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Israel and Gaza — what to do with the interminable pain in my heart

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Diane Salters is a psychotherapist, trainer and community development practitioner. She was an ANC local government councillor in the interim structures, 1994-95. She has not been an ANC member for a few years, having resigned on matters of principle.

As a therapist, I am awed and dismayed by the human capacity to re-enact trauma — to visit on others the suffering we have endured. The Boers recreated for black people the same kinds of humiliation and dispossession to which the English subjected them during the Anglo-Boer wars.

I am writing this simply because I don’t know what to do with the pain in my heart.

My first father-in-law was a Palestinian Jew, born in Jerusalem of a mother who was a fifth-generation Palestinian Jew herself, also born in Jerusalem, and a father who had fled there from Lithuania, probably to escape one of the pogroms. They would have lived among the many Palestinian Muslims and Christians. The Holy Land was holy to all of them.

At some point in his childhood, the Turks expelled them, and thousands of other Russian-connected Jews, from the region — it would seem more for their Russianness than their Jewishness, but who knows. They eventually returned home to Palestine, but in 1930 he instead emigrated to South Africa, like so many at the time, seeking his fortune. This was all before the state of Israel existed and before the Nakba displaced so many Palestinians who were not Jews in 1948.

In South Africa, he married, raised a family, became a successful businessman and, in his own small way as a person classified white, was a beneficiary and supporter of the apartheid regime which came to power in 1948. 

The apartheid regime had a strange relationship with Israel. It was rife with anti-Semitism but supported Zionism. Israel was a strong ally to apartheid South Africa and helped it establish an armed nuclear capability.

On the other hand, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa included many Jews from various parts of the world who, remembering their own oppression, refused to become oppressors themselves. 

While the number of white people who took the risk of opposing the apartheid regime was small, the number of Jews involved in opposing it was disproportionately high. A significant number in South Africa today oppose the state of Israel for the same reasons.

For someone who grew up in that apartheid state, it is easy to see why Israel is described in similar terms. It is also clear to me that while race was a justification for our apartheid system, it was really all about land, displacement, exploitation and colonial power. 

It seems to me the same is true of Israel. 

It is not really about the separation of faith or race. It too is about competition, dispossession, and, ultimately, survival. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

In a colonial system, the colonists will always be unwelcome; the colonised will always fight for their land and dignity and the colonists will have to fight for their survival… until some other way is found.

The historic question of the rights or wrongs of the colonial endeavour is, in one sense, irrelevant. 

The colonists are now there and cannot be wished away. The white people in South Africa are there, and now have a deep commitment to the country. The Jews living in Israel (those who support their government and those who do not) are there and have claims of their own (ancient and modern) to belong within the region.

But, of course, the injustices of the colonial impact cannot be ignored. 

They are the basis for the Palestinian resistance (and let us remember, this is not by any means confined to Hamas). 

No state can ever be truly safe if its safety depends on the systematic oppression of its people or its neighbours. That seems to me, a South African, a self-evident truth.

As a therapist, I am awed and dismayed by the human capacity to re-enact trauma — to visit on others the suffering we have endured. The Boers, in all sorts of ways, recreated for black people the same kinds of humiliation and dispossession to which the English subjected them during the Anglo-Boer wars around 1900.

The only thing that can be said for the South African apartheid regime is that it did not attempt a systematic genocide. Only Hitler did that. 

That terrible wound is deeply part of the rationale for a Zionist state and the fear on which it was built. The wave of sympathy that flowed to the people of Israel from around the world after the horrendous Hamas attack is now receding as the state unleashes a terrible attack of its own. 

Richard Poplak, a journalist based in Johannesburg, recently described it so well: “Now, the mourning has been stripped of its dignity by a staggering display of rage — a bombing campaign that defies all logic outside of the crudest interpretation of dissuasion: this is what happens when you hurt us.

In South Africa, we still have a lot of work to do to heal the wounds of our colonial past, but we were fortunate to have great people to lead us out of our imprisonment. 

Albert Luthuli, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (once jailed as a terrorist) — all Nobel Peace Prize laureates — called on us to stand by the bold words of the Freedom Charter (1955):

“We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know: that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people; that our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality; that our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities; that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief.

“And therefore, we, the people of South Africa, black and white together equals, countrymen and brothers adopt this Freedom Charter; and we pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the democratic changes here set out have been won.”

