“The purpose of the exercise: to encourage neighbourliness and interfaith understanding.

“This year, Farid Esack arrived.” She claims he “received no personal invitation from any shul official, but was responding to the general public invitation”.

According to Kellen, there was “a dispute” as to whether Esack should be “blocked and turned away” or whether he “should be allowed in”.

In the end, she said, “it was the opinion of the rabbi and management, that blocking him would cause a racial and religious incident which could well make it on to the front pages of The Star and Sunday Times, onto social media, and fuel even more anti-Jewish hostility.

“The man was allowed in, chatted briefly, and left. Few people even knew who he was. We believe we made the right decision and that the alternative would have been hot-headed, and potentially dangerous.”

However, this is not the first time Esack has made an appearance at the shul. He did so at the same time last year with BDS South Africa co-founder Muhammed Desai and the incident was met with similar outrage. It prompted meetings between the SAZF and the shul’s management.

Says Swartz: “It has now become clear to us that our best intentions to have our serious objections heard and noted, were not considered and we are deeply disappointed by this outcome.”

The SAUPJ said in its statement: “We are a proudly Zionist movement and will never support anti-Zionist actions or statements. We fully recognise the right of all people to choose with whom to associate.

“However, at no time do we condone the opening of our shuls, or giving a platform, to any person or organisation that wishes to witness the destruction of the State of Israel. BDS initiatives, such as IAW (Israel Apartheid Week), endangers the lives of Jewish students on campuses and threatens the future of the Jewish community in South Africa.”

The WUPJ said: “We urge our 1 200 member Progressive and Reform synagogues around the world to join with the SAUPJ in our shared commitment and determination to support a strong and vibrant State of Israel.”

Swartz said the Progressive community remain among the most committed and active members of the SAZF. “Not surprisingly, the greatest and most aggrieved voices to these events have come from the Progressive community,” he said.

According to Kellen, however, Beit Emanuel holds an open sukkah because it believes that “a community as small and marginalised as ours, is obliged to engage in the difficult and long-term task of bridge-building and outreach.

“The purpose of an outreach programme is to attempt to engage with those who hold different opinions... Allowing a stranger to visit our campus is not proof of agreement with that stranger’s views.”

She stressed that Beit Emanuel’s position on Israel is “governed by the SAUPJ constitution, in which our rabbi played a key role.

“The claim that the management and rabbi embrace BDS, is an out and out lie. We challenge those who make the claim, to produce the evidence. This claim, a fine example of unsubstantiated ‘fake news’, has been repeatedly denied by us, but continues to be spread by people who have never set foot in our shul.

“The claim that the rabbi frequently makes anti-Israel statements from the pulpit, is once again a lie.”

Earlier this year, Shaked took a few swipes at Israel for “religious intolerance” at the opening of the ANC Policy Conference where he was called upon to say a prayer. The leadership of the Jewish community was furious, not least of all considering the ANC’s clear anti-Israel stance.

Rabbi Shaked’s contract with Beit Emanuel Synagogue was recently renewed for another four years.


  1. 15 Ishvara Dhyan 09 Nov
    People have very selective memories...
    Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked is also a personal friend of Arthur Lenk ( the Israeli Ambassador ) and has often hosted him.
    Beit Emanuel also celebrates Yom Ha'Atzmuat every year, which Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked attends.
    There are alot of envious forces at work because Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked encourages dialogue between diverse communities. His support is growing in strength from day to day.
  2. 14 #NotInMyName 11 Nov
    Not in my name will my Shul host public enemy number one, and then I must remain silent.
    Not In My Name will they be allowed to be anti-Israel and anti-Zionist.
    Not in my name will it ever be okay for me to be at a shul which is begging to be a Jewish outcast.

    In my name I declare to be Jewish by birth, and proudly Zionist!
  3. 13 Rachel 12 Nov
    "The man was allowed in, chatted briefly, and left."  Really?  Not how I saw it.  The man was escorted in by another BDS member, sat through the service and stayed for supper.  #notinmyname
  4. 12 #Unhappy BE members 12 Nov
    Dear SAJR,

    We were unaware that our Shul had hosted BDS for a few years already.
    How dare they expose our shul to these Jew-haters.

    We are disgusted in having politics walking into our shul, invited by the Rabbi and his chair!

    Stop it immediately.
  5. 11 Disgusted 12 Nov
    Dear SAJR,

    Disgusted is the first word that springs to mind.

    Thanks for exposing our Israeli Rabbi who has single-handedly brought such awful division into our beautiful shul.


  6. 10 #Proudly Zionist 12 Nov
    IEF12Dear SAJR,

    It was with horror and shock that we read about the goings-on of our Israeli Rabbi and his cohorts!

    Keep up the good work of exposing these leftist radicals, who abuse the shul to promote their own ideologies.

