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