THE ‘APARTHEID MADE ME’ RABBI AND JEWS WHO ACTUALLY FOUGHT RACISM
There was an unprecedented intervention by a foreign power in December’s British General Election. No, not by the Russian bogeyman, but by the State of Israel, and the Chief Minister of that Israeli intervention was the UK Chief Rabbi. I do not, however, believe that – apart from the energy dissipated in combatting false accusations of antisemitism – the Mirvis intervention played a decisive role in the British Labour Party’s defeat. This was a Brexit Election pure and simple, hammering home even more sharply the choices that had been made in the 2016 Referendum. The soul of the Scottish nation remains European, while the soul of the English nation has been more emphatically shown to be Brexit. Notwithstanding his professed rhetoric about saving “the soul of our nation” – was he suggesting that there is a single “British nation”? – Rabbi Mirvis did not speak for the soul of either the English nation or the Scottish nation, but rather set out to pursue the interests of the Nation State of Israel. But while not being a decisive electoral intervention, its unprecedented character, not least its relentless character assassination of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, nonetheless requires closer scrutiny.
Last November 26 the London Times delivered a rabbinical anathema in triplicate. Under the heading of “Labour antisemitism: Why is Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis intervening in the election?” Its political correspondent, Henry Zeffman, began:
“Ephraim Mirvis’s article in today’s Times is unprecedented by a chief rabbi during a general election.” In another article, under the headings of “Labour antisemitism: Corbyn not fit for high office, says Chief Rabbi Mirvis. ‘New poison’ in the party has been ‘sanctioned from the top’.”, Zeffman further wrote: “Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of antisemitism allegations makes him ‘unfit for high office’, the Chief Rabbi has said while warning that the ‘very soul of our nation is at stake’ in next month’s general election. In an unprecedented intervention into politics … Ephraim Mirvis says that ‘a new poison’ has taken hold in Labour ‘sanctioned from the very top’.”
Under the rhetorical and hysterical heading of “What will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?”, Ephraim Mirvis himself, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, pontificated (to borrow a metaphor from another denomination):
“Convention dictates that the Chief Rabbi stays well away from party politics – and rightly so. However, challenging racism is not a matter of politics, it goes well beyond that… A new poison – sanctioned from the top – has taken root in the Labour Party. Many members of the Jewish community can hardly believe that this is the same party that they called their political home for more than a century. It can no longer claim to be the party of equality and anti-racism… How complicit in prejudice would a leader of Her Majesty’s opposition have to be to be considered unfit for office? … What will the result of this election say about the moral compass of our country? When December 12 arrives, I ask every person to vote with their conscience. Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake.” In other words, Mirvis was not just accusing Corbyn with negligence in tackling anti-semitism; he was accusing him of being its chief architect. “A new poison – sanctioned from the very top” has no other meaning. Mirvis portrayed Corbyn as little else but a reincarnation of Hitler.
English born and raised Rabbi David Rosen CBE (who is also the first Israeli citizen and first Orthodox Rabbi to have been made a Papal Knight) is the Jerusalem-based International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. I was to form a personal friendship with Rosen when he served as Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1979 to 1985. The South African born and raised Ephraim Mirvis arrived as a second Orthodox Rabbi in Dublin in 1982, succeeding Rosen as Chief Rabbi from 1985 to 1992. During Mirvis’s decade in Ireland it was more a case of a friendly acquaintanceship, not least because he was Chairman of the Board of the secondary school to be attended by my children. Mirvis came across to me as an affable yet rather grey presence compared to his flamboyant predecessor. In November 1987 Chief Rabbi Mirvis attended a lecture I gave in the Irish Jewish Museum on Irish and Jewish Volunteers in the Spanish Anti-Fascist War, with particular reference to the story of the Irish Jewish Volunteer Maurice (Morry) Levitas (1917-2001). It would not be until a year later that I would actually meet my fellow Dubliners, the Communist brothers Morry and Max Levitas (1915-2018), leading to enduring family friendships. But Mirvis had no problems attending that lecture in praise of the Levitas family, for my lecture had also praised the Irish-born President of Israel Chaim Herzog (1918-1997) for the solidarity with the Spanish Republic which he had shown during that War.
