The Jewish Report Editorial

The minefield of pulpit politics

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Should a synagogue be for Jewish worship alone? Or also for politics? Can one separate them?
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Nov 12, 2014
The killing in Gush Etzion this week by a Palestinian affiliated with Islamic Jihad, of Israeli woman Dalia Lemkus, whose parents made aliyah three decades ago, raises not just sorrow for her and her family, but also political questions about Israel and Palestine.

Lemkus was a resident of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa. Telfed - the SAZF’s Tel Aviv branch - was represented by its CEO at her funeral.

In the period when the Lemkus family left South Africa along with many other Jews - in the mid-1980s - South Africa was in the grip of a desperate attempt by the apartheid regime to control the country and suppress all dissent. The outlook seemed bleak and likely to end in a racial bloodbath. In June 1986 a state of emergency was in place with security forces patrolling black townships.

Not only Jews - many of whom went to Israel as passionate Zionists - but other whites as well, were seeking alternative places to live. Australia, Canada, the UK, the United States - any Western country which would take them.

Israel was seen at the time as having a reasonable chance of solving its conflict with the Palestinians and was not yet viewed as the “bad-boy” by the international community to the extent it is now.  

Fast forward to today: Israel is mired in what increasingly looks like the beginning of a third Palestinian intifada; peace prospects are receding further and further. Lone terrorists attack Israeli civilians on the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere - like the one who killed Dalia Lemkus.

The security establishment is warning of violence spiralling out of control.  

In South Africa, by contrast, we have defied the pessimists. We are a democracy with a good chance of a bright future, notwithstanding our problems.

Something else has also changed in South Africa, particularly in Jewish community attitudes towards Israel. When people like the Lemkus family went on aliyah, South African Jews viewed Israel in fairly similar ways.

The gap between the right and left was not so wide. Many saw Israel as a “David” standing up against a “Goliath”, and believed that if it persevered, sanity would ultimately prevail between Israelis and Palestinians and peace would be achieved. And from a religious point of view, what was said in most synagogues regarding Israel, was not that different to the views of the moderate mainstream.

Today there is a new scenario, with separate religious factions and their shuls openly taking specific political stances about Israeli politics, ranging from the far left to the far right.

The latest example involves Temple Emanuel, the flagship synagogue in Johannesburg of the Progressive movement, which is causing dissension among its members. Its rabbi, Sa’ar Shaked, last week put out a statement on the synagogue’s letterhead supporting the Jewish group Jewish Voices for a Just Peace (JVJP), which is politically far to the left of mainstream SA Jewry.

His statement congratulated them on the “Breaking down the wall” event held recently at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg and invoked the legacy of Madiba in seeking peace. And recently, Progressive Rabbi Greg Alexander from Cape Town attended an event with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, evoking questions among Progressive members about whether he did so officially or in his private capacity. Both events painted Israeli actions as a key obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.   

Should a synagogue take such a clear public position on Israeli politics and risk alienating members and potential members whose politics may differ? Does the synagogue view the killing of Dalia Lemkus as a consequence of Israeli intransigence and West Bank settlements? Or an example of inherent Palestinian violence towards innocent Israelis?

If the Progressive movement wants to attract mainstream Jews in terms of attitudes to Israel, and not just be a place for Jews far to the left of the mainstream, it needs to think clearly about whether it is primarily a place of worship or politics.


  1. 6 Wot? 13 Nov
    You realise that Rabbis promoting political Zionism from the pulpit is also 'politics'.

    If you want to pose that question it has to also be directed at those Rabbis promoting Zionism. 
  2. 5 Alan Browde 13 Nov
    Dear Geoff

    Do you think that a shul can ever separate life, of which politics is a part, from prayer? This seems to me to be an absurd notion. 
    One doesn't read words from the Torah in isolation from the meaning they have in our everyday lives. We pray with words that form the basis of our morality as people and as a nation. Israel's moral position is not excluded. All rabbis have an obligation to look at the Israeli situation from the standpoint of the basic tenets of Jewish morality and to defend or criticise, from the pulpit, on that basis. Personally I think that any Rabbi who was really honest about what the Torah teaches us would today decide that there is, at least, a shared culpability in the Israeli/Palestine conflict.   
  3. 4 Choni 13 Nov
    'a shared culpability of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict'

    Alan, what exactly do you mean by the above statement?
    The only culpability Israel bears in the conflict is that they do not follow the commandments of our Torah, which you rightly mention is the basis for all our actions.
    Our Torah certainly does not teach us that there is a shared culpability. It teaches us that on re-conquest of our Land , after 2000 years of exile, with amazing miracles, that all enemy Arabs should be expelled/transferred from our ancestral Homeland.
    (If you require Biblical "proof" ask your local Rabbi)
  4. 3 adam levy 13 Nov
    So Geoff what does this really mean: 'or an example of inherent Palestinian violence towards innocent Israelis?'.

    Is this genetic?
  5. 2 Russell Fig 13 Nov
    Politics and religion shoud be separate.
  6. 1 david 24 Dec
    My view is entirely simplistic .
    Shull is for religion and prayer only. Politics, even Zionism, should be for any other external platforms, but excluded absolutely from any Shull , Temple etc. etc.  If we cannot live with that premise, what is the point of a service in any house of worship ?  -- Rabbis need also to accept this .   


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