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Disunity over BDS plagues SA Progressive Jewry

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SAUPJ Gauteng regional Chairman Reeva Forman says she is “deeply concerned about this divisive issue that threatens not only Gauteng Progressive Jewry, but the wider Jewish community of SA”. Progressive Rabbis Shaked of Johannesburg, and Alexander of Cape Town have supported the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voices for Just Peace (JVJP) - who “actively promote BDS” - according to Dan Brotman (pic) – and are “dishonouring the Progressive movement’s respect for diversity (by) using their pulpit to openly affiliate with one political viewpoint on such a divisive issue”. Read full story
by ANT KATZ | Nov 12, 2014

Rabbi Sa'ar Shaked of the Beit Emanuel Progressive Shul in Johannesburg addressed a letter last week to the co-ordinating team at Jewish Voices for Just Peace (JVJP) - an anti-Zionist group who “actively promote BDS” – who, according to one of his congregants, Dan Brotman – are “dishonouring the Progressive movement’s respect for diversity (by) using their pulpit to openly affiliate with one political viewpoint on such a divisive issue”.

In his letter to JVJP (CLICK FOR PDF), Rabbi Shaked gave his "wholehearted blessing" to the JVJP's Breaking Down The Wall event at Constitutional Hill” in Johannesburg and also to Cape Progressive Rabbi Greg Alexander, who is chairman of the SAAPR (in effect the Progressive Chief Rabbi) who had, together with JVJP, attended an event with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

"A pattern of public activity is starting to be revealed"' wrote Shaked. "This is very encouraging indeed."

But Shaked and Alexander have caused a storm of fury by associating themselves publicly with BDS.

Differing ideologies

Alvin Kushner, the recently-elected national chairman of the SAUPJ, told Jewish Report this afternoon that “the SAUPJ is unequivocally opposed to the BDS movement whose commitment and aim is the destruction of the Jewish State”. The SAUPJ, said  Kushner, “therefore distances itself from any activity by any members of our community that gives any support and credibility to the BDS movement”.

In direct contrast, Rabbi Alexander, chairman of the SA Association of Progressive Rabbis (SAAPR), also issued a statement to Jewish Report this afternoon, in which he said unequivocally that the SAUPJ and the SAAPR “do not have a political position on Israel.

“We are a religious movement and do have a religious stance on Israel,” he said, “which is to push with all our resources for a time that Israel can truly fulfil the prophetic vision: ‘I will also rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people; And there will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying’."  (Isaiah 65)

Alexander said they encouraged SA Jewry to listen to all voices that existed and to bring them into the mainstream “to foster debate and discussion on positive pathways forward”. 

In an apparent reference to himself and Rabbi Shaked, Alexander told Jewish Report that “two of our rabbis recently engaged” with Jewish Voices for Peace to encourage dialogue and debate. “We do not endorse all the goals of any single organisation.”

Jewish Report is reliably informed that Rabbi Alexander had to explain his decision to participate in the public meeting of mainly anti-Israel and BDS campaigners the Cape Progressive leadership and that the matter was raised at a Cape regional meeting  last week.  

Gauteng chairman Forman concerned

Brotman  Dan longReeva Forman (PICTURED RIGHT) made the following statement to SAJR Online today: “As chairman of the SAUPJ Gauteng region, I am deeply, deeply concerned about this divisive issue that threatens not only Gauteng Progressive Jewry, but the wider Jewish community of South Africa.”

 Forman, who is also a deputy chairman of the SA Zionist Federation, added: “In my opinion, the majority of Progressive Jews are Zionist in that they believe in a Jewish State for our nation.

"At the same time, this does not deny anyone the right to criticise the government of Israel or any Jewish organisation.”








Dan Brotman of Melville, Johannesburg, who is a long-standing SA Jewish communal worker and member of Shaked’s shul, addressed the following letter to the Jewish Report in his personal capacity:

As a gay Jewish man, one of the reasons why I joined a Progressive synagogue was due to its full inclusion of LGBTI individuals and the movement's respect for all forms of diversity. Members of the Progressive movement are diverse not only in terms of age, race and sexual orientation, but we are also diverse in terms of our views on Zionism and the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Brotman  Dan homeAlthough our Progressive rabbis bend over backwards to reiterate their support for LGBTI members, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with a recent trend among Progressive rabbis of politicising their pulpit on the Israel/Palestine issue.

LEFT: Dan Brotman

I was distressed to learn that two rabbis, one in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg, recently publicly associated themselves with groups that advocate Boycott, Divest and Sanctions against Israel. At a recent Shabbat service, a Progressive rabbi read a letter to the congregation from Jewish Voices for a Just Peace, which advocates BDS.

