The Reverend Allan Aubrey Boesak is a veteran of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. He is the former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and is a signatory of the South African Christian response to the Kairos Palestine Document. This year he gave expert testimony at the Russell Tribunal on Palestine session in Cape Town, at which he spoke to MEMO's Hanan Chahata.
Hanan Chahata: You were one of the signatories of the South African Christian response to the Kairos Palestine Document. In this you said that the Palestinian experience of apartheid is "in its practical manifestation even worse than South African apartheid". Can you explain what you meant by this?
Allan Boesak: It is worse, not in the sense that apartheid was not an absolutely terrifying system in South Africa, but in the ways in which the Israelis have taken the apartheid system and perfected it, so to speak; sharpened it. For instance, we had the Bantustans and we had the Group Areas Act and we had the separate schools and all of that but I don't think it ever even entered the mind of any apartheid planner to design a town in such a way that there is a physical wall that separates people and that that wall denotes your freedom of movement, your freedom of economic gain, of employment, and at the same time is a tool of intimidation and dehumanisation. We carried passes as the Palestinians have their ID documents but that did not mean that we could not go from one place in the city to another place in the city. The judicial system was absolutely skewed of course, all the judges in their judgements sought to protect white privilege and power and so forth, and we had a series of what they called "hanging judges" in those days, but they did not go far as to openly, blatantly have two separate justice systems as they do for Palestinians [who are tried in Israeli military courts] and Israelis [who are tried in civil, not military courts]. So in many ways the Israeli system is worse.
Another thing that makes it even worse is that when we fought our battles, even if it took us a long time, we could in the end muster and mobilise international solidarity on a scale that enabled us to be more successful in our struggle. The Palestinians cannot do that. The whole international community almost conspires against them. The UN, which played a fairly positive role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, takes the disastrous position of not wanting to offend its strong members like the United States who protect Israel. So even in the UN, where international law ought to be the framework wherein all these things are judged, where international solidarity is not an assumption but is supposed to be the very foundation upon which the UN builds its views on things and its judgements as to which way it goes, the Palestinians don't even have that.
Palestinians are mocked in a way that South Africans were not. In a sense, the UN tried in our case to follow up on its resolutions to isolate the apartheid regime. Here, now, they make resolutions against Israel one after the other and I don't detect even a sense of shame that they know there is not going to be any follow up. Under Reagan the United States was pretty blatant in its so called constructive engagement programme and in its support for the white regime in South Africa, but what the United States is doing now in the week that UNESCO took the decision to support the Palestinian bid for a seat in the United Nations, to withdraw all US financial support; to resort immediately to economic blackmail, that is so scandalous. So in all those ways I think we are trying to say that what is happening in Israel today is a system of apartheid that in its perfection of that system is more terrifying in many ways than apartheid in South Africa ever was.
HC: During an event celebrating black history month earlier this year you likened the US Civil Rights Movement to the South African struggle against apartheid. Would you liken both of those struggles to the Palestinian struggle today?
AB: I have just finished a chapter for a book that I hope will be out next year in which I speak of the similarities between the civil rights struggle, the anti-apartheid struggle, and the Arab Spring and the lessons we can draw from them.
I think it is fascinating in so many different ways. It's almost as if I personally lived through the difficult choices that people have to make in North Africa and in the Middle East every day. As every day goes by my admiration for them grows. I see what is happening in Syria and in Yemen and that there is still relatively little violence on the part of the protesters. You can still see that their basic fundamental goal is to get rid of the tyranny through non-violent protest and it is amazing to watch. I do believe that there is such a thing as historic moments that never disappear from which people learn. South Africa learned so much from Ghandi in India; Martin Luther King learned from Ghandi; we learned from Martin Luther King and we had our own traditions and I'm sure the young Arab people who saw some of these things happening are drawing on that. 1994 (when the first democratic government of South Africa was formed) and the 1980s are not that far behind us. Many of those people who are participating today were sat in front of their televisions watching when we were in the streets day after day after day braving the dogs and the guns and the tear gas, burying our people, funeral after funeral. When I see the funerals taking place in the Arab world I think of the time Archbishop Tutu and I buried 27 people (actually 42 were killed but the police would not release the other bodies); I think of that when I see bodies being carried out to be buried Friday after Friday in the Arab world.
Our struggle had all sorts of political ideologies but it was never completely secularised. The faith, as Archbishop Tutu said this morning, that there is a God of justice who will help us sustain the struggle is an amazing thing. When I see all those thousands of Muslims go down and bow down before Allah I must say, when I saw it for the first time I looked at my wife and I said, I tell you now, if people sustain that, all those tyrants will be quaking in their boots and they know that they will not be able to hold out against that power.
I believe that, just as a few years ago the civil rights struggle in the United States, and then more especially the anti-apartheid struggle, became the moral standard by which the world was judged in terms of its taking sides in terms of right or wrong and getting on the right side of the human revolution for humanity and for justice and for the restoration of dignity and for the future for children; that particular moment in history where the world is invited to participate in this revolution for the sake of the good and for the sake of the future and for the sake of justice; and where that decision hinges upon evil and wrong on the one side and justice and right on the other side and will mark the world in a way that says this is a litmus test for international solidarity and for international law and justice, that test today comes from the Arab Spring.
HC: The Arab Spring or Palestine?
