BDS, War, the Abolition of the Right to Dissent and Freedom from Religion


RESISTANCE to war has a long and noble history. From pacifists during the Anglo-Boer War, objectors to WW1 and WW2, conscripts against the Vietnam War and South Africa’s own Border War, the names and faces of those who have chosen the difficult path of combating militarism and state-sponsored aggression, number in their thousands.

When dissent is quashed by political expediency the nuances and cadence of individual struggle against war is lost. The evolution of the ‘just-war thesis’ and ‘holy war’ by either side to the conflict in the Middle East provides a case in point, as does resistance to the promotion of war as a solution.

During 1987, ANC stalwart, then SRC president Cameron Dugmore, stood on a podium alongside 23 white conscripts from UCT opposed to military conscription during apartheid. The initial group of conscientious objectors, included Christian pacifists as well as then president of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), Jonathan Handler. Signicantly Handler opposed the Border War on the basis of a defense of Israel.

The result was that I relinquished my membership of SAUJS. At the time, Israel was involved in a war with Lebanon, which in many respects was reminiscent of our own border war. It is a position which I have since regretted, (see below). Instead of joining Handler in his “just war thesis”, which was little more than a promotion of Zionism, and thus a moral justification for his later joining the Israeli Defense Force, and with Dugmore rubber-stamping Handler’s participation, I took the difficult path of involvement in South Africa’s armed struggle, crossing the colour line and embracing the culture of resistance and rebellion.

The creation of the environmental justice movement in the aftermath of the banning of the ECC, and my work for Grassroots, South Press, Sached/New Nation form a body of work and deserve a chapter on their own. However the lesson drawn from this experience is that the Middle East problem is not as easily reducible to a binary struggle between black and white, right and wrong. Providing a rubber stamp to either of the parties to the conflict, in my case, my open support for the Palestinians, has resulted in the dilemma of today.

Faced with a difficult and unenviable predicament, I chose a very different approach, that of civil disobedience. Lodging a public objection to Handler’s participation on the platform and Dugmore’s acquiescence, (and without access to all the facts) would have merely playing into the hands of the Botha government and its securocrats. It also risked an embarrassing side-show, in a vulnerable moment. Nevertheless we exchanged words during the media briefing session. For Michael Rautenbach, this was sign that I was ‘simply not ready for the big time’.

Not only was the SAUJS involvement untenable, but as a 19-year-old enrolled in law-school, the problem did not lead itself to any immediate legal answers, save for hoping that it would all somehow pan out and that history would be the better judge. An outright objection against the “just war thesis” and the use of ‘holy war’ instead of simple resistance, would also have required a Phd essay written with all the gusto necessary to balance the complexity of the struggle itself, solidarity amongst comrades, campus spies, security police paranoia, my call-up papers and the lack of engagement by ECC leadership.

With no support for my nascent position from either SAUJS nor ECC’s Dugmore and the merry bunch of Christian fanatics who were assured of a place in heaven with emotional guidance from the Church, and with Atheists then in the minority within the ECC itself, I took my struggle against the system and my membership card elsewhere. Burning my call-up papers, I declined to participate, and instead sent the state ‘a postcard from exile’. My arrival at an outright rejection of war was much later than anticipated, and only after an encounter with the international peace movement following the democratic elections.

It is a period which has come to haunt me in recent years, the difficulties following the banning of the ECC and SWAPO solidarity committee, not because I have been cross-examined by a racist bigot acting for a racist company, in an unfair legal proceeding without the aid of an attorney, on my involvement in some of the details — This whilst also being subjected to a religious inquisition of my secular identity. But because the paranoia surrounding BDS in its current form, and its supporters from the far-right in Fatah and Hamas, combined with Zionist intransigence and lack of public debate, have all moved to close down what little dissent and individual freedom remains.

There are many robust claims made by either parties to the conflict in the Middle East. The result though is invariably the same —  the silencing of individual right to dissent, the removal of civil liberties, the abolition of the right to freedom from religion, the right to not be constrained by the religious views of others, the very essence of freedom of religion. Theist, Non-Theist, Atheist. For my part, the conflict is one of injustice vs injustice, a terrible ‘battle between monsters and maniacs’, whether blood on the streets of Tel Aviv, Ramallah, or Gaza, and neighbouring Syria, while the public all too readily reach out for religious texts, as easily as weapons of war.

South Africa for all intents and purposes is a secular country. We pride ourselves in our Constitution which ostensibly guarantees religious and cultural rights, and we like to think we are an exception and there is somehow continuity with our secular struggle and the struggle for human rights in the Middle East. This remains to be seen.

To date there has been no proof that we are special, except propaganda and lies. The short-circuiting of debate. The sheer religiosity of those involved. The astonishing willingness to resort to bloodshed. It is time to face up to facts and to stop the rubber-stamping and handing out of blank cheques to activists on either side, preaching the exact opposite of truth. There is another path, another way out of the conflict, besides advocacy of hatred, bloodshed and eternal war.

The very essence of secularism, according to George Holyoake, the man who coined the term, is not the absence of religion, but rather the absence of religious rules. “A Secularist guides himself by maxims of Positivism, seeking to discern what is in Nature—what ought to be in morals—selecting the affirmative in exposition, concerning himself with the real, the right, and the constructive. Positive principles are principles which are provable.”

Secularism is firmly based upon enlightenment values, the right not to be subjected to religious persecution by the state nor any religious authority or otherwise. Secular values are the ‘We, the People’ values enshrined by our Constitution which are remarkable absent when it comes to the Middle East. To date there is no Freedom Charter for Palestinians and Israelis.

If South Africans are to contribute to justice and a peaceful solution, it must be because we are also willing to defend our constitution, our own history of secularism and opposition to war in all its forms, our nation’s own war resisters over the ages, and thus our nation’s core values in the non-aligned movement.

Unlike many politico’s, we must urge seekers of peace, to do this with the courage to avoid rubber-stamping the “just war thesis” and ‘religious war’ come what may, and whatever the consequences. To avoid providing wholesale support for any of the belligerent parties to the conflict over the final status of Jerusalem, whatever the ends and means, and no matter the outcome, and without at very least, measuring the results against our own conscience, free-will and opinion.

[Note: John Stremlau believes South Africa has a vital role to play. It certainly doesn’t if its media is closing down debate and opinion within our own borders]

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