Reverend Frank Chikane at centre of anti-Israel storm
Reverend Frank Chikane, an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle, “declared war on Israel and its supporters” during a Zoom webinar on 6 February 2021, according to Dexter Van Zile of the online newspaper The Algemeiner. However, Chikane denies any malice.
“[Chikane] levelled a hostile and incendiary assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and an implicit threat against those who support it,” Van Zile wrote.
The Algemeiner is an independent publication covering the Middle East, Israel, and matters of Jewish interest around the world.
Van Zile pointed to a statement made by Chikane to more than 300 Christians that, “We need to begin to say to those who support Israel to brutalise Palestinians that the blood of the people of Palestine will be sought from them, because they collaborate by allowing this system to continue.”
Chikane is a moderator of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) and the World Council of Churches (WCC), and vice-president of the South African Council of Churches (SACC).
The Zoom event opened with the showing of a film, The People’s Patriarch, which profiles Michel Sabbah who served as Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. The film praises Yasser Arafat, declares that “Gaza has been strangled by fire and siege”, and that “Palestine is being liquidated in front of our eyes in an unprecedented manner”.
“We must get to Europe,” Chikane said after the film. “Especially to our Christian brothers and sisters, to say to them, ‘You know the sins of the past which were committed against the Jews must not be used as a reason to allow more sins to be committed against the Palestinians’,” according to Van Zile.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report in response to the article, Chikane said he was using theological terms when he said that “the blood of the people of Palestine will be sought from them”, and that he didn’t mean it literally. “I don’t support violence or terrorism,” he said. “I don’t believe in curses. What I was saying is that we can’t fail in our responsibility to others. I should have used simpler language. People can disagree with me, but they don’t have a right to distort what I said.”
He pointed out that his views aren’t those of the WCC or the SACC, and he takes personal responsibility for them. He said he had visited Israel and the Palestinian territories many times, exploring both sides of the conflict.
He supported the Oslo Accords and would still support a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, and “thus I cannot be an anti-Jewish-state campaigner”.
However, “What’s troubling for me is that within Israel and in the illegal settlements in the occupied areas, there are discriminatory laws against Arab Israelis and Palestinians which are similar to what we experienced in South Africa. For me it’s apartheid in another name.”
To the South African Jewish community, he said, “No-one should threaten a Jew in South Africa. Whatever happens in Israel/Palestine, it shouldn’t affect our relationship here.”
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein disagrees that Chikane’s statements are harmless. “His unhinged attack on Israel is as detached from reality as the medieval Christian blood libels,” he said. “Unfortunately, this kind of hardline anti-Israel fanaticism with no basis in truth remains a real impediment to the cause of peace and justice in the region.”
Goldstein, however, said it didn’t represent the view of the majority of Christians in South Africa.
But Chikane’s views do represent a growing divide among Christians, with one side strongly condemning Israel, and the other supporting the Jewish state. Both the Anglican Church and the Methodist Church in South Africa formally adopted the principles of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) organisation in 2019, much to the chagrin of many of their followers.
“This Zoom conference was an exercise in ‘group think’ of alarming proportions. No-one disagreed with any statement no matter how wild or unsubstantiated,” said Reverend John Atkinson after watching the webinar.
“Chikane made some wild statements. He said that ‘everybody is against the Palestinians’. In fact, global support for the Palestinians is reflected in aid relief in 2018 of more than $1.1 trillion [R16 trillion] according to UNWRA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees]. So clearly, not everybody is against the Palestinians.” Atkinson is one of the people who spoke out when the Anglican Church adopted BDS principles.
“What I found most concerning was the ease with which Chikane moved seamlessly between the South African apartheid struggle and the Israeli/Palestinian situation, a claim that has been shown to be false on numerous occasions,” he said. “One would expect that someone who was at the forefront of the struggle in South Africa wouldn’t devalue that struggle by such a comparison.
“Not surprisingly, the BDS line about the situation in Palestine being worse than apartheid was repeated, albeit in a new form,” Atkinson said.
On Chikane’s statement that, “the sins of the past committed against the Jews in Europe shouldn’t be used as a reason to allow more sins to be committed”, Atkinson notes, “What’s happening in Israel and the disputed territories isn’t comparable to the Holocaust in any shape or form. He conveniently forgets that the history of those sins goes back centuries in the European communities of the Christian brothers and sisters he has in mind. This insensitivity to the sins of one’s own religion seems to be a hallmark of anti-Israel activists in the church.
“The world knows that [Chikane’s] description of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is a caricature of a much more complex situation,” Atkinson said. “It has become customary in discussions like these for the failure of Palestinian leadership to be ignored altogether. I would have thought that Chikane would have been capable of a much broader perspective. Clearly he isn’t.”
Reverend Rowan Rennie, who left the Methodist Church in November 2020 over its approach to Israel even though it cost him his home and job, said, “These are the rantings of a person who has a political and personal agenda. I would assume his past clearly informs his ideological perspective, which is the reason we moved away from the Methodist Church, because you have this fusing of politics and spirituality. It’s a deliberate attempt by the church to rise up in political power and standing.”
Local political analyst Steven Gruzd said, “Chikane has a record of anti-Israel statements. Depending on the audience, his rhetoric changes. He is less measured when speaking to an audience likely to agree with him. Pro and anti-Israel Christian groups both vie constantly to influence government policy. Chikane’s standing in the African National Congress is likely to upset the former and embolden the latter. One speech won’t necessarily change policy, but there are many such speeches.”
Chaya Singer, the executive director of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) Cape Council, said, “While these comments add to voices driving an anti-Israel agenda, I don’t have reason to believe they will advance a shift in policy or have direct political consequences.”
SAZF National Chairperson Rowan Polovin said, “Unfortunately Chikane’s utterances aren’t new. He has been a vocal supporter of BDS for many years and has been particularly vociferous during his time in the SACC. He has failed to condemn any instance of BDS antisemitism, and recently signed a petition calling on the British Labour Party not to suspend Jeremy Corbyn for his role in the antisemitism scandal that infested the party.
“His position is at odds with a growing movement of Christians around the world who understand that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel’s existence and prosperity stands as an important bulwark against the extremism that affects Christian populations in the Middle East and North Africa.”