I deeply pray, in my non-denominational way, that the people of Palestine and Israel will find such leaders and such a charter for their liberation and join us on the slow road to healing. DM

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  • virginia crawford says:

    Perhaps a start would be to end the right to live in Israel to all foreign Jews. No other country grants automatic residence based on religion. Settlers involved in violence should be arrested and charged. Visa free travel for Israelis should end: first check if they have connections to extremist settler groups, etc. Western guilt, ideology and PR has given Israel a free pass for too long. The most right wing evangelical groups in the US are Zionists because of biblical predictions apparently: using a religious text as justification for political actions is reviled except for the Zionist agenda. According to the Bible, those working on the Sabbath should be slain: it’s easy to justify anything using religious texts.

    • Steve Marks says:

      One salient issue is evident regarding this war. People have taken sides, at last. We see who our enemies are and who our friends are. This is a clear indication of anti Semitisn versus philo Semitism. Pick one and have the courage to stand by your convictions.

    • Steve Marks says:

      Your agenda is glaringly obvious.

    • Steve Marks says:

      Why do you replace the word Jew with Zionist? 99% of world Jewry are Zionist and vice versa. Have the courage to say what you mean.

      • virginia crawford says:

        Can you back that up with facts? What about Christian Zionists? Zionism is a political and Judaism is a respected religion. It’s like when opposing the Nat government meant you were anti-white or a “volk verraier” – same tactics.

      • Enver Klein says:

        I’ve posted this before and this is from a quote from the Torah Judaism Group:
        Israel is not a Jewish State, Jews are not a nationality, Zionism is a nationalist movement, Zionists want to be called Jewish without actually believing in Judaism.
        Although some commentators here, call my post nonsense and question why I am allowed to post, for everything I post, I have on 3 occasions, posted from where I source my information. These are either from Journalists of which 60% are Jewish or from Norman Finkelstein. I can substantiate everything that I post, and I also have videos from local protests.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Wow, what a piece of work!

  • Alfreda Frantzen says:

    “…while race was a justification for our apartheid system, it was really all about land, displacement, exploitation and colonial power. ” This is not true. Immigrants move/flee to other countries looking for peace, a home and work, and education for their children. Are today’s immigrants then classed as “colonialists”, no matter skin colour, religion or political persuasion? Let’s face it – with the massive explosion of populations around the world, this is a problem that all countries face.

    • Diane Salters says:

      The important word in what I said was “power”. The difference between a refugee and a colonist backed by a powerful state is immense. My ancestors came to South Africa as relatively humble people seeking a better life…but they were then backed by a colonial power with guns to ensure that they were able to take whatever land they wanted form the indigenous people. That is how victims of in system become perpetrators in another. If we don’t understand this cycle, how can we escape it?

  • Steve Marks says:

    This piece is selective and does not reflect the facts accurately. The comparison with South Africa is ridiculous. There are far too many substantial and salient differences between Israel and South Africa not only from an ideological perspective but also from an historical one. To compare the two, simply smells like bigotry. For better or worse the Jews will decide their future. That is what Israel is for, Jewish self determination. To deny this is to deny the Jewish state. To deny the Jewish state is anti Semitism. Non Jews don’t get to lecture Jews on what constitutes anti Semitism. If you don’t have ‘skin in the game’ your opinions are just that, opinions. Jews cannot trust the world to have their backs. This is evident in the Jew hatred and violence that has been spawned by the public since the war started and in fact since every war against the Jewish people has occurred. The right to self defence remains a fundamental issue in all conflicts. The Jews did not want this. They did not start this but they will finish it. That is their right and responsibility as a sovereign state. This is ultimately a spiritual war that is explained and executed according with fundamental Islamic principles of imperialism and violence as set out in the Koran. Nothing is mentioned of colonisation by Islam since the seventh century. A religious war that has its roots in an attitude of intolerance. The Jews will and can reserve their rights.

    • virginia crawford says:

      Professor Norman Feinstein was the victim of Zionists, despite being Jewish. When Jewish people express any criticism of Zionists they are attacked by the zealots. Like Judge Goldstone. Like the vitriol directed at 483 who signed a petition last week.

      • dexter m says:

        read up on “Birthright” and ” Breaking the Silence ” you will understand why Zionists really despise Jews that disagree with Israeli policy .

    • John P says:

      ” To deny the Jewish state is anti Semitism. Non Jews don’t get to lecture Jews on what constitutes anti Semitism.
      This statement sounds much like Mngxitama of Black First Land First saying that black people cannot be racist.

