Seeing Through the Eyes of the Other
We were 23 South Africans from a variety of
backgrounds - judges, politicians, academics, lawyers, religious
leaders, editors and others - all
of us having earned our stripes in our country's liberation struggle. It was known as the South African Human Rights Delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and there were rather different interpretations - even among ourselves, let alone the media - about what exactly we were doing there. Fact-finding? Listening? Solidarity? Peace-making? Even-handedness? Balance? Identifying with the victims? Which ones? Ordinarily, I do not have much time for anything that smells of even-handedness in what I regard as situations of obvious injustice and I had a number of reservations about the trip. But I went and I am really glad that I went.
I spent a lot of time listening - to Israeli
solidarity activists who routinely got limbs broken by the Israeli
Defense Force, to the settlers in Hebron, to Palestinians who so
courageously and creatively find ways of resisting the occupation of
their land, and to the insufferably boring
lamentations of some Fatah apparatchiks. I came back with a renewed commitment to listen to the narratives of others - both as a way of
understanding in order to more effectively persuade as well as ways of recognizing the trauma underneath all forms of violence. Yet, I wonder about the ways that listening can so easily slip into dialogue games that avoid the hard questions of justice and injustice, occupation and liberation.
Most of the members of our delegation - some of them committed Zionists - were deeply troubled by what they witnessed. Several had been to Israel on other occasions but had never seen this side of the story. Our South African baggage/heritage forced many to wonder "Gosh, was this really any different to what we endured under Apartheid?" And more often than not, most of them concluded that this was 'much more efficient, relentless and brutal than Apartheid ever was'. Yet I could not avoid the conclusion that the simple Zionism=Apartheid equation is also a simplistic one. I have since also been reading extensively on our history under Apartheid and now realize that even this was a complex story. Yet, I remember how, during my visits abroad for the ANC and the UDF in the eighties and early nineties, I encountered White apologists for Apartheid trying to argue with me that 'the South African situation' is more complex than what those in the Struggle wanted to suggest. The argument of complexity can become a weapon in the hands of the powerful to disarm the weak and those who act in solidarity with them.
I have never had the privilege of seeing Jerusalem through the eyes of a devout Jew. Yet, I was drawn to the Western Wall and stood there for long periods on the outer side of the courtyard in awe - literally trembling - at the sight of these servants of God and their yearning for communion with the Transcendent. Uncomfortable as the thought was, and notwithstanding Muslim protestations of 'the universality of Islam' and its 'guarantees of tolerance to religious minorities', I never lost my awareness that this was a city that saw an earlier ethnic cleansing when from 1948-1967 the Jordanians expelled all Jews from the Jewish quarter and the Israelis expelled many Arabs from West Jerusalem.
And I chose to see the women at the edges of the Wall, on the far right side divided by the mechizta and their legal struggle since 1988 to secure the right to pray at the Wall wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), praying out aloud and reading from the Torah. I wondered if any of them saw a connection between their struggles for space in men's world when maleness must mean control and possession of the center and that of the Palestinians in a world wherein dispossession and displacement of 'non-us' ethnic or religious groups are inherently tied to their visions of 'us-ness'.
At Yad Vashem, Holocaust Memorial I wept freely at the memory of the millions of Jews and others killed during the Holocaust, at the invective that I so often hear from other Muslims 'The Jews! The Jews! Watch out for the Jews!'- at the hatred that I saw so liberally flung at ahistorical 'the Jews' during my eight years of theological training in Pakistan, at the inability of the planners of this memorial to spare a candle for the many gypsies and homosexuals also killed by the Nazis at the capacity of man - yes, 'man' - to inflict suffering on humankind and for the tragedy of the Palestinian people whom Edward Said has so aptly described as 'the victims of the victims', who now have to endure dispossession because of the unspeakable crimes that some White people committed against other White people.
Leaving Yad Vashem with its consciously narrow
dungeon-like construction, one exits on a hill - overlooking the
'Promised Land' and the message is clear - we, the Jews, have survived
what is behind us (the Holocaust) and our future survival depends on
what is ahead (the State of Israel). And I weep anew at the folly that
we can attempt to build our security on the insecurity of others, our
freedom on the denial of that to others.
Farid Esack is a Professor of Contemporary Islam at Harvard University. He is a noted Muslim liberation theologian who was active in the anti-Apartheid struggle during the sixties and seventies in South Africa. He is the Co-Moderator of Peace for Life.