08/12/2017 06:31 SAST | Updated 08/12/2017 06:31 SAST

Is Israel Really The Big Schoolyard Bully?

After learning more about Judaism and contemplating conversion, I realised the Israel-Palestine conflict is not as cut-and-dried as I used to think.

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City, on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount. December 6, 2017.
Ammar Awad / Reuters
An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City, on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount. December 6, 2017.

I decided to convert to Judaism eight years ago, although I eventually changed my mind. I had been aware of Judaism as a religion, but had never taken the time to delve into what being a Jew, or a black Jew for that matter, would mean to me. I had this burning desire to gather as much as information as I could about Judaism and understand its finer tenets –– I really did.

So I read up on Judaism whenever I had a moment to spare. And I found one rabbi in Johannesburg who seemingly understood my position. I had a couple of great discussions with him. My conversion would be a big step in life for my family and I; so I stayed silent about it, as I grappled with a potentially life-changing decision.

But one day, as a friend of mine and I drove around Johannesburg, I told him that I was thinking of becoming a Jew. His reaction to my revelation was rather low-key, yet positive. He wanted to know why I had chosen this path. And I explained that I found the principals of Judaism likeable; I felt Judaism could complete me and offer me more than Christianity.

My interest in Judaism proved to be a blessing in disguise: I began to acquire a rich appreciation of Jewish history and Israel. I had always been conscious of how Adolf Hitler and Franco Mussolini instigated the genocide of Jews in Europe. I had watched a ton of films about World War 2, like The Sound Of Music, which happens to be one of my favourite movies of all time. But I had not delved into Jewish history as much as I could have –– until then, of course.

Being black and African, for me the storyline about Jews was (and probably remains) well defined: Jews are rich and unscrupulous outsiders. Once or twice, I can't remember for sure, we played football against Sharon, a Jewish primary school. Jews had their own social clubs, associations and schools. So the gulf between them and us could not be any clearer for all to see.

The struggles of Yasser Arafat were well known in Africa. Alongside African struggle heroes, the late leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who died in 2004, found a special place in the hearts and minds of black Africans as far back as I can remember.

Although we black Africans never really knew where the Middle East region was located –– and would have struggled to place the West Bank or Gaza on a map of the world –– we grew to understand the struggle of the Palestinian people: They had no place to call home. They lived in exile. They had to stay in places like Jordan and Egypt. Jews, who had stolen their land, repressed them. So strong bonds between African liberation movements and Palestinians took root in the 1970s and 1980s.

The legend of Arafat grew in leaps and bounds. Unlike Nelson Mandela, who could not give interviews, Arafat would appear on television talking about the struggles of his people. He appeared to be a head of state without a land to govern.

We never really questioned the black-and-white liberal narrative of Palestine versus Israel. His struggle was our struggle. All we knew was that Israel was built on Palestinian land. Period.

Whenever a debate on the legitimacy of Israel as a Middle Eastern nation arose, many questioned why Jews, who were brutally subjugated and deported mainly from Europe, did not build a state in Europe.

Our collective sympathy lay with the Palestinian cause, no doubt, and Israel evolved into the big schoolyard bully in our African eyes.

But when a group of colleagues who were studying Divinity as a subject at high school spent a week or two visiting Israel, their trip lifted the veil of mystery surrounding the country. My friends had a great time there. They told us about ancient holy sites one can see in Israel, and extolled the spirituality of this small Middle Eastern nation. Whatever ill-conceived ideas we had harboured about the Jewish state proved to be sorely unfounded and far-fetched.

I was enthralled; I felt I had missed out on so much. My impressions of Israel changed from there on; I began to empathise with the plight of the Jewish nation. I was black and African, but I felt a strong affinity to Judaism growing inside me.

I began to understand a few awkward truths about Israel. Like being Israeli and Jewish are not synonymous. I discovered there are black Jews in America and Ethiopia. I read articles on conversions, "making Aliyah" (Jewish migration to Israel), Orthodox Jews, and Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.

I read about liberal-minded Jews in America who oppose Israeli government policies on Palestinians, and Israelis who do not support new settlements in Jerusalem. I found literature on the so-called Jewish lobby in the USA thought provoking. "Are Jewish people that powerful?" I would ask myself from time to time.

I watched movies about Mossad; like Munich. I read about the birth of Israel in greater detail –– the Six-Day War, and Operation Entebbe in Uganda. I also read about Hamas, especially its origins, and closely followed its rivalry with the PLO. And I came to the conclusion that both Israel and Palestine should coexist side by side.

But I believe Israel is fast losing its legitimacy here. Allegations of institutionalised racism against Ethiopian-Israelis do not help matters. Images of Palestinian houses being demolished in East Jerusalem strengthen the David-versus-Goliath narrative.

New Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem complicate the feasibility of a two-state solution. And the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel could strengthen Hamas and weaken the PLO, triggering a fourth intifada and destroying hopes for peace in the future.

Suffice it to say, a fragile peace process could amount to increased insecurity for Israel.

I chose not to convert to Judaism a few years ago.

Perhaps I should.