“What difference will it make in my life if Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel or not and if former U.S President, Donald Trump did not move the U.S Embassy to Jerusalem in 2017?”
Perhaps, the answer to this depends on how this historic and controversial move did impact on my life here in South Africa in 2018, when I was out reporting at the SA Friends of Israel’s Peaceful Protest on July 5th. I was questioning why in South Africa, must we view this conflict only through the lens of being either Pro-Palestinian or Pro-Israeli whereas in Israel there exist Arab supporters of the Jewish State and peace loving Israeli’s who believe in co-existence with their neighbours under a final resolution to end the conflict.
The Pro-Israeli Lobby were protesting against a decision taken by the South African government to downgrade its ambassador to Israel. Had I not attended the peaceful protest how would this have impacted? Well, firstly I would not have been bombarded by hate speech on social media, targeting me, as well as the Jewish & Christian protesters in Pretoria (which in my colourful world was probably the harshest thing that I have ever experienced publicly that obviously pales in comparison to Apartheid in South Africa or War and Conflict between Palestinians and Israeli’s). What if the Trump administration had not moved the embassy to Jerusalem, how would this have impacted on my life? The answer, “Not very much I suppose.” Do I support the controversial move that led to more hate here in South Africa for Israel in general?
In response to the last question, firstly I need to answer this question, “do I have an opinion as a journalist?” Perhaps not, if I am reporting fairly and impartially but as a blogger and in my personal capacity, I honestly do not feel the move was in the spirit of peaceful dialogue and negotiations given that it was inevitably bound to incite violence and unrest on the other side. As a faithful Muslim though, it does not impact on my desire and willingness to pray at Al-Aqsa. As a peace activist I do believe and hope that Jews, Muslims, and Christians will be allowed entry to Al Aqsa to pray if that is the intended visit to the mosque. I do understand there are some days when tourists are allowed into the mosque. On certain days Jews are also allowed in. However, what I am not happy about as a Muslim is that Al-Aqsa has also in a way become a symbol of the divide or split between Muslims and Jews in this conflict. What is the point of being at a religious place when in your heart you have hatred for the other? What is the point of standing before God, entering Al Aqsa Islam’s third holiest site, or praying fervently at the Western Wall when you are seething with hate, resentment and there exists in your heart a festering enmity for the other? I think religion and spirituality combined are the building blocks of strengthening your humanity because ultimately this is the heart that God loves best.
“To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so, race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ” [Quran 5:48].
In this verse the Holy Quran reminds us of two things. Firstly, that we were made different to be tested in numerous different ways, and second, in the end we will all be returned to Allah together despite whatever differences we may have had during our lifetimes here on earth. Knowing that we are all returning to Allah together, despite our different tests and nations, can stand as a powerful reminder of the power of loving and respecting one another during our time in this world. The end will be the same for us all – we are returning to Allah to account for our deeds – which means we must always treat each other with a certain level of empathy and love.
The reality of the conflict I believe ought to stay out of religious places of worship. It was therefore disturbing seeing pictures of protesters burning the flags of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at Al Aqsa and watching UAE officials also being mocked and ridiculed by Palestinian protesters, during their visit to Al-Aqsa in 2020 following the signing of the Abraham Accords. The resentment expressed at this religious site was shocking.
What I do not agree with at all is the random political incidents that take place at Al-Aqsa where violence breaks out every now and again, following religious tension between Jews and Muslims. The chasms between the Jewish and Muslim faiths appear to run deep at times. Why is that necessary? Is not religion and religious sites the invitation for cleansing one’s soul first and foremost, seeking repentance and atonement from the Almighty?
The test referred to in the verse of the Quran quoted above is obviously a spiritual test of our humanity in deeds and actions. The test is to fill the chasm of enmity with love. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all pray to the one true God, no matter what we choose to call God, the Almighty when we reach out.
