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Rabbonim lead in protest




These are the words written by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in a message to the community after taking part in countrywide protests, calling for President Jacob Zuma to stand down.

The protests – which are ongoing – were in response to Zuma’s Cabinet reshuffle, firing Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas and leading the country to junk status.

Rabbi Goldstein encouraged all members of the Jewish community to follow his example and take part in protests, to join hands with their fellow South Africans and to be guided by Jewish values and the struggle for liberation, as inspired by the story of Exodus told on Pesach. Addressing a massive and diverse crowd at the “Save SA” rally in Pretoria, he led a rousing chant of “let my people go” and “Freedom from corruption, freedom from state capture”.

While some may criticise rabbonim for taking part in protests and leading the call for Zuma to step down, Rabbi Dovi Rabin commented: “People were very impressed to see that religious leaders have engaged in the process, not just in thought and speech, but through action.”

Rabbi Gidon Fox said that “it behoves all moral and decent people to speak out against such moral bankruptcy,” while Rabbi Ramon Widmonte emphasised: “The Jewish people detest injustice and unfairness; the Jewish people are rachmanim, bnei rachmanim (merciful people, children of merciful people).

In a speech at a memorial for late Struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada, Rabbi Greg Alexander said: “All of us, including all Jews in South Africa at this point in history and at all times, have a special responsibility to take whatever action we can, to protect and advance hard-won freedoms.”

Rabbi Rabin explains: “The policy of the Chief Rabbi is that whenever there is a request for a prayer to be said at a rally, we always attend,” and he therefore delivered a prayer on behalf of the Chief Rabbi at a march. 

“There was a tremendous camaraderie of all South Africans from various political parties and all races and religions. The other religious leaders commented that they have never seen such a diverse crowd at any of the previous rallies they have attended.”

Rabbi Rabin says all countries have been through challenging and difficult times. “We are not unique in this regard. We have a wonderful future in South Africa. We are blessed and fortunate to practise our Judaism freely, unlike in other countries.

Rabbis from various denominations in cities across South Africa joined the protests and some spoke at memorials for Kathrada. The memorials themselves were sites of protest and Rabbi Alexander of the Cape Town Progressive Hebrew Congregation addressed the Cape Town gathering, saying: “Jewish responsibility includes the obligation to make sure the rights of the poor and vulnerable in society are protected, that our country is founded on justice for all, that we see a future with hope and optimism.”

Rabbi Fox attended a march in his capacity as rabbi of the Pretoria community and encouraged his members to do the same. “This was not a political rally; it was about moral leadership and care for the impoverished and as such the responsibility of everyone to make their voices heard. The recent shenanigans were, in my view, a final intolerable act that spoke of the moral decay which our country has seen since the installation of a president who himself is morally vacuous, both personally and politically.

“With this last perfidious act, the moral corrosion was such that I felt one could not simply remain silent. The march was a vote against the moral decay of a leader who has dragged his party to the depth of moral turpitude and ignored with great callousness the plight of his people. It behoves all moral and decent people to speak out against such moral bankruptcy.”

Rabbi Fox says people from all walks of life, from all races and all religions, all political parties and all economic circumstances, walked side by side, hand in hand in peace and in harmony, with one care only: the welfare of our country and its magnificent people who deserve a moral, principled and caring leadership.”

Rabbi Widmonte marched in his personal capacity and did so because he feels it is the role of leadership – and in particular Jewish leadership – to contribute productively to broader society.

“For me, the grants scandal was the final straw – the current government took 17 million poor people to the edge of desperation: this is simply evil and was a marker for me of their disregard of the value of human life.”

Rabbi Pinchas Zeckry of the Durban Hebrew Congregation spoke at the Ahmed Kathrada memorial service in Durban, where he emphasised the lessons of Pesach: “The first freedom fighter recorded in the Bible, Moshe, didn’t look for the position of leadership – in fact he refused it, suggesting his brother as a better candidate. “Secondly, he did not do it for personal gain – his pursuit for freedom for his people almost cost him his life and he lost all personal comforts.

“Thus, the test will be the day after these protests: Are we going to give up or go back to normal, or continue until the people’s message and wishes reach the leadership and bring change?”

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