JOHANNESBURG TO JERUSALEM
-A journey in search of peace-
With a newly obtained graduate degree, I went to Lesotho in 1968 under the United Church of Canada and ended up teaching at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Lesotho is a country surrounded by South Africa. I was young, naive, and probably stupid thinking that I had all the answers. Almost immediately after arrival, I became involved in the struggle against Apartheid. The reason was simple. The university had many students from South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who didn’t want to be educated in the racially segregated universities in South Africa and Rhodesia. Many faculty members – my colleagues, both black and not-so-black, were from those countries also. In 1972, I was detained by the South African Security for three days, and expelled from the country with 2 hours notice. But I could stay in Lesotho, so I did. After eight years in Africa, I went to Geneva, Switzerland to work for an international organization working for development and continued to support Anti-Apartheid movements. In 1979 I came back to Canada to work for the Canadian Council of Churches. This was when I began working with Palestinians in refugee camps in the occupied territories in a program of the World Council of Churches. And Jerusalem became a city of my frequent visits This was how I kept in touch with those two places and peoples ever since. In 1994, I was a member of the international election observer team for the first democratic election of South Africa. In 2003, I went to participate in a human rights watch in a program sponsored by the World Council of Churches in a Palestinian village called Jayyous. The program was called the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme for Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) That village was divided from its fields, orchards, and its only source of water by the separation barrier.
People say that Canada’s problem is too much geography and too little history. We have to pay more attention to our history in respect to our First Nations. On the other hand, in Israel and Palestine, the problem is reversed. It has too much history and too little land.
After nearly forty years of involvement, I came to believe that if there should be peace, we should pause from the debate about history for a while and concentrate on figuring out how two distinct peoples can share the same land. I am tired of the blaming game talking about different versions of history according to their own understanding.
Because I was a Protestant Chaplain as well as a Lecturer in Theology in the university in Lesotho, I was drawn into the Student Christian Movement (SCM), aka known in the right-wing Christian circles as “Socialist Christian Movement” because of its left-leaning tendency. My regular visit to Johannesburg in South Africa began. The SCM had its offices there. I was the Regional Director of Orange Free State and Lesotho until I was expelled in 1972. For a while, I worked in two places, Lesotho and South Africa. By 1970, South African Government ordered SCM to be separated into a white and non-white organizations. Many people in the organization complied but some of us didn’t. Those of us who did not join the new groups, remained racially integrated and changed our name to UCM. (University Christian Movement). Thus in South Africans’ eyes the UCM became a subversive organization, leading to persecution, imprisonment, death in prison, and expulsion of its members. In 1977, the organization itself was banned and became an illegal entity. I once travelled from South Africa to Malawi with ten other students and faculty in a Toyota min-van to attend a conference. Upon return, within a year, two foreigners, a Canadian and a New Zealander, were expelled from South Africa, two students turned out to be spies for the South African government, three were murdered in prison, and the rest were banned (house-arrest). I became the first Canadian to be expelled from South Africa.
I will briefly explain what Apartheid was for those who don’t really know what it was. Here’s how Apartheid worked . Apartheid is a Dutch word for separateness, but adopted as a word for a set of policies implemented by the Republic of South Africa from 1960’s until 1989. In theory, it was based on the idea that races are all equal, but they must remain separate in order to protect cultural and ethnic identity. People who advocated Apartheid were mainly from the Protestant Reformed Calvinist tradition. Accordingly, no racial mixing was allowed in terms of areas of residence, association, job categories, marriage and relationship, facilities, etc. It was a total segregation of races. Cultural and racial purity were the cardinal dictum of human condition. No two races could live in a same area, jobs were reserved according to races, no racially mixed association was permitted including the church, and any sexual contact was illegal across the racial divide. However, the way system developed resulted in a total break down of the notion of justice, and created a society of the exploiters and the exploited. Racially segregated ghettos, non-whites cheap labour who had no right to live with their family in the place where they worked, etc. were all justified according to the Apartheid laws. It was enforced by brutal measures of banning orders on persons and organizations, expulsion of individuals and groups of people, imprisonments, tortures and murders in prison.
