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A Homecoming, with Apartheid in Tow

Allan Lichtenstein
December 19, 2016

by Allan Lichtenstein

OFTEN WITH FRIENDS, when they learn that I grew up in South Africa, lived sixteen years in Israel, then moved to the United States thirty years ago, I joke that with each move, political conditions took a far-reaching change for the worse. Little did I know, until early Wednesday morning November 9, how sad this joke could become.

The curse of apartheid travels with me, and now it seems that in this country, long tormented by racism, apartheid may soon express itself in ways reminiscent of some of the worst features of the South Africa in which I grew up.

I was born in South Africa in October 1948, a pivotal year in the country’s history. Earlier that year, in June, after the victory of the Nationalist Party in the elections, the government formally institutionalized the policy of apartheid: a regime of white rule that separated people solely by the color of their skin and denigrated all non-white people to a status of permanent inferiority. Over the next forty-six years, racial segregation and discrimination defined South Africa, continuing uninterrupted until the election of Nelson Mandela as president by all the people of South Africa in May 1994.

The inhumanities of apartheid intersected with all aspects of my daily life. Growing up in Cape Town in the 1950s and ’60s, I can recall the transformation of my childhood Claremont neighborhood. The “colored” (mixed race) school children who rode the E6 bus with me each morning to their separate school soon disappeared when their families were relocated to outlying suburbs, built exclusively for “colored” families. Ironically, their school was converted into an SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

A dark-skinned man who worked as the accountant at my father’s grocery store considered himself white, yet life soon became unbearable for his family, as their “whiteness” was constantly challenged. They packed their bags and moved to Toronto.

My father, although it was illegal, prepared a room at the back of our garage for Galvin (shamefully, we never learned his last name), a black man who also worked in his grocery store and whose home was in the Transkei. Galvin’s legal alternative was to commute by segregated bus each day many hours back and forth to his room in Langa, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Cape Town, zoned exclusively for black male migrant workers.

While these were just a few of my childhood encounters with the cruelty of apartheid, my secluded and protected existence ensured that I remained immune to far harsher crimes committed daily against people of color, especially blacks, in the name of racial superiority.

1948 WAS A PIVOTAL YEAR for a second reason: the State of Israel was established. Like many Jewish families in South Africa, my family was Zionist and I soon became enthralled with the idea of settling in Israel. On completion of my undergraduate education at the University of Cape Town, I emigrated there in 1971. Imbued with the spirit of the 1960s and a belief that a better world was possible, I staked my future on kibbutz, an experiment in communal living and the antithesis of the capitalist societies we had protested against at the University of Cape Town. Although the war of 1967 had radically altered the political landscape in the Middle East, I believed that the enmity between Israel and the surrounding Arab states could be overcome.

Soon, though, I realized that neither the dream of a different life on kibbutz nor a harmonious relationship between Arab and Jew were going to happen. The apartheid regime, which I had thought I had left behind in South Africa, was manifesting itself in Israel, albeit in different ways, as the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza intensified. Each day I was reminded of the separation of the two peoples, Arabs and Jews, and the domination of Israeli rule. Kibbutz Yizrael, where I had set up home, was founded on the ruins of the Arab village Zir’in, whose inhabitants fled in 1948. The town of Jenin was just a few miles to the south in the Occupied West Bank. It supplied the migrant menial Arab labor force for the Jewish towns and villages in the area. A few miles to the north was Nazareth, divided geographically between the local Palestinians living in the old city below and the Jewish neighborhoods on the surrounding hills above.

Visiting Israel more recently, in October 2013, I witnessed first-hand how, over the forty years since my arrival there, the expansive brutality of apartheid had dislocated the people of the area. As I walked along Al-Shuhada Street in the old city of Hebron, only the occasional chatter of strolling settlers broke the silence of the shuttered homes of the local Arab residents, who were forbidden to walk on Al-Shuhada Street. Their absence was a tragic reminder not only of the subjugation of the blacks by the whites during the apartheid of my youth in South Africa, but also of the fate of the Jewish people in Europe, not too long ago.

MY DISILLUSIONMENT with the State of Israel and my doubts about the integrity of Zionism brought me to the United States in August 1986. I believed that in the United States my Jewish heritage would not be a cause for discrimination, and that I would be able to express my beliefs and my political inclinations freely. Pursuing advanced studies in urban planning, a profession I believed lent itself best to bringing about constructive social change, I hoped it would provide an avenue in the United States to contribute to the creation of a better world.

Over the last thirty years, however, I have come to learn how much this country resembles the South Africa of my youth. Settling in Highland Park, New Jersey, I soon discovered that it would take more than urban planning to rectify the obvious residential segregation that divided so many New Jersey towns and municipalities. Route 27, running through Highland Park, separated an affluent white-majority north side from a more racially and ethnically mixed south side that included clustering of poor minorities. Just two miles to the south, on the other side of the Raritan River, lay New Brunswick, one of the poorest towns in New Jersey, overwhelmingly populated by Hispanics and blacks. Drive through New Brunswick any morning and you will notice clusters of Hispanic male day-laborers waiting on curbsides for someone to offer them an opportunity to work that day.

Many years later I found myself spending part of each week in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side. Walk a few blocks up from 79th Street along Madison Avenue, one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States, and you rub shoulders almost exclusively with white shoppers, tourists and passers-by enjoying the extravagances of this wealthy, sanitized neighborhood. A few blocks higher up, entering Harlem, the transition is stark: a very poor neighborhood inhabited primarily by black Americans making do with inferior services and amenities.

As our country prepares for Donald Trump’s presidency, a man who has been unequivocal in espousing racism and who has threatened to create a Muslim registry as well as to deport two to three million immigrants immediately following his inauguration, I fear that the cruelty of the apartheid of my youth in South Africa could become the way of life here too, albeit in a unique articulation. The racist history of his nominee for Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, will lead to even greater disenfranchisement of minorities; the views of his Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy DeVos, remind me of the Christian-National education I received in South Africa; his HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, will no doubt repeal the anti-discrimination directives initiated by the Obama administration; and the strategic directives of Steve Bannon will ensure a surge in antisemitism, as the so-called “Alt-Right” gains legitimacy.

My white skin endowed to me by an accident of birth has been my privilege and my blemish. Because of it, I will never be able to repay my debt to people of color in South Africa. My Jewish heritage likewise endowed to me, by an accident of birth, my privilege in Israel, but I will never be able to repay the Palestinian people for the harm the Occupation has imposed on them. My white skin and my advanced education are my privileges living in the United States, and they will probably allow me to cope with a Trump presidency. But my Jewish tradition will not allow me to bestow any “normality” on Trump’s presidency.

I do hope that the people of the U.S. will find ways to resist Donald Trump’s presidency, and that I will not have to experience yet another sad homecoming.

Allan Lichtenstein, a contributing writer to our website and magazine, grew up in South Africa, lived in Israel for sixteen years, and has lived in the U.S. since 1986. He works in the field of poverty research. You can read more of his articles by clicking here.