    Warm Regards,

    Proudly Zionist
  7. 9 Anonymous 13 Nov
    As a member of Beit Emanuel, I strongly object to the position the Rabbi and Chairperson have taken with respect to BDS and allowing their leader onto the Shul premises. Their statement does not reflect the true sequence of events on that Sukkot night, and to do this in the name of inter faith dialogue and of promoting Progressive Judaism, is a affront to the many members of the Shul who do not support this view. Engaging with BDS in any way, shape or form, is an abomination to the greater Jewish community. Why then does this Rabbi feel that it is OK to do so? #notinmyname
  8. 8 Rivka 13 Nov
    "Fake news" is what the statement by the chair of this shul is all about.  I hope the SAJR has her statement in writing and will not have to rely on someone's notes to verify what was said, because they may just be called on to show that what was printed is what Liebe Kellen stated.  The word around Johannesburg is that the man was there for the whole service.  So who is spreading fake news - the chairman or the SAJR?  And what is more important?  The relationship between this shul and our community or this shul and the BDS community?  
  9. 7 #notinmyname 13 Nov
    A few comments and questions regarding the incident and the chairperson’s response to it:
    If Esack had not been specifically invited and was not expected, then what was the reason for the reception committee?  It seemed plain that Rabbi Shaked was expecting someone, and was determined that he (or she) should be admitted
    The so-called ‘dispute’ referred to involved Shaked verbally abusing the leaders of our CSO-trained security team, who were performing their duties in trying to protect the congregation
    Was this really to do with concern about a possible racial or religious incident? Our protectors are trained to defuse such incidents, and could have denied access without the risks described
    Contrary to the official explanation provided by Beit Emanuel, Esack attended almost the entire service, and thereafter spent time at the Kiddush
    Are bridge-building and outreach in the political arena the function of a Shul, particularly when there are so many other outlets for political expression? Should they be allowed to divide the congregation, or place the safety of members in jeopardy? Many of us would simply like our Shul to be a place for prayer, study, and community, not a hotbed of radical politics
    Does the synagogue’s rabbi and management believe it’s OK to drive away paying members for the sake of making one anti-Israel activist feel comfortable? Is it OK to abuse members who volunteer their time and put their personal safety at risk for the same reason?
    Unlike some other members, I don’t see this as being about Israel. This is about the governance of the Shul, and whether the Shul is there to serve the broader membership, or only a small, self-appointed political clique, determined to use the Shul to further their radical agenda
    Beit Emanuel’s strength is (or was) that it is a diverse and inclusive congregation, with everyone made to feel welcome irrespective of just about anything (including their politics). Lately, though, a form of political correctness has driven out this diversity of views, with only the politics of the hard left being tolerated as the “official’ politics of the Shul. Sad!
  10. 6 Shmuel 14 Nov
    How can this be allowed??? If this was an Orthodox Shul, the man would have been frogmarched off the premises into the arms of the CSO, who look after our community so selflessly. Just because BE is a "Progressive" Shul, does that mean its okay to engage with the enemy?  BDS's whole mandate is anti- Israel, and by proxy then, anti-Semitic. By condoning the man's presence, does this mean the Beit Emanuel is too?
    #not in my name
  11. 5 #notinmyname 14 Nov
    Elements of the leadership of Beit Emanuel are so heavily politicized with the result that the greater good of the shul is sacrificed in the pursuit of their own political agendas. Such is the behaviour of any 'political animal'. For these activists the "open" Sukkah event provided a great opportunity to exploit - instead of sticking to the spirit of the event by inviting the stranger friend, they capitalised on the  irresistible opportunity to invite their BDS friend and in so doing to push their own political agenda. Never once even a thought for the certain negative consequences for the congregation itself and Progressive Jewry in SA in general. Shame on you. #notinmyname
  12. 4 Anonymous 14 Nov
    The explanations from Beit Emanuel's management for BDS's presence at our shul don't ring 100% true. In fact, I know that they are not  accurate. And this is what is causing so much suffering among the congregants. Nobody knows what or who to believe. Most of us feel that we were given a sugar-coated version of what really happened on Sukkot. Most people I have spoken to are pointing fingers at a small group of congregants with leftist tendencies.In South Africa, we recently experienced first-hand what a  "state capture" looks like. Let us not be the first to allow a "Shul Capture" by a small group of leftist radicals, and certainly not from BDS.  I would also like to ask our Conservative and Orthodox fellow Jews not to judge Reform Judaism by the actions of a minority within our movement.
  13. 3 Judith 15 Nov

    I implore everyone in the Jewish community to take a step back for one second. We all want to see the cessation of anti-Semetic hate speech in South Africa, and indeed world wide. What better way than by building non-violent and friendly relations with respected members of the pro-Palestinian community?

    As Nelson Mandela put it so beautifully: "No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

    As long as we continue to perpetuate this hatred, amongst members of our OWN community AND amongst our fellow human beings, the strife, the war, the killings, the heartache, the fear, and the pain will continue.

  14. 2 Tania sani 17 Nov
    Why does this over the top reaction to these events feel like 1980s white South Africa? We should have evolved since then. Well done Rabbi Sa'ar. 
  15. 1 Ishvara Dhyan 18 Nov
    wow , so many ANON comments ...
    sorry if you are members, can't take any of you seriously until you have a NAME could be anyone anywhere 


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