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The Gift of the Other

Why I Do Not Want to Leave Palestine/Israel

by LYNDA BURSTEIN BRAYER

It is not by accident that I have been asked on several occasions, and not least by members of my own family, why I remain in the Jewish state of Israel. I am an implacable anti-Zionist and have left the Jewish religion formally, becoming a possible “meshumedet” or “one who is obliterated” according to Judaism! The question also arises because I was not born in Palestine or in the Jewish state of Israel but came to Israel on aliyah according to the Israeli Law of Return, legislated in 1950. I thereby fulfilled the Zionist dream of returning to the moledet or “land of my birth” [sic], a place I had never been prior to my “homecoming” at age 19! On the contrary, I had come into this world in 1945 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Recognizing, therefore, that I have no rights in Palestine, and being of the opinion that the Jewish State of Israel is an illegitimate creation of the Western powers, sprung, as it were, from their colonialist loins, the question of why I stay is not out of place. It is clear that given my political understanding I cannot support a two-state solution because that automatically presupposes a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. This political solution, so–called, has become a meaningless mantra, because the possibility of its realization has already been pre-empted by the transfer of hundreds of thousands of Jewish citizens into that part of Palestine conquered in 1967, the uprooting of whom will require a full-scale war. The one-state solution seems to offer a more reasonable program, as long as it is fully democratic and takes into consideration the Palestinian refugee problem as well as the question of reparations to Palestinians. However, given the present capitalist and Zionist dispensation, such a solution seems more like pie in the sky!

So why am I here? As a person born into both South African apartheid and its Jewish community, I grew up perforce within exclusionary communities, communities based on the principle and practice of separation/segregation and discrimination. This principle found expression in two major divisions: the racial White-Black divide and in the Jewish-Gentile divide. In South Africa the only contact between Blacks and Whites was through the master-servant relationship, and the contact with the Gentile was from a position of arrogance and a sense of superiority – an outcome no doubt stemming from the inbred notion of being the “chosen people”.

Although I was not aware of it at the time of my aliya, I was to discover over time that same principle and practice of separation/segregation and discrimination in Israel/Palestine, and that the only official relationship that exists between Jew and Palestinian is that of conqueror-conquered. There is no recognition in law nor in practice of the equal humanity of the Palestinian, whether he or she lives inside the boundaries of the Jewish state or in occupied Palestine, although In Israel some medical and social services tend to be more universal and fair in their provision. Both regimes incarnate a rejection of the notion that we are all “children of God,” or to put it in secular terms, that the human species is one human family. In my experience in both South Africa and Israel, the relationship of the power group towards the Other was, and is, that of a person towards a thing, and not a relationship between persons.

It was in Palestine that the horror of this reality came home to me. And it came home to me by my humanity being recognized as unconditional and absolute by those whose humanity “my people” continue to deny. It has been here in Palestine where I was given that which I had never had – an appreciation of my own and the Other’s humanity. It began with my breaking through the carapace of Zionist propaganda in 1987 after the outbreak of the first intifada – or resistance struggle. I finally understood that Palestine had literally been stolen from its indigenous Arab Palestinian population, most of whom had been forced to leave when the Jewish state was established on Palestinian territory. Given this new understanding, it began to appear obscene to me to continue a blind bourgeois existence of self-gratification and enrichment in these now-known circumstances. I chose, therefore, to leave my private law practice in order to work as a human rights lawyer representing Palestinians in Israeli courts. While I thought that I was being magnanimous by providing my professional services pro bono as a lawyer through the framework of a subsidized NGO, I discovered that the main beneficiary of this relationship was myself as a person, having nothing to do with my professional capacity or otherwise. Over time it occurred to me that what I was offering was only technical aid: my clients, their families and their community, on the other hand, were offering me my humanity. They showed me what it was to be human: they showed me that the categories of Jew, Israeli, and enemy were artificial notions of human manufacture which did not constitute my essence. It was they who constantly used the term “human” (insan in Arabic) to describe themselves and me as a “we” and an “us” whilst their warmth, openness and acceptance of me bore the living and material testament to their words. It would only be much later that I would learn that they embodied basic Muslim belief and practice deriving from the fact that Islam saw itself not as a new religion, but rather the revival of a pure monotheism indebted to both Judaism and Christianity for paving its way. For this reason there is a complete lack of arrogance towards the adherents of either of these faiths. And it is in this spirit that Muslims insist on the non-identity of Zionism, a political ideology, with Judaism, the religion.