Press censorship in Britain does not, however, now allow a Levitas to be published when he wishes to dispute Mirvis’s character assassination of Corbyn. On November 28, after ongoing refusals to publish any of his letters, Ben Levitas, son of Morry, posted on his Facebook page:
“The latest version of a letter I have sent in various forms to the Guardian, Jewish Chronicle and most recently the Times, protesting against the slur that Corbyn is antisemitic: My uncle Max Levitas fought Mosley’s Blackshirts at Cable Street in 1936 and remained an anti-Fascist activist until he died late last year aged 103, when the Times honoured him with a full-page obituary. He remained a Corbyn supporter to the end and saw attempts to label the Labour party antisemitic as a smear campaign. In his memory, I would like to remind readers that Ephraim Mirvis does not speak for all Jews on this matter (‘Corbyn not fit for high office, says chief Rabbi’ November 26). Max Levitas knew well what it was to fight racism. He had its true measure. In recent times he shared platforms with many from John Bercow (for the charity Jewish Care) to Corbyn himself. He would I am certain have recognised Bercow’s fair judgement when the ex-Speaker said earlier this month that in 22 years of knowing Corbyn he had ‘never detected so much as a whiff of antisemitism’. Jeremy Corbyn paid warm tribute to Max as the main speaker at his packed memorial service earlier this year, alongside the local Labour MP Rushanara Ali and the local Rabbi. Antisemitic? Not from where I was sitting.”
Also on November 28, Ben’s mother Jackie posted: “I’ve posted several things which try to defend Jeremy Corbyn’s record of fighting against Anti-Semitism. I feel Righteous Anger and a sense of pain at the latest accusations. I want to give a very different picture gained from meeting Corbyn at my brother-in-law’s memorial service in January this year. He was the main speaker among many because Max Levitas was much loved and a star in his community. The hall was packed and all shades of the Left were there but mainly family and friends and comrades and a different kind of Jewish community than the one described by the Chief Rabbi in the Times. Their voices have not been heard. None of them would have accepted an anti-Semite in their midst. These are devoted activists against racism and they have been in the front line, Corbyn among them. They know full well who is who. Max Levitas would have been the first to speak up for Corbyn. My son Ben Levitas has tried to do the same. I reprint his letter sent in vain to various newspapers. I’ve also re-printed the long list of Corbyn’s record on fighting anti-Semitism and defending Jews. I wonder how many of his accusers could match it?”
On November 26, Morry’s daughter, Ruth Levitas, had also posted: “This photograph shows my uncle Max Levitas on the platform at the 80th anniversary of Cable Street in October 2016 when Max was 101. It was his last public appearance. He shares a platform with Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn wrote about Max in the Jewish Chronicle after Max’s death in 2018 – see http://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/the-world-is-a-better-place-because-of-my-friend-max-levitas-cable-street-1.472167 – and spoke movingly and generously at Max’s memorial meeting in January this year. Max had campaigned in East London with Corbyn against racism and fascism for decades, and regarded him as a friend. If there were an iota of anti-Semitism in Corbyn, Max would have had nothing to do with him. Max and my father Morry were at Cable Street in 1936: both of them were injured and needed hospital treatment. So were Jeremy Corbyn’s parents. The Jewish Establishment at that time told Jews to stay at home and not oppose Mosley. The Jewish Establishment then did not speak for all Jews. The Chief Rabbi does not speak for all Jews now. The threat of anti-semitism is far greater now as then from the far Right – the likes of Tommy Robinson who has offered his support to Boris Johnson – and from the Conservative Party itself. Our radical tradition demands that we work for a better world, a more just and equal society, here and internationally. That is what Max stood for and what Corbyn stands for. I can hear Max’s voice as I write: WE MUST RETURN A LABOUR GOVERNMENT.”
