South African Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng speaks during a session of parliament in Cape Town. (Photo by Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images)

( – Four thousand miles from Jerusalem, a senior judge is embroiled in controversy over his faith-based support for Israel, in a country where virtually every issue is viewed through the lens of a history of colonialism and racial oppression.

Mogoeng Mogoeng, the chief justice of South Africa, on Monday declared his intention to appeal against a verdict of a judicial oversight committee which ordered him to apologize for public remarks opposing a foreign policy slanting heavily against the Jewish state.

Ruling on a complaint brought by three pro-Palestinian groups, the country’s Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) found early this month that Mogoeng had “entered into the area of the executive authority of the state on international relations in order to criticize its foreign policy towards Israel publicly on an international platform.”

In doing so, the JCC said, he had “undermined and failed to show respect for the constitutionally ordained separation of powers.”

The JCC ordered the chief justice to make an unconditional apology within ten days – and even prescribed the wording.

But as the ten days ran out on Sunday, Mogoeng said he was appealing against the ruling, describing the scripted apology as “the most unusual thing I have ever seen,” and suggesting that it was the type of punishment that could be given to an elementary school child.

“It’s almost as if it was designed to trash you, to reduce you to nothing, to put you in your place,” Mogoeng said during an online forum organized by a prayer movement which he leads.

“So I am going to appeal that, for the sake of the judges and the magistrates who will find life impossible if they were to be subjected to this kind of thing.”

The South African BDS (Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions) Coalition, one of the three complainants in the case, said Monday that if Mogoeng refuses to apologize, it would support a process leading to the chief justice’s dismissal by parliament.

Blessings and curses

The controversy began when Mogoeng took part in an online event in June 2020, organized by the Jerusalem Post and also featuring South Africa’s chief rabbi.

The judge said that he loves and prays for Israel, citing scriptures including Genesis 12:1-3, in which God says He will bless those who bless His chosen people, and curse those who curse them.

Mogoeng said he was “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 my nation, can only attract unprecedented curses upon our nation.”

Acknowledging that the South African government’s policy was binding on him in his official position, Mogoeng said that as a citizen he was entitled to criticize policies and laws.

Mogoeng also said he loved both Israelis and Palestinians, spoke about reconciliation in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, and said his country was “denying ourselves a wonderful opportunity of being game-changers in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.”

What further upset critics was his implication that the anti-Israel BDS campaign was hypocritical, focusing on Israel but never calling for sanctions against Africa’s former colonial rulers, despite the ongoing legacy of dispossession and poverty.

“Have we embarked on a disinvestment campaign against those who are responsible for untold suffering in South Africa and the continent of Africa?” he asked. “Did Israel take away our land? Did Israel take away the mineral wealth of South Africa and Africa?”

The African National Congress government was also irked by the timing of Mogoeng’s remarks – one day before South Africa was planning to give a presentation at a U.N. Security Council meeting on “the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.”

In response Monday to Mogoeng’s decision to appeal the JCC ruling, one of the other two complainants, a group calling itself Africa4Palestine, said it was “shocked that the chief justice has chosen to disregard the decision,” but expressed optimism that in the end he would be forced to apologize.

Mogoeng has won some support at home for his stance, with a petition initiated by two pro-Israel Christian organizations garnering more than 125,000 signatories.

“We the undersigned will not be silenced but we will stand up for our freedom of religion and expression. We believe that any attempt to twist Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng words and promote hateful agendas is deplorable and must not be tolerated,” the petition reads.

“We call on President Cyril Ramaphosa to publicly support Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and his right to speak out and express his Christian views to bless Israel and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

In the view of the South African branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), “the policy regarding Israel and the decision to distance South Africa from Israel is clearly due to a resolution sponsored by the likes of BDS.”

“It is not the position of the majority of South Africans who would prefer to see a normalization of relations between our two countries and so enable South Africa to play a role in fostering peace within the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as reiterated by the Chief Justice.”

ICEJ national director Vivienne Myburgh challenged the view that Israeli policies in the disputed territories are akin to the system of statutory racial segregation enforced in South Africa until 1994.

“To assert that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’ is to negate what real ‘apartheid’ was for the majority of South Africans who suffered under it and to show a willful ignorance of the reality on the ground in Israel,” she said.

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