    • Gill Davidson says:

      Steve Marks, spot on. Where in all this talk about “colonialism” and “occupation” is the fact that Gaza belongs to Israel and always has, that it was given to the Palestinians in 2005, and that they elected Hamas as their government in 2006. The Palestinians are more oppressed by Hamas than they ever have been by Israel. Nowhere is it mentioned that Hamas started this war with the worst atrocity seen anywhere since Nazi Germany or the Eastern European pogroms. It is couched in all kinds of other reasons other than that the fundamental reason – a religious war against Jews that resonates with their slogan “from the Jordan to the sea”. When the West starts to believe this rhetoric, they will realise that the Jews are the first in their sights, but won’t be the last. Nowhere is it mentioned in the mass media that there are 240 hostages still being held by Hamas, 240 hostages!!! Can you imagine the reaction of the British or the Americans or any other sovereign country whose citizens, including babies and children and the elderly, were captured and held hostage by Hamas – the demand by the UN and, I imagine, everyone who has commented on this article, for their immediate release would be immediate and unconditional. As a first response. If Hamas uses the hostages and Palestinians as human shields to prevent attack on their soldiers, then they must expect there will be civilian casualties – that’s on Hamas, not on Israel. The message to Hamas- Don’t hide behind your citizens and children, don’t hide your weapons in hospitals and schools and youth centres and the children of Gaza would be safe. That’s the truth.

      • Eberhard Knapp says:

        Nonsens, Gill! Gaza was never part of Israel – not even included into Ben Gurion’s violently enlargened territory which had been ceded to Israel by the UN (what right did they have to cede someone else’s land to Israel in the first place? Like they also did with ‘South West Africa’).
        Indeed – in 1948 / 49 was a place to which they ‘transferred’ thousands of Palestinian residents of places such as al Madjar (now called ‘Ashkelon’ and a favourite spot for Jewish immigrants from South Africa!!):
        Al Madjar was conquered by Israeli forces on 5 November 1948, by which time much of the Arab population had fled, leaving some 2,700 inhabitants, of which 500 were deported by Israeli soldiers in December 1948 to Gaza and most of the rest were deported by 1950, also to The Strip. Today, the city’s population is almost entirely Jewish. And Gaza was / still is the dumping ground for unwanted Non-Jews from Israel!
        One would, in modern terms, call that “ethnic cleansing”…

    • Eberhard Knapp says:

      Hey, Steve – you’ve got it wrong!There were always Jews in Palestine – but the majority population, even today, is Arab-Palestinian.
      Difference: the majority of Jews arrived in Palestine and occupied, took over (or whatever you may call it) land owned by Palestinians. without compensation.
      The State of Israel have, since 1947, ruled Palestine – with repressive methods ever since. Just have a look at what CNN reports today on the 39 prisoners released yesterday from Israeli prisons (one of which actually built on non-Israeli land!):The Israeli Prison Authority confirmed that all 39 had left their places of incarceration —Damon and Megiddo prisons in Israel, and Ofer prison in the West Bank — earlier Saturday.

      Of those, 33 are teenage boys and six are women.

      Based on information from the Israeli Prison Authority and the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an NGO promoting prisoners’ rights, CNN assesses that 15 of those released on Saturday were serving sentences, mostly for attacks on Israelis.

      The other 24 were held in what is called administrative detention, which means they were held without knowing any charges against them, and without any legal process.

      Please note two important points:
      33 teenage boys had been imprisoned.
      24 were held … without knowing any charges against them, and without any legal process.

      Ag – sies tog! Mens maak nie so nie!

  • Fayzal Mahamed says:

    While I respect Diane Salters honest feelings about the religious war in Gaza she skirts around the visual impact that we are witnessing on our television screens and that is the genocide of Palestinians by the IDF.
    Her only reference to genocide is the one committed by Hitler. This certainly gives the impression that she is attempting to whitewash the crimes against humanity committed by Netanyahu and the IDF.

    • Ben Harper says:

      Nonsense, there is no “genocide”, if Israel wanted genocide there would have been no Gaza or Palestinians left within a week or two of the attack

    • Diane Salters says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think I made it clear that I don’t think this is a religious war at all.
      I also suggested very strongly that the re-enactment of the holocaust trauma lies at the heart of Israel’s response.

