Under fire for pro-Israel comments, South African chief justice cites the Bible

In affidavit replying to formal complaint, Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng says religious obligation to pray for peace of Jerusalem and not hate Israel must not be seen as a political stance

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, takes the Oath of Office alongside Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, left, at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, May 25, 2019.  (AP Photo)
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, takes the Oath of Office alongside Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, left, at the Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, May 25, 2019. (AP Photo)

South Africa’s chief justice defended pro-Israel comments he made during an online conference last month for which he was heavily criticized by local politicians and pro-Palestinian activists, saying he was merely fulfilling his religious duties to advocate for peace and to “pray for Jerusalem.”

In an affidavit filed Monday with the South African Police Service, Mogoeng Mogoeng also argued that while judges are prohibited from pronouncing themselves on political controversies, this applied only to issues that are justiciable in the country and did not prevent him from commenting generally on foreign policy issues that will never reach South African courtrooms.

“My Biblical obligation to pray (ask God) for the peace of Jerusalem or not to hate or curse Israel cannot constitute a preference of Israel over Palestine,” he wrote.

Mogoeng said while he never commented on Zionism, his Christian faith motivates him to reject hatred and war and to embrace all nations and to promote peace. The chief justice went on to quote several verses from both the Old and the New Testament to underline his religious duty to seek peace and pray for the well-being of Israel, such as Exodus 17:15 and Hebrews 12:14.

He further noted that while he indeed expressed love for Israel, he also loves Palestinians, and said so explicitly during his controversial appearance at the online conference.

“To forbid the remarks I made about peace, landlessness, homelessness, poverty colonialism, etc. would mean that a Judge is not even allowed to say anything about apartheid on the basis that doing so would amount to getting involved in political controversy or activity. But, this cannot be correct,” he wrote.

In the 19-page affidavit, a copy of which was obtained by The Times of Israel, Mogoeng replied in great detail to a written complaint to South Africa’s Judicial Conduct Committee filed by a Johannesburg-based organization called Africa4Palestine, which was previously known as BDS South Africa.

In the complaint, Africa4Palestine director Muhammed Moosa Desai wrote that he believes Mogoeng had committed “willful or grossly negligent breaches of the Code of Judicial Conduct,” which prohibits judges from getting involved in “political controversy or activity.”

Illustrative: Pro-Palestinian protesters supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel demonstrate ahead of a Pharrell Williams concert outside Grand West Arena on September 21, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa (Michelly Rall/Getty Images via JTA)

In a June 23 webinar co-organized by the Jerusalem Post and South Africa’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, Mogoeng had said that was under “under an obligation as a Christian to love Israel, to pray for [the] peace of Jerusalem, which actually means the peace of Israel. And I cannot, as a Christian, do anything other than love and pray for Israel, because I know, hatred for Israel by me and for my nation can only attract unprecedented curses upon our nation.”

With its staunchly pro-Palestinian stance, Pretoria was denying itself a “wonderful opportunity of being a game-changer in the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” he added.

Before making these comments, he had acknowledged “without any equivocation that the policy direction taken by my country South Africa is binding on me” and that what he is about to say should not misconstrued as an attempt to say he was not bound by Pretoria’s stance on the Middle East. But, he added, like any citizen he had the right to criticize government policies “or even suggest that changes are necessary.”

His words caused loud controversy in South Africa.

The African National Congress, the country’s ruling party, accused him of venturing into politics with “unfortunate” comments “which may make him vulnerable should he have to adjudicate a human rights matter in the future.”

“He also openly supported the actions of the State of Israel, actions condemned by the United Nations Security Council on numerous occasions and contemptuous behavior towards the human rights of the people of Palestine,” ANC spokesman Pule Made said.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said she viewed Mogoeng’s comments about Israel “with great dismay.”

Illustrative: Demonstrators wave South African and Palestinian flags at a inter-denominational march of members of pro-Palestinian groups and other civil society organizations in Durban on June 2, 2018. (AFP/Rajesh JANTILAL)

In his 13-page complaint, Africa4Palestine’s Desai wrote that Mogoeng was “clearly involving himself in political controversy, and perhaps even political activity.” His “improper conduct” is “especially egregious” as he is the head of the judiciary and sets an example for all other judges in the country’s legal system, Desai charged.

In his response Tuesday, Mogoeng said that his words at the June 23 webinar were merely an “appeal for a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine or the possibility for their coexistence in a mutually beneficial way and the love for both parties as opposed to hatred for any.”

Africa4Palestine has chosen to target him “because I quoted parts of the Bible they don’t like, to express love for both Israel and Palestine and my scriptural obligation to pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” he wrote.

During the June webinar he did lament Pretoria’s stance toward the Middle East conflict, because it “does not seem to be aligned to the possibility of us contributing to the attainment of peace in that region,” the judge wrote. “I did so, not as political commentary but a human rights, justice and peace-driven reflection.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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