On December 9 Ruth further posted: “I’ve just come back from the Corbyn rally in central Bristol in time to watch it on the news. Good turnout, good feeling of determination to push on through the week. But going onto College Green participants had to run the gauntlet of Rabbi Mirvis’s acolytes brandishing placards saying Corbyn is a racist, Corbyn loves terrorists, 87% of Jews think Corbyn is an anti-Jewish racist. I spent half an hour arguing with them (including a bit on camera for ITV). They spout terrible nonsense. I’m not posting pictures of their placards as some of them are libellous, and I don’t want to give them publicity. One of them even told me Corbyn had endorsed an antisemitic book by Eric Hobsbawm that talks about ugly Jews. I did point out EH was Jewish and a refugee from Nazi Germany, and the book at issue is J A Hobson’s 1902 analysis of the economics of imperialism, written at a time when antisemitism was endemic. But Corbyn’s still a racist, please don’t confuse me with facts.” And again on December 10: “I see that those of us who argued with the Jewish students at the Corbyn rally in Bristol on Monday are also being labelled antisemites. I appear in video footage as an offender in some of these tweets. I am actually Jewish. I guess that’s one way of proving the Labour Party is full of antisemites. When will this absolute garbage stop?”
But to return to Mirvis himself, on matters of Israel, he had, for the most part, kept a low public profile while Chief Rabbi of Ireland. The Irish Times of November 2, 1992, did record the soon-to-depart “Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, talking on television at the Jewish New Year and saying he would like to see an Israeli embassy set up here”. But he remained content to leave the public heavy lifting on behalf of Israel to his predecessor. “Religious imperialism in Vatican – Dr Rosen” was the main heading in the Irish Times on July 22, 1985, when reporting on a colloquium held in Dublin of the International Council of Christians and Jews:
“The Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dr Mirvis, said that the colloquium was a unique event for Ireland. He recalled that his predecessor, Dr Rosen, who also spoke last night, played a leading part in establishing the Irish Council of Christians and Jews… The former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Dr David Rosen … now Dean of the Sapir Jewish Heritage Centre, Jerusalem, was a keynote speaker… (He said) real tolerance on the part of Christians towards Jews today was also not possible if one had not come to terms with the reality of the return of the exiles to the land (of Israel) and the restoration of independent Jewish life. A statement issued last month from the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews … called on Catholics not to see contemporary Israel in a religious perspective but in reference to the common principles of international law. If the Vatican really saw Israel in terms of international law then it would have recognised its existence de jure after it came into being following a United Nations decision and would by now have established the appropriate diplomatic relations.”
When it came to international law, of course, David Rosen wanted to have it both ways. What he neglected to reveal was his successor’s record as a settler on illegally occupied territory. For, from 1973 to 1976, Mirvis had been based at Yeshivat Har Etzion, in the settlement of Alon Shvut, which is located in the Occupied West Bank on territory captured by Israel in the 1967 War, and categorised as an illegal settlement under international law.
Having been Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Mirvis’s career path was to proceed prestigiously upwards. From 1993 to 1996 he was rabbi of London’s Western Marble Arch Synagogue after the previous holder of the position, Rabbi Jonathan Saks, became UK Chief Rabbi. In 1996, Mirvis was appointed rabbi at the Finchley United Synagogue, before finally succeeding Jonathan Lord Saks as UK Chief Rabbi in September 2013. From the outset, Mirvis had a political mission. The Jewish Chronicle reported on May 15, 2014: “Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis’s mission to Israel this week involved 49 Orthodox rabbis from across Britain… Rabbi Mirvis said the aim was to give his rabbinate a ‘better understanding’ of Israel and to deepen their awareness of ‘both the old and new challenges that Israel faces’… The trip was an initiative of Rabbi Mirvis, a strong Zionist who has pledged to increase the prominence of Israel in communal life. All rabbis under his aegis were invited… Rabbi Mirvis said: ‘Israel is central to our faith. I would like Israel to feature more prominently in our synagogues and across our communities. The Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel is deep and it is eternal. It goes to the very fibre of our being as a faith community and as a nation.'”
