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Isha Bekia

Chief rabbi challenges new World Council of Churches leader

Jun 23, 2022 | Current Affairs, Israel, Israeli affairs


Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein has called on South African Reverend Professor Dr Jerry Pillay to “retract statements accusing Israel of apartheid and calling for a boycott of the Jewish state” after Pillay was elected general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) on 17 June 2022.

“The WCC has a long history of systemic bias against the Jewish state. I call on Rev Pillay to use his new position to break with its disturbing history, and usher in a new era,” said the chief rabbi.

“I further call on Rev Pillay to engage honestly with the issues affecting this conflict in the same spirit of open dialogue and tolerance with which we engaged with each other and our fellow members of the National Religious Leaders Council in South Africa,” said Goldstein.

“As South Africa’s Orthodox chief rabbi, I have been at the global forefront of repudiating the false and libellous charge that Israel is an apartheid state. In numerous articles, speeches, and public statements, I have brought all the evidence to dismantle the apartheid libel against Israel,” he said.

“I have shown that it’s without foundation in fact or law and that to make this comparison is a gross defamation of the Jewish state and an insult to the victims of the real apartheid. I will gladly avail Rev Pillay of the academic literature regarding the legal and historical context to the conflict to substantiate this view. It’s vital to repudiate the apartheid libel against Israel so that the cause of peace can be advanced.”

In addition, South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) General Manager Pamela Ngubane says her organisation is “alarmed at the controversial appointment of Reverend Professor Dr Jerry Pillay as general secretary of the WCC. Pillay holds a hostile and divisive anti-Israel ideology that attempts to disconnect the Jewish people from the land of Israel. It’s a travesty, and we call upon this appointment to be reviewed and challenged.” SAFI is a grassroots organisation for South Africans who support Israel.

Their comments come after leading human-rights organisation B’nai Brith International (BBI) sounded the alarm on what it said was the election of “an anti-Jewish new leader”. The organisation monitors and combats antisemitism and other human-rights abuses around the world.

In a press statement released in Washington DC on 17 June, BBI President Seth Riklin and Chief Executive Daniel Mariaschin said that Pillay had “a record of hostile views toward Israel and Jews” and his election was “astounding and alarming.”

They quoted BBI’s director of United Nations and intercommunal affairs, David Michaels’, article titled “World Council of Churches leader seeks justice, but not for Jews.”

“Rev Pillay, a Presbyterian and a dean at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has a problem with Jews – at least those supportive of Zionism,” wrote Michaels. “Rev Pillay’s rise risks devastating harm to the cause of social justice. In particular, it demonstrates a deepening threat to decades of progress in Christian-Jewish relations.”

The WCC brings together churches, denominations, and church fellowships in more than 120 countries and territories throughout the world, representing more than 580 million Christians.

Michaels quoted a lengthy 2016 piece by Rev Pillay, in which he was extremely critical of Israel, made no mention of Israel’s security concerns, and compared Israeli policy to apartheid. Pillay concluded with an appeal for Christians to “resist the empirical ambition of Israeli Jews”.

However, responding to the SA Jewish Report, Pillay said, “The article you refer to is an unfortunate and mischievous attempt to distort what I have said to make the claim that I’m anti-Jews. There’s absolutely no merit or value to this preposterous and absurd claim.

“I sincerely value and cherish my Jewish friends and the Jewish community and faith,” he said. “I have worked with Chief Rabbi Goldstein for many years, particularly on the issues of moral and justice concerns in South Africa, and I’m sure he will confirm that I have never, ever spoken against the Jewish faith or community in any way.

“I have no problem whatsoever in the Jewish community preserving its identity, religious beliefs, values, and community,” he said. “What I referred to in my article was issues of justice in the Israel/Palestine situation where, admittedly, we may have some differences of opinions. My article was a reflection of personal experiences undertaken with a group of church leaders from South Africa to the holy land to try and understand this conflict situation.

“I believe all religions must be respected,” he said. “This, evidently, is the stance of the WCC, and it would never elect a leader who opposed Jews. You can rest absolutely assured that my leadership in the WCC will continue to uphold cordial relationships with Jewish communities. Kindly express my love, support and respect for the Jewish people in South Africa and across the world.”

But Michaels pointed out that “now, the WCC has elevated Rev Pillay, who is on record as having especially strident, simplistic ideological extremism about Jews and the Jewish state. It’s incumbent upon all people of principle to assert that genuine and meaningful peacemaking cannot be founded upon antipathy to the identity, rights, and complex lived circumstances of Israelis and Jews.”

Reverend Rowan Rennie, who in 2020 quit the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) over its Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) policy towards Israel, says, “Christians who take G-d and His word seriously can never buy into the political agenda and secular thoughts of a religious leader like Rev Pillay, who speaks from a political bias.”

He emphasises that the WCC doesn’t represent all Christians. “In fact, most Christians have fled these Orthodox denominations for more independent church families that hold to a more Biblical-centred message. The ordinary Christian believer simple cannot and will not accept any motive to stand against Israel.

“For a religious leader to call for BDS against Israel, while closing their eyes to the human-rights violations of those standing against Israel, seeking her obliteration, is so removed from common sense that it can only be called falsehood,” he says. “Israel doesn’t hold a policy of obliteration against her neighbours, while those who constantly attack her seek her total annihilation. Any Christian leader who stands with those who seek the annihilation of Israel is as far removed from Biblical truth as possible.”