Zackie Achmat is reported today in the Sunday Times as leading a call for a Jewish charity orginasation on culture and education, Limmud, to withdraw its invitation to an Israeli Defence Forces legal advisor, Colonel David Benjamin, from addressing a conference in South Africa.
It has been planned that he should address audiences in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg about Israeli policies on Gaza and the so-called "Operation Cast Lead", (known in the Arab world as the Gaza Massacre, which left more than 1000 Palestinians dead).
Benjamin attained a law degree from the University of Cape Town, before moving to Israel in 1989 and worked in the Israeli Defence Forces legal department for 17 years.
The Limmud programme sports various luminaries from the South African scene. Judge Dennis Davis; Jeremy Gordin; human rights lawyer Shlomy Zachary; cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro. The argument from Dennis Davis is, unfortunately, the usual "let both sides be heard", then we will have a real argument. How familiar this is. How many times we heard it during the years of apartheid. The problem is, while the power balance remains the way it remains, it can never be a real argument
I found myself, some time ago, making small talk to a group of white farmers. I was on my best behaviour, trying very hard not to offend or say the wrong thing. We could talk about all the rain we are having at the moment. That lasted, well, a short time. Then I passed a comment on the building we were in. It is one of those places which people, deprived as they are of any imagination, use for wedding receptions. A thatch set of buildings, off the beaten track, but with the inside full of billowy white curtains draped over brass curtain rods and hanging brass chandeliers and plastic chairs all covered completely with white material and a bow tied at the back, making it look like a commode on speed. "Oh", I said, glancing around, "froof and thatch". I was met with a stony silence. Then I said, because really I was interested, to one of the farmers, why was it that his head was completely bandaged. "Cancer", he said. Ah well, it wasn't my night.
Then, desperate I thought I might comment on current affairs. Not South African current affairs, you understand. I'm not completely mad. No, I said something like, "It's terrible what's happening in Palestine at the moment". I knew immediately it was a mistake. The man standing next to the man with the cancer on his head in the bandage rounded on me like a viper. "What about what's happening in Israel?" he asked, "Never mind about bloody Palestine!" I backed away, the thing wasn't going to go anywhere at all, so I just backed down.
In my youth, there were lots of people booking airtickets to "UzRahl" to go and "work on a Kibbutz". The concept didn't appeal very much to me, I must say. Picking oranges in a desert somehow just didn't appeal to me. But it did to a whole host of my friends and off they went, never to be heard of or seen again. I had friends in church who used to get a glazed, almost beatific look on their faces at the mere mention of "UzRahl". The "Holy Land" they would say, and sigh. And off they would go and take in Oberammergau as well if they got the year right. They wanted to "walk where Jesus walked" and nonsense like that. They came back with the beatific look a little jaded and stories of people shaking tins in their faces while they were trying to meditate at the Church of the Holy Nativity and stuff like that. But they still declared that it was worth it, through they probably wouldn't "do it again".
Personally, I have never wanted to go there, but I think more so since reading a book in the 1970s, which profoundly effected the way, I thought about "UzRahl". It was a book by the Old Testament scholar, Lucas Grollenberg, called Palestine Comes First (London SCM, 1980) and it changed my understanding of the conflict there completely. I had grown up in a mainly Judeo-centric universe. My fellows at school were Jewish, by and large, and their view of the world, particularly the Middle East, became my view of the world as well. All of this was constructed in the added context of Apartheid where the racial spin was not far away. Consequently, the Israelis were the good guys and the Arabs were the bad guys. In any case, the Israelis sided with the Nationalist government and the Arabs sided with the ANC. I remember even feeling slightly incensed by Helen Suzman and Selma Browde, of the Progressive Federal Party as they were then, and by implication, siding with the ANC who sided with the Arabs who, therefore, wanted to destroy Jerusalem! It was complicated, but it did have a sort of warped inner logic about it. Locked in the depths of the argument was a deep seated racism and hatred of anyone whom the Apartheid state did not determine was white and a suspicion, even of some that it did!
It would not be too much of an oversimplification of things to say that the State of Israel was born of the guilty conscience of the West, after the Second World War, in 1947. The victorious powers met; didn't know what to do with Jews all over the world; felt guilty about what had happened; and so simply grabbed land from the Palestinians (which belonged to no-one but them) and handed it over to the new Israeli state. It was as cut-throat and as simple as that. They handed the Israelis someone else's country! Let those who screech with alarm over Zimbabwe ponder, for a moment, what happened here.
Now we have a situation where the State of Israel, aided and abetted by significant world powers, not to mention the good old US of A, can simply shoot and kill people on a daily basis, as was demonstrated in the dying days of the Bush Administration. Even its own citizens, just because they are Arabs! It uses live ammunition against people armed with stones and then it has the audacity to feign outrage when bombs get let off in its marketplaces because of what it is doing.
It is not going to stop. You don't have to be a genius to see that. Surely we as South Africans know that better than anyone - it is simply not going to stop. The only question is, how much longer is it going to take the world community to come to the aid of the Palestinian people?
But that, of course, is a silly question. It was only when the struggle here was almost over, that world powers like America started becoming a tad warmer to the ANC. Who can forget that Dick Cheyene, George W Bush's second in command, once opposed a motion calling on the Apartheid government to release Mandela from prison?
Unfortunately, it is not only the dewy- eyed religious Christians who support the Israeli government it is also the very rich and the very powerful. Jews in the so-called diaspora still send lots of money to support what is fundamentally a terrorist state. God forbid an American Presidential hopeful should ever knowingly criticise Israel. And the South African government, poor thing, is so limp-wristed about everything in general that it will probably make some sterling statements when everything is over, bar the shouting.
Of course, there are Jews and there are Jews. And there are Jews and there are Israelis. I friend of mine, proud to call himself a Jew confessed himself to be deeply disturbed by what he is seeing taking place in Israel (and Palestine). In no way, would he want himself to be associated with what is going on there. I asked him the other day how his health was. "I've got flu," he said through a very snotty nose. I commiserated. "What can I say" he said, "I'm a Jew! I was born to suffer!" We laughed.
Bitterly, of course, because that, in a nutshell, is the issue. And that, in a nutshell, is the way in which the Arab-Israeli conflict is presented. The West does not feel the same about the Arab world. There would be no substance to the joke!
And I have no doubt that I will be listed somewhere on some anti-Israeli website for this article. Because that is precisely the way the thugs in Mossad and the Israeli Defence Forces operate (and have done before, from personal experience). The terror which they impose is as wide as it is broad. It is not something which one can dispassionately discuss in a lecture hall.