Assalamu `Alaykum – Peace Be with You
I am honoured to have been invited to this Friday’s jumu`ah service at this fine Mosque that has become part of the heritage of our country. It is with humility that I saviour this opportunity.
I have just paid a visit, with my wife Amina formerly Khan, to Andalusia, Spain. She was raised not far from here in Walmer Estate. I acknowledge her sister Gadija in the congregation. In Andalusia we visited magnificent Moorish sites such as the Alhambra in Granada, and Jewish quarters in former Islamic cities, where those of the two faiths enjoyed close relationships. We were mindful of the Spanish Inquisition, which drove Muslims and Jews to seek sanctuary in the Maghreb where Jews were welcomed. The saga is part of what scholars refer to as the Golden Age of the Arabs and Jews. The great Saladin’s tolerance (1137-1193) was exemplary in this respect. After liberating Jerusalem from the Crusaders, he accorded freedom of worship to Jews and Christians, where once Jews and Muslims had been persecuted.
I have travelled in the Middle East from Damascus to Al Quds (Jerusalem), from Cairo to Baghdad and the cities of Iran – where one sees inspiring testament to those times. The Jews who resided in such historic places for centuries did not suffer from anti-Semitism, spoke Arabic, enjoyed freedom of worship, their livelihood and culture flourished, and differed only in the creed they followed. Those who have misused religion down the ages have done so to create divisions for their own nefarious interests. In the conflicts we face in today’s world we need to rediscover how the people of the Book cohabited peacefully together, and be reminded that their value systems spring from the same roots: a love of peace and justice and of “doing unto others as you would wish them do unto you.” I turn to the Old Testament to illustrate points I seek to convey concerning an issue that touches us all.
I quote from the Old Testament, Book of Numbers 13:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.’ “Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan and said: ‘Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not’.”
I wish to take issue here not with the Bible, however one may seek to interpret its narrative, but the way it has been used – one might say abused – by Zionism which emerged in the latter part of the 19th century as a political doctrine. From its inception it faced hostility both from rabbis and especially from socialists and communists who rejected its thesis. The Zionists, who generally were agnostics, seized on the idea of a “Promised Land” (as though the Lord was some property agent) which they repeatedly state was “a land without people for a people without land” – in reference to people of the Judaic faith dispersed around the globe. What the biblical narrative shows, as archaeology and historical account demonstrates, was that the Holy Land was ruled for centuries by a Canaanite kingdom from 3000 BC. Now kingdoms rise and fall and disappear in history along with their absolute rulers but the people do not. Canaanites were a pagan people which was the case in the world of that time. As the first monotheistic faith emerged, which as we know was the Judaic faith, many pagans became converts. The rise of Christianity and later Islam saw the spread of the religions of the People of the Book – the 3 having much in common and emerging from the same tree. Undoubtedly then the Canaanite people, and the numerous tribes such as Hebrews, Philistines, Samaritans and so on, merged through conversion and conquest into the belief systems I refer to. The contemporary Israeli scholar, Shlomo Sand, has articulated this historic process and written an acclaimed book: The invention of the Jewish people.
Experience of the Holy Land, through a respectful interaction with its people is instructive. I recall visiting the West Bank town of Qalquilia which is virtually enclosed by Israel’s apartheid wall. The mayor greeted me with the words: “Welcome to our Canaanite town”. It is ironic that the Palestinian people today are in all likelihood the very descendants of those who initially converted to Judaism before moving through Christianity to Islam. We are well aware of their suffering through a brutal process of ethnic cleansing and land dispossession which today has reached the stage of incremental genocide, by a colonial settler project, aided and abetted firstly by the British and latterly the Americans pursuing their own global strategic interests.
Dispossession of a people’s land and rights, occupation and discrimination, inevitably gives rise to conflict. Repression of a peoples just demands results in resistance. International law recognises the right of a people to resist to the extent of taking up arms – as occurred for example in the American War of Independence against the British Crown or the resistance struggle in our own country. This has been the motivating force for Palestinian resistance in all its forms. Whilst the Israelis attempt to justify their brutal methods as forms of “self-defence” the prescription for peace and justice is quite simple as shown in South Africa: recognise a people’s right to self- determination and independence and all else will follow. We recognised that the only workable solution is a unitary state in which all people have equal rights. Attempts at divisions along ethnic Bantustan lines will never solve the problem. It has long been evident that the two-state solution is stone dead because Israel’s rulers have never been serious about even that limited form of Palestinian rule.
Inherent in any form of racist inclusivity is the ultimate degeneration of morality and values. We saw this with the apartheid doctrine in South Africa; just as we have seen racism spreading through Israeli society like a cancerous beast. The tribal war drums are beat to force everybody into the laager of conformity. Zionism has debased humane Judaic values causing incalculable harm. Justifiable criticism of Israel is condemned as anti-Semitic; Jews who speak out are referred to as “self-hating Jews”. It is this regressive worldview, that seeks to control the minds of all Jews, similar to the brainwashing of South Africa’s whites under apartheid.
