A few days ago I was contacted by an online radio station with an invitation to join a discussion about the war in Gaza. A presenter told me I would be joined on air by a Jewish person, and together we would be discussing what is happening in Gaza. It would not be a debate, I was hastily assured, but rather a discussion about how each of us views what is happening in Gaza and what we were taught about the greater conflict as children. And once we’d returned from memory lane, he predicted, we would hug and get along.
I am not at all opposed to hugging it out until we get along. It could be great fun. What bothered me was not the presenter’s absolute confidence that we could easily solve the Middle East conflict in 30 minutes on a couch in Sandton but his assumptions about me and my understanding of the war in Gaza.
While it does not help, it is a fact that the greater conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people is often reduced to a religious conflict. Yes, I concede, that at some level, my initial understanding of the conflict, certainly as a child, was framed in religious terms. But I’ve long since had ample opportunity to interrogate the world as it was presented to me in the schoolroom.
The assumption that a religious identity alone decides how one views the war in Gaza is puerile. The assumption that I, as a Muslim woman, should need to interrogate my attachment to Palestine is also racist. Could it be too difficult to accept that my position is based on anything else except a belief that every human being is entitled to live with dignity and in peace.
The radio station’s inability to delve beyond the misconception of Palestine-Israel as a religious war grated me, but I buried my annoyance beneath my headscarf and politely declined the invitation. I had another commitment.
I wondered afterward if I should have participated in the discussion (if it ever took place). And though I recommended other people who may have suited the programme, I still wondered if I had missed an opportunity to present “the other side”.
But then why did it require me to rush over to present “the other side”?
Let’s be clear: nearly 2,000 Palestinians have been killed by the assault of the Israeli army on Gaza; 80% of those killed are civilians, almost 400 of them are children and more than 200 are women.
But what has happened in Gaza is not a game. It may have been a war. It can be described as collective punishment. For some, it is Israel’s right to defend itself. For others the situation is only a manifestation of occupation.
Whatever you choose to call it, what has happened in Gaza is not a whimsical sport. Yes, there have been reports of Israelis “cheering, whooping and whistling” as bombs rain down on people in Gaza. There is also footage of Gazans cheering each time an Israeli soldier is reportedly captured.
But for us sitting on the sidelines, our place is to debate the ongoing crisis in a manner that is honest, authentic and fair – as part of a collective bid to end the bloodshed.
This is not meant to be entertainment. It also does not help to obscure the realities underpinning this conflict beneath the obfuscation of warring religions.
What about the hard realities that created this mess? What about the legacy of British colonialism, the reality of Israeli settler occupation and its policies of Palestinian dispossession and dehumanisation? What about the fact that Israel’s actions are possible only due to the unrelenting support of the United States?
Is it too boring, too serious, too real for us to discuss? It seems the preference is to throw a Jew and a Muslim into a ring and enjoy the show.
So no, I don’t regret turning down the invitation. I have no doubt that the presenter was well intentioned but his invitation was just one among many instances that I’ve noticed of a stubborn labelling of the war in Gaza as a battle between Jews and Muslims. And each time I’ve noticed it, it’s come from the same pocket of South African society.
You see, it’s one thing a privileged few in South Africa to lament the effect of religion in the war in Gaza. But it is quite another to completely disregard the greater context of what is happening there.
So I raise my fist in protest.
I have very little patience for those who trivialise the pain of others without ever moving out of the comfort of their own prejudice. And it’s not just Gaza. This condescension is pervasive – in the routine caricaturing of black leadership, in the attitudes towards black people who dare to strike for a living wage, in the manner in which the disenfranchised are ignored; how they are expected to rise despite the odds stacked against them for hundreds of years.
I refuse to play this game.
Editor’s Note: This column differs slightly from the version of the column that was submitted to EWN, as it has been edited for clarity and style.