So, five years ago, when Mirvis spoke of “the soul of our nation”, for him the “our nation” meant Israel, not at all the Britain of his “our nation” anti-Corbyn campaign. And he next set out to redefine anti-Zionism as being nothing else but “anti-Semitism” pure-and-simple. In The Telegraph on May 3, 2016, Mirvis pronounced: “The time has come to give the lie to a myth that has not only dominated recent headlines, but that has poisoned public discourse on anti-Semitism and Israel for decades … that Zionism is separate from Judaism as a faith; that it is purely political; that it is expansionist, colonialist and imperialist… (Zionism is) a noble and integral part of Judaism… But to those people who have nevertheless sought to redefine Zionism, who vilify and delegitimize it, I say: Be under no illusions – you are deeply insulting not only the Jewish community… You are spreading that ancient and insidious virus of anti-Semitism.”
It is Mirvis who insulted the noble anti-Zionist traditions within the Jewish community.
See https://yiddishkayt.org/the-salt-sea/ for that anti-Zionist anthem of the Jewish Workers’ Bund penned by the great Yiddish poet S. Ansky and performed by Daniel Kahn, which includes the following verses, as translated by Kahn:
“The children of wealthy, enlightened, the clergy –
Into Zion they call the Hebrews,
We’ve heard this old story before from our enemies
‘A ghetto for the eternal Jew!’
They say that they answer the prayers of our fathers
From deep in their graves, hear them call
While souls who are living in sorrow and hunger –
To them they’re deaf as the wall.”
In an article for the New Statesman on February 24, 2016 – entitled “I grew up in South Africa, so believe me when I say: Israel is not an apartheid state” – Mirvis had also fulminated: “This week on university campuses across the UK, activists are preparing for ‘Israel Apartheid Week’… The implied message here is simple: Israel today is where South Africa was in the latter part of the 20th century. It is a comparison that is entirely false; a grave insult to those who suffered under apartheid; and a tragic obstacle to peace. The difference between the two countries could scarcely be more stark. Under apartheid, a legal structure of racial hierarchy governed all aspects of life… Anyone who truly understands what apartheid was cannot possibly look around Israel today and honestly claim there is any kind of parity… I personally draw a great deal of inspiration from the state of Israel and am proud of her achievements. The state was born against all odds and, despite having to fight every day for survival, has become a world leader in medicine, technology, science, agriculture and beyond. But of course, as even the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has said, Israel is not perfect – no country is. The challenges she faces, both external and internal, are urgent and severe. And yet, the beauty of Israel’s democracy, unique in the Middle East, is that there is no social or political problem that is not given abundant consideration within Israel’s own parliament, free press and civil society…”
In the Jewish Chronicle on August 25, 2016, in an article headed “Apartheid made me who I am”, the following portrait was provided: “Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is looking thoughtful. Outside, views of Table Mountain in the winter sunshine catch the attention of tourists, but the South African-raised rabbi’s regular visits to Cape Town are rather different – they are something of a journey into his soul… Rabbi Mirvis always wanted to be a rabbi. And the fact that his father is a rabbi and that he hailed from a family of community leaders inspired his choice… although his faith in society was tested by apartheid. ‘There is no doubt whatsoever that growing up within the apartheid era fashioned the type of person that I became. I grew up detesting the policies of the government of the country in which I was living.’ His rejection of South African politics, however, was formative… The Chief Rabbi’s late mother, Freida, was principal of the only training college for coloured teachers of pre-school children in South Africa during apartheid. ‘She was a selfless person who was committed to her own community and also to South African society, and that certainly had a profound influence on me’, he explains.”