When I see a rabbi openly associating him or herself with groups that actively promote BDS, it makes me wonder whether those who oppose BDS are welcome within the congregation. I believe that the rabbis concerned are dishonouring the Progressive movement’s respect for diversity, as they are using their pulpit to openly affiliate with one political viewpoint on such a divisive issue.

A rabbi espousing his or her own personal views on an issue which is so emotive within the Jewish community will ultimately lead to the alienation of one sector of the congregation or another. I believe that it is a rabbi's responsibility to bring together congregants with diverse views, thus I would welcome Progressive rabbis creating safe spaces for their congregants to discuss Israel/Palestine, intermarriage and other contentious issues.

I challenge the SA Union of Progressive Judaism to articulate a clear stance on where the movement stands on its support for BDS and whether rabbis are permitted to publicly express their political views, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At loggerheads

 Alvin Kushner said this afternoon that the World Union for Progressive Judaism, to whom the SAUPJ is affiliated, “identifies with and is fully committed to the State of Israel as the democratic state of the Jewish people”.

 But, in Rabbi Alexander’s separate statement also issued this afternoon, he says: “We recognise that within our movement and within the Jewish community at large there is a wide variety of opinions on the political solutions for the Middle East and support calls for peace, negotiations and constructive engagement with all parties involved.  We encourage our local Jewish community to listen to all the voices that exist within our community and to bring those voices into the mainstream of the Jewish community to foster debate and discussion on positive pathways forward”. 

The Progressive "Chief Rabbi", Alexander adds: “We also encourage engagement with other local faith leaders to discuss the complexity of the religious and political issues that the conflict in Israel and Palestine raise up. We engage with a wide variety of Jewish and non-Jewish organisations on Israel and two of our rabbis recently engaged with the SA Jewish Voices for Peace to encourage dialogue and debate. We do not endorse all the goals of any single organisation, just as we engage in interfaith dialogue without endorsing everything that a faith leader or religion stands for.


  1. 13 Maskil 12 Nov
    Whether one agrees with Rabbi Shaked or not, it should be noted that (a) he enjoys freedom of the pulpit and (b), from what I can see, he does not claim to speak on behalf of anyone except himself.  While I would prefer that divisive political issues not be addressed from the pulpit, the conflict in Israel/Palestine is increasingly taking on a religious aspect, reminding us that the line between politics and religion is, at best, blurred.
  2. 12 David Hersch 12 Nov
    South African Jewish Voices for a Just Peace - Feh!

    The person driving this group in South Africa is Johannesburg based Jessica Sherman, the youngest daughter of the Late Rabbi David Sherman (z”l), former Senior Rabbi and founder of the Cape Town
    Progressive Jewish Congregation (Reform), and his wife Bertha, both ardent and devoted Zionists. Ms Sherman’s two older sisters live in Jerusalem.

    This might explain the presence of Rabbi Greg Alexander at this event. I have nothing against Rabbi Alexander and have always liked and got on with him and, of course, he is entitled to his opinions, but in the broader and correct sense, I wonder at the wisdom of lending his presence to this quickly forgotten tree planting in an obscure part of Cape Town and accepting the less than truthful accompanying plaque which reads:

    Between 1 July 2014 and 26 August 2014 
    2 139 Palestinians were killed in Gaza by the Israeli military – 70 percent were civilians.
    3 Israelis and one foreign national were killed in Israel by the Palestinian militia. 
    This tree was planted by
    South African Voices for a Just Peace
    Unveiled by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
    In memory of the civilians killed during 50 days of conflict in Israel - Palestine

    Not exactly factual and highly selective, in fact deliberately untruthful. The real facts are:  Between 2,127 and 2,189 Gazans were killed (including 513 children). 67 Israeli soldiers, 5 Israeli civilians (including one child) and one Thai civilian were killed and 469 IDF soldiers and 261 Israeli civilians were injured. The Hamas controlled Gaza Health Ministry, UN and some human rights groups reported that 69–75% of the Palestinian casualties were civilians; Israeli officials estimated that around 50% of those killed were
    civilians. Let us not forget that many civilian casualties were the result of Hamas using the Gaza population as human shields at rocket launch sites as confirmed and proven after the conflict by many journalists stationed in Gaza at the time. I will accept the Israeli statistics long before that of Hamas and the UN, which showed its colours and bias during this conflict.