Stamping on the poster of the UAE de-facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in a sign of disrespect, while waving a Palestinian flag over it and setting the poster on fire too, all this happening at Al-Aqsa was extremely inappropriate behaviour. The mosque like a church or Synagogue must be respected as a place to gather in the worship and remembrance of God, to whom we shall all return. I prayed at both the Al-Aqsa mosque during my visit to Jerusalem as well as the Western Wall. Both experiences were electrifying for my soul. I marvelled at the rich history of Jerusalem and thought about all the souls who stood in the same spot I was occupying in prayer. We are all praying to the one true God. The etiquette required at places of worship should be that of respect for self and other.
In a post conflict era, the hope is that both Jews, Muslims and Christians be allowed to marvel at the history of the holy sites and pray there, in peace and security with an inner resolve that no one can truly own these holy sites. All we can do is preserve it in a spirit of this acknowledgment, that these holy sites are a blessing to all who visit. Perhaps this could be a reality in a post-conflict future era, with Jerusalem as the eternal city of International peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims and all of humanity. This scenario is more palatable to me and it is a vision that is cherished by peace activists belonging to any one of the three Abrahamic Faiths.
The political question is, what difference would it make in the world if Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel? It is clear to anyone who considers the scenario, that the conflict will continue to polarise, demonise, and victimise people who support Israel, while Palestinians will remain clinging to the deadlock for which they are equally accountable by all reasonable standards since the Peel commission was held in 1936. Ever since this deadlock the hope has always been that a negotiated peace settlement would be reached to end what has become one of the most contentious conflicts in the world today. Obviously, the whole point of not settling the matter of Jerusalem through negotiations implies tacitly that the decision is to sustain the conflict. A fair compromise is needed for Jerusalem to be that place in the world that justifies its holiness. Do you fight wars over religious relics and places? What is the point of attempting to possess a thing which cannot be possessed by mankind? It is instead in the best interest of peace and in the best interest of both Jews and Muslims to settle the matter in a way that will inspire the spiritual essence of the holy places. A settlement, that ensures the sustained presence and allure of the holy places to all who visit.
Attending now to the main part of this story, my online campaign Give Peace A Chance, which I launched in South Africa during the pandemic in July 2020. Give Peace a chance is my contribution to humanity and to the conflict, following the hate speech incident targeting Jews, Christians, and myself a Muslim journalist at the SA Friends of Israel March. The fact that I was a Muslim journalist reporting in Pretoria to give voice to protesters led to natural consequences of hate speech targeting me. The move by the US administration in 2017 to support Israel in its quest for recognition of Jerusalem as its undivided Capital resulted in angry members of the Muslim community targeting me as a symbol of their anger at a peaceful protest following South Africa’s decision to downgrade its Ambassador to Israel.
I was out doing my job as a journalist and engaging peacefully with the protesters not realising that my humanity would be tested. I remember talking to protesters who were waving Israeli flags in support for peace and calling on the South African government to reconsider its position. I was given an Israeli flag too which I kept as a souvenir of the protest, without realising at the time the full significance of that fateful day. This was the big push behind my campaign, Give Peace A Chance which runs on Facebook. I am still warmed by the new associations and friendships formed on that day following that incident, more so in acknowledgment of my resolve to stand my ground and address the hate speech and discrimination.
Politically speaking one has the right to agree to disagree, however with regards to the Israeli Palestinian conflict I believe that lines have been drawn in civil society. In the narrower Muslim community, if one does not take this natural position of being only Pro-Palestinian publicly, you are either an Israeli collaborator or being paid by an insidious Israeli agency to dare give voice to Israeli supporters, regardless, if these Israeli supporters also moderately support peace in a country where government is regarded as a friend of Palestine (some of the blatant accusations levelled at me).
One would therefore not dare be a Muslim journalist who reports openly engaging with the other side in South Africa during tense times dealing with the conflict? This is an excruciating position to consider as a journalist who is always open and keen to engage. For me at least it was excruciating. Maybe it would have been better to stick with what works well for some Muslim journalists in South Africa. Provide a biased perspective of the conflict exposing only a one-sided approach to peace, and label it as Humanitarian Journalism. Perhaps it would be in the best interest of democracy in South Africa to remember and give voice instead to the divisive nature of apartheid, honouring a past when Israel was regarded as a supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa, regardless of all progress made since the dawn of democracy 27 years ago.
