Monday, August 4, 2008

Samantha Beckbessinger - Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans

This is the fourth in the Israel/Palestine: Reflections of South Africans series. For guidelines on submitting your own article click here. To read previous contributions click here.

A weak debate

Towards the end of July a group of four representatives from the self-appointed “Human Rights Delegation to Israel” spoke to a group of UCT students about their experiences. The delgation had consisted of 25 activist veterans: notably Zackie Achmat (TAC), Edwin Cameron and Dennis Davis (Justices of the Supreme Court), Mondli Makhanya (editor of the Sunday Times), Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge (ex-Deputy Minister of Health) and Johnny Steinberg (author). An impressive list. They had spent a week in the West Bank, meeting with Israeli-Palestinian coalition groups, and were united around the premise that the Occupation by Israel of the West Bank is condemnable and should be ended.

However, listening to the four representatives – initiator of the Equal Education campaign and former head of Habonim Doron Isaacs, Professor of Contemporary Islam at Harvard University Farid Esack, prominent advocate Geoff Budlender, and gender activist and former ANC-MP Pregs Govender – I came away not with the renewed sense of ethical certainty that I had been expecting, but rather with a small insight into why the Israel-Palestine dialogues in Cape Town have been so fruitless.

For four so intelligent, socially-committed people, the speakers disappointed me by speaking in vague moralistic aphorisms with no appreciation for the complexity of the conflict’s political history. Although I wholeheartedly agree that the Occupation of the West Bank is infringing upon human rights and should be ended, it is not historically accurate to talk as though the situation arose from a sinister plot to exterminate the Palestinians – as all of the speakers, to varying degrees, suggested it is.

Doron Isaacs

Isaacs (by far the most well-informed speaker) began the discussion by detailing the difficulties that life in the West Bank poses to Palestinians; specifically those that curtail free movement such as the separate road system, checkpoints, permits and separation barrier.

These grievances are legitimate, but Doron weakened his argument by obscuring the fact that the system of control over the area was developed as a response to persistent security threats to Israel. For instance, separate road systems were only proposed after months of attacks on Israeli cars.

I was saddened by Doron’s one-sided approach because I agree with him in essence. But resisting the Occupation does not have to entail caricaturing Israel as an ugly schoolyard bully. The Jewish community has no incentive to support the ending of the Occupation if the people arguing for it take no stock of the Israeli point of view and refuse to acknowledge the sacrifices it will entail.

Geoff Budlender

The other three speakers were even more disappointing. Budlender, who has so thoughtfully championed the causes of the oppressed in South Africa, disengaged himself from the issue by saying that the Occupation was “worse than anything [he]’d ever seen” and that he saw no hope for peace, worryingly claiming that “only cataclysmic violence will displace Israeli power, terrifying as this is for all of us”.

All of the speakers used the analogy of Apartheid to condemn the occupation, but used this as an emotional pejorative rather than as a useful site to explore the political realities at play. Govender and Isaacs went a step further than this, claiming that the Occupation mimics the violence of the Holocaust. Both speakers spoke about the “manipulation of memory” at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) and their speeches soon degenerated into shocking allegations that they provided no evidence for (“children tied to Israeli jeeps as human shields”) and, in the case of Fared, an argument that Israel as a Jewish state has no right to exist at all (although a Palestinian state, which would similarly be based upon ethnicity, does).

Pregs Govender

Even though I believe that these arguments are wrong. I do believe that they can have a place in social dialogue. However, as a group that has the power to advise politicians, the Human Rights Delegation to Israel had a responsibility to present fair, thoughtful suggestions on how to move beyond the conflict. This badly-informed session of Israel-bashing was certainly not that.

Something needs to be done to alleviate the human rights abuses in the Occupied West Bank, and one of the first steps in that process should be the withdrawal of Israeli military control and the removal of the settlements. Discussions that see the situation in its honest complexity, rather than as a simplified Lord of the Rings battle between a doomed group of Palestinian elves and a horde of Israeli orcs, are where that process will begin.

Samantha Beckbessinger is completing her BA Honours in English Literature at the University of Cape Town.


  1. Sam

    Your post is well written, even if the message you relayed was rather depressing.

    Its most valuable point is if we want to advance the cause of seeing a stable and secure Palestinian state emerge from the rubble of the West Bank (and Gaza) then we need to recognise that Israel is not just this faceless behemoth whose sole purpose is the killing of Palestinians, but a militarized and self-interested actor that needs incentives to seek peace.

    However, in one paragraph you say:
    "These grievances are legitimate, but Doron weakened his argument by obscuring the fact that the system of control over the area was developed as a response to persistent security threats to Israel. For instance, separate road systems were only proposed after months of attacks on Israeli cars."

    On the latter point, yes Israel has built separate roads for genuine security reasons. But the actions of the Palestinian assailants take place within an environment of extreme oppression by the IDF. Attacking Israeli civilians in their cars is a reprehensible act, but ultimately arises out of the original persecution of the people whose land is cantonized by these road networks.

    It is this context that we must seek to understand, even if we cannot condone them.

  2. Following a response from Doron Isaacs questioning the factual accuracy of the above reporting, Sam made the following retraction:

    "Firstly, I need to issue a sincere apology for one typo: I attributed the Holocaust comment to you; I had intended “Eseck” but mistakenly typed “Isaacs” (the names sound similar). I understand that this angers you and I will ensure that it is altered on the website immediately, and that a note will be added to the bottom of the article noting the change. This was a mistake and not a malicious attack. I apologise for this."

    She goes on to defend the rest of her piece in some detail. To view the full exchange between her and Isaacs click on the 'Israel/Palestine' label.

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  5. Pse note that I deleted aiyipianni's comments because they were spam and not because I objected to his/her ideas!

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