The other night someone started to talk to me at an art exhibition. After asking all the obvious questions over glasses of wine (his) and mineral water (mine) and learning of my studies in religion and culture, he asked: “So what do you think of Islam?” I almost choked. Ok, so now he had my attention.
I mentioned my travels to Indonesia and that I recently spent three months in Palestine. “These people opened their hearts and their houses to me” I told him. “And I witnessed gross human rights abuses in Palestine….”
Someone else started to talk to the man and I wandered away to look at the young artist’s first solo exhibition. The extraordinary colourful paintings featured a South African fishing community – salt of the earth, weathered faces. They are not rich in earthly belongings, but they have such joy that they made me smile too.
The man and I eventually ended up having a late supper in town where I listened to his myths on Islam and Palestinians.
“There are two sides to the story” he said (But why do you think that these two sides are equal? Ever heard of systemic injustice? Like in apartheid – in our country – remember?)
“It’s a complex situation” he tried to ease it up (Well it would help if Israel starts to adhere to international law…. that’s not complicated, it’s pretty much black and white).
And so it went on. I did not move him one inch (or centimetre). “You can say what you want,” he concluded “but the Israelis are damn good with water.” (Yeah….they also steal Palestinian water.)
But we did part on a nice foot and when he called about two weeks later to say that some Israelis were visiting Stellenbosch to talk about their country I thought I should better check it out.
The Israelis turned out to be an ex-Christian South African couple, previously from Klerksdorp. White Afrikaans speaking people like me, but probably about ten or fifteen years younger. Their conversion to Judaism a few years earlier was prompted by their realisation that Christmas trees are part of a pagan tradition. They burnt their tree, started to study their Bible and eventually felt that it was their destiny to “return” to Israel. They now live in Be’er Sheva just off the southern border of the West Bank.
This is also the home of the Ben Gurion University (the University of Johannesburg severed ties with UBG in 2011).
Accompanying this couple was another Jew, a man who also used to be Christian. He emigrated from Dortrecht in the Netherlands to Israel.
To them their lives as new-born Jews in Israel have real purpose. During the first part of their presentation they told us about their religious task to take back all that “belongs” to them.
“Fifty to sixty years ago” they said, “the West Bank and the area where we live was a wilderness and nobody wanted to live there.” (Thoughts of the thriving Palestinian agriculture and trade before the Nakba – the Catastrophe of 1948 when over 700 000 Palestinians became refugees and Israel took possession of 530 Palestinian villages in addition to the land allotted to them by the UN – crossed my mind). He showed us beautiful pictures of fields in bloom – exactly the way Yanoun (where I used to stay whilst I worked in the West Bank) looks like in spring…. green fields dotted with red poppies….all natural. “No-one succeeded before to let the Negev blossom” he said. “Each year our crop increases and this is God’s blessing to us.” I kept my silence to listen him out.
The Dutch Jew quoted from the Bible (Gen 22:19, Ex 3:31, 1 Kings 5:1, 1 Kings 19:1-3, Num 21:1, 1 1 Sam 25:1, Lev 26:20,32, Ps 126, Ezekiel 36:8, and so forth) to demonstrate that God promised all of the current Israel plus the occupied territories of Palestine (the West Bank, Gaza and East-Jerusalem) to the modern state of Israel and to anybody else in the world who chooses to be Jewish.
“There is only one thing in the Middle East that matters” he told us, “and that is the truth. We can now see how the things that our prophets mentioned are coming true.” (Thank goodness my Bible talks about an inclusive love and respect for all.)
It was as if he repeated the Netanyahu rhetoric of “truth – more truth – and the truth only.” But even Netanyahu’s truth sometimes shifts…like when he realised that the illegal expropriation of Palestinian homes and lands could actually implicate Israeli officials in war crimes litigation as one can read by clicking on the following link:
“God’s will”, they explained, “is to bring the people of Israel back to Israel.” (Will the land always be enough no matter how many people from all over the world convert to Judaism and move there? What about the many Jews who do not agree with the Israeli government’s policy to take someone else’s land and resources by force….those who say that the Torah speaks of respect for others and human dignity without a political and nationalistic agenda?)
