Opinionista Arthur Lenk 27 July 2015

South Africans should visit Israel

The universal truth that “knowledge is power” is directly applicable to last week’s misguided and aggressive attempts to punish some young South Africans who visited Israel and the West Bank to learn more about the Middle East and about themselves.

South Africans should visit Israel. They should visit Israel’s Supreme Court in Jerusalem and listen as its world-renowned jurists rule on thousands of cases each year. Judge Salim Joubran, an Israeli Arab from Haifa, has sat on the court since 2003 and earlier this year served as the chairman of Israel’s Central Election Committee for parliamentary elections. The court’s president, Miriam Naor, is the second woman to lead Israel’s highest court.

The universal truth that knowledge is power is often attributed to Francis Bacon (Meditationes Sacrae from 1597). That basic idea is no less true today and is directly applicable to last week’s misguided and aggressive attempts to punish some young South Africans who visited Israel and the West Bank to learn more about the Middle East and about themselves.

South Africans should visit Israel. Israel is a tiny country the size of the Kruger Park but it is a superpower in innovation. The world’s largest hi-tech companies, including Intel, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, all do research and development and invest in Israel because they know Israeli engineers, technicians and entrepreneurs are among the best in the world. Israel’s spirit of creativity and innovation is directly applicable to many current challenges here in SA.

It is apparent that many South Africans care deeply about my region and some have strong feelings about issues relating to Israel and our Palestinian neighbours. Similarly, many of us around the world have a deep emotional connection with SA. And often that is good when people bring their goodwill, hopes, prayers and experiences to share knowledge and try to resolve seemingly impossible problems.

South Africans should visit Israel. They should go to the Peres Centre for Peace in Jaffa which focuses on former President Shimon Peres’s vision for promoting lasting peace and advancement in the Middle East by fostering tolerance, economic and technological development, co-operation and well-being. One programme uses soccer to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. It twins girls from Israeli communities with girls from communities within the Palestinian Authority. Upwards of 1,500 children participate in the project each year. Young South Africans should be exposed to young Israelis and Palestinians.

A great challenge for South Africans is teaching your next generation of leaders to look forward and continue to build on the achievements of past generations. We all hope these young people will look all over our world at what is possible for themselves, their communities, their country and for Africa. Young South Africans will have to find answers for many real life dilemmas including food security, water management, universal healthcare and job creation.

South Africans should visit Israel. They should go to Kibbutz Hatzerim in Israel’s desert southern region where Netafim, the world’s largest drip irrigation company was formed. They would see how Israel uses every precious drop of water to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers that not only feed Israelis but are exported to Europe, Asia and even SA. Then they should visit IDE Technology’s reverse osmosis desalination plant in Ashkelon which provides naturally dry Israel with nearly 400,000 cubic metres of water every day.

For SA in 2015 there remains a challenge of diverse communities coming together. The transformation to democracy inspired people here and around the world but much more work needs to be done. People of different faiths, races and backgrounds need to get to know each other better and celebrate their similarities and diversity. Many other places have similar, but often somewhat different, challenges.

South Africans should visit Israel. They should go to the ancient city of Jerusalem, a place that is holy for Jews, Christians and Muslims, where the religious sites are carefully protected and accessible to people of all faiths. During the recently completed month of Ramadan, more than 260,000 Palestinian Muslims visited Jerusalem and in 2014 nearly 2-million Christians from around the world made pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Israelis need to interact more with South Africans. We need to learn more about your challenges, successes and aspirations. We – and our neighbours – need to hear more about Madiba’s legacy and the South African legacy of negotiation with enemies and how your relationship with some of our neighbours can be helpful in lowering tensions and building an atmosphere of trust. More Israelis should visit SA and, as I have, see Robben Island, Qunu, the ambitious new Launch Lab at Stellenbosch University and a state-of-the-art Israeli-South African agricultural partnership that provides jobs, modern technologies and advanced vegetable farming in Limpopo and the Western Cape.

South Africans should visit Israel. They should take a helicopter ride to see how small and vulnerable Israel is in the Middle East’s brutal instability. And see how rockets from Gaza randomly threaten the lives of people of all ethnicities. And that Israel shares a tense border with Syria, where internal strife and violence has taken the lives of more than 250,000 people in recent years and led to millions of refugees escaping to neighbouring states and many others being saved in Israeli hospitals. And why, in the wake of last week’s nuclear agreement, Israelis and many others in the Middle East remain quite nervous about Iran and concerned about Isis and various other Islamic extremists who bring destruction, death and terror. The visitors should see how complicated, but vital, a negotiated peace could be for Israel and our Palestinian neighbours.

Young South Africans should see that our real world is made up of shades of grey and not political slogans. They must know that they are not alone in facing enormous challenges and opportunities. Democratic societies like SA and Israel are an important part of a bigger world. We must inspire our next generation with exposure to, and engagement with, that world and teach them that their future – and our own – is theirs to inherit if they dare enough. That knowledge is truly powerful. DM

Arthur Lenk is ambassador of Israel to SA.

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