“In South Africa, I learned to rise against injustice” (Fr. Neuhaus)
JERUSALEM – Born in Johannesburg, in 1962, the Israeli Jesuit and Vicar of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem for the Hebrew speaking community and for migrants, Fr. David Neuhaus, grew up in South Africa and these days pleads for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. An interview with the daily La Croix follows.
Being of Jewish origin and living in an Israeli milieu, you are very involved regarding Palestinians. Were you somehow touched by your childhood in South Africa ?
Fr. David Neuhaus : No doubt, I was prepared for that. During my youth, in the 1970’s, Nelson Mandela was still in prison. It was not allowed to talk about him. In my family we mentioned his name in a low voice. It was at the moment of his release that we discovered the greatness of this man. My family, of German Jewish origin and having fled Nazism to come and settle in South Africa, was involved in the fight against apartheid. My mother refused to hire black persons. Our school, a private Jewish establishment, was also a venue of resistance against the system. I remember, when we had to complete a form for the State – surname, forename, race and, precisely, “white, black or mixed” – our teachers would tell us to write simply “human”.
Was it the South African context that pushed your parents to send you to continue your studies in Israel at the age of 15 years?
Fr. N : Yes. In 1976, hundreds of Black school children were killed during a demonstration. A short time later, in 1977, the black fighter Steve Biko was assassinated. My parents thought there was no longer any future for this country.
Were you ever imprisoned because of your convictions?…
Fr. N : During my military service in Israel, I refused to carry arms against men and women who have the same right as I do to live on this land. As a conscientious objector, I was detained for several weeks in a military prison. That was in 1988. Mandela was still in prison. But compared with men like him, who had spent so many years behind bars because of their convictions, the price I paid was minimal. That means, I am convinced that my South African heritage has considerably influenced my choices in Israel and, more than my choices, sensitivity to injustice, the duty to resist.
Several encounters had left their effects on me upon my arrival: my conversion to Christ, first of all, and, almost at the same time, my meeting with a Palestinian nun and a young Palestinian who was to become my best friend. I knew Hebrew, I started to learn Arabic, to follow the saga of this family, becoming my second family, and to understand that over here there is a version of facts I had never heard before. Also when I had to carry out military service, it was impossible for me to imagine carrying arms against my friends.
Are there – for you – any connections between Apartheid and what you live in Israel ?
Fr. N : I don’t like to apply this phraseology, which can be fair from one country to another. However, I see it as an intellectual laziness. The connection which I always try to establish is this: in South Africa, everything seemed black and yet the horizon was wide open. Presently, in Israel, the situation seems hopeless, but I always say that God, who sent Mandela to South Africa, can open up doors. Apartheid was vanquished, and my great hope is that we too will be able to overcome the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians.
How does Nelson Mandela inspire your action ?
Fr. N : He used the language of reconciliation without any revengeful mark, despite his own and his people’s sufferings. We now need to realize at what point our language, here, is marked by contempt for the other, on both sides. Changing this discourse is for me the first condition of a genuine dialogue, without which it will remain superficial, leading to nowhere. Nelson Mandela’s dream was to see South Africa as a place where man is not seen in terms of his skin colour. My hope is to convince people of this land not to judge a man whether he is Moslem, Jew, Israeli or Palestinian. Mandela could already see in his lifetime the realization of his dream. Let us hope that we too…
The Separation Wall is as high between Israelis and Palestinians as it had been between Blacks and Whites. Is it your duty to cross over?
Fr. N : It is not a duty but a privilege. As a man of church, I have the possibility to cross barriers. The division is part of our reality. But Christians should act as though barriers do not exist. I am active full time inside Israeli society, as inside Palestinian society – I teach Bible at the seminary of Beit Jala. I cross this division every time, and as such I feel totally integrated. It is the role of the Church to be with, not against. To rise up against lies, injustice, racism, anti-Semitism, and use a language of respect towards everybody.