It was also through my contact with Palestinians that I was able to really understand the law, and to appreciate what is mean by a sha’ariyyah – the law as a way or path of truth and reality. Judaism defines its religious law as a “way”– halacha – but it confines and limits its concerns to Jews. In Islam, the sha’ariyyah is the expression of the sirata mustaqim – the straight path, the path of Allah, the path therefore of both justice and mercy, the universal law. Ironically, or maybe not, my work exposed me to the nefariousness of the limited Jewish approach to life, politics and social relationships which excludes the gentile from the concept of neighbor, excluding thereby, automatically, the Palestinian as neighbor. It is this exclusion which then enables Jewish theft of Palestinian land, “legal” or otherwise, actions which the ordinary person, no matter his religion or nationality, and without the sophistication of Talmudic pilpul, would consider violations of the ninth and tenth commandments. These appear as part of the Ten Commandments, considered constitutive of the monotheistic religions, in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy which are binding upon Jews according to Jewish law. (Not the entire Bible is binding in Judaism.) These commandments prohibit the bearing of false witness against one’s neighbor and the coveting of the neighbor’s house and anything that belongs to the neighbor. The bringing of false witness against Palestinians is therefore enabled by their not being neighbors, and this mendacity is used to deprive them of what are rightfully and legitimately theirs: their homes and their property. In the larger political arena, but from identical motivation, Zionism denies to Palestinians the rights of the ius soli and ius sanguinis – that is the right to citizenship and residence in the place one they have been born or where one’s parents were born. This is the logical outcome of the Zionist denial of the Palestinian political right of self-determination.

The dignity of my clients, the insistence on our common humanity, and their hospitality opened up for me a unified world beyond both the Jewish/Zionist and the White/Black ghettos. Syed Muhammed Naquib el-Attas, in his brilliant essay Islam and Secularism, pinpoints the loss of the understanding of a common humanity in the West to its loss of the sense and understanding of what is meant by the term God (in English a term that is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon term meaning good). It had been believed that all of Reality could be encompassed in human language, which is to say that our rational minds are capable of grasping and understanding all of Reality. This approach reduces all knowledge and experience only to that which the rational mind can describe, often referred to as sensory knowledge. When it was discovered that there was no necessary connection between language and existence, and that language could express ideas about entities that did not exist (the unicorn, for instance) the conclusion drawn was that one could not rely upon language as an infallible indicator of reality and existence. Thus the nexus of epistemology (knowledge) and ontology (existence) was broken and as a result, the West lost both the essential insight of all orthodox religions and what it calls “faith.”

This insight is constantly being discovered and rediscovered, but it has been only the religious geniuses who have been able to express its nature adequately, given the difficulty that its nature is beyond human verbal description. These religious geniuses include, but is not restricted to, the compilers of the Vedanta, the Buddha, the Yahwists, Jesus, and the prophet Muhammad. This insight is that there is an Ultimate Reality beyond existence, beyond being and beyond not-being. It is a Reality that is beyond the comprehension of the rational mind and its handmaiden, language. However, in order for this Reality to be experienced and for this experience to become known, the rational mind must be suppressed initially.

Furthermore, it is only this experience of Reality which reveals the Unity of the world, its nature as a cosmos and not a chaos, a universe of inherent order, of inherent law, of inherent morality, in which all is inter-related and inter-dependent with relationship being the key to its nature. It is not for nothing that this experience is called Revelation, because it must be revealed as it cannot be known directly through the mind. Prayer, silence, and meditation are the means of access but they take time, practice and patience. What gradually becomes clear through these praxes, either suddenly (as per the Zen Buddhists) or gradually, is that the source and sustenance of life is outside of us, and that the material world and our conceptual frameworks do not indicate the limits of Reality. Ultimate Reality is Beyond, to use a metaphor, and it is termed God, Yahweh – I am who I am – Allah, and the Enlightenment or boddhi of both Hindus and Buddhists, Jains and others.

