11 Mar 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
For Israeli Jews, the holocaust was always ‘there’, but for non-Jews this terrible act is something in the past, writes Tony Leon
BRITAIN’s Queen Elizabeth once noted that "distance lends enchantment". During visits abroad, I usually come to the less-elevated conclusion that distance lends, well, just distance. But during a recent week in London, I realised the monarch was on to something.
And even if the view of home from abroad is not always alluring, sometimes a domestic analogy is suggested in even the most foreign situations. One occurred during a scintillating conversation at London’s Jewish Book Week. Two towering and properly so-called public intellectuals, the famed British novelist Ian McEwan and the illustrious Israeli writer David Grossman, conducted a dialogue.
McEwan observed to Grossman that many of his writings emphasise the word "there", as opposed to the word "then".
I thought the question was extraordinarily obscure, until Grossman responded.
He described the difference of emphasis and between the words with reference to the Nazi holocaust, which resulted in the murder of 6-million European Jews and which led directly to the much-contested establishment of the state of Israel.
Grossman explained that, for Israeli Jews, the holocaust was always about "there" or "over there" — that is, it happened in Europe but it "is always with us … it is ever-present". But for non-Jews, in his view, this terrible act of history is something that happened "then", at a fixed point of time. However empathetic outsiders might be to this act of racial and religious genocide, it is generally viewed by them as something in the past.
I am always wary of conflating two utterly different historical events, and only the wilfully ignorant or the politically mischievous would draw a parallel between the unique scale and intent of the Nazi holocaust and other acts and eras of very harsh racial discrimination.
However, on Grossman’s point on the difference between "there" and "then", I realised that, inadvertently, he had touched on a real difference of both perception and reality of the apartheid era back home, even on the eve of the 20th anniversary of its formal ending and South Africa’s embrace of nonracial democracy. And the difference, in my view, goes to the heart of the debate of the meaning of apartheid and how to overcome its legacy — something that continually trips up our ability to get some consensus on the way ahead in the third decade of freedom.
I suspect, and discounting the professional rent-seekers and exploitative ethnic politicians of whom we have no shortage, for most black South Africans, apartheid is always about "there" and not "then". It remains with the subjects or the direct victims of the system long after its formal ending and even long past the point when the same group has attained full civil rights and even, for some, high levels of material prosperity.
On the other side of the divide, I think most members of the white minority here, even those of us who in the words of journalist Rowan Philp enjoyed "the unasked for and unearned apartheid dividend", that system is more about "then". The reasoning here, and excluding the fringe that hankers for a return of apartheid, goes something like this: it ended in 1994 and we can honour the past, even make reparation for it, but we cannot live in it. If the country is to get ahead, it needs to get beyond the confines of its own history, terrible though it might be.
This difference in experience and perception may be back story for the lack of buy-in on how to build a just and inclusive society. Of course, as Parliament has witnessed in recent days, with some bizarre and economically ruinous bills — from mandated gender quotas on pain of criminal sanction, to choking off the nascent oil and gas industry (disclosure: I consult in this sector) — the majority can prevail by legislative steamroller. But how do we square this circle between different perceptions and lived realities?
No easy answers, but a thoughtful remark was recorded by another participant at the same London event. The historian Simon Schama offered this view of Ari Shavit, who has just published, in my view, the best recent work on the Holy Land, My Promised Land — The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Schama credits Shavit with having that rarest of insights, something he calls "dual empathy". Shavit manages to recognise both the suffering and the achievements of Palestinian and Jew alike, and also shows how one of the most disfiguring features in that "promised land" was the inevitable conclusion, on both sides, of seeing only one side of a contested human equation.
That much contested, seldom read, document of ours, the National Development Plan, also contains traces of "dual empathy", particularly in marrying political and social justice with economic sensibility. Perhaps for a start, the relevant sections should be required reading for every MP before voting on bills. Or else we can continue with the one-eyed approach. But the results will continue to be deeply disfiguring.
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