We have recently seen this bigoted attitude manifested at a Herzlia School in Cape Town. I refer to the case of the two students who refused to stand to attention as their school choir sang Hatikva – the Israeli national anthem. Instead, as the saying goes, “they took the knee,” a perfectly peaceful expression of dissent popularised by American athletes. As has been reported the school’s authorities said the two students faced “disciplinary and educational” consequences for their “deliberate and flagrant disregard for the ethos of the school.”
There are a number of things one can say about this.
Firstly, the school authorities have demonstrated contempt for what Jewish culture has once been famous for: and that is open mindedness, tolerance, the encouragement of independent thinking and freedom of expression.
Secondly, they treat the student’s actions as shameful – yet the bending of the knee is totally passive and peaceful; a very dignified non-violent demonstration of dissent.
Thirdly, I’m sure many South Africans might be shocked to learn that the national anthem of another country is force-fed young people attending the Herzlia schools. I wonder what they would think if the German-language or Portuguese-language schools sang the national anthems of those countries? I am sure that Muslim-inclined schools or our Madrasas do not sing the Saudi or Iranian anthems.
Perhaps those students in attending the school accepted the singing of the Hatikva in the first place as I myself once did as a boy at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, until I like them came to have serious misgivings.
What Herzlia needs to take into account is the current situation in Israel which must clearly have troubled the young minds of those who protested. No student of their age can ignore the violations of international law and human rights by Israel that have become a common occurrence and so visible in the media. We have all witnessed the mass bombings of Gaza; merciless shooting of unarmed protesters including children on the March of Return; the arrest and beating of children for throwing stones; the endless lines at West Bank checkpoints; destruction of homes and precious olive trees – and so much more brutality that in the words of our own Archbishop Tutu makes what black South Africans went through under apartheid a picnic by comparison. Who at a school like Herzlia will be unaware of Israel’s growing alliance with ultra-right-wing leaders from Brazil to Hungary and Poland as was once the case when the Zionist state was so cosy with apartheid. What decent person not be sickened by the racist Donald Trump, courting and being courted by Prime Minister Netanyahu or the fact that the rampant right wing Christian evangelical movement is Israel’s new best friend?
And who at Herzlia can be unaware of Israel’s new basic law passed in July which declares that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination within it”. So much for those contemptuously shut out: the Palestinians living within Israel who survived being driven out in 1948 and constitute 20% of the population; the Druze who have been favoured for their loyalty as long as they were of some use to the military; the Bedouin whose settlements are being systematically destroyed; the African immigrants and refugees desperately seeking sanctuary – as the Jews once did.
I am speaking here to the mindset of our South African compatriots at Herzlia, be they the authorities, the teachers or the young learners and their parents, who have grown up in a country where nobody is excluded from being part of the nation. And I am speaking about a Zionist establishment which hypocritically prattles on about learning the values of Nelson Mandela’s reconciliation; of the need for freedom of speech and expression; and who won’t so much as utter a word of condemnation when Israeli snipers cut down a man in a wheelchair or a nurse providing medical attention to the injured.
It would appear to me that some of the students, like those who have “taken the knee”, are keen to follow Mandela’s principles and consequently have grown to be ashamed of having to stand and sing Israel’s national anthem within the context described. Netanyahu has declared of Israel’s new law: “This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel.” There are Israelis and Jews elsewhere who are hanging their heads in shame. Israel’s racist apartheid policies have become abundantly clear. Young Jews, are awakening to the truth and are no longer prepared to be bullied and brainwashed. They put to shame the intolerant values Herzlia appears intent on enforcing. Those students who have been suppressed should be applauded for bending the knee in order to stand up and be counted on the side of moral righteousness.
In them we see signs of hope. We see that human beings are capable of seeing through the lies and hypocrisy and take a stand for the truth. They reflect in a symbolic way why we have hope that Palestine will rise. We see this in the indomitable spirit of that people who refuse to bend to the occupation – to the batons, bullets and bombs. We see this in the courage of the 16 year old Ahed Tamimi who stood up to Israeli soldiers and struck one in the face after her cousin had been shot and her home defiled. We have seen this in the March of Return where the people of Gaza, knowing full well that they will face the lethal bullets of the snipers – who gloat like fascists as they hit their targets – march peacefully and defiantly on the fence that imprisons them. This is the Palestinian samud – the indestructible spirit of perseverance going strong 70 years after the dispossession of 1948. Like the black people of South Africa who liberated the whites so the Palestinians will liberate all who live in the Holy Land, the Jews included, who I would hope would one day follow the example of Ilan Pappe and Uri Davis and call themselves Palestinian Jews.
May I end by calling for two things which should be done in South Africa:
Firstly, make BDS a powerful tool, as was the case during the struggle against racist South Africa, to isolate Israel until change comes.
Secondly, pressurise our government, to take a bold stand and boycott apartheid Israel in toto.
Those are contributions that can help bring about the kind of change that helped free South Africa.
Inshallah – God Willing it will happen.