    The ratio of militants to civilians in this conflict was 1:1, whilst other conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan etc were anything from 1:5, 1:8 or even more. This proves how careful Israel was in trying not to harm civilians. In many cases the IDF warned civilians prior to targeting militants in highly populated areas in order to comply with international law. Human rights organisations including Amnesty International, confirmed that in many cases, Palestinians received
    warnings prior to evacuation, including flyers, phone calls and roof knocking, much to Israel’s military disadvantage.

    By this time, the IDF reported that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups had fired 4,564 rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel, while the IDF attacked 5,263 targets in Gaza; at least 34 known
    tunnels were destroyed and two-thirds of Hamas's 10,000-rocket arsenal was used up or destroyed. Let us bear in mind that it was Hamas’ intention to use these tunnels to attack Israeli kibbutzim along the Gaza border and kill and kidnap hundreds of Israelis on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the holiest time in the Jewish calendar.

    I am therefore more than surprised that Rabbi Alexander should associate himself with this group and the placing of a deliberate propagandistic and untruthful plaque, which may or may not survive where it is placed and aiding and abetting the enemies of his people and community.

    The South African Israel Public Affairs Committee
    Cape Town
  3. 11 Adam Levy 12 Nov
    the tired old tactic of silencing dissenting voices; vilifying those acting out their conscience and herding people to behave like sheep without brains, conscience or rationality. 
  4. 10 Maskil 13 Nov
    I also wanted to point out that this is not a Progressive rabbinic/lay leadership split along anti-/pro-Israel lines.  Positions and opinions are extremely diverse amongst both rabbinic and lay leadership, nationally and within regions and individual congregations.  The letter that Dan Brotman refers to was, I believe, a JVJP flyer, and was read out by a member of the Beit Emanuel management committee, not by Rabbi Shaked.

    It’s very unfortunate that South Africa doesn’t currently have an organisation or movement capable of giving those who are “pro-Israel but concerned/critical” a voice (such as J Street in the US).  This space appears to have been “occupied” by JVJP, but their stance is far more extreme than most of us are comfortable with.  There is a clear need for a middle of the road group that supports the existence of Israel, but reflects the grave concerns that many have regarding the direction that Israeli politics, society and military action are increasingly taking.
  5. 9 Choni 13 Nov
    In my opinion the only criticism and concerns regarding the direction that Israeli politics, society, and (particularly) military action, are taking is that it does not conform with the Torah.
    If Israeli leadership and it's people would cease to look for praise and understanding from the nations, and Diaspora Jewry, instead of turning to the God of Israel, it would find true peace and security far sooner.
    No, Maskill, there is no middle ground. Torah is the only route, and , Thank God, Israel is slowly but surely heading that way.
  6. 8 Robin 13 Nov
    It seems both the Progressive Chief Rabbi and the Orthodox Chief Rabbi need some guidance.
  7. 7 Michael 13 Nov
    Jewish Voices for a Just Peace: Not what it says on the tin
  8. 6 adam levy 13 Nov
    Robin - don't forget Choni as well.

    Nicely said Maskil!
  9. 5 abu mamzer 13 Nov
    There is a new organization in SA called JWB....Jews without borders,no physical borders,no gender borders,no Israel borders ,etc etc etc ad nauseum!
    Engaging with BDS,is something like engaging with rhino horn smugglers which by the way is very good for the politically confused.
    My dear Rabbis of the progressive persuasion...don't  quote me Isaiah...go to Jerusalem,to the Temple Mount our Holiest of Places,and exert your rights to pray there( for the peace of Al quds of course),or go purchase a box of Kleenex for all the crocodile tears you shed.
    Since you like Isaiah so much let's try Chapter 4 verse
    4:When the Lord shall have washed away the" filth"" of the daughters of Zion...(The English translation is very polite,the Hebrew direct)...That's really what the political treatise is worth of the SAJVJP.
    As for King TUTu,I don't care for the colour of his yarmulke.
  10. 4 Gary Selikow 13 Nov
    Levy, you people are the sheep jumping on the anti-Israel bandwagon because it is the fashionable thing to do if you on the left
  11. 3 Mordechai 14 Nov
    I have always said that these leftist Israel hating and Palestinian loving Jews are more dangerous than Israel's Palestinian (and Arab) enemies.
  12. 2 Abu Geshem 14 Nov
    It is interesting to note that the lip service about diverse views and enencouraging debate falls extremely short when comments, questions and debatable issues are raised on the JVJP social media pages. In many cases, the latter are removed and links are disabled. 
    While some comments are pure invective, personal and amount to senseless rants, others fall in line by being civil and acceptable. 
  13. 1 Maskil 16 Nov
    Response by Beit Emanuel chair Diane Fine to the article this week in Jewish Report, attacking Beit Emanuel. These comments were made to the congregation after the Shabbat service, Friday November 14th.

