Deja vu for a South African in Palestine

Deja vu for a South African in Palestine
Comment: Farid Esack - South African veteran of the liberation struggle, explores the similarities and differences between life under Apartheid in South Africa and Palestine.
6 min read
03 Mar, 2017
A vigil for Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat is held in Jerusalem [AFP]

For a South African, the sense of deja vu is inescapable almost immediately upon arrival in the land of Palestine and Israel.

Let me re-phrase that; for a South African who has lived - or maybe just "survived" would be a better term - under Apartheid, or for any of those who acted in solidarity with those who did - it is a fairly simple matter to be struck by this enforced separateness.

In some ways, all of us are the children of our histories – the relevance of our own stories and sadly, the irrelevance of the stories of others. Yet, we also choose to be struck by the stories of some others. We choose to be struck, and the extent to which we exercise this choice is perhaps the barometer of our humanity.

"Do South Africans who lived and suffered under Apartheid recognise the Palestinian experience as akin to theirs under Apartheid?"

To this, the growing response seems to be, no; it cannot be compared to Apartheid: Life under Zionism is much worse.

In the words of the internationally respected jurist, John Dugard, there is "an apartheid regime" in the occupied territories "worse than the one that existed in South Africa".

Archbishop Desmond Tutu also speaks about how witnessing the conditions of the Palestinians "reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.... I say 'why are our memories so short?' Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation?"

I am astonished at how ordinary, decent people, whose hearts are in the right place equivocate when it comes to Israel and the dispossession and suffering of the Palestinians.

And now I wonder about the nature of "decency". Do "objectivity", "moderation", and "both sides" not have contexts?

I choose to look at Palestine and Israel though the eyes of the marginalised and the exploited, and I choose to privilege this perspective over other perspectives

Is "moderation" in matters of manifest injustice really a virtue? Do both parties deserve an "equal hearing"? In a situation of domestic violence, where a woman gets beaten up by a man who was previously abused by his father - do we say the abuser deserves no punishment, because the perpetrator, too, is a victim?

Why must someone else suffer because the husband was abused by some other male yesterday? Whose story are we really tuned into, and whose interest do we serve by tuning in only to the side of violence - or by opting for an illusionary neutrality? 

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I choose to look at Palestine and Israel though the eyes of the marginalised and the exploited, and I choose to privilege this perspective over other perspectives. 

So what does such privileging mean?

It all depends on where we are located in the power structure.

We are in the middle of this situation, because we do business with the abusive husband - and we profit from his abusive actions - and we sustain his delusions that his actions are normal, that he is part of the civilised crowd.

We seek refuge in the "two-to-tango", "both sides have a story to tell" narrative, as a way of dodging our own complicity.

When we hallow the abuser - Israel - with the mantle of respectability, our silence draws us into a web of complicity.

However small a minority they may have been, only those who refused to turn a blind eye to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis and refused to be silent, were truly civilized.

All others had Jewish blood on their hands.

Talking about the "Jewish-German conflict", or the "Black-White situation", or "marital problems" in the face of manifest injustice and abuse is no great virtue; initially it is the path of acquiescence and, ultimately, that of complicity.

Our silence draws us into a web of complicity

The question of abuse though is - mercifully - still open to rational and ethical discourse. When it comes to Zionism, attempts are made to elevate the discourse above the human realm, and take it into God's domain. After all, who can win argument with God?

Here too, the Zionists have much in common with the fathers of South African Apartheid. 

The victory of the Nationalist Party that heralded the coming of formal Apartheid in 1948 - coincidentally the same year as the Nakba -  was hailed as a "miracle" and clear proof that God was watching over His people; DF Malan, the incoming prime minister, spelled it out as follows:

"The history of the Afrikaner reveals a determination and a definiteness of purpose which make one feel that Afrikanerdom is not the work of man but a creation of God. We have a divine right to be Afrikaners. Our history is the work of art of the Architect of the Centuries. It is to us that millions of semi-barbarous Blacks look for guidance, justice and the Christian way of life."

Freedom for Palestinians will also bring about the liberation of many Israelis and Jews from racist thinking, and from their fear of the Palestinians

Gary Burge, a New Testament scholar, writes about a conversation he had in 1990 with two teenage boys from a nearby Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, when Christian Palestinians protested the underhand purchasing of Church property by Zionists. The boys were eager to explain their fairly simple arguments to a tourist:

"We have bought what is ours anyway and how we did it, doesn't matter," they said.

I asked if it were not true that the Greek [Orthodox Church] had owned this property for hundreds - maybe even a thousand years.

"It doesn't matter," they answered. "God gave us this country and this city, and Jews can live anywhere. […] We are only taking what is ours by right. These people have no right to even be in this city."

The last thought enticed me. I pursued the idea of "rights" with these seventeen-year-old zealots.

"God gave this land to Abraham, and we are his descendants. It belongs to us. Everything that happened in between simply doesn't matter. The Palestinian Christians should just get out."

The conversation stuck me as odd because these boys were American. They were from New York and had been in the country only a few years.  


The Bible is invoked as a deed of ownership - even though the nationalist, atheist ideologues of the early Zionist movement did not believe in its divine authorship.

A God who does not really exist is nonetheless reduced to a dishonest property agent who parcels out land to His Favourites, land with borders clearly demarcated as if these were registered in a 20th century title deeds office - all at a time thousands of years ago when national boundaries were rather unknown.

In the same way that the end of South African Apartheid meant the serious possibility for many white racists to become fully human and liberated from their racism, and in the same way that justice for women is the only road to true liberation for men, freedom for Palestinians will also bring about the liberation of many Israelis and Jews from racist thinking, and from their fear of the Palestinians.

Farid Esack is a Professor in Religion Studies at the University of Johannesburg and Chair of the Board of BDS South Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @FaridEsack

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.