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Seeing Mandela's miracle: A trip from Israel to South Africa

This piece was originally published as ‘Coming home from the land of miracles’ in the Jerusalem Post, April 11, 2007, after a family trip I took to South Africa. I think it says something about the difference between that country and Israel, and is also a description of the new society that Mandela and his comrades wrought.

I was watching my seven-year-old boy and some black kids chasing each other around a jumping castle at a family restaurant in Johannesburg, a sight that could not have been seen a generation ago. After the joy of it passed, I got a little wistful. What were the chances, I thought, of my son running around a jumping castle with a bunch of Arab kids in Israel – and so freely, so unself-consciously, with their Jewish and Arab parents sitting around hardly paying attention, treating it  just as normal Israeli kid behavior?

I don’t know of a restaurant, or park, or any public place in this country where that could happen. The way I saw blacks and whites mingling easily during my vacation in South Africa – or at least middle-class blacks and whites – was something I don’t think I’ll ever see between Jews and Arabs over here. Frankly, I wouldn’t bet that my seven-year-old son will ever see it, either.

And maybe the worst part is that I don’t think most Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are bothered by this. Some definitely are, but most Jews and Arabs here do not want to mix with the “other kind,” unless it’s to sell them something. The Arabs would like equality, of course, but otherwise the majority of them seem as agreeable with the separatist, segregationist, mutually hostile Israeli status quo as a majority of Jews are.

My wife is from South Africa, and I’ve been there several times since my first visit a few months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, which spelled the beginning of the end of apartheid. Over the years, I saw Johannesburg shopping malls fill with black and white customers being served by black and white clerks, everyone sauntering around each other, standing in line together, smiling politely, without a hint of tension in the air. It was like apartheid had never existed. Once I ran into a Jewish school principal I’d met and mentioned this to him, adding that I couldn’t imagine this happening between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and he nodded in agreement. “There just isn’t the kind of hatred here that you have in Israel,” he explained.

 On this last trip I was told – first by a Jewish friend of the family and then by a black tour guide – that it was South Africa’s blacks, not the whites, who deserved credit for dissolving the hatred because they were the ones who had to forgive.

Arabs and Jews, at least in Israel, I think we can agree, are not the forgiving kind.

But then I don’t think too many South Africans, black, white or other, believed a generation ago that people of all races – or, again, at least middle-class people of all races – would one day live together in their country like they do today. Especially in the Cape region, we saw blacks, whites, Indians and “coloreds” eating, shopping, working and traveling side by side. We saw mixed couples, mixed families, mixed groups of friends, and people seemed to take it for granted.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of a wall-to-wall utopia; everyone knows South Africa has horrific problems with AIDS, crime and poverty. All the beautiful houses are walled and electronically fenced; on the lush, green, residential streets, signs warn of “armed response.” In Johannesburg, white people for the most part only walk outdoors to get in or out of their cars, while the only people seen on the streets of their neighborhoods are their black gardeners and maids. Downtown Jo’burg, which has filled up with refugees from Zimbabwe, Congo, Nigeria and other African “failed states,” looks like scorched earth, a trash-heaped, predatory no-go zone. In the countryside are tin shantytowns that look like sprawling junkyards.

But since the African National Congress took over in 1994, the government has built 2 million sturdy homes for poor blacks and “coloreds,” and says it will build 2.5 million more. Thirteen years after the end of white rule, there is a large South African middle-class of blacks and other non-whites, millions of them, and a still larger second generation is coming of age. With a population that’s 80% black, the average yearly income is over $12,000 and rising.

Despite a massive underclass and the awful violence and disease that comes with it, South Africa is more than a success story – it’s a fairy tale come true, a miracle. In 13 years that nation has achieved so much more than any level-headed observer could have predicted, while disproving all the doom-sayers, including the Israeli officials who warned  South African Jews to hurry up and make aliya before the blacks took revenge and chased them out of their swimming pools. On this last vacation, I could see the insecurity in Johannesburg’s Jewish neighborhoods from the rows of street lamps pasted with handbills for tours to Israel and an upcoming Matisyahu concert.

But the encounter that inspired me most was not with the generous-hearted blacks or self-confident Jews we came across, but with the team of 15-year-old Afrikaner rugby players from Pretoria we saw at Cape Town’s Table Mountain. These kids belong to South Africa’s supposedly “defeated” race, yet they seemed anything but defeated – they were laughing and carrying on with each other in Afrikaans, and going up to all the tourists they passed and asking them in English where they were from, how they liked South Africa, etc.

I didn’t talk politics with them, only rugby and American football. I don’t know what they think of the ANC, or President Thabo Mbeki, or blacks in general. But they seemed completely at home, and happy to be there. They weren’t “circling the wagons,” they were venturing out. They were curious and unafraid of people different from themselves. They were young, these Afrikaner boys from Pretoria, just like their country.

Myself, I’ve always felt at home in Israel. But it doesn’t inspire me like South Africa does, certainly not lately. This country has become more and more inward-looking, suspicious and closed. Its spirit has been growing old.

I’d like to say that if South Africa can do it, so can we. But the sad truth is that most Jews and Arabs in Israel really do not want to live together. They much prefer living apart. I don’t know if there’s an Afrikaans word that describes this social arrangement to the letter, but I do know of one that captures its spirit.

