- As partners of the Kairos Britain initiative, we wanted to highlight this years’ World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel (18th – 24th September 2016) by encouraging our members in Christian faith communities to share their experiences with you. Brian Brown was South Africa’s first banned churchperson who came to England as a refugee from apartheid South Africa in 1978. Here he reflects on what he learned about the South African struggle to end Apartheid that made him want to be part of Kairos Britain…
On a recent Sunday in the Westville Methodist Church, South Africa (SA), I somewhat belatedly thanked the congregation for a remarkable act of solidarity they (or their parents!) had expressed 39 years previously. A restrictive ‘banning’ order imposed by the apartheid regime in 1977 meant that I could not proceed to minister to this congregation as planned. In response, 66 members signed a petition protesting an injustice that gravely limited my freedom and violated the rule of law.
The regime’s pretext was that I was a Communist in priestly garb, promoting terrorist activity. The reality was that I had dared to call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a non-violent contribution to the ending of apartheid’s institutional racism.
The Methodists of Westville displayed significant courage in choosing to disregard the propaganda of the oppressor and opted to share in an identification with the oppressed. They saw the oppressed as the most reliable in declaring the nature of oppression.
Looking back some 39 years later it’s apparent how BDS was a significant non-violent contributor to the ending of the institutional violence of apartheid. No longer would one tribal group dispossess another of land, of citizenship and of basic human rights.
The many similarities between the oppressive policies of South Africa’s apartheid era and the policies of Israel’s colonisation and occupation of Palestine today are increasingly apparent. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine far surpasses, in its intensity and violence, anything seen under apartheid. Given these shared heritages of dispossession I suggest that an equivalent response of BDS against the Israeli state is long overdue.
Those of us who called in 1977 for BDS – ‘an investment in South Africa is an investment in apartheid‘ – were often called anti-white or self-loathing whites. Yet when sharing with the Westville congregation in recent days it was self-evident that this estimate no longer prevails. Rather, the BDS call against apartheid SA is now seen as a means of promoting a transformation that assisted a non-racial and relatively just society to emerge.
Similarly, far from BDS against Israel being anti-Semitic, the intention is for national boundaries to emerge in which Israelis and Palestinians co-exist in peace based on justice and international law. The ‘self-loathing’ Jews I know and who share this vision are the true patriots.
Writing this in SA encourages me to reflect on why the local churches far more readily embrace the call for BDS against Israel than their reluctant British counterparts. The numerically dominant black constituency know that BDS contributed to their liberation; they honour the solidarity of those who declared their colonisation and who sought to prayerfully do something about it; they reject the mythology that sought to demonise BDS as hateful; they did not ‘suffer the most’ under BDS, as was suggested, and such suffering as occurred was seen to be purposeful; they rejected the belief that God had Covenanted with the Boers/Afrikaners to defeat them militarily and perpetuate their dispossession; they recall the similarities of their experience of ethnic cleansing and that of Palestinians whose country is being ‘disappeared’ today; just as they condemned ‘the system’ for perpetrating apartheid, and resisted any anti-white hatefulness, so they condemn the policies of Zionism that implement Greater Israel while they resist hating the perpetrators; they discern the similarities in Western policies that are more concerned with strategic alliances than with achieving justice and freedom for the oppressed; they know what it’s like being denied statehood and citizenship over many generations and empathise with Palestinians still experiencing their former plight; and they do not carry the legacy of shame and silence when recalling the horrors of the Holocaust – they too have suffered, albeit differently, from Europe’s racism.
So it’s no wonder that South Africa’s black-led churches have a more profound analytical and activist understanding of what constitutes solidarity than do most British churches. Whereas in Britain the obsession is with the ‘balance’ that breeds neutrality towards the dispossession of Palestinians, in SA churches, the commitment is to truth and liberation rather than so-called balance. SA Christians can call for BDS while being both friends of Jews and Judaism and foes of Zionist imperialism.
– Please sign the petition here to stop the illegal demolition of Palestinian homes and property.