However, gratefully we have moved on since 2018, and Give Peace A Chance is a now a vibrant online campaign which honours the right to freedom of expression maintaining sobriety in discussions on the Israeli Palestine conflict. Thankfully there have been other encouraging incidents in South Africa too which is a true reflection of the reconciliatory spirit of a South Africa that was once steered under the leadership of former President Nelson Mandela. The remarkable, charismatic leader who commanded tolerance and peaceful co-existence. Some may criticise his choice of political friends and for what it is worth some of the criticism may be fair too. However, it is also acceptable to expect that after spending 27 years in prison, assuming presidency at the age of 75 had narrowed his focus to the business of rebuilding South Africa during his tenure and reconciling differences.
There have been other incidents too recently which have reignited the spirit of Ubuntu, social cohesion, and reconciliation in South Africa. A surprising public apology from the Fees must fall (student fees) revolutionary South African leader, Mcebo Dlamini was a stunning turnaround. Dlamini had previously expressed his love and admiration for Hitler and the Nazi’s, very publicly also on social media platforms. He also referred to Jews as devils. It therefore came as no surprise when he was charged for hate speech by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Dlamini issued a remorseful and sincere apology following a mediation process facilitated by the South African Human Rights Commission in December 2020. Dlamini wrote a letter of apology to the South African Jewish Community which is available for full viewing on the website of the South African Human Rights Commission.
Here’s an extract from that letter, “In 2015 I uttered statements about Jews and Israelis that were not only provocative but also extremely offensive. It is only in retrospect that I began to appreciate how much my statements were both ill-advised and to a certain extent dangerous because they ignored the kind of trauma that they caused. As someone who is interested in politics and how they can be used to advance a better world for all I should have known better. It is because of this that, in good faith, I hope that my apology will be accepted as sincere and honest. This apology is well thought out and is a result of extensive consultation. I have thought very deeply about the kind of leader I want to be, and it is definitely not a leader that spreads hate and rejoices at the misfortunes of others.”
Dlamini’s apology was in short nothing less than remarkable and offered in good spirit. He also made a commitment to travel to Israel to learn more about Jewish culture and of course the conflict, a journey I took as a journalist also in 2018, which again landed me in more hot water. Regardless though, if you are a journalist whose primary interest is to engage, understand and hold discussions on the conflict it is essential to understand the prevailing narratives, beliefs, and sentiment of people on the ground, even if the people just happen to be Israeli. An Israeli perspective on the conflict is still a perspective and valuable to any journalist covering any aspect of the conflict. Even though I mentioned in subsequent discussions openly that my engagements in Israel also included discussions with Palestinians and included a visit to the West Bank, it accounted for little, in the minds of those who once again fuelled speculation that my agenda is an insidious one and that I am a Zionist. As a journalist any opportunity offered to engage with people on the ground in a conflict or under normal circumstances is a blessed opportunity. Visiting Israel and the West Bank was a valuable experience. In this way, less is left to the imagination and more to real life encounters.
My journey to the region was nothing short of amazing and all engagements were so valuable. It certainly amplified my own understanding of the conflict. In Jerusalem, life seemed normal, in fact the city has a festive spirit which confounds a visitor at first. Jerusalem is a city of great presence to a visitor. The splendour of its rich history of spiritual enchantment mixed with intense conflict around religion, peace and the desire for co-existence is beguiling to a visitor who wants to learn so much about life in Jerusalem. The people I engaged with in Israel explained at length to us the history, political background and present day challenges around ending this conflict. In the West Bank where hospitality greeted us in the form of an amazing lunch at a restaurant in Ramallah, we engaged with members of a Peace Movement to understand the Palestinian Narrative of the conflict.
I think I was determined, as a Muslim journalist in South Africa who dared give voice to Jews and Christians, and dared raise the peace narrative in conversations here, to engage on the only alternative to this conflict, peaceful reconciliation. So, Give Peace A Chance is my contribution to humanity as a journalist and a South African who honestly believes in the possibility of peaceful co-existence. In an interview on an online show called Riding the Waves of Change I was asked by the interviewer, “What guided me to this space?”
