The Choice to be Struck?

Israeli soldiers scuffle with Palestinian schoolchildren at a checkpoint as they prevent them from reaching their schools in the old city of Hebron November 23, 2005. (MAANnews/Mamoun Wazwaz)

Palestine/Israel is a strange place; here separateness is valorized by many decent people and presented as the “peace option” and the not-so-nice-ones openly preach ethnic cleansing. Yet those who preach ethnic cleansing are often viewed as persons that “we can do business with”. In South Africa, apartheid was regarded by the world as the problem; here in Israel they, and much of the rest of the world, present it as the solution.

For many otherwise decent people who do not experience dispossession and discrimination on a daily basis, stability in its preferred and somehow morally elevated package as “peace” becomes the single most important objective that one must yearn for. Thus, “we support the peace process” becomes a mantra for “decent people.” Yet, a refusal to connect with other people can sometimes be part of a broader struggle to ensure that connectedness is ultimately a just one, that “niceness” and “peace” do not become substitutes for justice and integrity. “Wouldn’t it nice if that abused woman stopped embarrassing her husband by screaming out so loud when she is being beaten?” “Why can’t she get on with the business of being a good mother?” “Will someone please pacify her?” Questions such as “who do we want to connect with?”, “to what end?” and “whose peace?” are important to consider if we do not want to be taken for a ride - unless, of course, we want to be taken for a ride.

I come from a country where we called upon the conscience of the world to stay away from it; where we expected all ‘decent’ people to heed the call for economic, academic and cultural sanctions against South Africa. Chief Albert Luthuli, a father of our nation and a Noble Peace Prize winner, appealed to the world as early as 1960:

“We welcome most heartily the action of the overseas people in launching the boycott […] Our hope really is this: that we can bring pressure to bear on South Africa and that through this pressure South Africa will change its way of dealing with non-Europeans… We know as African people that we, as [an] oppressed people, will never gain our freedom without suffering. But to us it is a demonstration of the solidarity of the freedom-loving peoples throughout the world […] We must pursue our policy of non-violence up to the limit […] We, therefore, welcome your decision to boycott […,] as we are convinced that nothing but good can flow out of all efforts directed against defeating a policy which seeks to perpetuate Afrikaner domination and economic exploitation of the millions of African people.” (‘Boycott Us,’ Spectator, 12 February 1960, 208.

Investors and tourists, some of them probably nice folk, still came - claiming innocence and being “apolitical” - and we despised them. They came at the invitation of ‘White’ South Africa. They had the money and the freedom to do with it as they pleased. The White dominated economy of South Africa needed their money as much as the pimps of some other country need the sex tourists. Many of these tourists to South Africa returned to their homes, not surprisingly, enchanted with what our country had to offer and ignorant of any reality beyond the bodies that smiled at them and satisfied them. “Oh, I have been to South Africa myself and, don’t be fooled by all this propaganda; the Blacks are really very happy there.”


Apartness is not unique to Palestine/Israel as any church-goer in the USA can testify; Even in the post-apartheid South Africa, the vast majority of Whites have never been in a Coloured or Black township and most Coloureds and Indians have never been in a Black one. When apartness is elevated to dogma and ideology and when it is enforced though the law and its agencies - and this is ultimately what Apartheid is - then we are dealing with something particularly horrific, no matter how genuine the trauma that gave birth to it and regardless of the religious depth of the exclusivist beliefs underpinning it all. How we respond to our own trauma and the indifference of the world - indeed its culpability, even if only by silence - never justifies traumatizing others or an indifference to theirs. Apartness then not only becomes a sound foundation for ignorance of the other with whom one shares a common space - but also a basis for denying the suffering and humiliation that the other undergoes as a consequence of one’s one rather expansive approach to ‘being’ in the world or to deal with one’s own trauma.

For a South African the sense of deja vu is inescapable - almost immediately upon arrival in the land of Palestine/Israel. Let me re-phrase that; for a South African who has lived - or just survived - under Apartheid or 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 others. Perhaps this ability to be struck by the stories of others is what is called morality. We cannot always act upon what we see but we always have the freedom to see. We choose to be struck and the extent that we exercise this choice is perhaps the barometer of our humanness.

Words - Who Owns Them?

Post modernist thinkers, feminists, liberation theologians and other progressive scholars have long since debunked the myth of objectivity and insisted on ‘disclosure’ as a precondition to dialogue; tell us about your class and gender interest? What are the lenses with which you view the world? A denial of lenses is really tantamount to the acceptance of a dominant status quo. It’s a bit like the word ‘mankind.’ ‘Oh,’ the supposedly ideologyless argue, ‘why do you want to politicize words and make a fuss about language? When we say ‘mankind’ we really include women!’ Uninterrogated, language often functions as an instrument of subjugation. In this myth of language as neutral, the use of the alternative and more inclusive ‘humankind’ is dismissed as ‘political’ and political correctness, as a fad of nostalgic hippies who have not smelt the coffee heralding the end of the Sixties, rather than viewed part of a quest for greater gender justice - however flawed and inadequate.

When I walk through the districts where sex is on sale; I can choose to see it through they eyes of the ‘sex tourist’ or through the eyes of the sex worker sold into the trade or driven by their poverty and exploitation into it. I choose to look at Palestine/Israel though the eyes of the marginalized and the exploited and I choose to privilege this perspective over other perspectives.

So is it “sex tourism” or “sexual exploitation?” Or worse, is it a refusal to name it and a preference to speak about the seemingly neutral “just having some fun” or “relaxation?” It depends on where you are located in the power structure.

I am astonished at how ordinarily 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.” Does “objectivity,” “moderation,” and “both sides” not have contexts? 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 male who was abused by his father some time ago because “he, too, is a victim?” Why must someone else suffer because the husband was abused by some other male yesterday?

When we reduce the problem to “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” - or worse, the “Israeli-Arab conflict,” or “the Middle East situation;” what does it really say about us, our own power interest and our refusal to have our comfort zones disturbed? To describe violence against women as just that risks alienating the male partner. If that abusive male husband is also our business partner, or possibly one”s boss, or one”s primary funder, then things can get really sticky. So we walk away saying, “I do not want to get into the middle of all of this” or we delude ourselves with seemingly conciliatory mutterings without ever addressing the question of abuse.

We are in the middle of it because we do business with the abusive husband (or we profit from his abuse of his wife) and we sustain his delusions that he is OK, a part of the civilized crowd. We seek refuge in “both sides have a story to tell” as a way of dodging our own complicity. Rather than us merely hallowing the abuser with the mantel of respectability, our silence draws us into a web of complicity. (As indeed, can be the effect of an uncritical solidarity with the victims of oppression.) 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 were civilized; only those who refused to be silent were 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 domestic abuse is no great virtue; it is the path of, initially, acquiescence and, ultimately, complicity.

Farid Esack is a South African academic and journalist who was appointed South Africa’s Commissioner for Gender Equality under Nelson Mandela, and today Professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, in the United States. This article was originally published on the online Muslim website, Hot Coals (