On Mandela’s legacy: Three political innovations
The top 5 most hypocritical Mandela eulogies by Israeli politicians

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    1. Sasha

      I wonder about Derfner’s analysis when he writes:

      “But the sad truth is that most Jews and Arabs in Israel really do not want to live together. They much prefer living apart.”

      It’s much more sided towards the Jewish side. It’s about keeping the state as ethnically and racially “pure” as possible.

      The Palestinians are occupied in the post-67 territories and brutalized in the ’48 territories. Despite it all, many do prefer to live in what is today Israel, partly out of material comfort but also because that is this ancestral homeland.

      The Jews, first from Europe, and later from the rest of the Middle East, came to them, not the other way around, and then started to push them out, segregate them and so on.

      To pretend that there is some equivalency here is ridiculous.

      Yes, there is one side that is pushing hafrada, or demographic separation, very stridently, but its not Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron Gross

      Like the vast majority of Israeli Arabs and Jews, I see the “separatist, segregationist, mutually hostile Israeli status quo” (except for the “hostile” part) as a feature, not a bug. It’s one of the main things that preserves the existence of Israeli communities, both Jewish and Arab.

      In America, rich and middle-class whites preserve their segregated communities by maintaining high housing prices. Lower-class people – whites, blacks, and otherwise – don’t have that option. In Israel, lower-class people who can’t afford American-style segregation do have that option. In that sense (as in many others), Israel is more egalitarian than America.

      I’ve experienced first-hand the destruction of a community by (dis)integration. Thank God that both Arabs and Jews care enough about their communities to preserve them.

      By the way, to answer your question: that little park with the fountain in Jerusalem near the Cinematheque and the railroad station, I don’t remember the name. I haven’t been there in a while, but it used to have Jewish and Arab children playing in and near the fountain on summer days. They weren’t playing with each other the times I was there, but there was a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, so I think they could have been.

      Reply to Comment
    3. CigarButNoNice

      “most Jews and Arabs in Israel really do not want to live together.”

      Yet you want to force them to do so against their wills with your One-State Solution? Blood on your hands for your moral self-satisfaction.

      As to South Africa, it ended less catastrophically than Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Yugoslavia or Lebanon. Suffice it here to say it’s not exactly a multicultural paradise with all those “Kill the Boer!”-inspired murders of white farmers. The Afrikaners werecwilling to take the gamble, and it came off fairly acceptably. But there are more scenarios possible, and the Jewish people is less likely to do so after its own experiences.

      The only just and viable solution is to have the Arab settler-colonists evacuate their illegal holdings on the Land of Israel in favor of their rightful owners, the Jews. I know it’s harsh to demand the Arab nation be content with the pitifully small score of states they have outside the Land of Israel, but that’s the price of justice. Something has to give so as to end the oppression, and the oppression of Arab colonialism is no exception.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Tomer

      I don’t understand all this “parallel” about S. Africa. In that society, whites never made up more than 12% of the population. They were dispersed all over the country, which equals the size of Western Europe. No amount of gerrymandering, geograpical re-division or demographic tinkering would make whites even a plurality of the inhabitant, never mind a majority. Moreover, the whites were NOT even a native component of the aboriginal inhabitants. This entire paradigm does not resemble the situation in Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • CigarButNoNice

        The contrived parallel, just like the whole Phakestinian Narrative itself about an “indigenous Palestinian people from time immemorial” that for some reason nobody had known about (not even the Balestinians themselves) prior to their failure to nip the Jewish state in the bud and exterminate all the Jews on it in 1947-9, is there because it serves a specific need:

        Namely, the need to justify one’s support for the imperialist aggression of the land-rich, many-state-endowed Arab nation against the Jewish nation, which has only one miniscule state to its own.

        Throw away the covers and anti-Zionism is revealed to be the neo-Nazi ideology it is.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Aaron Gross

      Tomer, I think that’s basically the left-Zionist argument (Meretz, etc.). The idea is that if you’re 51% of the population in some given territory, then while it might not be good for you to rule over the others without their consent, at least it’s democratic. But as soon as your numbers in that territory drop to 49%, you’re all of a sudden undemocratic. The idea is that democracy is about numbers.

      This may be a caricature of your comment, but my point is that if it’s wrong for a minority to do this, then it’s wrong for a majority to do it as well. “Majority rule” is no justification.

      My solution to the dilemma is to say that non-consensual rule is (sometimes) justified by a minority as well. That could justify white minority rule, though not apartheid. Others solve the problem by suggesting the annihilation of the State of Israel. That’s also a consistent approach.

      The left Zionists have no answer, in my opinion. They cling to the most formal, emptiest notion of democracy available, because that’s all they have. They ain’t fooling anyone.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Just Ice

      There are many young Palestinian Muslims that do want peace and equality, who wouldn’t. However the extreme damage done to all Palestinian families on numerous occasions must be hard to forgive. Where do I start ? For example daily humiliation, poor access to healthcare and education, lack of food because of the blockade, multiple family deaths, prisoners both adult and child, house demolitions, stealing land, cutting down olive trees, spraying sewage spray into Palestinian houses, ruining crops through toxic waste running off from Israeli settlements, purposely shooting at Palestinian Farmers during the harvest, shooting at Fisherman when the IDF have no right, waiting at checkpoints for hours, apartheid wall. We are talking from pre 1948, name any suffering that has lasted that long in history?

      Reply to Comment