In an article entitled “The contract on Corbyn”, and published in Haaretz last November 28, the courageous Israeli journalist Gideon Levy paid tribute to the decency of Mirvis’s parents, but questioned whether their son could lay claim to any such ‘anti-apartheid’ credentials: “The Jewish establishment in Britain and the Israeli propaganda machine have taken out a contract on the leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. The contract was taken out a long time ago, and it was clear that the closer Corbyn came to being elected prime minister, the harsher the conflict would get… Born in South Africa and a graduate of Har Etzion Yeshiva in the settlement of Alon Shvut, Mirvis is the voice of British Jewry. In Capetown, Johannesburg and Har Etzion, he should have learned what apartheid was and why one should fight it. His parents did so, but one doubts that he learned the moral lesson from the regions of disenfranchisement in which he lived in South Africa and the West Bank… As opposed to the horrid Corbyn, Mirvis sees nothing wrong with the continued occupation… and he doesn’t sense the similarity between the South Africa of his childhood, Har Etzion of his youth and Israel of 2019. That is the real reason that he rejects Corbyn…A prime minister who is critical of Israel is an exemplar of the new anti-Semitism. Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. He never was. His real sin is his staunch position against injustice in the world, including the version Israel perpetrates… The new and efficient strategy of Israel and the Zionist establishment brands every seeker of justice as an anti-Semite, and any criticism of Israel as hatred of Jews. Corbyn is a victim of this strategy…”
The UK Chief Rabbi’s website currently relates: “As Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1984 to 1992, Chief Rabbi Mirvis represented the Jewish community to government, other faith communities and the media.” This is a more diplomatic rewording of the proud boast on his Finchley Synagogue website at the time he attained his present high office: “Passionate about Israel, Rabbi Mirvis frequently represented Israel’s interests at Government level and in the media, during his spell as Chief Rabbi of Ireland (at the time when there was no Israeli Embassy there).” It as if, in the Catholic Church, the same Archbishop of Dublin occupied both the position of Primate of Ireland and that of the Vatican State’s Papal Nuncio to Ireland – except, of course, that the State of Israel, to put it mildly, has considerably more battalions than the Pope! Mirvis was proudly described as a representative agent of the State of Israel in Ireland, a role which he is patently proud to be continuing in the UK, alongside the Israeli Embassy, even though discretion is now employed not to describe it quite like that.
During his sojourn in Ireland, the self-style “Apartheid made me” Chief Rabbi also had one observation of note to make about his native South Africa when it was still in the grip of an Apartheid regime which would be described as follows by Mirvis in his 2016 New Statesman article: “Under apartheid, a legal structure of racial hierarchy governed all aspects of life. Black South Africans were denied the vote. They were required by law to live, work, study, travel, enjoy leisure activities, receive medical treatment and even go to the lavatory separately from those with a different colour of skin. Interracial relationships and marriages were illegal. It was subjugation in its rawest form.”
Well, what had he to say about South Africa three decades previously? I checked out the Irish Times records. I do not know the identity of the columnist who penned the following perceptive portrait in its issue of April 4, 1985: “The Thursday Profile – A Young and Diplomatic Pastor: Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis … at the intimidating age of 28 … is the latest, and youngest, incumbent of a post long synonymous with international prestige… Irish Chief Rabbis have traditionally gone on to even finer glories… Appointments are dependent on a mixture, delicately balanced and in proportion, of natural talent and political sensitivity; it is as intriguing as it is impressive that Rabbi Mirvis, at so young an age, has got the formula so exactly right. Not that he is anything but suitably modest… His studied naivety sometimes works to the same purpose as the suave charm of his handsome predecessor, Dr David Rosen, with whom he shares other characteristics: a South African background (Rosen had previously served as Senior Orthodox Rabbi in Capetown – MO’R), soft cultured tones, several years of training at a ‘yeshivat’ (seminary). The 120,000 Jews who fled Lithuanian pogroms for the sanctuary of South Africa chose that country for its employment possibilities, while many of those who came to Ireland did so by mistake, believing themselves in Britain or America. Personally he denies any culture shock on exchanging Johannesburg for Dublin and is warm in his appreciation of the respect accorded the Jewish community in this small ‘safe’ country, although it is one of several to which he applied for a post that was ‘challenging’…”
