City Press: Why Pick on Israel?

By Professor Farid Esack
City Press- Johannesburg -[17_10_10]

Some years ago, I visited a Palestinian house demolished by the Israelis near the Mount of Olives and listened to the stories of homeless sitting around the concrete rubble. As the Israelis stormed the house, a deeply distraught women narrated, she was cradling her baby and pushed it towards one of the soldiers, screaming “What about her!? What about her!? He just had his duties to perform and shoved her out of the way. Later, with her home in ruins, this woman was charged with ‘assaulting a soldier’ and/or alternatively interfering with the duties of a soldier”. The assault weapon listed in the charge sheet? “Baby”.

Stunned by this tale of cruelty, I picked up a small stone the rubble – a symbol of my commitment to act ‘do something’ about what I have witnessed from and have kept it ever since.  My work, along with others, to get the University of Johannesburg to end its ties with Israel’s Ben Gurion University is a part of that commitment 

 “Why singled out Israel when there are numerous other examples of human rights abuses in the rest of the world? Is singling Israel out not proof of anti-Semitism? I can really only speak authoritatively about my own motives for doing so. 

First, the question often assumes that the entire spectrum of individuals and organizations engaged in the struggle for justice for the Palestinians are driven by identical imperatives. I have no doubt that there are numerous individuals and organizations driven to “support” the Palestinians by a deep, irrational, and despicable hatred for Jews and everything Jewish; to them Jews are merely one reprehensible blob of inhumanity. The application of this disaggregated view of a community, race, ethnic group, or gender is always problematic and often downright despicable, with disastrous consequences for humankind. Likewise, in the case of Palestine, the logic underlying such misrepresentation is equally problematic; to present an historical community such as the Jewish community and the way that identity is being constructed today (as an intrinsic part of a contemporary ideological State) as eternal or ahistorical is to consequently view the entire spectrum of anti-Israeli activity as proof of anti-Semitism
Second, I have no particular authority to speak on behalf of all of those in the world who work in the Palestinian solidarity movement or to detail their motives.  Let me speak for myself: I have seen the relationship between sexism and racism and have not remained silent; I have seen the interconnectedness between all forms of racism – including anti-Semitism - and have not remained silent; I have witnessed the way that my theological and scriptural tradition have been exploited to advance religious chauvinism, gender injustice and homophobia and have not remained silent; I have witnessed the impact of man’s greed on our only home, the Earth, and have not remained silent. I have in more recent years as a scholar of the Qur’an been looking at Jews and/in the Qur’an and started reflecting in a more sustained manner on the way Jews seem to be frozen in much of the Muslim imagination as unreliable and devious. If apologists for Apartheid Israel want to imagine that I have singled it out – ignoring an entire life of varied and ongoing commitments including consistently attacking Muslim anti-Jewishness – there is preciously little that I can do about their accusations of selective morality. 

Third, South Africans are all too familiar with the argument “the other oppressors are equally bad, or even worse” or “we treat our Blacks better than Blacks are treated elsewhere in Africa;” Apartheid South Africa was indeed a better place than many other parts of the continent with regard to human rights and economic standards. This argument, however, ascribes to the Palestinians a simple Arab identity in the same way that Black South Africans were simply viewed as ”Africans”. (Hence the related bewilderment as to why the other Arab countries simply do not absorb the Palestinian refugees; “They’re all Arabs, after all”). The fact that Rebecca’s husband “merely” slaps her while Rachel’s husband slaps and kicks her has nothing to do with Rebecca’s right not to be slapped. For Palestinians the question of how Arabs are being treated elsewhere is irrelevant to the question of their oppression; they have a right to freedom, justice and equality now. 

Fourth, there is a good reason for demanding pressure on Israel which is not exerted on many other countries – because Israel is the only serial human-rights abuser on the planet which enjoys consistent and enthusiastic support by all the liberal democracies of the North. This gives the Israeli state an impunity which Iran, Zimbabwe or Burma, to name but three, do not enjoy because their human rights abuses are all – rightly and however unprincipled – attacked by the major powers. Israel alone is allowed to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity – vide the Goldstone report – without any serious attempt by the Northern powers to change this. It is also allowed to repeatedly ignore United Nations resolutions without any opposition from the governments and major institutions of the North. And so Israel has to be the human rights priority – at least until the powerful care as much about Israeli abuses as they do about those of others.

Fifth, speaking up about the life or death for the Palestinian people is also about salvaging our dream of a moral society that will not be complicit in the suffering of other people. There are, of course, other instances of oppression, dispossession, and marginalization in the world. Yet, none of these are as immediately recognizable to us who lived under, survived, and overcame Apartheid. For South Africans who have lived under Apartheid and fought for liberation from it and everything that it represented, Palestine reflects in many ways the unfinished business of our own struggle; 

As a South African who understood the invaluable role of international solidarity in ending centuries of oppression, I have no choice but to make my contribution to the struggle of the Palestinians for freedom. I do so with the full awareness that their freedom will also contribute to the freedom of many Jews to be fully human in the same way that the end of Apartheid also signalled the liberation of white people in South Africa.

The “why are you out to get us?” argument is in some way premised on the racist idea that all “non-us” will always be out to get “us”, an extension of the racism underpinning Zionist logic that holds that behind all opposition to Israel there lurks an irreducible dimension of goyim ontology and anti-Jewishness and that non-Jews can never be really be trusted when it comes to Jewish survival. (Even as it is an incontrovertible fact that Israel can only be what is through the enormous political and economic support that it gets from the United States.) 

And yet, while our primary objective is simply to contribute to freedom and justice for the Palestinians, there is something to be said for this “Why are you out to get us?” response. If some men insist that their masculinity is inexorably tied to a relationship of superiority over women and can conceive of no other way of being men in the world because this dominance is pre-ordained by biology or Providence, surely women are entitled to respond: “You simply have to conceive of a different way of identifying yourselves. If you want to interpret our struggle for freedom from male domination as one that undermines your particular conception of manhood and your insistence that there is only one way of being a man in the world then, then, well, “tough;” we are out to get you.”  If some Jews insist that there is only one way to be Jewish in the world today and that is through Zionism – with its associated implications of destroying the land rights of the indigenous population – then “tough.”  

At the height of our liberation struggle, I never ceased to remind our people that our struggle for liberation is also one for the liberation of white people. Apartheid diminished the humanity of white people in the same way that gender injustice diminishes the humanity of males. The humanity of the oppressor is reclaimed through liberation and Israel is no exception in this regard. In the destruction of machismo lay the seeds of birth of a new man.

- Farid Esack is a Professor at the University of Johannesburg and one of the initiators of the petition calling on UJ to end its co-operation agreement with Ben Gurion