    Shabbat Shalom.

    I’d like to respond briefly to the furore over comments by Rabbi Sa’ar on his personal website. 

    A cornerstone of Progressive Judaism is the centrality of diversity and pluralism. Over the past couple of years you have all heard me speak repeatedly about the importance of acknowledging diversity, encouraging congregants to engage about their different views and a strong belief that this diversity can and does enrich our community. 

    Diversity is an idea that is easily agreed to in principle, and very hard to live up to in practice. It requires us to maintain cordial relations with people who share our religion, but not necessarily our ideas. 

    In this very hall, we have celebrated Yom Ha’aztmaut, invited Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk, and had speakers on a range of topics from outright support for Zionism to those critical of the political systems in Israel/Palestine. We have had speakers who support the two state solution, the one state solution and we have encouraged those with different views on how to achieve peace in Israel to speak about their different ideas. Some of us attended a very moving JVJP ceremony to say Kaddish for all the children on both sides who died in the recent war in Israel and Palestine. And some of our congregants were instrumental in arranging a day of arts and culture entitled “Breaking Down the Wall”. 

    Rabbi Sa’ar’s letter which started this acrimony refers to Psalms 34:14 “Seek peace and pursue it”.  He said: “The only way one can create peace is by being peace, with deep commitment to non-violence and to the dignity of all humans. We, Jews, are also committed to the sacred covenant which binds all of the people of Israel, in the holy land and in the many Diasporas, to past and to future generations. May the Almighty grant us wisdom, perseverance and open heart to fulfil this task.

    I do not know how a new congregant who only joined our community six weeks ago can take umbrage at these words. Without knowing anything of our role in encouraging diverse voices, without asking to meet with Rabbi Sa’ar to discuss his views, or even with me as the chairman, without bothering to engage in our Progressive way which is one of discussion and debate, Dan Brotman ran to the public media, to the utter delight of a certain newspaper that has seldom been friendly to Progressive Judaism. Some of you may have noticed that Jewish Report approached many people to comment on Beit Emanuel. But not a single person from Beit Emanuel was asked to comment.

    I shall give Mr Brotman the benefit of the doubt: I shall assume that he had no idea he was playing the dangerous role of agent provocateur. Either way, he has widened the unhealthy  rift between our Progressive movement and the broader Jewish community and between us and the more conservative elements within our own Progressive community. 

    Perhaps Mr Brotman was afraid of being contaminated by our openness. But his comments show he has missed the point. There is a difference between congratulating a group for a well-organised event and showing support for BDS. Reaching out to others, which is the cornerstone of Sa’ar’s philosophy, something he did for many years in Israel, and which he has done often enough in South Africa with Muslims, Christians, charitable groups - even with the Orthodox Chief Rabbi – is by no means the same thing as sharing the views of those groups.

    The crux of Mr Brotman’s argument is that JVJP supports BDS, and therefore by extension, Beit Emanuel supports BDS. For this he provides no evidence. I have looked more carefully than Mr Brotman has, and I can find no statement from JVJP that suggests any such support for BDS. Beit Emanuel cannot and does not speak on JVJP’s behalf. But to speak for ourselves, the subject of support for BDS has never been tabled at any Beit Emanuel meeting, and my guess is that it probably never will be.

    Some of you may recall that just a few weeks ago, Mr Brotman was offered a JTalk platform to discuss his personal experiences of injustice and ostracism as a gay Jewish man married to a non-Jewish partner. The talk, which was critical of the Jewish community and of right-wing Zionists, could probably not have been delivered at any other shul in this country. In all likelihood, quite a few people in the audience did not agree with Mr Brotman or approve of his lifestyle choices, but he was provided with a respectful hearing. The flipside of our generosity to Mr Brotman, is that he is expected to show the same generosity of spirit to other people with whom he might not necessarily agree.

    Mr Brotman says in his letter: “I believe that it is a rabbi's responsibility to bring together congregants with diverse views, thus I would welcome Progressive rabbis creating safe spaces for their congregants to discuss Israel/Palestine, intermarriage and other contentious issues”.  Well Mr Brotman, if you’d been paying attention, that’s exactly what we do. The person who has undermined this safe space is not our rabbi, but you, because you knowingly manipulated the media to set off a hate campaign against us.

    Our Constitution says: Progressive Jews believe that Judaism should be an active force for good in the lives of Jewish individuals, families and communities and that it should contribute to the betterment of human society. Progressive Jews value truth above tradition, sincerity above conformity, and human needs above legal technicalities.

    Those are good principles. Let’s stick with them.


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