No culture shock on leaving the “normality” of 1980s Johannesburg! Don’t say “boo” about Apartheid! The “studied naivety” of it all! Another South African Jew had, however, experienced severe culture shock on going into exile from Johannesburg in 1963: “Joe Slovo, Communist Party chairman and leading ANC executive committee member … was born (Yossel Mashel Slovo) in Lithuania in 1926. His dad, to escape the pogroms, went first to Argentina, lost his job, decided to try South Africa instead, starting as a street hawker, then ran a little fruit shop. Joe arrived in SA aged ten, speaking only Yiddish… It was at secondary school that he first became politically aware, thanks to an Irish teacher who was very left-wing and anti-British. ‘I later joined a Marxist-Zionist group, till I realised they were not compatible.’ … In 1961 he joined Mandela in launching the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Until then, his strength had been as a political strategist, organising the Communist Party against apartheid… In 1963, he went on an ANC mission to Tanzania. While he was away, Mandela and others in the military wing were imprisoned after the so-called Rivonia raid – and Mr Slovo spent the next 27 years in exile. From 1964 to 1976 he lived in London, a city he’d passed through once before, aged ten, on the way from Eastern Europe to catch a boat to South Africa. ‘All I can remember is the fog. Coming back as an adult in 1964 … I remember getting on a bus and seeing races mixing together. When I saw my first black and white couple, walking down the street together, I feared for their safety. I wanted to go and warn them. In Jo’burg they would have been arrested at once, or shot.’ … ”
(Interview published in The Independent on April 19, 1994. The following month, Joe Slovo would go on to become Minister for Housing in Mandela’s first post-Apartheid Government, but would die from cancer in January 1995. His first wife, the South African Jewish Communist Ruth First, had been murdered by the Apartheid regime in August 1982).
Under the heading of “Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary – and these Jews made common cause with him” was the title of an article in the online magazine Tablet on November 26, 2013, where Richard Kreitner related: “In 1963, after South African police arrested six Jews and seven blacks in a raid on an African National Congress hideout in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia – a sweep that eventually landed Nelson Mandela in prison for more than 25 years – a white nationalist newspaper asked whether Jews were unhappy in South Africa. The community’s Board of Deputies responded unequivocally that the opposite was true, promising that South Africa’s Jews were loyal and patriotic. ‘No part of the community can or should be asked to accept responsibility for the action of a few’, the board insisted in its official reply… While most South Africa Jews took the silent, implicitly conservative position of the Board of Deputies, the great majority of white South Africans involved in ‘the struggle’ were Jewish. Many were Communists… But all faced what has been described as a ‘double marginality’: not fully accepted as white, while also alienated from an organized Jewish community beholden to the powers that be. That so many Jews surrendered the comforts of their own relatively privileged lives – indeed, in at least one case, surrendered life itself (Ruth First) – to join Mandela and the ANC, though they had little material stake relative to their black comrades, is in itself a testament to the radical legacy these Jews brought with them out of Europe to the other end of the globe.”
Having fought to defeat Apartheid in South Africa itself, such Jewish opponents of oppression have called it out elsewhere. One such is Ronnie Kasrils (born 1938), a leading officer of the ANC’s military wing who went on to serve as post-Apartheid Minister for Intelligence. In South Africa’s Mail & Guardian on January 27, 2006, Kasrils wrote: “The State of Israel is based on a framework of myths that require courage to confront, for fear of being smeared with the anti-Semitic brush. To attempt to analyse these myths can only serve to broaden the debate, which would be of value to all sides. To do so honours those who perished in the Holocaust, rather than exploiting their suffering in order to visit unjust treatment on the Palestinians. One of these myths equates all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, which aims to intimidate Jew and non-Jew alike. The sternest critics of Zionism were often left-wing Jews. In South Africa, this honourable tradition was articulated by the likes of Joe Slovo and Rusty Bernstein.”