This was my answer, ” First of all, I am a South African. We had a conflict that went on in South Africa also for more than seventy years and we’ve achieved a lot as a nation. And we’ve been through a lot of healing and if we have to consider the South African context of Apartheid and what we have achieved under reconciliation that was forged between two great leaders, who I consider as great leaders, Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk and if we have to go back in history and examine how painful that journey was and what we have achieved today, then yes I think it is possible and we ought to be having these conversations and South Africans should be exporting these conversations about peace and reconciliation because we are the best example to the world in terms of what we have achieved in our country.”
During my conversations with peace activists, it was most encouraging to learn of their appreciation of the South Africa’s journey in reconciliation and peacebuilding following the end of Apartheid. In Africa too, you will find pockets of inspiration built on tragic wars and conflict. Rwanda’s earnest efforts to reconcile and rebuild itself following the genocide of 1994, is another beacon of light for the world.
An important lesson learnt frm the Rwandan genocide during which between 800 thousand and one million Tutsi’s were slaughtered was the role that hate speech and incitement played. It is accepted today in the context of the Rwandan genocide that language plays an important role when encouraging violence. Hate speech can lead to the incitement to hurt others if left unchecked. Therefore, it is important to address hate speech at an individual level. Dehumanising Tutsi’s by referring to them as cockroaches that needed to be exterminated eventually led to their tragic demise.
One of the most powerful statements made during discussions on my campaign was by Dr John Demartini in December 2020. It was a unifying statement that at once brought sobriety back to the religious divisions that exist around this conflict.
“The terrestrial world as Aristotle said, is the world of trial. The celestial world is a world of harmony. We must expand our awareness and have a celestial perspective, holding the globe in our hands, to see things from the overview effect and not be trapped in our immediate reactions. Getting trapped in terrestrial history prevents us from honoring the celestial mysteries. The real celestial mystery is the mystery of love and how everything is helping people to get to that realization.” Dr John Demartini, Human Behaviour Specialist.
Another contributing statement made in support of this campaign was by Salim Amin, Chairman of Camerapix in Nairobi Kenya. The statement clearly put into perspective exactly what peace means in a world where conflict and war continue to ravage the lives and the aspirations of people. Salim is also a journalist by profession and his team covered the Rwandan Genocide as well as other tragic and violent conflicts in Africa.
“Covering those events, changed my life. It changed the way I look at peace. It changed the way I look at suffering. It opened my eyes to understand what people are going through when there is no peace. Somalia has been devastated by conflict for the last thirty years. People there are still rebuilding their lives and keep having to rebuild their lives. Rwanda has managed to come out of the genocide in an amazing way, the horrible genocide of 1994. They have managed to grow into a country that is prosperous and stable. That has a lot to do with the peace process. The fact that they had a leader who was able to take them through that process and Somalia has not had that.
North & South Sudan split eventually, there was a lot of issues with South Sudan and continues to be a lot of economic hardships for the people there. Again, because the process was not as easy or as peaceful as they would have liked. This has opened my eyes to how lucky I am and many other people around the world, who have never had to live through events like this in their own countries, who have lived in relative peace, who have a stable government, who have some form of stability in their countries. It opened my eyes to how lucky we are. We are amazingly simple people. As human beings we want the basic things that we are all entitled to. We want to be able to have a way to earn a living. A dignified way to earn a living. We want to be able to take our children to school safely. We want to have electricity & water and the basic necessities to go through life. That is not asking a lot and you can only have that if you have peace in a country, if you have some sort of stability in a country.
When there is upheaval, when there is conflict, all these things go away and it changes people and changes people’s lives for ever, so we must give peace a chance that is the only way we can move forward. As conflict takes place in different countries it affects those around them, and it is extremely easy for those conflicts to spread. So, give peace a chance always. Let us make 2021 a year for giving peace a chance.” Salim Amin, Chairman, Camerapix.
You can follow Give Peace A Chance here: https://www.facebook.com/channelmcampaign