A FEW years ago, I had what I thought, on balance, was a very good meeting over lunch with a representative of the Israeli government. She had been asked to sound me out about the possibility of visiting her country in my capacity as a “balanced” and “even-handed” political commentator and newspaper columnist.
While the allegation of even-handedness and balance may, to a lesser or greater extent, be grounded in truth, I would be highly disturbed if anyone accused me of being neutral.
It is because I am not neutral that I made it clear to the Israeli government representative that I have nothing against Jews and the idea of visiting Israel but would never visit her country as a guest of her government because I strongly believe that the policies of her government towards Palestinians are fundamentally unjust.
I must confess, though, that I have postponed writing this column on several occasions since the onset of the present conflict in Gaza. In fact, since I became a columnist for this newspaper, I have tried to avoid writing about the Israeli-Palestinian question and my success record in this regard is probably 100%.
Of this, I am deeply ashamed because it is not because of a sense of fairness, balance or even-handedness that I have avoided writing and commenting about the Palestinian question, but out of a lack of courage and because of a deep sense of fear that I chose the appearance of neutrality.
I was jolted out of my comfort zone of cowardice by the words of a small Palestinian girl who, while lying injured in hospital, asked with tears in her eyes why children had to die for something that had nothing to do with them.
What she meant, in my view, is that children must be allowed to be children.
Why do I lack the courage to speak out when I today write as a free man because others dared to speak out against the evil of apartheid, despite the fact that some of us committed the sin of violence to overthrow an oppressive regime?
My first encounter with antiSemitism was through Shylock in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
I was still in high school but, even then, Shylock seemed to be echoing my pain as a child growing up in apartheid SA. He, to me, was speaking on behalf of all people who are oppressed and discriminated against when he in effect asks whether Jews are not as human as other people.
I am still not sure whether Shakespeare gives a satisfactory answer to Shylock’s question. On the one hand, Shylock is a victim of antiSemitism but is, on the other, undermined because he lacks “the quality of mercy”, a quality in the play that seems to be more inherent to the “Gentile” than it is to the “Jew”.
Maybe a benign reading of the play must be framed in terms of the suggestion that the human condition is so complex that we must make room for the possibility that, because the oppressed do not learn much from their own oppression, they may become the oppressors of tomorrow.
This brings me to my fear.
I came to the conclusion, long ago, that the Israeli government lacks the quality of mercy and compassion.
At times I have wondered whether it is because of, or despite, the Holocaust that the Israeli government has such a low regard for Palestinian lives.
I have been afraid to say this openly because some among us are too quick to play the anti Semitic card dishonestly and as an attempt to turn critics of the Israeli government into victims of their emotional blackmail.
Our responsibility, especially those of us who were victims of apartheid, is to work towards a point when it will be possible to achieve peace as a result of the world succeeding in convincing both Jew and Palestinian to acknowledge the humanity of the other.
We are not going to achieve this by ignoring the suffering of the Palestinian people and the cruelty of the policies of the Israeli government.
A false sense of balance is not the answer.
• Matshiqi is an independent political analyst.
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