South Africa judge who criticized Israel won’t attend grandson’s bar mitzvah

The South African judge who led a United Nations fact-finding mission on Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip has decided to stay away from his grandson’s bar mitzvah after a Zionist group threatened protests at the synagogue.

The judge, Richard Goldstone, accused South Africa’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, on Thursday of politicizing the ceremony and making it difficult for him to attend.

A spokesman for the South African Zionist Federation, Avram Krengel, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the federation had planned protests at the bar mitzvah, but had agreed with the family to drop them on condition that Goldstone not attend.

He said both sides agreed not to comment further until after the bar mitzvah, which news reports say will take place in May at the Sandton Synagogue in Johannesburg.

Goldstone’s findings that the three-week Gaza military operation Israel launched in December 2008 was disproportionate and that both the Israeli military and Palestinian militants had committed war crimes were condemned by Israel and rejected as biased by the U.S. House of Representatives.

It angered many Jews in South Africa. Goldstein wrote an article in October accusing Goldstone of reporting without integrity and care. The rabbi called the report a disgrace.

In an article in Wednesday’s Business Day newspaper, Goldstein wrote that the judge was welcome at the Sandton Synagogue. But he lambasted Goldstone over the report, which he said was factually and morally tainted.

“His severely compromised report has unfairly done enormous damage to the reputation and safety of the state of Israel and her citizens,” the rabbi wrote. “Nevertheless, and in spite of all he has done, there is a great principle at stake here, one which is central to Judaism: open synagogues.”

He wrote that he and synagogue leaders had done everything possible to ensure the synagogue was open to the whole family, including Goldstone.

The judge, who lives in Washington, responded Thursday. He wrote to the paper that the chief rabbi’s talk of the “proud and ancient principle of open synagogues” in South Africa was empty rhetoric.

He said Goldstein never reached out to his family, and that he decided not to attend the bar mitzvah based on information received from the synagogue and the threat of protests.

“The questionable and unfortunate approach of the chief rabbi, in all the circumstances, makes it less, and not more, possible for me to do so,” Goldstone said in his letter.

Both Goldstone and Krengel said they would be willing to discuss the issue of the report and protests after the bar mitzvah.

“What is clear from Richard Goldstone is that he is intending to honor the family’s agreement by not coming. We are honoring our side of the obligation. We will not be protesting,” Krengel said.

Some Jewish leaders criticized the agreement. Steve Lurie, chairman of the Union for Progressive Judaism, and Malcolm Matitiani, chairman of the South African Assn. of Progressive Rabbis, said in a joint statement Monday that the pressuring of Goldstone was a “disgrace.”

Goldstein did not respond to requests for comment.