Palestine in Durban: Sideshow or Main Event?

The black and white-checked scarves, known as kafeeyyehs, symbolizing the Palestinian resistance, were everywhere among the 6,000 delegates to the UN Non-Governmental Forum that preceded the governmental portion of the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR). Soon they were joined by white t-shirts exhorting participants to “fight racism, not Jews.” As predicted, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has loomed over both the NGO Forum and now the main event, given mega-prominence by the refusal of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to attend while statements equating Zionism with racism are anywhere on the table.

But with or without Powell, no threats or boycotts will sweep these issues off our plates, and along with a lifelong passion for racial justice, it is one of the things that brought me halfway across the world to the Kingsmead Cricket Stadium in Durban.

For a progressive organizer and an American, the NGO Forum and WCAR provide a unique opportunity to focus on the racism that is such an integral part of our history and culture at home in the U.S., and so critical to our interactions in a world where race and economic disparity are so inextricably linked. As a Jew, it is a chance to wrestle with the difficult emotional landscape that juxtaposes three grandparents lost to the holocaust with Israel’s very troubling behavior in the world.

The signs here frame the debate in sharp terms: On the one hand “Anti-Zionism = Anti-Semitism,” on the other “Zionism = Apartheid.” Add to that the key question for this gathering: Does Zionism equal racism?

I believe that whatever Zionism’s historical and cultural aspirations, it has created a system of systemic racism that cannot be overlooked or excused. The theory of Zionism may not neatly equate with racism, but the consequences have often been racist.

I remember vividly in the 1970s, when at a Passover seder, my brother and fellow Vietnam anti-war activist began to argue about the idea of “chosen people.” Although the rabbis give many explanations, my brother insisted that the very idea of being chosen by God made one implicitly better than others–an abhorrent notion, given civil rights fighters as our role models and anti-imperialism as our cause. We also found it astounding that Israel should provide arms to the apartheid government of South Africa, just as were incredulous that there were Jews who supported segregation in the United States.

In the 1980s, I went to Israel as part of a labor tour. We visited a border kibbutz where the most menial labor was increasingly done by Palestinians. Like “guest workers” in so many countries, they were paid less, deprived of a voice in the community, and they were darker. In one of the stolen moments of informal exchange, several of the kibbutzniks confided that they felt the arrangement would ultimately destroy the socialist values that had led to the founding of their commune. And throughout the country, the social and economic stratification was clear: light-skinned Jews, darker-skinned Jews, and then Arabs. Where I come from that’s called race.

I also remember that in 1982, when my mother first read about the massacre of several thousand Palestinians–mostly women and children in the settlements of Sabra and Shatila–her first response was biblical and apocalyptic. “God will smite us.” My mother, whose parents were murdered in concentration camps, understood viscerally the long-term consequences of betraying basic values.

The man ultimately responsible for that outrage was then Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon. And that man, whom many might consider a war criminal, is now the prime minister of Israel.

Then, on top of all that, add the relentless expansion of settlements on the West Bank. Stripped of its justifications, Israel has become a classic example of colonialism, where one country deems itself entitled by birthright to someone else’s land, creates minority rule over the majority, and then has to sustain control by repressive force. And all this is happening against the tide of history, where other countries in the developing world have been reclaiming their lands from their occupiers–often with great loss of life and brutal economic consequences.

So it’s no wonder that here in Durban, the Palestinians are gaining support from others in the world who have been marginalized because of their race, whether African American, African, or Asian.

I would be lying if I said anti-Semitism plays no role in this. Yes, there are cartoons that portray Jews in racist ways. Yes, I believe there are some people here who hate all Jews for their very being. But that alone is not enough to justify Israel’s failure to combat its own racism.

Here in South Africa, those issues live and breathe. These are the people who struggled for decades and finally took back their country, who fought apartheid against great odds, and won. Here in South Africa, the culture of resistance sings and dances, argues and organizes. The Palestinian quest has resonated with that spirit. It may well become the next struggle to capture imaginations and commitments as apartheid did in the past decade; and over the long haul, it cannot be dismissed or denied.

I still long for a peaceful coexistence, but for that, Israel will have to abandon not just some settlements, but some arrogance–and understand the writing on the wall.

“Mene mene tekel parsin,” Daniel told the king of the Babylonians. God has numbered the days of your reign, you have been weighed and found wanting, your kingdom will be divided. I’d like to think it’s not too late to heed the warning. I want Israel to survive and thrive, but I also want them to behave as I have been taught our faith requires–in ways that honor the dignity and integrity of all.