22 Jul 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Asking the right question often leads to moral clarity, even if it is not so easily answered, writes Tony Leon
MORAL clarity is rare and provides illumination on those shape-shifting moments in global events that remind us just how easily the world order is shattered by a missile that downs a civilian plane in Ukraine, or when Hamas rockets from Gaza, which largely miss their targets, are matched by Israeli air strikes that more often don’t. Moral myopia is, alas, far more common.
These past few days saw the death toll in Gaza rise as Israel invaded the territory for the second time in five years. One of the few commentators whose views added rather than subtracted from proper analysis was Nicholas Kristof in Sunday’s New York Times. He addressed the rooftop shouters, of whom there is no shortage in SA, where rallying against the perceived inhumanity of Israel’s long occupation is a much safer exercise than more pressing regional concerns such as the recent African Union decision to shield heads of state from being held accountable for their crimes against their own citizens.
Kristof asks whether, amid the renewed dance of death in Gaza, "this is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. We can’t relax, can’t compromise."
Moral certainty doubtless led the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) Jessie Duarte to label the Israeli attacks as "barbaric" and then to compare the occupation of the Palestinian territories to the Nazi "death camps". Not to be outdone in their seething outrage, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the ANC Youth League and sundry others (including a group of 50 Jewish South Africans) marched or called for a welter of sanctions and diplomatic and other punishments against Israel. Interestingly, no dissenting local Muslim voices have been heard against Hamas, but that’s another topic.
Kristof provides an elegant and, I think, unanswerable, rebuttal to the question posed and the moral furies aroused by recent events. Start by removing the binary good-versus-evil narrative, he suggests: "This is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonisation."
This is the primary cause of the military escalation. Placing this need for what the historian Simon Schama called "dual empathy" at the centre of a proper narrative leads to this conclusion: "Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subject to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than be relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land."
Admittedly such self-evident truths would be difficult to fit on a protest poster. Indeed, such moral even-handedness lacks the fervent sloganeering of the protest marchers who massed last week on the Israeli trade mission in Sandton. But perhaps it illuminates the path forward to peace, not ever-escalating war.
Former US president Jimmy Carter caused no end of fury with the Israel lobby when he published a book in 2006 titled Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, and then said in an interview that Israeli policy in the territories under its occupation "perpetrates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in SA".
After I returned from a visit to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat more than 10 years ago, I was far less impressed with his self-serving observations than I was by the casual remarks of the Palestinian driver who took me to and from the meeting and described the daily ordeal of living under occupation. When I put them to an Israeli friend, a former cabinet minister, he said: "The only way to occupy a people against their will is with brutality."
But the facts leading to the occupation of the West Bank (Gaza is not occupied but is besieged), and the possibility of ending both peacefully, are also obscured by much of the present outrage.
On the eve of the failed Middle East peace conference in Annapolis in 2007, the acclaimed US orientalist Bernard Lewis asked an existential question: "What is this conflict about? Is it about the size of Israel or about its existence?"
He then suggested that if the issue was about the size or borders of Israel, then "it is not easy but is possible to solve in the long run, and to live with in the meantime".
"But", he said, "if the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise between existing and not existing. And no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether the country should or should not exist."
Asking the right question often leads to moral clarity, even if it is not so easily answered.
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA