From Robben Island to Yad Vashem

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I spent part of the summer in South Africa spending time in the black townships outside Cape Town with an amazing organization called Ikamva Labantu that has spent decades building an infrastructure for the formerly disenfranchised and still impoverished Africans. There is much to do in a country still divided by race and privilege, but my wife Shira and I were blown away by the progress we saw there.

Then I flew to Israel to work with colleagues on figuring out ways to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is 4,600 miles from Cape Town to Jerusalem, but the two felt like a million miles apart. The sad fact for me, a committed Jewish Zionist: During the 1990s, both South Africa and Jerusalem had the chance to resolve their conflicts. South Africa succeeded and Jerusalem failed.

What the two conflicts shared: Warring populations, terrorism, dual claims of land and history, divisive ethnic identities, huge anger, a sense of utter futility and hopelessness, a belief that violence is the only path.

There are crucial differences: South Africa had an overwhelming black African population forced by European colonialists into an apartheid world. Africans sought democratic rule and definitely wanted the white population to remain. The Holy Land holds two ancient populations almost equally divided in size, each with the power to do terrible damage to the other.

Apartheid effectively describes the former world of South Africa, not Israel. The situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is one of two nations in conflict. Palestinians do not want Jews in their territory while Israel is home to a substantial Arab minority even though the polls show that half of Israel’s Jews want their Palestinian neighbors out.

When I got off at Robben Island, the former prison now memorial to African suffering that housed Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders, I was met with a quote by one of those leaders, Ahmed Kathrada: While we will not forget the brutalities of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil; a triumph of the wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness; a triumph of the new South Africa over the old.

Posted on September 10, 2007
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