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South Africa’s Chief Justice should retract his pro-Israel comments or resign

June 27, 2020 at 1:30 pm

South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoen in Cape Town on 15 February 2018 [RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images]

South Africa’s Chief Justice has come under intense fire for publically expressing his love for Israel. Mogeong Mogeong made his pro-Israel comments on an online platform hosted by the Jerusalem Post, and has come under heavy attack from numerous human rights organisations, legal officials and the governing African National Congress.

One of his former colleagues is now Professor of Law at Howard Law School in Washington DC. Prof. Ziyad Motala described Mogeong’s comments as mind-numbing, misinformed, repugnant and disgraceful. “It is astonishing that you absolve Israel from any and all blame with respect to protecting and fortifying apartheid,” Motala said in an address to the Chief Justice. “And you give Israel a pass based on an odious reading of scripture. For the record, Israel is deeply culpable in the support and fortifying of the apartheid state and the brutalisation of the Black majority.”

Not only was it foolish and naive for Mogeong to ignore legal obligations upon him as the chief custodian of the country’s Constitution, he ought to have been aware of the overwhelming solidarity in South Africa for Palestinian human rights. The question thus arises whether he misread the mood in the country, or whether he believed that citing Biblical references to justify his pro-Israel stance would endear him to the country’s majority Christian population. Furthermore, did his participation in the Jerusalem Post webinar alongside South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, whose allegiance to Israel is well known, make it impossible to offend his Israeli hosts despite the legal constraints of his high office?

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The answers to these questions and other concerns can only be provided by the Chief Justice. What is clear, though, is that within hours of his video clip going viral, he faced a backlash, including an editorial in the Daily Maverick penned by prominent Christian leader Reverend Moss Ntlha, General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa who is involved in church-based initiatives for social justice.

Rev Ntlha called out Mogeong’s theological support for Israel as misleading and insisted that it would be remiss for the Christian community to leave his remarks uncorrected. His most scathing observation is what many Palestinian solidarity activists suspect: “…the Chief Justice has fallen into the trap laid by Zionists for millions of unsuspecting Christian fundamentalists.” This was a reference to an oft-misquoted statement in the Bible which the Chief Justice quoted with relish in declaring his love for Israel: “Those who bless Israel will be blessed and those who curse Israel will be cursed.”

Whatever his dogmatic religious explanation may be, the position outlined by the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) in South Africa leaves Mogeong very little room to squeeze out of the hole he has dug for himself. Unsurprisingly, they view his comments as repugnant to the values and precepts of Constitutional democracy, international law and basic human rights.

In a hard-hitting statement they reminded him that judges have to have regard for the foundational constitutional principle that South Africa is a secular state with a strong commitment to human rights and international law. And contrary to his patronising religious attachment to Israel, NADEL reminded the Chief Justice that Israel was declared an apartheid state on the basis of international law, and is guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and various other gross human rights violations. “Notwithstanding [this], the atrocities against Palestinians continue unabatedly despite condemnation by the international community,” said NADEL.

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At the time when the anti-apartheid movement was mobilising around the world to isolate apartheid South Africa, NADEL pointed out, Israel joined forces with Pretoria to evade sanctions and divestment by the international community. The lawyers also noted that religious interpretation of scripture based on the beliefs of just one religion was jettisoned in 1994 when South Africa’s constitutional democracy was born.

“The Chief Justice’s interpretation of the scripture that the Israel referred to in the Bible is the same [as apartheid] Israel, is misguided and incorrect. This interpretation stems from the austere Calvinist doctrine of the Dutch Reformed Church that provided religious justification for apartheid South Africa, and bears a strong resemblance to the racist Zionist belief that God ordained Israel [‘a land without a people’] for the Jews [‘a people without a land’].”

A further damning observation made by NADEL is that it offends the ethos of the judiciary and constitutional democracy for the Chief Justice, or any judge for that matter, to criticise publicly his government’s foreign policy on Israel and then to take sides with such a foreign government, which has a record of brutality, occupation and oppression.

In reference to the fake narrative conveyed by Mogeong about Israel’s “clean hands” when compared with the struggle in South Africa, NADEL claimed that it is devoid of moral and legal principle, and ignores our own history of land dispossession, oppression and exploitation under colonialism and apartheid. “Apartheid Israel is doing to the Palestinians what apartheid South Africa did to Black people when it annexed the land, confined Black people to the Bantustans and oppressed and exploited Black people.”

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The demands for Chief Justice Mogeong to withdraw his inflammatory, offensive and divisive comments have grown louder by the day. Will he do so and restore the dignity of the Office of Chief Justice or will he remain wedded to his contentious views which are inconsistent with South Africa’s foreign policy, human rights and international law? If he sticks to the latter, calls for him to be sacked are likely to gain momentum.

If the pro-Israel lobby in South Africa, of which Rabbi Goldstein is part, had any illusions that trapping the Chief Justice in a pre-planned webinar uttering unconditional support for Israel without any regard to the fact that Palestinian necks are pinned to the ground by the Zionist state’s murderous police and soldiers would have no consequences, it has miscalculated the mood in South Africa. The outcry itself is evidence that South Africans and their country still stand up for the human rights and dignity of the Palestinians — Muslims and Christians alike — against the racist apartheid of settler-colonial Israel.

Chief Justice Mogeong Mogeong’s statements are inconsistent with the ethos of the office that he holds, as well as the oath of allegiance to the South African Constitution that he swore to uphold. He must retract his comments about Israel, or resign forthwith.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.