I first visited South Africa in May 1991: a dark, wet, wintry period, when Apartheid still ruled, although the ANC and Nelson Mandela had been freed. Ten years later I returned, this time to summer, in a democratic country in which Apartheid has been defeated, the ANC is in power, and a vigorous, contentious civil society is engaged in trying to complete the task of bringing equality and social justice to this still divided and economically troubled country. But, the liberation struggle that ended Apartheid and instituted the first democratically elected government on 27 April 1994, remains one of the great human achievements in recorded history. Despite the problems of the present, South Africa is an inspiring place to visit and think about, partly because for Arabs, it has a lot to teach us about struggle, originality, and perseverance.
I came here this time as a participant in a conference on values in education, organized by the Ministry of Education. Qader Asmal, the minister of education, is an old and admired friend whom I met many years ago when he was in exile in Ireland. I shall say more about him in my next article. But, as a member of the cabinet, a longtime ANC activist, and a successful lawyer and academic, he was able to persuade Nelson Mandela (now 83, in frail health, and officially retired from public life) to address the conference on the first evening. What Mandela said then made a deep impression on me, as much because of Mandela’s enormous stature and profoundly affecting charisma, as for the well-crafted words he uttered. Also a lawyer by training, Mandela is an especially eloquent man who, in spite of thousands of ritual occasions and speeches, always seems to have something gripping to say.
This time it was two phrases about the past that struck me in a fine speech about education, a speech which drew unflattering attention to the depressed present state of the country’s majority, “languishing in abject conditions of material and social deprivation.” Hence, he reminded the audience, “our struggle is not over,” even though — here was the first phrase — the campaign against Apartheid “was one of the great moral struggles” that “captured the world’s imagination.” The second phrase was in his description of the anti-Apartheid campaign not simply as a movement to end racial discrimination, but as a means “for all of us to assert our common humanity.” Implied in the words “all of us” is that all of the races of South Africa, including the pro-Apartheid whites, were envisaged as participating in a struggle whose goal finally was coexistence, tolerance and “the realization of humane values.”
The first phrase struck me cruelly: why did the Palestinian struggle not (yet) capture the world’s imagination and why, even more to the point, does it not appear as a great moral struggle which, as Mandela said about the South African experience, received “almost universal support… from virtually all political persuasions and parties?”
True, we have received a great deal of general support, and yes, ours is a moral struggle of epic proportions. The conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian people is admittedly more complex than the battle against Apartheid, even if in both cases one people paid and the other is still paying a very heavy price in dispossession, ethnic cleansing, military occupation and massive social injustice. The Jews are a people with a tragic history of persecution and genocide. Bound by their ancient faith to the land of Palestine, their “return” to a homeland promised them by British imperialism was perceived by much of the world (but especially by a Christian West responsible for the worst excesses of anti-Semitism) as a heroic and justified restitution for what they suffered. Yet, for years, and years, few paid attention to the conquest of Palestine by Jewish forces, or to the Arab people already there who endured its exorbitant cost in the destruction of their society, the expulsion of the majority, and the hideous system of laws — a virtual Apartheid — that still discriminates against them inside Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinians were the silent victims of a gross injustice, quickly shuffled offstage by a triumphalist chorus of how amazing Israel was.
After the reemergence of a genuine Palestinian liberation movement in the late ’60s, the formerly colonized people of Asia, Africa and Latin America adopted the Palestinian struggle, but in the main, the strategic balance was vastly in Israel’s favor; it has been backed unconditionally by the US ($5 billion in annual aid), and in the West, the media, the liberal intelligentsia, and most governments have been on Israel’s side. For reasons too well known to go into here, the official Arab environment was either overtly hostile or lukewarm in its mostly verbal and financial support.
Because, however, the shifting strategic goals of the PLO were always clouded by useless terrorist actions, were never addressed or articulated eloquently, and because the preponderance of cultural discourse in the West was either unknown to or misunderstood by Palestinian policymakers and intellectuals, we have never been able to claim the moral high ground effectively. Israeli information could always both appeal to (and exploit) the Holocaust as well as the unstudied and politically untimely acts of Palestinian terror, thereby neutralizing or obscuring our message, such as it was. We never concentrated as a people on cultural struggle in the West (which the ANC early on had realized was the key to undermining Apartheid) and we simply did not highlight in a humane, consistent way the immense depredations and discriminations directed at us by Israel. Most television viewers today have no idea about Israel’s racist land policies, or its spoliations, tortures, systematic deprivation of the Palestinians just because they are not Jews. As a black South African reporter wrote in one of the local newspapers here while on a visit to Gaza, Apartheid was never as vicious and as inhumane as Zionism: ethnic cleansing, daily humiliations, collective punishment on a vast scale, land appropriation, etc., etc.
But, even these facts, were they known better as a weapon in the battle over values between Zionism and the Palestinians, would not have been enough. What we never concentrated on enough was the fact that to counteract Zionist exclusivism, we would have to provide a solution to the conflict that, in Mandela’s second phrase, would assert our common humanity as Jews and Arabs. Most of us still cannot accept the idea that Israeli Jews are here to stay, that they will not go away, any more than Palestinians will go away. This is understandably very hard for Palestinians to accept, since they are still in the process of losing their land and being persecuted on a daily basis. But, with our irresponsible and unreflective suggestion in what we have said that they will be forced to leave (like the Crusades), we did not focus enough on ending the military occupation as a moral imperative or on providing a form for their security and self-determinism that did not abrogate ours. This, and not the preposterous hope that a volatile American president would give us a state, ought to have been the basis of a mass campaign everywhere. Two people in one land. Or, equality for all. Or, one person one vote. Or, a common humanity asserted in a binational state.
I know we are the victims of a terrible conquest, a vicious military occupation, a Zionist lobby that has consistently lied in order to turn us either into non-people or into terrorists — but what is the real alternative to what I’ve been suggesting? A military campaign? A dream. More Oslo negotiations? Clearly not. More loss of life by our valiant young people, whose leader gives them no help or direction? A pity, but no. Reliance on the Arab states who have reneged even on their promise to provide emergency assistance now? Come on, be serious.
Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are locked in Sartre’s vision of hell, that of “other people.” There is escape. Separation can’t work in so tiny a land, any more than Apartheid did. Israeli military and economic power insulates them from having to face reality. This is the meaning of Sharon’s election, an antediluvian war criminal summoned out of the mists of time to do what: put the Arabs in their place? Hopeless. Therefore, it is up to us to provide the answer that power and paranoia cannot. It isn’t enough to speak generally of peace. One must provide the concrete grounds for it, and those can only come from moral vision, and neither from “pragmatism” nor “practicality.” If we are all to live — this is our imperative — we must capture the imagination not just of our people, but that of our oppressors. And, we have to abide by humane democratic values.
Is the current Palestinian leadership listening? Can it suggest anything better than this, given its abysmal record in a “peace process” that has led to the present horrors?