Thirteen years later, on April 3, 2019, Kasrils argued in Britain’s Guardian: “I fought South African apartheid. I see the same brutal policies in Israel. As a Jewish South African anti-apartheid activist I look with horror on the far-right shift in Israel ahead of this month’s elections, and the impact in the Palestinian territories and worldwide. Israel’s repression of Palestinian citizens, African refugees and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza has become more brutal over time. Ethnic cleansing, land seizure, home demolition, military occupation, bombing of Gaza and international law violations led Archbishop Tutu to declare that the treatment of Palestinians reminded him of apartheid, only worse… The parallels with South Africa are many. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently said: ‘Israel is not a state of all its citizens … Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – and them alone’. Similar racist utterances were common in apartheid South Africa.”
In October 2013 I had been witness to a rather amusing act of sabotage against the attempt – in the interests of “respectability” – to quite liberally (in every sense) airbrush the South African armed struggle from historical awareness. The International Brigade Memorial Trust was holding its AGM in Edinburgh, and we were given a civic reception by the Provost in the City Council chambers. But we were also invited to the civic reception that immediately preceded ours, for South Africa’s Denis Goldberg (born 1933), who was due to speak at the Edinburgh World Justice Festival. Goldberg, a Jewish Communist, had been a co-defendant of Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 – hung out to dry by South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies – and was sentenced to four terms of life imprisonment, of which he would serve 22 years. But when one of the Festival organisers sought to introduce him as a “veteran human rights activist”, Goldberg immediately protested: “I was not a ‘human rights activist’! I was a freedom fighter! I was the technical officer making the weapons!”
On July 28, 2015 – under the headings of “Pioneer Jewish South African Freedom Fighter Calls Israel ‘Apartheid State’: Denis Goldberg says even Israel’s treatment of Arab citizens counts as apartheid” – the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported: “Veteran Jewish anti-apartheid activist Denis Goldberg, whose 1985 release after two decades in a South African prison was aided by Israel, and who then lived briefly in the Jewish state before leaving in protest, told a Johannesburg gathering that Israel is an apartheid state. Noting that critics of this view protest that Palestinian citizens of Israel, unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa, vote and serve in their country’s parliament, Goldberg said, ‘You don’t need to be like South Africa to be an apartheid state, there is a definition in international law through the UNESCO declaration on apartheid’, he said. Apartheid exists, he said, in states that enforce laws and policies that discriminate between people on the basis of race or religion, and this holds true in Israel proper as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was one of a panel of anti-apartheid activists discussing the lessons that struggle holds for the Palestinian cause.”
“Goldberg, 82, one of the original members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, was sentenced with Nelson Mandela and other activists to life in prison in the 1964 Rivonia treason trial. He was released in 1985 with Israel’s intercession, then went to live on a kibbutz, but moved to London months later, denouncing Israel’s war in Lebanon, its occupation of the Palestinian territories, and its close ties with South Africa. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that Israel is an apartheid state’, Goldberg told the gathering. ‘Having lived through apartheid in South Africa, I cannot allow in my name the same kind of oppression to go on.’ He added, ‘I have to be an opponent of the exclusionist policies of Zionism, but let me say straight away that I have to be opposed to the exclusionary policies of the feudal Arab states of the Middle East as well.'”
See also https://youtu.be/KBw6KJh47MM for Goldberg speaking on the Israeli policy of expelling Palestinians from their land and villages.
Those Jewish Freedom Fighters – who actually unmade the South African Apartheid era that Chief Rabbi Mirvis claims he detested and which made him the type of person he became – have called out Israel. But what of the late Joe Slovo (1926-1995), whom I had the privilege of meeting in 1968? Following the Apartheid regime’s murder of his wife Ruth in 1982, Slovo began writing an autobiography which, however, he had to abandon a couple of years later as his ANC and SACP work intensified in that final decade of bringing an end to that Apartheid regime. But what Slovo managed to complete in The Unfinished Autobiography is relevant to this article. On a 1981 visit to the USSR, he finally, after an absence of 45 years, made a return visit to his birthplace in Lithuania, where he had spent the first decade of life:
“I did not expect to find anyone familiar; the news had long reached us that when the Nazis came in 1941 they slaughtered every Jewish man, woman and child in the region. I was led to believe that the only relative who survived was my father’s elder brother, who had joined the Red Army… (But Slovo did meet two surviving cousins)… Bela and Sareta … are the daughters of Wulfus, my grandfather’s younger brother after whom my father was named. They are the two who had gone to study at Moscow University and who, by this accident of fate, survived the Holocaust. Every other member of the family on my mother’s and father’s sides, together with all other Jews in the region, had been wiped out.” (pp 5 and 10).
