During a visit to South Africa last summer, I stopped at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, hoping to better understand how so despicable a system could dominate that country for nearly half a century, from 1948-1991, and why any comparisons to Israel are ridiculous. I came away humbled, wondering whether there might just be a little residue of apartheid in us all.
After visiting Johannesburg, I boarded a plane for the three-hour flight to Cape Town. Shortly after takeoff, I was reading some of the material I 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, 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! No. I was a captive audience.
I told him (Bernard’s his name) 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 he had apartheid, and we had slavery. America has given the world lots of bad things, from the KKK to Watergate to Rick Perry’s hunting ranch.
I looked over but knew that would not make him feel better, because he was struggling with his past and I was not struggling with mine — though perhaps I should have been. I grew up in the Boston of the 1970s busing crisis, and I was part of a Jewish community that had fled its inner-city roots and shed its civil rights partnerships. The Boston of my youth was not all that different from the Jackson, Miss., depicted in the recent bestseller and hit film, “The Help.” And that America was not all that different the South Africa of Bernard’s youth. In all these places, racism infected all strata of society, from City Hall to the Ladies Auxiliary. It trickled from top to bottom, getting into the cracks and nooks and those tough to get at places, where we might tell the Help to give it another shot of Windex.
The disease of discrimination 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 Woolworth’s and in the bathrooms and water fountains, or wherever someone displays a Confederate flag or tells an ethnic joke. Enough people stood up to the hatred to relegate Jim Crowe and apartheid to history’s dung heap. Boston is now a diverse, inclusive city. But the disease remains.
I came to realize that apartheid was little more than a virulent combination of the same toxic brew that still threatens us today: religious extremism and fear. In 1948, right-wing Afrikaner leaders played to the suspicions of a rising communism and blended that with a belief that white domination is God’s will.
The recent vandalism against mosques by Israeli Jewish extremists does not point to apartheid, but Israeli officials need to be especially vigilant or such hate crimes could easily lead Jerusalem to a moral place not too distant from Johannesburg and Jackson, where houses of worship were also set aflame.
In Jackson and Johannesburg, buses were segregated by race. In some parts of Israel, they are segregated by gender, as are banks, elevators, grocery stores, pizza parlors and a corner snack shop in Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter that has a side entrance with a sign marked “women only.”
But Mr. Netanyahu, tear down that sign!
Apartheid began with segregation. Any segregation, including excessive gender segregation, leads us down a slippery slope toward discrimination. I’m not calling for unisex bathrooms, but there is no religious basis for pizza with a mechitza and the constant harassment of females. Yes, it’s worse in Saudi Arabia and Iran. And yes, Israel’s human rights record is commendable, considering the fact that not long ago those currently segregated buses were being blown up.
Before my trip this summer, I had no idea just how intensely Nelson Mandela is loved, both by his own countrymen (including the Jews) and around the world. When you read his words of reconciliation and visit his tiny cell on Robben Island, you see how easily he could have succumbed to the hatred and the fear. He could have crushed his oppressors and driven them into exile; instead he embraced them, saying, “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.”
Think about how counterproductive it is 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 U.S. couldn’t publicly defend Mubarak, no matter how beneficial he had been. They didn’t want to be perceived as swimming against a tide of freedom and inclusiveness.
I’m not sure what the right side of history is, but I know that Mandela is on it. The Jewish people have always been there too, as vanguards of justice and compassion. We invented the right side of history at the Red Sea and Sinai. The right side of history loves the stranger; it’s eight lanes apart from playing the victim and has no exit marked “fear.” It does not allow discrimination, hatred and religious extremism to rule. Johannesburg and Jackson have been struggling mightily to board the bus headed that way.
I pray that Israelis might board it too — and sit wherever they want.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.