In the struggle to achieve justice and equality in a land that has yet to fulfill its promise, what role will be played by those from the iconic country of South Africa, which has transformed itself so remarkably towards justice and equality?
By Hagai El-Ad
I was recently in South Africa for a few days, and I didn’t once bump into Judge Richard Goldstone. As an Israeli, that may be surprising, because in Israel the only recognizable face of South African Jewry is in fact Judge Goldstone – and the way his rough handling by the Jewish community in that country.
But chance encounters do happen. While checking into my Sea Point hotel in Cape Town, I was chatted up by a couple, who, it turned out, happened to be Jewish. They were delighted to discover that I am from Tel Aviv. Their next question, however, caught me off guard.
“Are you thinking of leaving?”
I am not. Israel is my home.
My first visit to Cape Town in 2006 was for a transitional justice conference at the University of Cape Town. This second visit was for a meeting, graciously hosted by South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre (LRC), with peers from other national human rights groups similar to Israel’s Association for Civil Rights (ACRI), the organization I currently head. For many around the world, myself included, South Africa plays a global iconic moral role – especially in the context of human rights, equality, and justice – and even more so, because its people were able to realize these values through an inspiring transformation.
And oh, how we need inspiration.
South African Jewry’s treatment of Judge Goldstone was no source for inspiration. But the group of Habonim Dror activists I met were. The conversation was of a familiar global-Jewish speak: on the one hand, an ethos of social justice, faith in equality and steadfast commitment to fight racism. On the other hand, Israel. How does a South African Jew live the values of social justice and the realize his or her desire to have a meaningful relationship with the State of Israel, given the ongoing realities of occupation, discrimination, and segregation?
A recent example of this unjust reality is the decision of the High Court of Justice, in rejecting an appeal brought forward by ACRI and others, to approve the expansive “permits regime,” a system that systematically limits Palestinian access to their own lands that happen to be located in the “seam zone” (the territory locked between the Green Line and the separation barrier). The barrier’s route was set by Israel at varying distances east of the green line, thus leaving approximately 10 percent of the occupied West Bank freely accessible for Israelis, but restricted to the actual owners of the land. What is the proper term to describe this “permits regime” system?
Another example is the “Nakba Law.” For the Palestinians, Israel’s establishment in 1948 was a national catastrophe, remembered as the Nakba. For the Jews – myself proudly being one – Israel’s independence is the fulfillment of dreams of generations. Reconciling painful truths? Recently, a law was passed in the Knesset depriving certain public funding from those who commemorate Israel’s independence as Nakba Day. ACRI is appealing against this law. Memory and identity should not – indeed, cannot – be regulated through legislation.
Sugar coating these unacceptable realities is not an option – morally or practically. Thus, a different path emerges for a meaningful relationship: one that does not try to Disneyfy a complex reality, but rather a relationship in which all members become part of the endeavor to fix that reality. The young activists I met in Cape Town are no Disney fans. I found their personal struggle, their questioning, and their unyielding commitment to ethically figure it out inspiring.
I traveled back home to Israel with a question close at heart: In the struggle to achieve justice and equality in a land that has yet to fulfill its promise, what role will be played by those from the iconic country of South Africa, which has transformed itself so remarkably towards justice and equality?
Hagai El-Ad is executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).