Let us debate and disagree without importing the awful hatred and bitterness in the Middle East into SA, says Dr Warren Goldstein.

Durban - It would be a great tragedy if we allow our South African dream of unity in diversity to be poisoned by 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.

We need to find a way of unapologetically defending our opinions, while not making sweeping, hate-filled statements about those who disagree with us. Street protests and social-media comments are often filled with expressions of intolerance. In France and Germany protests have turned violent.

Although we have thus far been spared this shame, we must be vigilant because verbal violence can easily become physical.

I call upon all fellow religious and political leaders and all South Africans to join hands in the spirit of fellowship at a time that is so emotionally charged such as this, to reaffirm our commitment to the South African dream of a society suffused with respect.

In this context, it is 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 strong and opposing views of how to interpret the conflict in the Middle East. Both need to respect the other and try to nurture an atmosphere of tolerance and human dignity. Only then can we can 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 the two communities need at any stage feel alienated or marginalised because of their identity or their religious or political views.

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

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

My 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 the conflict. 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 in 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 – 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.

As we are celebrating 20 years of freedom and democracy, more than before 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.

“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 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.

* Dr Warren Goldstein is South Africa’s Chief Rabbi.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Mercury