Insights from a South African Oleh on Annexation

As a young boy growing up in South Africa in the 1980s I was acutely aware of the stigma attached to being South African. I can remember watching the protests as we woke up early in the morning to watch the Springboks (South African rugby team) tour New Zealand in 1981. I remember seeing protests from around the country and in London and other cities around the world, as people protested the terrible system that was Apartheid. As a young football player, I dreamed of playing professionally – but never playing at the World Cup because we had been banned. As the country became more stigmatized and isolated, I recall friends in high school talking about going to start their lives in other countries once they graduated. Some of my favorite artists and bands demonstrated and wrote songs about how this unjust system was oppressing the majority of the people in the country in which I lived. Finally, when I traveled abroad to study in the USA it really hit home, as people asked me if I hated black people and made fun of me by quoting lines from Lethal Weapon 2 and asking if I had “diplomatic immunity”.

Then an amazing thing happened. In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison and two years later, after years of continued internal struggle and international pressure, the white minority voted in a referendum to end white minority rule and allow South Africa to become a fully-fledged democracy. Suddenly it was “cool” to be South African. We were held up as an example of how to make a peaceful transition from an oppressive system and we were now the “Rainbow Nation”. South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and the football African Cup of Nations in 1996. Finally, I could be proud to be South African and my passport was no longer a badge of shame but was now a badge of honor. I would happily go on to achieve my dream of playing professional football and representing my country at international level.

Five years ago, having become religious some time before, I brought my family on Aliyah to make a home in Israel. I believed in the project to create a homeland where Jewish people of all persuasions could be free to live and practice their religion in the face of growing anti-Semitism around the world. I was proud of what the Jewish people had accomplished just 70 years after the Holocaust and held it up to my South African friends in that fledgling democracy as an example of how people could face such terrible tragedy and yet move forward and build the country Israel had become. I vehemently defended Israel to acquaintances and friends around the world when asked about the Israeli occupation in the West Bank or our treatment of the Arab minority who are citizens of this country. Having lived in South Africa and prided myself on trying to understand the politics of that country, I was very quick to refute the commonly used argument that Israel was an Apartheid State. Whatever your views on occupation or the standing of our fellow Arab citizens, I argued that you could not compare that with Apartheid South Africa. Regarding citizens there was no comparison to the state orchestrated oppression of black people in South Africa – no vote, the Group Areas Act, poor access to quality education and healthcare, separate transport and more. Regarding the West Bank you may call that occupation but you could not call it Apartheid as by definition it refers to separate laws for inhabitants within your own country.

I cannot claim that I played any role in the downfall of Apartheid. Yes, I may have attended the odd protest as a student, I may have argued my position in opposition at family occasions and among friends. Feeling opposed to the system I readily jumped at the opportunity of a scholarship abroad to avoid compulsory military service with the plan of not going back, but I certainly don’t think I had the courage to become a conscientious objector and spend years in prison. Most white South Africans my age claim that we were born into the system – we didn’t create it, and after all what could we do to change it as young people?  Over the years, as I have grown in age and hopefully wisdom, I have realized that I could have done more. We all read the famous quotes and trot them out at will on social media – “The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people. But because of the silence of the good people.” Napoleon Bonaparte; “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke; and our very own Albert Einstein – “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”

Some time ago, I read an articulate and insightful article by a fellow South African Oleh, Benjamin Pogrund, a real fighter against the injustice of Apartheid. It hit the nail on the head as far as I was concerned and expressed everything I had felt until now.  If Israel goes ahead and unilaterally annexes territory and forces Palestinian people to live in enclaves so as to navigate the issue of withholding citizenship whilst taking their land, we will become no different from Apartheid South Africa. If we do not grant people full rights or force them into homelands or Bantustans and steal their hopes of being full citizens be it in Israel or taking their hopes of their own viable state, like Pogrund I can no longer defend this country as not being an Apartheid state. As he says, that word “Apartheid” is very emotive and carries a lot of weight around the world. Until now I feel it has been misused by those who would oppose the State of Israel.

If we continue with unilateral annexation this is no longer the case. We will become a Pariah state like the country of my birth. Slowly our friends in the west will be forced to take action – no matter how punitive, and potential allies in our own region will once again be pressured to distance themselves from us. “Ah, we boast. But Israel is a leader in innovation and technology. The world needs us.” You are wrong. We are not the only budding tech nation in the world. There are other countries who will rush at the opportunity to usurp us as the “start-up nation”. Our gifted young people will jump at the chance to go and work abroad and leave these shores. Businesses will take the millions if not billions to relocate and rob the country of much needed foreign investment.  Just like in South Africa we will experience not only a brain drain, but a loss of all sorts of other talent – sporting, artistic, and more, as our children go in search of greener pastures. Collective guilt and the argument that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic will only go so far until eventually we lose the support of our friends. This may not all happen immediately, but may well do so over time. We can already see the mood in countries around the world turning to the support of perceived human rights issues everywhere, and the pressure that is being brought to bear on governments the world over.

I am a proud Jew who loves Israel and I will not stand by silently and watch as this country, to which I have brought my children and taught them to be proud Jews in one of the few democracies in our region, slip into an unjust system which removes the dignity and steals the hope of other people. I will not abide this culture of Omerta where it is frowned upon to criticize the wrongs of Israel because we are afraid to be seen to be giving ammunition to our enemies. We cannot always label others as self-hating Jews or anti-Semitic for speaking out about legitimate issues. We are supposed to pride ourselves on being a democracy with free speech. This includes honest self reflection. I want to live in a country where I proudly send my children off to compulsory military service to defend this country from those around us that would unjustly seek our destruction, but not help to take away the dignity of other human beings. I will speak out against it because it is wrong. I will not be able to defend the indefensible. I want to live in a country where we proudly wave our flags on Yom Ha’Atzmaut and hold ourselves up as a beacon of democracy and “a light unto the nations”. I may not have a loud voice in this country – I can’t even speak the language properly; but I will add my voice to the multitude of those who oppose unilateral annexation. I will not be guilty of the sin of apathy.

About the Author
Warren Lewis is an Oleh from South Africa. He has a BSc in International Business from the University of Southern New Hampshire (USA). He is a former professional soccer player who represented South Africa at international level.
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