By Jesse S. Wheeler
On 7 December 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry eulogized South African President Nelson Mandela with the following words:
“My friends, as everyone here knows, the world is mourning the loss of a great leader right now, Nelson Mandela. Mandela was a stranger to hate. He rejected recrimination in favor of reconciliation, and he knew the future demands that we move beyond the past. Just think of the lessons that he taught the world, which have special significance at this moment in history: He said, ‘It always seems impossible until it is done.’”
Such words are a fitting tribute to the South African freedom-fighter turned president-peacemaker after a life devoted to the pursuit of restorative justice and the deconstruction of racist policies and supremacist dogma.
What I find most remarkable about Kerry’s speech, however, is the fact that the above homage was delivered just moments after the delivery of what might have been the most biased, discriminatory and altogether racist invective against the Palestinian people ever spoken by an American of such rank and standing.
According to Allison Deger, assistant editor for online news/editorial website Mondoweiss,
“In his harshest description to date of Palestinian ethnicity, Sec. Kerry [described] Palestinian citizens of Israel as a ‘demographic time bomb’ that threaten Israel’s ‘future as a democratic, Jewish state,’ adding ‘that today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s or the future’s.’ He went on to support separating the two populations, and demanding the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state a condition that is ‘the only way’ to achieve peace.”
Within what might actually be the same breath, Sec. Kerry simultaneously:
- Praises the man largely credited with the dismantling of South African apartheid (literally “apartness” in Afrikaans), a man in/famous for once declaring that “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
- Calls for the complete segregation of Jewish and Arab populations [never mind the 1.5 million Arab citizens of Israel and 4.5 million living in the Palestinian territories] and laments the birth of “too many brown babies.”
Last I checked, people referred to this as ethnic cleansing.
I wonder, however, if Kerry is unaware of the magnitude of his words, or as to how they might be understood from the perspective of a Palestinian/Arab-Israeli (…or even the father of a Palestinian-American!) Racists aren’t typically aware of their racism until it is pointed out.
So, as a Californian, I find the following thought experiment illustrative. Simply imagine if Kerry had said:
“Mexicans/Mexican-Americans are a demographic time-bomb which threaten America as a democratic, Caucasian state. Mexicans must recognize the white Anglo-Saxon nature of America and we must separate the populations.”
I don’t imagine such comments would go over very well, precisely because such comments represent racism at its most vile.
Without an ounce of critical self-awareness, or perhaps a heavy dose of cynicism, Secretary Kerry essentially called for the next stage in Israel’s long standing “separateness” policies between Israelis and Arabs – the complete eradication of the Arab presence in Israel proper.
In Kerry’s defense, he does site the importance of developing and strengthening Palestinian institutions capable of adequately governing the Palestinians.
“Separate but equal” I guess – though I feel as if I’ve seen this before.
The Final Solution
Lest I am guilty of reading too much into Kerry’s words, I want to point out that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman happened to precede Kerry at the same event. Deger encapsulates the substance of Lieberman’s speech below:
“While once associated with draconian loyalty oaths and explicitly calling for the ethnic cleaning of Palestinian citizens of Israel, at the Saban Forum [Lieberman] reaffirmed his most controversial positions, albeit in a lighter tone.
“‘Not transfer, but exchange,’ said Lieberman. He continued that he hoped to secure the ‘exchange of lands and peoples,’ a euphemism for stripping the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel of their passport and re-designating them as residents of the West Bank.
“Even though Lieberman was amongst a crowd of Washington and Israeli officials familiar with his anti-Arab diatribes, audible gasps could be heard throughout the room when he called to expel Palestinian citizens of Israel. A diplomat from the Russian embassy seated next to me even choked.”
With the Prawer plan set to expel Palestinian Bedouin from their ancestral homelands in the Negev, and the recent announcement of plans to “adjust for demographic imbalances” in Galilee, one gets the sense that Lieberman’s comments are rather close to reality.
And, given the rapid pace at which home demolitions and settlement construction has been expanding in the West Bank, I imagine it’s only a matter of time before these same voices start calling for “the need to purify ALL of ‘Judea and Samaria’ of its non-Jewish-Israeli presence.”
I guess that’s what they say Jordan is for after all.
Hope and Hopelessness
When confronted with such hurtful words, I am often hopeless that we will ever outgrow our human tendency to divide, conquer, cleanse, colonize and exploit. Yet, I do find hope in historic examples like the collapse of South-African Apartheid and remind myself that when enough people of good faith and conscience stand up for what they know to be right, things can and do change.
Although I am a Christian reflecting upon a conflict between persons of mostly Jewish and Muslim backgrounds (though Christians have been in the thick of it since the beginning) I take personal comfort in the words of Paul and the belief that things will not always be as they are:
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2: 13-18 NIV).
Jesse S. Wheeler, in addition to being IMES Projects Manager, is the husband and father of two remarkable Palestinian Americans.