The missing Jewish chapter

I want to join your call, but I can’t, because I am too emotional about it, too conflicted, too scared, too horrified, too traumatised and too sad. I have taken to saying kaddish (mourner’s prayer) every night for the children of Lebanon, and I lie awake with the parents of kidnapped (or is it captured?) Israeli soldiers. Yes, Lebanon has only just emerged from its own painful neo-colonial occupation and I too am gutted by the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure and its hard-won societal gains.

I am entertaining fantasies that Ehud Olmert will phone Bashar al-Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah and Ismail Haniyeh and say, “Look, enough is enough! I can’t bear one more death.
Please come and visit me; I want to break bread with you, show you the kibbutzim, the schools, the shops, the museums, the universities, the science and technology, the people, the food, the youth, the beauty and depth of Israeli culture, and the sense of family. For you to sense the loss the whole nation feels when just one individual is killed, the hope and the prayers; and then I want to go with you to Damascus, and Tehran, Beirut, Gaza and Ramallah and celebrate brotherhood with you. Muslims and Jews are kin and should be closer than either is to Christianity. I want to see Israel standing with its neighbours and not with the United States—how can the US be a morally acceptable partner in the George W Bush era? I want them to understand that Israel is not a cancerous tumour and a blot on the map, but rather a fountain of modernity and opportunity for prosperity and a gateway for peaceful East-West relations.”

We all know that one-person-one-vote in the greater Palestine of 1947 cannot happen in our lifetime. The reality is that the Knesset will not be dismantled and shipped back to Poland. Israel as a state will not be eliminated. We are compelled to find a way forward lest this struggle should grow and spread like a cancer into every tissue of our world. This struggle is the key international political issue in the modern era. World peace and security is at stake, so failure to find compromise is not an option. The struggle is so intense, so entangled and inextricable, and so important to peace on Earth, that a just and workable outcome should be the first priority of every earthling.

Israel has the power (both military and economic) and, therefore, peace can only emanate from the Knesset. If Israel is to be a “light to the nations”, let it bite the bullet and give back what land it can, bring down the wall, assist in establishing a viable Palestinian state, compensate financially where realistic and possible, re-build what it has smashed, share resources, train its Palestinian counterparts and behave like a constructive partner in peace.

How can anyone, Jew or other, tolerate the belligerence and aggression of the Israelis? The destruction of Israeli military might is awesome and terrible, and the pain it has induced can only strengthen the enemy’s resolve. The bombing of aid convoys and United Nations observer posts will serve only to characterise Israel as a Middle-East Serbia and the atrocities in Lebanon render the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) unrecognisable and indefensible.

So, what’s the problem with your letter? It’s unbalanced. Gino Vanelli (I know, I know) wrote this truism: “Oh, the fallacies of our foes are just half the curse, for it’s not so much good against bad, as bad against worse.” Why is it a step too far for you to acknowledge Jewish suffering and legitimate Jewish national aspirations? While this part of the debate usually degenerates into a futile historical tit-for-tat, I just can’t abide the “oh please, don’t evoke the holocaust again” argument, when the irony of Nazi collective punishment is evoked at the same time.

I cannot tolerate the ignorant and belittling equation of Israel and apartheid. I have also heard your “echoes of silence” after Ahmadinejad’s holocaust comments, and after Hamas’s and Islamic Jihad’s outrages on school buses and in restaurants. I note you have nothing to say of Syria’s rape of Lebanon, and of the 1,3-million Israeli refugees—or the fact that the faceless militia of Hizbullah has concentrated more rockets and missiles in southern Lebanon than any other army in the world—and is using them without regard for civilians, while the IDF tries to warn civilians in advance.

But what irks me most is that there’s nothing like an Israeli atrocity to the latent South African Jewish lefties of their seders with zeder. It simply doesn’t wash with me that bashing Israel is the only expression of their Jewishness, and that they count themselves in when they have an opportunity to bolster their local political legitimacy and try to dodge the Jewish = Zionist tar-brush. I guess we have an uncomfortable place in South Africa. Like all those who benefited from apartheid, the Jews have a lot to be ashamed of, but also a lot to be proud of. For some of us, the Tony and Lieutenant Michal “vee arr togezzerrr” Leon cringe factor exacerbates the discomfort and has us walking on eggshells.

When progressive Jews in South Africa try to sort out their personal identities they fall into the morass of attempting to reconcile the personal and political—navigating between conflicting demands of heritage and realpolitik. I identify with you, and I am sympathetic and proud of you. I agree with almost all you have said, the atrocities in Lebanon are “not in my name”, but it’s the missing chapter that stops me from joining your call. I am a proud South African and a not-so-proud Jew. I also feel shame and anger. But there is pride too and sadness, and I feel the need to express it.

Finally, I would like test your commitment to this issue by calling on you to extend your shamed thoughts and expedient words into action. We can count ourselves as progressive Jews, enriched by South African reconciliation and pained by the failure of the Middle East. We can find a path with our Muslim compatriots and go on missions to Damascus, Tel Aviv and Ramallah. We can export what’s unique about the South African experience into a programme of action for Israel and Palestine.

Dr Neville Sweijd is director of the Benguela Environment Fisheries Interaction and Training Programme in Namibia

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