Friday, 15 August 2014

No to hate & 'othering' – Jewish voices in SA take a stand on Gaza atrocities

There have been interesting developments within the Jewish community in South Africa, sparked by the conflict in Gaza. There is a major cleavage in that community with a majority supporting the Israeli Defence Force and a smaller number voicing human rights concerns about Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Initially it appeared that the Jewish community was one solid block behind the nature and ferocity of military action by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza. It seemed as if Jews in SA, with hardly any exceptions, supported the official Israeli strategy – in response to Hamas rockets – to rain bombs on Palestinians in Gaza, targeting homes, community centres and schools.  
But then, in the week leading up to 25 July, alternative voices appeared – those speaking out against the atrocities and asserting: “not in our name”. Newspapers carried the story of comedian Deep Fried Man who joined with others at a meeting in Johannesburg to take a stand. Recently Jewish Voices for a Just Peace was formed.
When the mainstream Jewish community called a demonstration in Huddle Park on 3 August, other Jews, despite threats and intimidation, mounted a counterdemonstration. Recently, more than 2000 people signed a petition in support of Josh Broomberg who expressed support for Palestinians and who – on human rights grounds – distanced himself from the actions of the IDF in Gaza.
There are interesting features of the response of mainstream South African Jews. What is astonishing is the level of support for a strategy that involves collateral damage as a central and desired outcome. It appears to be enthusiastic support rather than reluctant support for such annihilation. My sense of surprise is rooted in our own experience of armed struggle. The ANC, faced with a repressive regime, adopted a stance of reluctant use of violence in its struggle to end apartheid. In this regard, the ANC strategy of violence involved attacks on military installations, certain infrastructure such as power stations and military premises. They specifically did not sanction attacks on the broader population that, through voting and benefits, formed part of the dominant group.
How is it that people can be insensate to the killing and maiming – on such a scale – of children and other civilians? According to Leanne Stillerman, the roots of such attitudes lie in a process known as “othering”.  In a recent article in the South African media entitled Settlers, terrorists and the process of Othering, she wondered about the roots of empathy and asked: “Do some instances of human suffering evoke our sympathies while others are overlooked; do we engage in a kind of selective empathy on the basis of either our identification with or distance from the victims in question?”
Stillerman noted that “the Hebrew word for cruelty contains within it the word ‘strange’ ”

“It is the sense of estrangement from the other that allows our hearts to harden, and unspeakable cruelty becomes our reality,” she wrote.
It also worth reflecting on the demonstrations called in support of Israel such as the Huddle Park demonstration. Such a move, given the civilian deaths and destruction of basic community facilities, seems inappropriate. It seemed like encouraging the Israeli Defence Force to continue or exceed its past efforts that involved targeting homes, schools and community centres. Instead of calling for restraint, this segment of South African Jews appeared to be building a wall of blind solidarity behind the soldiers waging war on civilians.

The apartheid regime carried out horrific attacks, ones in which women and children were killed, in places such as Cassinga (1978), Maseru (1982) and Sharpeville. Even though many in the white community were fully behind these military actions of their leaders, I cannot recall groups from that community holding rallies in support of such violent action.
For the right wing, it is always different, but given our history, the question for South African Jews is this: What is an appropriate response if soldiers, even if acting in your interest, are operating on the borderline of self-defence and crimes against humanity, in the grey area between legality and illegality?
The other aspect I marvel at on the part of mainstream and conservative Jews in South Africa is the level of intolerance and suppression of alternative views within its own community. Deep Fried Man was called a self-hating Jew. Death threats and condemnation were heaped on Josh Broomburg, the school boy who expressed his human rights stand in social media. At the Huddle Park demonstrations, a man threatened to kill counter-demonstrators. Eventually, after police were called and spoke to the man, he drove off in a fit of pique. Such intolerance undermines the democratic culture we are trying to build in South Africa.
The conservative majority cannot reasonably insist that adherence to the Jewish faith is synonymous with support for any government in Israel, no matter how right wing or hawkish.
The fanatically pro-Israel group cannot be forced to give up its enthusiastic support for Israel and to ditch the view that a Zionist government should have the right to do whatever it wants as long as it frames its actions as self-defence. However, they should consider a number of issues. All religions seek to occupy the moral high ground, but members of such religions undermine their religions when they support terror. They should consider that whenever you dehumanise others, for whatever reasons, you dehumanise yourself.

They should also consider that one of the dangers for anyone fighting an opponent accused of evil deeds is that you become the mirror image of the phenomenon, person or conduct you oppose. Instead of representing an alternative or the opposite, you become the same.
It is in this context that the conflict and tension over Gaza within the South African Jewish community is a positive development. It demonstrates diversity. It shows multiple storylines within that community. It encourages debate and reflection rather than unthinking reaction. It shows that South African Jews have been enriched by the struggle against apartheid. It paves the way for even stronger views to emerge from the South African Jewish community in favour of long-term solutions based on equality, justice and human  rights in the Middle East.

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