  • Dov de Jong says:

    The problem with Diane’s position is that she presumes that the Palestinians want peace. That premise is the Elephant in the room. The non Israeli Palestinians do not want peace they want to murder all the Jews { and Druze }Their slogan ” from the river to the sea ” aptly shows their true intent. The murderous Hamas rampage of the 7th of October and the communications between the terrorists in Israel and their commander in Gaza instructing them to murder every one, prove that beyond doubt.
    Israel is the ancestral and only home of the Jewish people it can even be said that the Palestinians are colonists of the land. The Jewish people represent 0.2 % of the worlds population living on a tiny sliver of land. Diane should consider the various peace accords from Camp David to Oslo all broken by the Palestinians and do not forget also the 3 times NO of Khartoum. The problem with honest and moral people like Diane is that they refuse to believe that the Palestinians do NOT want peace and that they want murder and rape. It is glorified starting with the primary schools with textbooks funded by the European Union. Israel has only one option, that is to ensure by all means quiet and safety for her civilians on her borders.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      You would not know the truth even if it slapped you in the face ! You obviously do not know that ‘hamas’ did not exist for the first few decades of the state of Israel. But then … that state had a bigger ‘fish to fry’ called the PLO … and guess who supported ‘hamas’ ? Sadly for you, your valorous Israeli state (with the acquiescence of the even mightier US) has just today … agreed to ‘negotiate’ for the release of some ‘hostages’ with ‘conditions’ attached ! And remember it (negotiations) here also … almost 30 years ago ! Some just don’t learn from history .. or learn only what they ‘want’ .

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      If we wanted a perfect example of what apartheid education did to some ‘minds’ and how they have been ‘colonised’ by relentless propaganda, you would fit that bill perfectly. Congratulation.

  • David van der Want says:

    Ms Salters is saying that Palestinians and Israelis are going to have to live in the same region and embark on a reconciliation and nation building process similar to ours in South Africa and the alternative to this to exchange injury in an endless cycle of destruction. It is clear what the choice made by both Hamas and the Israeli government is at the moment. Sometimes in psychotherapy, a therapist can only observe and gently encourage while a trauma re-enacts itself in the life of a client. And I recognise this stance of peaceful, observant, prayerful stance in Ms Salter’s piece. Shalom. Salaam

  • dexter m says:

    Have just read a article in NY times ,interviews with 3 Israeli .3 Palestinian , 1 US involved in Oslo Peace process. It was doomed for failure from day one. And sadly no leaders on both sides can deliver at minimum 75% of their population . Both sides also do not trust their traditional supporters ( Israel – US and Europe ..Palestinian – Arab rulers ) . To add complexity you also have Christian Zionists ,Evangelical Christians on one side and Iran on the other as spoilers .

  • F B says:

    Dear Diane Salters: Thank you for your very good article.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Ms. Salters : There is an observation I wish to add to yours. Like the apartheid regime, the US … sponsor and master of the Israeli regime are both looking for ‘leaders’ (and they the oppressor will anoint or find them) of the oppressed/colonised people, that will defend the interests of the oppressor/occupiers (for a few pieces of silver?) … much like the various Bantustan leaders and the Rajbansis and Alan Hendricks’ here ! Organic ‘leadership’ will not be tolerated ! And if leaders on the Israeli state side, genuinely interested in peace are/is found … the Rabin fate awaits them. Regrettably … it appears to be the ‘way of the world’ some might say. I even happened to Gandhi … and a few others of their ilk ! Thanks for sharing . The latest news today that the current Israeli regime is ‘negotiating’ with the ‘terrorists’ (I don’t know after how many decades !) does suggest that at last some semblance of ‘reality’ is dawning in the midst of all the gruesome mayhem.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    The author should note that from some of the comments, it appears that colonialism, imperialism, occupation, slavery etc. are figments of our fervid imagination . I am surprised they have not told us to ‘get over’ it … yet ! Like the Israeli ambassador’s outburst against the Secretary General of and at the UN, for his sober remarks about the ‘situation’ !

  • Norman Newby says:

    There is a seldom discussed aspect in this conflict. Hamas knew from painful past experience that Israel will massively over react. With full knowledge of the likely consequences they attacked civilians in Israel simply to enable them to win over public option. To do this knowing full well that thousands of Gazans, including children, would become involuntary martyrs is left unsaid. Israel’s response is terrible but the cynical brutality of Hamas is ultimately responsible for what is happening. It was the intention when they attacked.

    • Veritas Scriptum says:

      Seems Israel fell into that trap. The over reaction does not seem to have been Israels best course of action. Israel needs to be bold enough to change the conflict narrative they hold on to.

  • Veritas Scriptum says:

    A very well balanced article.
    This is not about being a traitor if we have different views to the current narrative Jews hold onto to justify Israels right to exist. A peaceful way forward has to be found. But the narrative is one of ongoing confrontation needed for survival.

  • Caroline de Braganza says:

    Thank you for writing this emotionally intelligent article.

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