“Each nation needs to be in its own place where they belong and this only will bring peace” the presentation continued. (Therefore Dutch and South African Jews are… what…Israelis? What is a nation and what is a religion – is there perhaps a difference between the two?)
“The Arabs belong in Jordan.” (In other words those Palestinians whose families date back to the times of the Old Testament, many of them Christians, should move to Jordan? What about the millions of Palestinian refugees worldwide – all of them too? I am a South African whose ancestors came from the Netherlands, France and Italy a mere three hundred years ago…where is my “place”?)
The man from the art exhibition and I were the only people who attended the talk by the three people from the Beit Moriah organisation. It turned out they came to ask money for their community which they said had been falling apart lately. They need the money to integrate immigrants from Ethiopia and the USSR, to feed those living below the poverty line, to run schools, to train leaders, to turn neighbours into friends, to instil Jewish and Israeli knowledge and pride. (The money that Israel receives from the USA each year is more than what the USA gives to the entire developing world.)
We had a long discussion and I felt like a lone voice between three Zionists and one person with an un-nuanced admiration for Israel. I tried to talk to my fellow (albeit ex-)South Africans with warmth and love and asked them if they really, honestly, in their inner-most beings as members of a post-apartheid society think that the solution lies in separation. They answered quickly and surely – they don’t – and therefore all of the land must belong to Israel. I actually referred to separation between people.
The woman told me how she once took her child to a Palestinian hospital and how well she and her child were treated. There she realised that she and the Palestinian women are both mothers. The couple acknowledged that settlers live illegally in the West Bank (this unsettled the guy I went with) and that they are deemed the “baddies”. They know this. But they deny settler violence and regard the United Nations, the Red Cross, the Quartet and Save the Children as leftish organisations – “Don’t talk to us about them” they told me.
They felt the IDF discriminates as much against them as they do against Palestinians. Yet when I told them some of the things I witnessed in the West Bank they asked if I am sure that the transgressors were indeed settlers. They didn’t know about the demolitions, the personal harassments, the damage to property, the confiscation of water, the denial of basic human rights and all the double standards. These things are not true they asserted, in fact, they heard rumours and when they checked it out the army told them that none of this is true and therefore none of this is true.
Despite my very best intentions and much discipline to restrain myself, my many questions and my counter information clearly irritated them. Or perhaps not? Did I give them something to reflect on? I’m not sure of this. The gentleman whom I accompanied assured me afterwards that I launched an attack on the three guests from Israel who just wanted to tell us their story.
I arrived home feeling very emotional…but I also remembered the grace and dignity of the Palestinians in the midst of their humiliation, pain and loss. I owe it to them to engage with those who do not yet see Israel’s systemic injustices so that even though they do not hear me, they can still feel my longing for harmony and perhaps, maybe on a level outside their minds and beyond their emotions and religious convictions, something may start to shift.
Over centuries, the truth has always shifted. We know only in part. Therefore we should be modest about our claims on truth or a single right way. In fact, we start to recognise a plasticity in the nature of reality as Richard Tarnas explains in his book on the ideas that shape(d) Western worldviews (1993:406).
If this is indeed the case, it has immense implications for the human situation as it actually implies that you and I can participate in the creation of reality. It means we can influence our own reality through our actions, and even through our attitudes, our thoughts and our prayers. As we are all inter-connected, we can also influence the reality beyond our own bodies. All of this means that what we do really matters (in the literal sense of the word). We actually have an impact on what happens.
This is (one of the reasons) why I don’t give up, and why a situation as the one I described here actually energises me in my quest for living a message of non-violence. I’ll keep on trying.
Read also the profoundly moving testimony of Rabbi Brian Walt (who grew up in South Africa) on Affirming a Judaism and Jewish identity without Zionism.
Tarnas, Richard. 1993. The Passion of he Western Mind. New York.