AB: You have the Arab Spring taking place but at the hub of it all is Palestine. I believe that what is happening now would not have happened if it had not been for the perennial struggle of the Palestinian people. They may not be mentioned every time but I can tell you now that if it was not for them, nothing like the Arab Spring would ever have happened in the Middle East.
Just as we thought, when we watched Martin Luther King or when we went through our own struggle, that the face and direction of history and the world, whether they like it in the West or not and whether or not they come to it with hidden agendas for the sake of greed or whatever, it does not really matter; what is happening in the end is that something fundamental is changing in the Middle East and thereby something fundamental is changing in the history of the world. Those people, I believe, who are going through that revolution now will, for instance, never make the same mistakes that their parents and grandparents made, thinking that the West is always good and that the deals we make with the West are always for the good of our people. There is a new critical element that has come in. Never again will people think the same; what I am hoping is that the Arab revolutions will be so sustainable and so successful and morally so strong that they will force the West to think differently about themselves in terms of the viewpoints and stands they take on events.
HC: Christianity is under threat in the Holy Land. People tend to forget that this is not an issue between Jews and Muslims; there are Christian Palestinians too. There has been a disturbing trend over the years, which has seen Christian Palestinians leaving the Holy Land because of the extraordinary difficulties that Israel has placed on their lives. In what ways has the occupation affected Christians?
AB: The Christian community in Palestine has been decimated in many ways. By doing this the Israelis are doing two things: they are simplifying the presentation of the struggle as if it is only between Jews and Arabs, with the result that Christians outside think that there is nothing and nobody for us to be in solidarity with. Hence, the Christian Zionists, those ultra conservative fundamentalists in the United States who have for so long helped to dictate foreign policy under the Bush and Reagan administrations, they can say "it's not about us; it's not about Christians and Christian witness, it's about those Muslims"; that, I think, is the intention. I'm hoping that those of us who are Christians outside the Middle East will keep that fact alive and will find ways and means to inject that argument into every single political situation so that the discourse that goes forward and gives rise to action does not push aside the reality of Christians in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land.
The second thing they are doing is that they are dislodging, not just denying, but dislodging the roots of the Christian faith in the Middle East; that's where it all started. If you dislodge that it's like cutting off your nose to spite your face - you are cutting yourself off from the most ancient roots of Christianity and that will set the Christian church adrift, and in the end that will not be good for Israel. So I'm glad to see that the World Council of Churches is rising up again. It is not nearly as radical as it should be, it's not nearly as clear as it should be nor as hard-nosed as it should be on this issue, but at least it is taking up the Palestinian issue and responding to the situation in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere where Christians are under pressure. In doing so they must remember that this is not just a Christian cause; it's not important just because of the Christians involved, but also because the future of humanity is at stake.
HC: There are an estimated 50 million Christian Zionists worldwide. How would you council them with regards to their support for the state of Israel which is based, they would say, on Biblical reasoning?
AB: It's like with so many things, it's the way that people read and interpret the Bible and so we must just make sure that we are as clear and as enthusiastic and as open about our understanding of the Bible and as willing to engage our understanding of the Bible as they seem to be. There must be ways; we have just not been imaginative enough. I think one reason is because we have not, until very recently, realised the very dangerous nature of the views that those people hold, not just for Palestinians and for Muslims in general but also for the Christian Church itself. Now that we begin to see how deadly that kind of logic is, how absolutely anti-Christian and anti-human that logic is, we have no excuses left.
HC: Israel is demanding that Palestinians recognise it as an exclusively "Jewish state". How would you respond to this demand?
AB: They can't. There is no such thing as a specifically Jewish state. You can't proclaim a Jewish state over the heads and the bodies and the memories of the people who are the ancient people who live there. That is Palestinian land we are talking about. Most of the Jews who are there come from Europe and elsewhere and have no claim on that land and we mustn't allow it to happen to the Palestinians what happened to my ancestors who were the original people in this land (South Africa) but now there are hardly enough of them to be counted in the census. That is Palestinian land and that should be the point of departure in every political discussion.
HC: In the past you urged Western countries to impose economic sanctions on the South African apartheid regime. Would you support a similar call for sanctions against the state of Israel?
AB: Absolutely! Pressure, pressure, pressure from every side and in as many ways as possible: trade sanctions, economic sanctions, financial sanctions, banking sanctions, sports sanctions, cultural sanctions; I'm talking from our own experience. In the beginning we had very broad sanctions and only late in the 1980s did we learn to have targeted sanctions. So you must look to see where the Israelis are most vulnerable; where is the strongest link to the outside community? And you must have strong international solidarity; that's the only way it will work. You have to remember that for years and years and years when we built up the sanctions campaign it was not with governments in the West. They came on board very, very late.
It was the Indian government and in Europe just Sweden and Denmark to begin with and that was it. Later on, by 1985-86, we could get American support. We never could get Margaret Thatcher on board, never Britain, never Germany, but in Germany the people who made a difference were the women who started boycotting South African goods in their supermarkets. That's how we built it up. Never despise the day of small beginnings. It was down to civil society. But civil society in the international community could only build up because there was such a strong voice from within and that is now the responsibility of the Palestinians, to keep up that voice and to be as strong and as clear as they possibly can. Think up the arguments, think through the logic of it all but don't forget the passion because this is for your country.
Click here to read the full South African Response to the Kairos Palestine document: