OPPOSED: Thousands of people march through the Cape Town CBD to Parliament in solidarity with Palestinians. Let us discuss, debate and disagree in a rational and dignified manner without importing the awful hatred and bitterness from the Middle East into South Africa, says the writer. Photo: Willem Law

Warren Goldstein

Dear fellow South Africans,

It would be a great tragedy if we allowed our South African dream of unity in diversity to be poisoned with the bitterness of the Gaza conflict, which we cannot hope to solve.

The debates and protests about the war between Israel and Hamas have often descended into outright hate speech and vitriolic racism, which threaten the most precious values of our New South Africa.

With the right of free speech comes the responsibility to treat our fellow South Africans, and all fellow human beings, with dignity and respect.

To vilify or denigrate anyone who dares to express an opposing view is undemocratic and desecrates the sanctity of free speech. We need to find a way of unapologetically defending our own opinions, while at the same time not making sweeping, hate-filled statements about those who disagree with us.

Street protests and social media comments are often filled with expressions of hatred and intolerance for fellow South Africans with opposing views.

In France and Germany, protests have turned violent. Although we have thus far been spared this shame, we must be vigilant because verbal violence is in itself very destructive, and it can easily, also become physical.

To allow angry divisiveness, blatant hatred and racism into our society would be to betray the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who taught us through his words and even more powerfully through his life, that we can create a South Africa of love, respect and unity in spite of our differences.

As Mandela said: “Our nation comes from a history of deep division and strife; let us never through our deeds or words, take our people back down that road.”

I would like to use this opportunity to call upon all fellow religious and political leaders, and indeed all South Africans, to join hands in the spirit of unity and South African fellowship, in spite of our differences, and particularly at a time which is so emotionally charged such as this, to reaffirm our loyalty and commitment to the South African dream of a society suffused with tolerance, respect and dignity.

Let us show the world the beauty of our South African dream – that unity and diversity can flourish together.

We need to export our South African dream, not import the nightmares of the Middle East here.

In this context, it is so important that we all work to join hands to lower the levels of animosity and tension that surround this conflict.

The Jewish and Muslim communities of South Africa have particularly strong and opposing views of how to interpret the conflict in the Middle East.

Both of our communities need to respect the other and, together with all South Africans, should try to nurture an atmosphere of tolerance and human dignity. Only then can we engage in these discussions productively.

Over the years, the Jewish and Muslim communities have made enormous contributions to the betterment of South African society, and continue to do so.

Neither of these two communities need at any stage feel alienated or marginalised because of their identity or their religious or political views. Nor need any South African.

This does not mean that open debate must be stifled – only that it be conducted with respect for the dignity and legitimacy of others.

Every South African has the constitutional right to express their opinion uncensored and openly.

My own views on the conflict are well-known, and I am proud of them. I strongly believe in the justice of the cause of the State of Israel, and that it has conducted itself justly in this conflict by exercising its right and duty to defend millions of its citizens from rocket fire and from terrorist attacks via the extensive network of tunnels, which run deep into Israel, threatening the defenceless people of its southern cities and towns.

I believe that the responsibility for the awful tragedy of civilian deaths in Gaza lies with Hamas, which uses innocent Palestinians as human shields. These are my views. Many may disagree, but let us discuss, debate and disagree in a rational and dignified manner without importing the awful hatred and bitterness from the Middle East into South Africa.

Let’s show the world what the Rainbow Nation is capable of as we reach out to one another in a spirit of compassion and human dignity and out of respect and love for one another.

Despite our differences.

Let’s banish the bullying, and the intimidation, vilification and divisiveness. Let’s work together as South Africans to address the serious challenges that we face as a society. Only by working together in a spirit of national unity and respecting the diversity of South Africa can we truly build a great country.

As we celebrate 20 years of freedom and democracy, now more than ever we need to come together to address enormous problems of unemployment and inequality; to secure the basic aspirations for health and education of all South Africans.

We need to work together to create a better South Africa, and that journey begins with mutual respect, warmth and dignity.

“I have set my rainbow in the cloud and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Genesis 9:13).

The rainbow was designated by G-d as a symbol of hope for the world after the enormous destruction of the flood, and so too our very own “rainbow nation” has emerged from the crucible of brutal apartheid as a symbol of hope for the world.

Our rainbow nation reflects the strength, vitality and beauty of our diversity as human beings and the awesome Divine potential within each one of us.

Let’s show the world how people of diverse colours, cultures and creeds can live together in harmony and respect.

Let’s learn to see the light of G-d’s presence on the face of every one of our fellow South Africans.

South Africa represents the hope of humankind encapsulated in the rainbow – the hope which has the power to uplift humanity and liberate it from the shackles of hatred and bigotry.

This is the South African dream – let’s make it a reality.

l Rabbi Dr Goldstein is Chief Rabbi of South Africa.