The Right Side of History
So we visited Soweto and toured the Apartheid Museum. I had seen “Cry Freedom” and “Invictus” and read some books. But I still didn’t get it. How could an entire nation allow racism to become the law of the land? And, even more amazingly, Apartheid was enacted in 1948, even as the embers of Auschwitz were still smoldering! 1948. How could a nation so knowingly sell its soul to the devil - THEN?
I came up with three reasons:
1) Religious extremism. The Afrikaan leaders saw this as God’s will. It must be pointed out that there were many religious leaders, including Jewish ones, who opposed Apartheid, but others, including prominent Jews, acquiesced. As Yossi Klein Halevi has stated, when people do crazy things in the name of any religion, it is a stain on all religion.
2) Ignorance. In speaking to people in South Africa about their experiences, many claimed not to have had any idea what was really going on. The media was tightly controlled and they just learned not to ask questions.
And finally, 3) Fear. 1948 also marked the beginning of the Cold War and the fear of Communism was a convenient tool for those who sought to limit civil rights for the sake of security. Fear remains a convenient tool to this day, everywhere, and the greatest threat to civil liberties.
But still, it is amazing that an entire nation was able to buy into this evil system and keep Apartheid afloat for a nearly half a century, despite worldwide condemnation, ostracism and isolation.
After visiting Johannesburg, we boarded a plane for the three hour flight to Cape Town. Shortly after takeoff, I was reading some of the material we had bought at the museum and I noticed the guy next to me looking over my shoulder. He was a stocky, youthful 40-something, built like he could have played rugby, back in the day.
Abruptly, even before saying “hello,” he asked me a question:
"Do you think I'm evil?"
So what was I supposed to respond? Uh…“Nice country you got here. How ‘bout them Springboks! Would you like some nuts?” No. I was a captive audience. It was time to engage.
I told him I didn’t think he was evil. I thought that Apartheid was evil and I was trying to understand it. I said that as an American I had nothing to Crow about – in fact we had Jim Crow at the same time you guys had Apartheid. And we had slavery. America has given the world lots of bad things, from Watergate to the KKK those talking dog videos on YouTube.
I looked over but knew that would not make him feel better. Because he was struggling with his past. I was not struggling with mine – though perhaps I should have been. I grew up in the Boston of the 1970s busing crisis, the Boston of Joseph Rakes, who, in that famous news photo, attacked a black attorney with an American flag, using it as a lance, and I was part of a Jewish community that had none too proudly abandoned its roots in Mattapan and Roxbury and its partnerships in the civil rights movement.
The guy, Bernard was his name, said he had known nothing of what was really going on while growing up. History in school ended with the Boer war. He grew up outside Cape Town and rarely saw people different from him. That was by design, as Mara and I realized when we toured a museum in Cape Town’s old District 6, an entire neighborhood that was leveled because the populations were mixing too much.
Bernard did say that Cape Town was much more liberal than other places, which meant, as he explained it, that on the segregated buses, the dividing line was down the middle, rather than front and back. So the blacks could be on the left and the coloreds and whites on the right. How enlightened! I wonder what Rosa Parks would have done.
By the way, in Israel there are now gender segregated buses, along with gender segregated HMO clinics, banks, elevators, grocery stores, pizza parlors and a corner snack shop in the Bukharian quarter of Jerusalem that has a side entrance with a sign marked “women only.” In Beit Shemesh, stones have been thrown at modern Orthodox women while jogging and two women who were taken off a bus recently for not wearing modest enough clothing. Of course, Saudi Arabia, women can’t even drive.
Apartheid began with segregation. Any segregation, including gender segregation, when enforced by public law, leads us down a slippery slope toward discrimination.
Please understand, I am not calling for unisex bathrooms, although I do believe that the woman’s restroom here is much nicer than the men’s – from what I’ve heard. There are boundaries, but what’s happening in Israel now is a serious civil rights issue, fueled, as always and everywhere, by religious extremism, ignorance and fear.
So I sat for 3 hours next to Bernard and I heard his life story. He recalled 1991, in his twenties, and the crowds that lined up to see Nelson Mandela as he emerged from 27 years of incarceration. He soon realized how everything he had heard about this man was a lie and that Mandela was a hero.
No one on this planet is as universally loved as Nelson Mandela. Mediva, as he’s called, turned 93 when we were in Cape Town and on his birthday, every school child in the nation sang a simultaneous “Happy Birthday” to him. With any other leader, it would be scary how much this man is loved. The Jewish community also loves him and recently hosted an exhibit paying tribute to him at the magnificent Cape Town Jewish museum.
When you read about Mandela, when you read his words of love and reconciliation, and when you visit his tiny cell on Robben Island, as we did, you see how easily he could have succumbed to the hatred and the fear. Then you admire how, from his position of strength, as the leader who could have crushed his opposition and driven them into exile, he instead embraced them. It is impossible not to shed a tear on behalf of the man from whom the capacity for tears was ripped away, as his eyes were blinded in the limestone quarries.
Mandela writes in his autobiography, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
When I posted on Facebook how Mandela is so loved, a rabbinic colleague replied, “Too bad he is anti-Israel.” Not true. Mandela has stated, “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders.” And people like that rabbinic colleague are precisely the problem – those who are so quick to label as anti-Israel a person who has lived his entire life promoting human rights. That puts Israel on the wrong side of history. That’s why Israel and the US couldn’t publicly defend Mubarak, no matter how beneficial he was to them. They didn’t want to be seen as opposing democracy and freedom and being on the wrong side of history.
I may not be sure what the right side of history is, but I know that Nelson Mandela is on it – and I want to be there.
I want the Jewish people to be what we’ve always been, the vanguards of justice and compassion.What is the right side of history? We invented it when we crossed the Red Sea, marched through the Wilderness and parked at a rest stop at Mount Sinai. The right side of history loves the stranger. The right side of history is eight lanes apart from playing the victim and has no exit marked “fear.” It is the side that does not allow discrimination and hatred to rule.
I want to be there.
As you already may have guessed, last month, I saw the film, “The Help.” (I think I was the only man in the theater). I loved the movie, as I loved the book, and it reinforced some of the lessons I had taken with me from South Africa. Oppressive political systems might be established by the powerful, but they are lived by the rest of us; not merely by those in the government, but also by those at the Ladies Auxiliary. Discrimination infects all of society, trickling down from top to bottom, it gets into the cracks and nooks and those tough to get at places, where we might tell the Help to give it another shot of Mop ‘N Glo or Windex. This disease is like the breadcrumbs in my car before Pesach – it’s everywhere, and it spreads from one generation to the next, until everyone buys into its toxic lies, even the victims. It plays itself out at the lunch tables of Woolworths and in the bathrooms and the water fountains. It plays itself out wherever someone displays a Confederate flag or tells an ethnic joke.
I, like most Caucasians in the audience, looked to the white character Skeeter to save us. She’s very convenient. She is courageous. We would have done the same, we say. We think. We don’t know.
But enough people did stand up to the hatred to relegate Jim Crowe to the dung heap, that place where all the failed “isms” go, all those doomed experiments in human engineering – the Communisms and Social Darwinisms and fascisms, the ones that end up on the wrong side of history.
Colonialism has failed. Segregation has failed. And now, fear has failed as well.