From Robben Island to Yad Vashem

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.

The docents at Robben Island are all former prisoners. I walked with our guide who spoke about his suffering. He also talked about reconciliation, that everyone touched by apartheid, victim and victimizer, was hurt by an unjust system. There are reunions that bring families of former prisoners and former guards together. Even in the black townships – the slums of the black underclass – the desire for reconciliation, finding a way out of the mess of the past, is paramount. Huge problems loom in South Africa, seemingly insurmountable obstacles of health and poverty, jobs and education. Bottom line, their hearts and their heads are open to reconciliation and hearing each other’s stories. I felt moved to tears.

Flying to Israel, I thought about Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Jewish suffering. Yad Vashem was the first attempt at telling the story of the Holocaust at a time when no one wanted to know about the horrors of European death camps. As a kid, visiting it was the first time that I could visualize my mom’s stories of life in Nazi Germany. But by the time it was rebuilt in 2005, the world had radically changed. Great strides around the world of repentance and reconciliation, but the new Yad Vashem tells the same story as if nothing has changed, a story of victimhood and Jewish resistance that leads to the State of Israel.

For decades, Germany has engaged in profound acts of contrition with memorials there (and all around Europe) and pilgrimages by young Germans to help rebuild Israel. Spokespeople from the Holocaust such as U.N. laureate Elie Wiesel have become powerful moral forces. There are Holocaust museums, study centers and even a U.N. Holocaust commemoration. Over the years, I have been repeatedly moved by the power of this reconciliation work in Germany and in other countries as well. As amazing as this tectonic shift has been, you won’t find it much at Yad Vashem or even in conversations with Israelis. We remain perpetual victims.

In fact, landing in the Middle East, every political conversation, with both Israelis and Palestinians, ends up being about exclusive access to the mantle of victimhood. Even the obvious is contested. This past month’s battle was over whether Israeli textbooks for Jews and Arabs should include recognition that, while many Palestinians fled on their own in 1948 or were encouraged by their own leaders, some Palestinians were systematically forced out by Israeli forces.

And when I visited Palestinian refugee camps, towns and villages and met with leaders and simple folk alike, the only story they told, their explanation of their present situation, was contained in the term al-Naqba, the trauma and catastrophe in which innocent Palestinians became the victims of Zionist imperialism that continues to eat their land and make their lives miserable. Everything that happens to the Palestinian people lies outside its control and is blamed on the Occupation (although I am reading Sari Nusseibah’s self-portrait Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life and he at least nuances a Palestinian alternative – more about him another time).

But on the whole, there is little space for an alternative story.

I had a great if painful encounter with Richard Goldstone, former Supreme Court Justice of South Africa who helped found the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I asked him how we could create an Israeli-Palestinian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He left me disheartened: Until Jews and Arabs are willing to at least listen to the story of the other, reconciliation and peace are impossible. What he said resonated. If there is no space for the suffering of others, if pain takes up all the oxygen, if there can only be one story, then there is no room for peace.

So I wonder: how can we create a real dialogue that could move forward reconciliation and constructive solutions, in Jerusalem and also here in the States, where hearing an alternative version of the Arab-Israeli story is not heresy or treason?

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