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Voices

Creating a different future for Israelis and Palestinians

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PROFESSOR DAVID BILCHITZ

On the one hand, we have a section of our Jewish community who believes Israel can do no wrong. The formal leadership of the South African Jewish community has, for instance, not criticised Israel, even when its actions are clearly wrong and unjust.

By contrast, the United Kingdom Board of Deputies recently condemned both Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demonisation of the Arab citizens of Israel, and his willingness to form a coalition with those who venerate the murderer of 29 Arabs. Even senior Conservative global Jewish community figures such as Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Sir Mick Davis in the UK have been similarly critical. Why is this important?

While living in Israel last year, I sadly was confronted with persistent violations of human rights in the OPT. I met Palestinians forcibly removed by the Israel military under the pretext of security, who now found themselves working for Jewish settlers on the land they previously had owned. I met a family of hard-working labourers on a date farm whose home was demolished by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – the family having done nothing that threatens Israel.

I spoke to Israeli soldiers who told me about “operations of presence”: in the middle of the night, without any suspicion of wrongdoing, the IDF raid the homes of ordinary Palestinians, traumatising families. These actions are not only wrong in themselves, but they create new enmity on a daily basis, and render a resolution of the conflict less and less likely.

On the other side of the South African political spectrum, we have a raucous Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to portray Israel as similar in nature to apartheid South Africa. The comparison makes no sense for anyone who considers the different origins of these conflicts.

More insidiously, though, the BDS movement denies a Jewish story around Israel and adopts wholesale a single narrative framework that portrays the Jewish return to Israel simply as a form of colonialism.

The narrative provides cover to those who claim justification for raining rockets on Israel or committing terrorist outrages. Entrenching polarisation and demonisation, rather than understanding and reconciliation, sustains the conflict instead of assisting in its resolution.

Seeking resolution requires each nation to hear and acknowledge the other’s narratives. Zionism was never an attempt to colonise another people. Jews came to Israel not as agents of European colonialism, but, in many cases, as refugees from oppressive regimes seeking a safe haven in a hostile world. Many of our parents and grandparents were those refugees. Denying these realities is not only deeply hurtful, it is a denial of an important truth.

Denial, however, works both ways. The pain and suffering Jews experienced blinds many of them to the cost that the conflict has inflicted on Palestinian inhabitants. Whatever the multiple historical causes, the creation of Israel resulted in the displacement of nearly 700 000 Palestinian people from their homes.

Many lived out the rest of their lives in refugee camps, and subsequent generations remain in squalid, precarious conditions in the OPT and neighbouring states. We need to listen to, acknowledge and engage with Palestinian narratives and their pain and suffering, as they must with ours.

Mutual recognition opens a space in which relationships can be built. What has been sorely missing in Israel, as well as in the South African discourse, are voices of moderation that understand this conflict is not written in stone.

A sizeable portion of the Jewish community in South Africa and globally – perhaps a vast majority – are keen to see a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not because we are against Israel. Quite the contrary. It is because we believe such a resolution will not only be right from a moral point of view, but allow Israel fully to achieve the hatikvah (hope) that lies at its heart.

That hope is not simply a state that is economically successful. It is, rather, one that is faithful to the basic Jewish and democratic values enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. While the right-wing government in Israel continually undermines this original vision, many of us both in Israel and outside remain deeply invested in these ideals.

Many of us are thus setting up a movement in South Africa – the Jewish Democratic Initiative (JDI) – which seeks to reinvigorate this vision of Israel in this country. Connecting with like-minded groups internationally, we embrace an optimistic vision of two peoples with their own states living together in peace and cooperation.

The way to achieve this, we believe, cannot be through polarising rhetoric and demonisation. Rather, the focus must be on building trust, connections and understanding.

We are inspired by our own South African story of a negotiated settlement after centuries of oppression and conflict. We glimpsed the possibilities for Israel and Palestine, too, during the 1990s. Yet, both sides have allowed peace to recede from their vision.

I invite members of our community to join the JDI and other Jews around the world, who are reaching out to our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters in order to make peace a reality in this generation.

  • David Bilchitz is a professor of fundamental rights at the University of Johannesburg. If you are interested in connecting with the JDI, please write to jdimovement@gmail.com

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