The only alternative

Edward Said

I first visited South Africa in May 1991: a dark, wet, wintry period, when

Apartheid still ruled, although the ANC and Nelson Mandela had been freed. Ten

years later I returned, this time to summer, in a democratic country in which

Apartheid has been defeated, the ANC is in power, and a vigorous, contentious

civil society is engaged in trying to complete the task of bringing equality and

social justice to this still divided and economically troubled country. But, the

liberation struggle that ended Apartheid and instituted the first democratically

elected government on 27 April 1994, remains one of the great human achievements

in recorded history. Despite the problems of the present, South Africa is an

inspiring place to visit and think about, partly because for Arabs, it has a lot

to teach us about struggle, originality, and perseverance.


came here this time as a participant in a conference on values in education,

organised by the Ministry of Education. Qader Asmal, the minister of education,

is an old and admired friend whom I met many years ago when he was in exile in

Ireland. I shall say more about him in my next article. But, as a member of the

cabinet, a longtime ANC activist, and a successful lawyer and academic, he was

able to persuade Nelson Mandela (now 83, in frail health, and officially retired

from public life) to address the conference on the first evening. What Mandela

said then made a deep impression on me, as much because of Mandela’s enormous

stature and profoundly affecting charisma, as for the well-crafted words he

uttered. Also a lawyer by training, Mandela is an especially eloquent man who,

in spite of thousands of ritual occasions and speeches, always seems to have

something gripping to say.


time it was two phrases about the past that struck me in a fine speech about

education, a speech which drew unflattering attention to the depressed present

state of the country’s majority, "languishing in abject conditions of

material and social deprivation." Hence, he reminded the audience,

"our struggle is not over," even though — here was the first phrase

— the campaign against Apartheid "was one of the great moral

struggles" that "captured the world’s imagination." The second

phrase was in his description of the anti-Apartheid campaign not simply as a

movement to end racial discrimination, but as a means "for all of us to

assert our common humanity." Implied in the words "all of us" is

that all of the races of South Africa, including the pro-Apartheid whites, were

envisaged as participating in a struggle whose goal finally was coexistence,

tolerance and "the realisation of humane values."


first phrase struck me cruelly: why did the Palestinian struggle not (yet)

capture the world’s imagination and why, even more to the point, does it not

appear as a great moral struggle which, as Mandela said about the South African

experience, received "almost universal support… from virtually all

political persuasions and parties?"


we have received a great deal of general support, and yes, ours is a moral

struggle of epic proportions. The conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian

people is admittedly more complex than the battle against Apartheid, even if in

both cases one people paid and the other is still paying a very heavy price in

dispossession, ethnic cleansing, military occupation and massive social

injustice. The Jews are a people with a tragic history of persecution and

genocide. Bound by their ancient faith to the land of Palestine, their

"return" to a homeland promised them by British imperialism was

perceived by much of the world (but especially by a Christian West responsible

for the worst excesses of anti-Semitism) as a heroic and justified restitution

for what they suffered. Yet, for years and years, few paid attention to the

conquest of Palestine by Jewish forces, or to the Arab people already there who

endured its exorbitant cost in the destruction of their society, the expulsion

of the majority, and the hideous system of laws — a virtual Apartheid — that

still discriminates against them inside Israel and in the occupied territories.

Palestinians were the silent victims of a gross injustice, quickly shuffled

offstage by a triumphalist chorus of how amazing Israel was.


the reemergence of a genuine Palestinian liberation movement in the late ’60s,

the formerly colonised people of Asia, Africa and Latin America adopted the

Palestinian struggle, but in the main, the strategic balance was vastly in

Israel’s favour; it has been backed unconditionally by the US ($5 billion in

annual aid), and in the West, the media, the liberal intelligentsia, and most

governments have been on Israel’s side. For reasons too well known to go into

here, the official Arab environment was either overtly hostile or lukewarm in

its mostly verbal and financial support.


however, the shifting strategic goals of the PLO were always clouded by useless

terrorist actions, were never addressed or articulated eloquently, and because

the preponderance of cultural discourse in the West was either unknown to or

misunderstood by Palestinian policymakers and intellectuals, we have never been

able to claim the moral high ground effectively. Israeli information could

always both appeal to (and exploit) the Holocaust as well as the unstudied and

politically untimely acts of Palestinian terror, thereby neutralising or

obscuring our message, such as it was. We never concentrated as a people on

cultural struggle in the West (which the ANC early on had realised was the key

to undermining Apartheid) and we simply did not highlight in a humane,

consistent way the immense depredations and discriminations directed at us by

Israel. Most television viewers today have no idea about Israel’s racist land

policies, or its spoliations, tortures, systematic deprivation of the

Palestinians just because they are not Jews. As a black South African reporter

wrote in one of the local newspapers here while on a visit to Gaza, Apartheid

was never as vicious and as inhumane as Zionism: ethnic cleansing, daily

humiliations, collective punishment on a vast scale, land appropriation, etc.,



even these facts, were they known better as a weapon in the battle over values

between Zionism and the Palestinians, would not have been enough. What we never

concentrated on enough was the fact that to counteract Zionist exclusivism, we

would have to provide a solution to the conflict that, in Mandela’s second

phrase, would assert our common humanity as Jews and Arabs. Most of us still

cannot accept the idea that Israeli Jews are here to stay, that they will not go

away, any more than Palestinians will go away. This is understandably very hard

for Palestinians to accept, since they are still in the process of losing their

land and being persecuted on a daily basis. But, with our irresponsible and

unreflective suggestion in what we have said that they will be forced to leave

(like the Crusades), we did not focus enough on ending the military occupation

as a moral imperative or on providing a form for their security and

self-determinism that did not abrogate ours. This, and not the preposterous hope

that a volatile American president would give us a state, ought to have been the

basis of a mass campaign everywhere. Two people in one land. Or, equality for

all. Or, one person one vote. Or, a common humanity asserted in a binational



know we are the victims of a terrible conquest, a vicious military occupation, a

Zionist lobby that has consistently lied in order to turn us either into

non-people or into terrorists — but what is the real alternative to what I’ve

been suggesting? A military campaign? A dream. More Oslo negotiations? Clearly

not. More loss of life by our valiant young people, whose leader gives them no

help or direction? A pity, but no. Reliance on the Arab states who have reneged

even on their promise to provide emergency assistance now? Come on, be serious.


Jews and Palestinian Arabs are locked in Sartre’s vision of hell, that of

"other people." There is no escape. Separation can’t work in so tiny a

land, any more than Apartheid did. Israeli military and economic power insulates

them from having to face reality. This is the meaning of Sharon’s election, an

antediluvian war criminal summoned out of the mists of time to do what: put the

Arabs in their place? Hopeless. Therefore, it is up to us to provide the answer

that power and paranoia cannot. It isn’t enough to speak generally of peace. One

must provide the concrete grounds for it, and those can only come from moral

vision, and neither from "pragmatism" nor "practicality." If

we are all to live — this is our imperative — we must capture the imagination

not just of our people, but that of our oppressors. And, we have to abide by

humane democratic values.


the current Palestinian leadership listening? Can it suggest anything better

than this, given its abysmal record in a "peace process" that has led

to the present horrors?


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