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Shembe Church leaders visit Israel, pledge solidarity

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Many South African Jews have felt violated, isolated, and vilified since the savage Hamas terror attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 and the hatred spawned by the ongoing Gaza war. But they shouldn’t forget that they have allies in the Christian community.

From 9 to 16 May, leaders of the Shembe Church, which claims to have more than eight million followers in South Africa, travelled to Israel to demonstrate solidarity and deepen ties with the Jewish state. The trip was organised by the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI), which works in partnership with the South African Zionist Federation to build bridges with sympathetic Christian sects. The Shembe leadership has publicly signed a “declaration of indigenous friendship” with Israel.

The Shembe Church, also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church of South Africa, Nazarite Church, or iBandla lamaNazaretha, has most of its supporters in KwaZulu-Natal, but also has a strong presence in Gauteng. It’s the second largest African-initiated church in the country. It was founded in 1910 by Isaiah Shembe, the great-grandfather of the current king of the Shembe in Gauteng, Nkosi Phakama Shembe. It reveres its founder as a divine prophet, and shares many practices similar to Judaism, including observing the Sabbath on Saturday, and eschewing pork and premarital sex.

A few months ago, a SAFI event at Sydenham Shul hosted about 250 Gauteng Shembe leaders for a prayer service, and held a workshop on developments in the Middle East. Seeing the church’s strong support for Israel, SAFI decided to organise a visit to the country for its top leadership. Fourteen Shembe leaders – 10 from Gauteng and four representing Nkosi Sizwe Shembe from KwaZulu-Natal – were accompanied by SAFI Chairperson Shaun Zagnoev, SAFI Director Daniel Yakcobi, and SAFI spokesperson Bafana Modise.

Their trip included visits to the Kotel; the south of the country to see the aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack; the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial; and the cemetery on Har Herzl. They travelled to the Jordan River for baptismal ceremonies, and participated in the Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut commemorations in Jerusalem. They also met Avi and Devorah Kay, the parents of late South African Eli Kay who was stabbed to death at the Kotel in 2021.

“The Shembe met Ethiopian Jews, whose story fascinated them,” said Zagnoev. “They have been very engaged, and this trip has dispelled the accusation that there’s apartheid in Israel as an insult to those who suffered under real apartheid. They have seen with their own eyes people treated fairly and indiscriminately. They are prepared to make public statements in support of Israel and the Jewish entitlement to the land.”

Zagnoev said that though the Shembe were well disposed towards Israel, many leaders had never experienced Israel to get a full appreciation of the place and its significance, and to strengthen their faith. Now, the leaders got first-hand exposure to Jewish practices similar to their own.

Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Eli Belotserkovsky, who hastily left the country in November 2023 before a parliamentary vote to kick him out, was present at one of the events.

Speaking through Bafana Modise as translator at that event, Nkosi Phakama Shembe said, “We’re here to share the pain that you’re going through as a country. We saw something terrible that happened on 7 October. We’re here to declare that what has been done by our government, it’s not the ubuntu we were taught by our forefather, Nelson Mandela. This doesn’t come from the believers of South Africa. We’re here to say, ‘Not in our name as South Africans.’ We must make it clear that Israel isn’t an apartheid state.”

The delegation signed the indigenous friendship declaration with SAFI leadership and the Israeli government. The document says, “While we acknowledge the challenges and adversities faced in preserving our indigenous identities, cultures, and traditions, we draw strength from our resilience and determination. We stand united not only in recognition of our shared struggles, but also in celebration of the remarkable achievements and potential that lie within our communities. As stewards of our ancestral lands, we pledge to protect and nurture our territories, ensuring that they remain vital sources of cultural identity and spiritual connection.” Yakcobi signed on behalf of SAFI.

“Their supporters come from all political parties, and the Shembe are highly regarded by South African political leaders,” said Zagnoev. “I’m not sure they would go so far as telling their supporters not to vote for the ANC [African National Congress], but they are clearly dissatisfied with the ANC’s position on the Middle East. This trip isn’t the end but the beginning of the process to garner grassroots support for Israel in South Africa. They want the embassies in both countries to be fully functioning again.”

Their trip is significant, Yakcobi said, because “The leaders are intending to engage with their millions of followers and aren’t keeping their support for Israel secret. They know that the views of the South African government aren’t the views of the vast majority of the people of the country.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Gary Berkowitz

    May 30, 2024 at 3:56 pm

    Well written and heart felt!

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