Perspectives

These past few weeks, my Facebook newsfeed has been covered with horrors of the Israel – Palestine conflict.  Last Wednesday, a Free Palestine protest raged outside my office and a conference has convened in Cape Town with the sole focus of addressing the conflict, concluding with another public protest on the steps of Cape Town’s St. George’s Cathedral. I’m not going to pretend I don’t have an inherent bias about this issue – I am Jewish, and I was raised under the notion that we support Israel and its right to exist. Yet as Israel and Palestine continue to model just what revenge (a word all too easily synonymized with seeking justice) can look like, I am constantly reminded of the need to view the situation from multiple perspectives. In my admittedly undereducated opinion, Israel is to blame for halting the most recent peace negotiations, refusing to release Palestinian prisoners as promised and announcing plans to build new settlements on Palestinian designated land, and has contributed substantially to the current violence. I absolutely support a two state solution, if a fair negotiation can be reached between both sides. I do not support occupation of any kind by any persons, and I am horrified by the violence against innocent civilians. Yet, as I consider comparisons of the current escalation of violence in the Middle East to Apartheid, and more boldly, the Holocaust, I find myself holding on to the idea that the conflict cannot be one sided, wholly the fault of the Israeli government.

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photoProtestors march through Cape Town towards Parliament, demanding the South African government’s attention to the conflict. Photo Credit Jenna Zhang and Nicole Brewer

While I struggle with my musings, I sit in a country whose history is routed in opposing sides and perspectives. In 1994, led by Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress was elected to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, a symbolic end to decades of violence and oppression. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was charged with mending the broken bonds and stitching the country, long divided, back together, and became a vital fixture of Mandela’s start to the new, post-apartheid South Africa. The TRC heard testimony from thousands of victims and agents of the Apartheid regime. Quite controversially, to many of those who told the truth, humbly admitting their crimes, the state granted amnesty, a fresh start of forgiveness. Weeks ago, we spent a rainy morning in the sitting room of Minister Peter Storey’s seaside home. Storey’s Central Methodist Mission served an essential role in the anti-Apartheid movement, and Story himself was member of the panel that selected the Truth and Reconciliation commissioners. Storey reflected, “You can’t legislate reconciliation – you can only make space for it to happen.” When asked about the choice of honoring truth over justice, he responded, “Even though it was far from perfect, it was the most inspirational and best way to deal with wrongs anywhere in the world.”  To his point, he reminded us of the scars of slavery in America “buried like toxic waste;” an ever present fixture of American society today.

Last Thursday we sat with Mandy, the Education Director of the District 6 museum and the boss of a few of my fellow DukeEngagers.  A fervent anti-Apartheid activist, she scorned Storey’s perspective on the TRC, describing it as a horrible way to move forward. “How can you watch your friends die,” she asked, “and be okay with the perpetrators walking free?” When asked what she would have preferred, she answered in two words: “Nuremburg Trials.”

To me, the Nuremburg trials were vitally different from any prospect of peace in South Africa – most notably, there was no expectation that Nazi war criminals would be part of an ongoing community in which they and their victims or prosecutors would live together. While the Allied Powers could conduct a trial of prosecution and justice, at the end of ten painstaking months they could return to their respective countries, communities and democracies.  The Nuremburg Trials served as the final punctuation to the horrors of the Holocaust, while the TRC needed to be the guide into the era of the new South Africa, a country that could live together in spite of the scars inflicted on its citizens, by its citizens. Once more, I find myself muddled by these opposing perspectives. While objectively, the TRC stands as one of the most progressive means of reconciliation in history, there is nothing objective about the horrors of Apartheid.  It is much easier for me to accept the methods of the TRC, spared of an emotional connection to any victims. Nonetheless, while justice may have soothed wounds, would it perhaps have turned victim into persecutor, further widening the gaps in South African society? “Africa’s Richest Square Mile,” the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Sandton overlooks the township of Alexandra; a newspaper features an advertisement on lavish condo sales alongsidean article on the current miners’ strike for wages equivalent to about $1,200 US dollars per month. These horrific inequalities suggest that the gaps are wide enough as is.

We spent the past weekend with primary students at the District 6 Museum, where we explored the themes of peace and violence, concluding that peace cannot be artificially imposed by the outside, but must come from within the community itself.  Whether or not the TRC was the right solution for South Africa, sustainable reconciliation could not derive from international sources the way it did from the Nuremburg trials, it needed to come from within.  Like the new South Africa, Israel-Palestine is a community that cannot just move away, but needs to live as peaceful neighbors with one another.  Whatever means must be used to find peace, it seems to me to be nearly impossible to accomplish if we refuse to view all perspectives.

One of the weekend’s participants drew a man without eyes, explaining that all too often we are blind to violence. In Cape Town’s Holocaust museum, I felt disgusted while reading what has now become known as the “Genocide Fax” – a completely ignored cry to the United Nations for assistance in the impending Rwandan genocide. Am I blinded by my own personal bias to the horrific thing occurring in Israel, equally guilty of innocent by-standing as the recipients of the Genocide Fax, or more appropriately, of those who upheld Apartheid because they truly didn’t realize something was wrong?  If I hold neither side as fully responsible for conflict, am I unfairly biased or appropriately rational? Am I and others who share my ambivalence hindering peace?

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Body maps made by participants at this weekend’s Night at the District 6 Museum. These bodies depict the students’ experiences of violence and peace in their communities and the world.

I may never fully understand the roots and depth of the conflict in Israel, or be able to formulate one sensible solution. Yet, if I can take one thing away from my time in South Africa, it is the words of Allister Sparks from our visit with him weeks ago.

“There is not one single answer.  Beware of those who have found the ‘perfect answer’, because it is they who cannot tolerate the opposition.  The pendulum does swing.” 

Apartheid was a horrific example of a government unable to tolerate the opposition, and I’m beginning to fear the same for Israel as well.  There are some things, such as Apartheid being inhumane and despicable, that there is one right answer for. However, much of the time, a singular solution or truth doesn’t exist, not for the means of reconciliation or to 20,770 square kilometers whose ownership lies at the impossible intersection of politics, faith, and deeply held ties to the land.  Conflicts seem to be based on this notion that there is only one right answer – it is so often Israeli or Palestinian extremist groups committing heinous crimes against each other. While I’m not going to pretend to understand the extent of the conflict, I will leave South Africa with the challenge to view the world and its conflicts with openness to and respect for multiple perspectives.  I admit it is naïve, but I believe if I can stop viewing the world as “good guys” vs. “bad guys” and justice and revenge, I might have a far easier time understanding how to move forward.

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