Most of the Africans were against Apartheid, and some people, though not enough, of European descent were against them. But the opponents were not large enough group to oppose them in the policy making process, because Africans and other non-whites did not have the right to vote, and the white opposition vote was not big enough. The UCM was one of those mixed race organizations which worked hard to oppose Apartheid laws. It became one of the prominent organizations which was banned in 1977. I met and became friends of those activists like Desmond Tutu, who was my colleague in the same university department, and Steve Biko, who was a prominent leader at the UCM. He was tortured to death in prison in 1977. His story became a Hollywood movie, “Cry Freedom.” Many of my friends were killed. Steve Biko, Mapetla Mohapi, Griffith Mxenge, Rick Turner, and several others were murdered.
Among the whites in the movement were many Jewish South Africans. Harry Oppenheimer was a generous financial supporter of Anti-Apartheid organizations. A capitalist like him was never in favour of Apartheid, because racial segregation restricts free market principles and did not make any business sense. Helen Suzman was the only anti-Apartheid member of Parliament for many years. Mark Kaplan and David Adler were colleagues and my personal friends. Mark was arrested and tortured, and had to go into exile. David was banned, and placed under house arrest. Joe Slovo had been a loyal colleague of Nelson Mandela as a partner in the law office and a comrade-in-arms all his life. He spent two decades in prison. His wife Ruth First, who was also a prominent activist was assassinated in Mozambique where she was an exile. All of those individuals were Jewish South Africans.
You may wonder why I am speaking so much about my Jewish colleagues in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. It’s because I want to make a connection with my next destination, Jerusalem. There I met many Israelis who are also fighting for freedom and the human rights of all people side by side with Palestinian peace activists. This is because I believe it is important to make a distinction between criticising the policy and practice of the state of Israel and anti-Semitism. I hate many things that the current Canadian government does. But I do not Canadians, I married one. It’s the same thing. I learned the importance of this distinction in South Africa. I loved South Africans, but I hated Apartheid. I was convinced that it was an evil system which was bad for the future of the country. And as many others, I was right in this conviction. Realization of the same type of distinction regarding the state of Israel and the Jewish people came to me also in South Africa.
During the 1970’s a few events happened to make me start questioning a few assumptions I held about Israel. You must understand that, before I went to South Africa, I, as many other Japanese Canadians, always had a warm feeling about fellow Canadians of Jewish descent and this led to my unquestioning admiration of Israel. When Japanese Canadians were rejected by the Canadian government and people and were removed and interned during the Second World War, the Jewish people in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg were the ones who gave employment to the Japanese, and the Canadian Jewish Congress was one of the four organizations who fought for the rights of the Japanese Canadians. Others were the Canadian Labour Congress, CCF (now NDP), and the United Church of Canada. It seemed logical to me because of my understanding of Judaism and its prophetic tradition of justice. My Jewish colleagues in South Africa and their passion for justice re-enforced my image of them.
Two events shocked me into critically analysing this assumption during the 1970’s. One was the terrorist attack on Israeli Olympic team members by Palestinian terrorists and the resulting deaths of those athletes in Munich in Germany. Another was a military alliance between South Africa and Israel. The massacre of Israeli sportsmen horrified us. But to our even greater horror and shock, students of my university staged a demonstration praising the “courageous Palestinians” for their sacrificial act of heroism against Western Imperialism. I realized then that there was a world view I had no idea existed. It was an African’s deep resentment of the Western domination of the world. I still don’t condone cowardly and senseless acts of violence. But until then I didn’t know that there was a such strong view in the non-western world that saw Israel as an outpost of the Western Imperialism.
This realization was strengthened when then Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, started to make a regular visits to South Africa. Many signs of unofficial military alliance between two countries became apparent. It culminated in a report of a nuclear weapon test staged in Indian Ocean jointly by Israel and South Africa. I was forced to re-examine my view of Israel. The attitude of my Jewish colleagues was a revelation and a valuable lesson to me also. They absolutely condemned Israeli corroboration with the Apartheid regime, while remaining convinced about the importance of the existence of the Jewish state. In later years in Jerusalem, I found many of my Israeli friends working with Palestinians in solidarity organizations, like B’Tselem, Bat Shalom, Yesh Gvul, Women in Black. They all held the same views. Other Israeli groups we worked with were: Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem – the Isarel Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information, and Hamoked. They say that many of the things the state of Israel is doing to Palestinians now are against Jewish values of justice, and bad for the future of Israel.
