There is a temptation when meeting with big words and concepts. It is easy to think that you have it all in your hand and you can define it all in one go. You might even feel entitled to pontificate and essentialize, presenting concepts as if they had an innate existence or universal validity rather than being the result of a social, ideological, or intellectual construct. Essentializing opens up for stereotyping and conclusions that categories of people, women and men, members of ethnic groups, have intrinsically different and characteristic natures or dispositions.
Analogies may lay waste to nuance and eclipse context. This applies also to the terms Apartheid, Zionism and the United States – all of which have more than one meaning. “Human beings are discourse”, said Rumi. The meaning is not once given; it arises through discourse. For this reason, in this very webinar, and as always, we must know ourselves before we claim to know “the other”. Invited here are the “elites in the field of human rights and peace activists.” In the midst of the expertise here convened, do we still retain enough space to look back in our own mirrors, to see our own context?
Each of the concepts “Apartheid, Zionism and the United States” has a story and a background.
Not even apartheid began fully set up with racist laws or as a system of institutionalized racial segregation, where people were forced into distinct neighborhoods. Before reaching this perverse state, apartheid began as a fear of losing identity, of not being able to hold together as a community.
Not even Zionism began as a system of protracted occupation of the Palestinian people. Zionism began long before the apparition of the term, enshrined in the idea of people, for centuries subjugated, holding on to a vision of return, to safety and their origin. Long before Zionism, the prayer was the same: “Next year in Jerusalem”.
One cannot talk about the United States without remembering the backgrounds of those who came to Ellis Island, and elsewhere, to escape poverty, denigration, persecution. Recall the words of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
One can understand, perhaps even sympathize, with the longings of a downtrodden people. One can recognize their need to imagine another world. Big ideas are fostered in such circumstances to sustain throughout the hardships of life, to promise something better, and build a new paradise. But 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'. From one’s own vantage point, the cause is just, necessary, and urgent, yet no cause is an island, no people progresses away from “the other.”
This webinar has three concepts that began as responses to difficulties endured and promised a new haven. But this is not how apartheid or Zionism, or the United States are seen or interpreted today. Something changed. Apartheid became a system of segregation on the grounds of race, overseen by an authoritarian political culture based on white supremacy. Zionism is viewed by its critics as a colonialist and/or racist ideology that has forced the exodus of Palestinians, and the ensuing denial of their right to return. The United States, no longer defined by its myth and promise, is today viewed through the prism of genocide, racism, militarism, and brutality. In each case, the undoing lies in the encounter, on the one hand, of exceptionalism, and – on the other – of power.
A narrative may be one of claiming to be chosen as a light to the nations, the light on the hill, which may be a comfort to a people and victim of history, a defeated people. Your story may be suited for raising your spirits but may not be useful for the one who is not you. If you think you are a light to the nations, what and where are the nations? A narrative devised for a people needing comfort is not the same story in situations and contexts of power. When you have power, you can begin to dictate the conditions of the other. Comfort and hope collapse, when exceptionalism is made into universal truth. Once we accept the rule by force over another people, once we accept the apparatus of oppression, all other values fall by the wayside. It doesn't matter in the least what you may have suffered in the past by others.
In our time, exceptionalism has no place, but cultural homogenization is also not its antidote. Our time needs to contribute myths that are self-critical, embracing difference and living together.