“It was the best of times it was the worst of times”. This missive from the author Charles Dickens got me thinking about growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid years and now living in Israel, a country that is often so unfairly and incorrectly compared to the African state and how important I think it is to speak up on behalf of both. The narratives of both countries have been hijacked by Israel’s detractors who have little or no understanding of either and more sinister goals – that of creating an environment where the legitimacy of Israel to exist as a sovereign state is questioned to such a degree, demands for the destruction of the Jewish state increase. This is the latest cause du jour by hatemongers across the world and they wrap it up in sexy packaging and label it BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions.
Both are countries with a lot of nuance and complexities and their narratives , while they share surprising similarities, are certainly not those that Israel’s detractors would have you expect. And like all things that are complicated and highly nuanced, you cannot lump the solution that works for one upon the other.
I have pondered for a while whether or not to write this post. Would it be received in the spirit that it is intended? It is most certainly not an indictment against South Africa in any way. At the end of the day, it is my truth, my observations that I am sharing.
My relationship with South Africa is complicated and bittersweet. It is the country I grew up in, that shaped me and educated and is a breathtakingly beautiful country filled with incredible paradox. There is extreme wealth and dire poverty, 11 fascinating official languages, every kind of terrain you could imagine from the tropical to the desert, the mountains to the savannah. This is just a small glimpse. I grew up during the Apartheid years and was aware from a very young age that something was not right. The physical magnificence of the country was at odds with its political reality.
That political reality was one of discrimination, persecution and pain. The minority white community ruled over the majority black population with a set of laws that debased and dehumanized them. These were the Apartheid laws – from the Afrikaans meaning “to separate”. The word Apartheid for anti-Israelists has become catchy and sexy because it conjures up images that are emotive and provocative and guaranteed to raise the ire of those who hear it. For the true victims of Apartheid, the word is reminiscent of a time of great pain, of being marginalized and discriminated against and deep, deep suffering. Apartheid was unique to South Africa and cannot be used to describe any other situation in the world, and is not to be trotted out as a cavalier description to suit evil agendas. Doing so diminishes the tremendous crime that Apartheid was and belittles the suffering of her victims.
This brings me to Israel, my home and the target of those who wish question her right to exist, label an Apartheid state. It must be reiterated that NOT once during its existence under the heinous racist regime was the right of South Africa to exist as a state questioned. This dubious honour is reserved exclusively for the Jewish state.
Is there racism in Israel? Yes. Unfortunately, Israel although judged by a different standards compared to other countries, does suffer this same scourge as does every other country in the world. Utopia simply does not exist. As Zionists who deeply love our country, our job is to not simply accept this blindly but to question how this horrible element creeps in and do our utmost to root it out.
Why am I a Zionist? Why did I make the choice to return to Zion and build my home here? It is more than just a deep love of the Jewish people and belief in returning to and building our ancient homeland. It also about growth. As humans we try to work on our flaws. As Israelis and Zionists it is our hope that when there are grave misdeeds we do not accept them blindly, we turn inward, we engage in robust discussion and we try to improve. This is the Israel of our sages, our ancestors, Theodore Herzl and it must be so for us. In South Africa, it was a little known fact that Zionist youth were educated about the injustices of Apartheid and encouraged to fight against it, despite the incredible dangers we faced. I was a member of Netzer Maginim and if there was any enduring lesson I took from my years of involvement it was to not turn a blind eye to injustice.
Growing up in South Africa taught me to bear witness to injustice and that I cannot stay silent in the face of it.
I cannot stay silent when the victims of Apartheid are losing their narrative to those who propagate the same kind of discrimination against the Jewish state and fail to see it is Anti-Semitism. I cannot stay silent when the human rights of Palestinians are trod upon, not by Israel, but by those exploiting their suffering under Hamas to push their genocidal charter which calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. I cannot stay silent while Jewish students on campus are vilified, harassed and terrified to come to school because safe spaces are not available to them – only to others. I cannot stay silent while organizations like UNESCO deny us our ancient ties to Jerusalem but turn a blind eye to ISIS destroying sacred antiquity all over the Middle East.
I cannot and will not be silent during Israel Apartheid Week because to do so allows the lies to grow and spread around the world. I cannot stay silent when the UN castigates Israel for its record on women’s rights, which are the most progressive in our neighbourhood but does nothing for our sisters who suffer the most appalling gender discrimination. I cannot stay silent in the face of institutionalized Anti-Semitism by world- wide organizations that single Israel out for opprobrium at the expense of other conflicts around the world.
To be a silent bystander is to be complicit in the hijacking of narratives of both people and the dissemination of lies.
I grew up witnessing the unjust and untrue. I live in a country that fights every day for its very existence and inclusion in the family of nations. The lesson I learn from my tale of two countries is the importance of speaking up and I implore all my fellow South Africans who live in Israel and elsewhere, it is time to take back our narratives – both as Israelis and South Africans. We cannot be silent anymore.