Saturday, October 25, 2008

Human Rights Delegation: open letter from Stephen Paul


In the beginning you announced that one of the aims of your mission was to engage local Jewish and Muslim communities on the human rights issues bedevilling the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for the purpose of sensitizing local Jewry to the situation of Palestinians and the harm this is causing to Israel’s own interests, for the benefit of local Jewish/Muslim community relationships. By implication this refers to human rights abuses from one side only caused by what you would call Occupation and what others recognize as Jewish Israelis living in Judea and Samaria / West Bank. This is a discussion for another time. Suffice to say that neither the settler policy of successive Israeli governments, nor the notorious “Khartoum 3 no’s type” rejectionist policy of Arab and Palestinian leadership, has worked, and a two state solution is being agonizingly negotiated with the exhausted mandate of the majority of Israelis and Palestinians.

So with the above in mind last night I attended your public meeting at the Jewish Community campus where you showed the video made of your trip. It is very difficult to understand how you thought it would facilitate engagement or to move forward constructive debate as you put it. On the contrary it seemed to be extremely polarizing and counter-productive. Lofty expressions of Jewish idealism notwithstanding, if your target market is to change the hearts and minds of the local community by shaking people out of their complacency, you also need to engage with their own narrative. To produce a desired result requires the methodology to go with it. This is not rocket science. There was absolutely no acknowledgement of Jewish rights or Palestinian obligations. Only the reverse. No context to the conflict whatsoever. A striking example was sympathetically interviewing an Arab householder in Hebron in which she answered - why should she leave as this was the land of her ancestors. In contrast Hebron Jewish residents were portrayed as thuggish and that they should get out of their 3000 year old ancestral land. A comment of Zackie Achmat was that the delegation was perceived as being anti-Israeli but we were not seeing the young Israelis with them on the mission working for peace and against the brutalising effects on the Israeli psyche. This is a subliminal way of saying that they are the “good” guys, and I fail to see how much room that leaves for “engagement”. In reply to a direct question from the floor the delegation could not produce a vision of how the audience in the room could have any influence on the political process already taking place in Israel. What then is the point of the exercise?

So let me tell you where I am coming from.

I have great compassion for the Palestinian whose family has lost a home and loved ones in the conflict and/or is subjected to humiliating security measures such as the defensive barrier necessitated by their leadership choices of suicide homicidal bombers and other terrorist acts. I would also ask him/her if their hatred of Israelis includes anger at their own leaders for choosing violent warfare and terrorism for 60 years instead of acceptance of the others right to exist and negotiated settlement; and if they have ever tried to stop or influence this policy in any way. Does their remorse extend to acknowledging the pain and narrative of the other and saying sorry?

I have great compassion for the Israeli who has been subjected to constant barrage of wars, terror and existential threat for 60 years, who has lost 30 000 loved ones and tens of thousands more maimed in the conflict, and what this does to his/her psyche. I would also ask them if their hatred for Palestinians extends to anger and remorse at their own unthinking arrogance for ignoring the pain and dispossession caused to the other for whatever reason. Can they acknowledge the other narrative and say sorry?

I have great compassion for the Palestinian homeowner in Hebron who only wants to be rid of the settlers. And great compassion for the Hebron settlers whose rights to their national Torah heritage are being trampled upon.

Great compassion for human rights activists who are prepared to stand their ground in front of hostile Zionist audiences. And great compassion for audiences that are asked to examine lifelong passions and prejudices.

One thing I do know. One narrative without acknowledging the other does not work. The SA Zionist Federation and Muslim Judicial Council are expected by their constituents to represent their own constitutional mandates but also need to show leadership even in the face of opposition. My contribution to the debate sought by the Human Rights Delegation is that you show your bona fides to both representative bodies so that you can facilitate dialogue without fear or favour to either narrative. So far you do not cut it.

Stephen Paul