South African Jewish activists have lodged a judicial complaint against a judge whose idea of a tribute to the late President Nelson Mandela involved comparing the revered figurehead of the anti-apartheid struggle with Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s theocratic Islamic Republic.

The complaint against Judge Siraj Desai was laid out by the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) in a statement on Thursday. The SAZF charged that Desai — a former Cape Town High Court judge recently promoted to be the country’s Legal Ombudsman — had engaged in actions that were “plainly in breach of the Code of Judicial Conduct and entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer.”

“We recently became aware of the exact range and extent of Judge Desai’s misconduct,” the SAZF stated. “This includes his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his Judicial Office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his Judicial Office to promote a partisan political cause.”

Desai has been a vocal supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to isolate the State of Israel within the international community by misrepresenting it as an “apartheid state.”

“The BDS movement is notorious for its zealous anti-Zionism and for fostering enmity towards the South African Jewish community,” the SAZF statement asserted. “Despite his long-standing links to partisan advocacy organizations such as the BDS, in 2015 Judge Desai presided over a case brought by BDS activists. In 2018, Judge Desai welcomed and supported the Palestinian militant group Hamas during their trip to South Africa. This, despite the fact that the Hamas Charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the State of Israel. Using the prestige of the Judicial Office to publicly promote an extremist organization is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the Judicial Code of Conduct.”

The SAZF also registered its offense at the comparison made by Desai between Khomeini and Nelson Mandela, the late leader of the African National Congress (ANC) who spent 27 years in the apartheid regime’s prisons, and who peacefully steered South Africa to democratic majority rule following his release.

“To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights, and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions,” the statement said.

Noting with concern that Desai had given the interview to an Iranian state broadcaster, the group highlighted that “Judge  Desai also made several other shocking remarks regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States, an important trade and diplomatic partner of South Africa, as the ‘Great Satan.’”

Desai remained defiant on Friday, however, belittling the SAZF’s complaint as “hasbara tactics” — a common phrase used by anti-Zionists to attack pro-Israel advocates that is drawn from the Hebrew word for “propaganda.”

Through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, Desai said he was unapologetic in his stance in “condemnation of apartheid Israel and in defense of Palestinians that are persecuted by the unjust laws and war crimes conducted against them, crimes against humanity that apartheid Israel is prosecuting, for which they deserve a place in the dock in the International Criminal Court (ICC).”

Chikte accused the SAZF of “employing hasbara tactics in its retaliatory and vindictive attacks on Judge Desai in an attempt to gain ground in the growing media war to curtail the growing media losses they are suffering in a narrative unfolding in relation to the persecution and liquidation of Palestinians.”

The SAZF statement emphasized that the group did “not bring this complaint to the Judicial Complaints Commission lightly and does not aim to curtail freedom of expression. The SAZF is on record in defending the rights of Judges to express their views within the ambit of the Judicial Code, especially when balanced fairly in the interests of justice.”

However, the statement continued, “Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the Judicial Code. It is therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary, that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account. This is especially so in the case of Judge Desai, who is now the Legal Services Ombudsman, and thus heads the institution whose role is to safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa.”

The present controversy over the 70-year-old Judge Desai comes as South Africa awaits the result of a separate legal wrangle over the Jewish community and Israel that has the country’s Chief Justice at its center.

In May, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng filed court papers appealing  against the Judicial Conduct Committee’s ruling that he apologize for supportive comments he made about Israel.

The committee found Mogoeng guilty in March of this year for comments made at an online seminar in June 2020, in which he appeared alongside South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. Mogoeng invoked his Christian faith as the reason for his “love” of Israel, criticizing the South African government for maintaining close diplomatic ties with the country’s former colonizers while frequently defaming the Jewish state as a reincarnation of its former apartheid regime.

1st published in the Algemeiner.

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Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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1 Comment

  1. The loudest opposition to the objection came from Africa4Palestine. This organisation fails to disclose that it’s leader who is fighting the objection, is in fact Desai’ s son but then conflicts of interest have never been their strong suit

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