The loss of this understanding in the West occurred, in my humble opinion, because the Western understanding of religion did not and does not include, as a necessary and indispensable component of religion, this mystical experience, or the experience of God. This understanding or approach also appears to be lacking completely in Judaism the monotheism of which also appears to be quantitative rather than qualitative. In Western Christianity, mysticism was almost completely marginalized in Roman Catholicism (for reasons of church structure, I believe) and simply not recognized or acknowledged in mainstream Protestantism, the latter partaking of a Jewish literal religiosity. Eastern Christianity, Orthodoxy, retains this understanding and calls the experience theosis or union with God and it describes the nature of God as apophatic, ie the only approach to God is through negation, although such understanding and praxis is confined mainly to the monasteries. In Islam it flowers in Sufism and finds its expression in fan’a, the annihilation of the Self in the Godhead, which is the experience of union. This experience of union is central to the Asian religions.

As a result of this intellectual breakdown, this inability to re-connect to the ultimate source of our being, Reality/God/Allah (the etymology of the term religion is re-ligato, re-tie, rejoin), the best that the West could offer the rational mind was Pascal’s Wager, a roll of the dice leading to an irretrievable loss of its moral compass because it has neither the understanding nor the means for its recovery. The outcome has been that the wholeness and oneness of society has been fractured, giving rise to an individualism the social expression of which is found in conflicts of interests and power struggles. It is perhaps no accident then, that capitalism is the economic, philosophical, political and social framework in which these conflicts, euphemistically termed competition, are encouraged and flourish, its hallmarks of achievements being wealth and pleasure. Dualism is its over-riding and determining quality, which by its nature, cannot be moral, because its praxis is confrontation and not co-operation. Its social characteristic, au fond, is the friend-enemy confrontation, well described by the constitutional jurist Carl Schmitt, and further developed politically within the framework of the nation-state. Not unexpectedly, this outlook expresses itself in unending intra- and extra-mural wars. This duality is the opposite of the real monotheistic revelation, and unfortunately has severely contaminated Christianity.

Zionism is both a product and expression of this Western outlook. The imported foreign Jewish population in Palestine, called the State of Israel, is based on continuing dispossession, expropriation and expulsion, and thus is, and will remain, confrontational and the enemy. In their resistance to the Jewish state, Muslims and their religion Islam, are taken to be the enemy, not only because it is the binding force of those populations whose resources are coveted by the West, but also because its values and understandings are in diametrical opposition to Western values and understandings. These are the values and understandings of a pure monotheism: union, unicity, integration, universality and therefore uncompromising morality which does distinguish between right and wrong behavior and between just war and murder and massacres! It does not distinguish according to persons: their race, color, religion, or origin.

I have gradually come to see how the Zionist Jews themselves are victims of their own propaganda as well the victims of the lack of a moral core at the center of their religious and politico/ideological systems. Now I can accept my Jewish friends and family and all Israelis without judgment. My initial anger and, yes, let me admit to it, hatred of Israel has worn off and has given way to what I hope, is compassion. I understand that nearly every single Jewish Israeli is a victim of Zionist ideology which is essentially a groundless concoction of assertions and claims, dualistic in nature and therefore a rejection of the One God, Yahweh. It is an opportunistic politico-economic tool, through which millions of lives have been harmed and destroyed, the vast majority of whom are Palestinians, but some of whom are Jews. At the same time, it is in this Zionist state that my closest family lives, while I myself enjoy paid-up medical care benefits and a pension, the latter of which cannot be received abroad according to Israeli law.

Despite the almost complete segregation of communities in Israel, I have found a corner in Haifa where cosmopolitanism, an unintended gift of Israel, reigns. My neighbors are Russian Jews, Russian Christians, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and a Jewish Moroccan. Could this serve as a beacon for the future? When the Jewish state becomes no longer sustainable, the Palestinians will be faced with the question as to how to treat Jews who do wish to make common cause with them in Palestine, without Jewish privileges and in a collaborative national effort of reparations for those who lost everything over the years. It is not for me to decide.

Lynda Burstein Brayer was trained as a lawyer at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law and practiced as a human rights lawyer. She can be reached at jamillainbari@yahoo.com