Former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter wrote a book on the Israel-Palestine issues, and called the current Israeli policy Apartheid. I haven’t read the book. But it is a provocative comparison. Let’s see how Carter’s analogy fits the picture. There are many features of the current practices of Israeli government that look like Apartheid. Occupation of Palestinian land resembles the way South African government exercised its power over so-called autonomous Bantustans. The West Bank and Gaza, until Israel withdrew, were so divided up by the patch work of Israeli settlements and by the access highways serving only Israeli settlers, that West Bank is hardly viable as an economy and a country. Check points made the movement of goods and persons within Palestinian territories very difficult if not impossible. The way Palestinians are treated at those check points is so harsh it’s impossible to endear Israelis to the ordinary Palestinians, who are otherwise peaceful. There is an Israeli women’s group who watch the behaviour of Israeli soldiers at the check points. They said that check point is a terrorist making mechanism where peaceful people become terrorists. The barriers, a combination of concrete walls and barbed-wire fences in reality is so porous that it clearly shows security is only an excuse for future land seizure. It reminded me of the practice of Group Area Act of Apartheid that designated only patches of barren lands for Africans and reserved urban and productive lands for Whites. I don’t know what other features Jimmy Carter speak about in his book, but these are a few examples I can think of in comparison to Apartheid.
I can say for sure is: any attempt to make the separation of people, who are bound together by a common geography into an absolute dictum, never works. Trying to enforce separation by use of force not only generates hostility and violence, but it ultimately fails, as history proves. The world is full of such tragic examples: Northern Ireland, Basque in Spain, Korea and Japan, India and Pakistan, Balkans, etc. Wounds created by history of violence and bloodshed take centuries to heal. This is what I am afraid is happening in Israel and Palestine. We must support those who are working very hard to be good neighbours on both sides. We must renounce violence on both sides. Where cultural and national identities are important, good neighbourliness is the way to live together and thrive together.
However, I must qualify my use of the word “Apartheid” as applied to the situation in the Middle East. I already mentioned the similarities. But there is a fundamental difference. South Africans didn’t want to be separate. “South Africans” are one people with different cultures and races, like Canada. If you want to apply that Dutch word Apartheid to anywhere else for its ill effect, our own “Reserve” system for the First Nations is much closer to the South African Apartheid model. It was imposed by newly arrived settlers who want to take their land. There maybe some peoples who must preserve their identities, in terms of culture, language, or religion, and choosing separateness in order to do that could be necessary. For this reason, there are demands from oppressed minority people for separateness and autonomy in various parts of the world. I could first think of Ainu in Japan, who are almost exterminated; also possibly Quebec; and Scotland. Israelis and Palestinians have strong arguments for separateness because of past history of oppression and persecution done to them by others. They do have a claim for their own state. The world is still xenophobic place. But if there should be a border, it should be like a fence between good neighbours. If two peoples are determined to kill each other, no steel or stone walls can prevent hostility from doing its worst. Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to be good neighbours and friends. That’s the only way for them to survive.
My wife Muriel and I were back in South Africa last year to see my old colleagues and friends and former students. I had a wonderful time with them. Some of them have achieved such prominence that I could not see them. They were a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a Prime Minister, a President of a prominent university, etc. I could not believe how fast the wound of Apartheid healed. And the people of South Africa are thriving, no matter what nay-sayers are saying. South Africa is a success story. And Israel and Palestine can also be a success, if we all concentrate on peace-making in the present and the future instead of same-old same-old repetition of bad- old-days stories. In order to do that I would like to see all peoples to concentrate on helping peacemakers on both sides of the conflict. Just like I found peacemakers on both Blacks and Whites in South Africa during the 1970’s, I found many unsung heros of peace in Israel and Palestine who are often below the radar screen of media. It’s time for us to find them, give them strength and voice. Thank you
(This is a speech I gave to a group of students at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta on April 8, 2009)