Slovo’s 1980s memoirs also recalled a 1946 visit to Palestine: “At the time Zionist guerrilla organisations were active against the British occupation… We reached Tel Aviv … (and arranged) to spend a week on a kibbutz which, coincidentally, was run by my old (Marxist-Zionist) organisation Hashomer Hatzair. Looked at in isolation, the kibbutz seemed to be the very epitome of socialist lifestyle. It was populated in the main by the idealistic sons and daughters of rich Jews who had amassed their fortunes in the Western metropolis. They were motivated by an Owenite passion and belief that by the mere exercise of will and humanism you could build socialism as one factory or one kibbutz and the power of example will sweep the imagination of all men in society, worker or capitalist. Social theory aside, the dominating doctrine on this kibbutz, as well on others, was the biblical injunction that the land of Palestine must be claimed and fought for by every Jew. And if this meant (as it did eventually mean) the uprooting and scattering of millions whose people had occupied this land for over five thousand years, more’s the pity.”
“Within a few years the wars of consolidation and expansion began. Ironically enough, the horrors of the Holocaust became the rationalisation for the preparation by Zionists of acts of genocide against the indigenous people of Palestine. Those of us who, in the years that were to follow, raised our voices publicly against the violent apartheid of the Israeli state were vilified by the Zionist press. It is ironic, too, that the Jew-haters in South Africa – those who worked and prayed for a Hitler victory – have been linked in close embrace with the rulers of Israel in a new axis based on racism.” (pp 30-31). (By 1980, Israel had become South Africa’s largest arms supplier, and in 1981 Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon pledged military support for South Africa’s incursion into Namibia.)
The South African Jewish community was fortunate that, from 1987 to 2004, it had found in Cyril Harris (1936-2005) a Chief Rabbi who helped it come to terms with the ending of its share in the “white supremacy” of that country’s Apartheid system. Himself a lifelong Zionist, Harris did not wax hysterically about some supposed existential threat to South Africa’s Jewish community as an outspoken anti-Zionist like Joe Slovo came to the fore as a key player in forming the first post-Apartheid Government of South Africa. Quite the contrary! Speaking at the state funeral of Joe Slovo on January 15, 1995, Cyril Harris, Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa, pronounced:
“We gather together today to mourn the passing of Joe Slovo and to give thanks for a great life … a white man who with every fibre of his being fought to improve the lot of his black brothers and sisters… His humanity was boundless and inspirational; he became the true champion of the oppressed. Let not those religious people who acquiesced, passively or wrongly, with inequalities of yesteryear, let not those religious people dare to condemn Joe Slovo, a humanist socialist, who fought all his life for basic decency, to reinstate the dignity to which all human beings are entitled. He was proud to acknowledge the Jewish roots of his compassion. Brought up as a child in a Lithuanian ghetto, he experienced at first hand the degradation and misery of being unfairly treated for no proper reason. So, in the South Africa he grew to love, he determined that no one should be singled out for unfair treatment for no proper reason… We give thanks for his bravery. Unflinching throughout the struggle, he never gave up in the darkest hours but soldiered on to tackle seemingly insurmountable difficulties… There is an old Rabbinic teaching, a beautiful one, that just before a person dies, an angel comes to him from Heaven and asks the vital question: ‘Tell me, is the world a better place because of your life which is about to end? Is the world a better place because of the efforts you exerted? Is the world a better place because you were around?’ For Joe Slovo, we give the answer Yes, a resounding Yes. The world is a better place, thanks to you, Joe, and your remarkable life… Shalom, dear brother, Shalom. Rest in eternal peace.”
Now there was a Chief Rabbi who knew how to act honourably!