[BOOK] What motivates non-Palestinians to join the Palestinian struggle for freedom?

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  September 2, 2023

South African Marthie Momberg offers first-person accounts from non-Palestinian activists on the front line of the struggle for Palestinian human rights.

Why the Palestinian Struggle Matters
by Marthie Momberg
526 pp. Naledi Publishers

Following her time serving in Palestine as a volunteer ecumenical accompanier through the World Council of Churches, scholar/activist Marthie Momberg returned to her home in South Africa curious about what motivates non-Palestinians—“almost always at their own expense and in the face of great social resistance,” she writes—to support the movement for Palestinian freedom.

Momberg found a dearth of information about the ethical orientation of non-Palestinian activists and what moved these activists to become involved along with their personal experiences. Her personal and academic curiosity led to her qualitative study at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape province of South Africa, the fruit of which is recorded in her book, 21 Voices from Israel and South Africa: Why the Palestinian Struggle Matters

Those who share her curiosity, especially activists involved in any local or global struggle for human rights, will benefit from consuming the first-person accounts recorded in 21 Voices. Momberg chose to use pseudonyms for all the interviewees to protect the few whose work exposes them to greater risk. Still, those who have committed themselves to the struggle in Palestine will recognize many of the prominent leaders of well-known non-Palestinian organizations that have taken up the cause—filmmakers, academics, parents, ex-IDF, religious leaders and others. 

While readers may wish that Momberg had reached out to activists beyond South Africa and Israel, the 21 interviews (ten South Africans, ten Israelis, and one with dual citizenship) reflect the range of motivations, self-doubts, and profound sense of meaning and purpose as well as the attacks and other costs that activists for justice around the globe experience when they stand up and act publicly.  

Some readers will be moved to tears. All will experience a renewed sense of community. Many will read the interviews more than once.  

21 Voices begins with a foreword by Nora Carmi, a leading Palestinian Christian activist, and a preface in which white South African Christian Momberg recounts her experiences in Palestine and her resulting “shift from passive oppressor to scholar-activist.” The book, available in softcover and electronically, includes the rationale for her research, a list of common myths regarding the situation, extensive endnotes, a detailed index, and explanations of often-used terms.

The interviews—printed in their entirety—take center stage in the book. 

Momberg begins each interview—conducted in person or online—by asking what led each (Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, spiritual, humanist, and other) to become involved and eventually take a public role in advocacy for Palestinians. The answers are as diverse as the interviewees. 

“Noam” (his pseudonym) is a Jewish Israeli living in Israel. He tells Momberg, “I am in the Palestinian struggle not for the sake of the Palestinians, but to save the Israeli Jews from themselves. It comes from the fact that my father was a Holocaust survivor.”  He says, “For me, the crux is that we as Jewish people, with our Jewish ethical values, who were made an example of suffering on the earth, cannot allow that this now happens to others.” 

“Nasir” is a South African raised in an Islamic culture, who grew up in the 70s and was jailed at age 16 for anti-apartheid activities. He speaks of his former involvement in the Black Consciousness Movement when black South Africans recognized similar dynamics at work in the Palestinian and South African struggles against state violence and oppression. “We were very clear that while we were fighting for our freedom and liberation, it was part of the global struggle of other people who were also fighting for theirs.” 

He says, “We saw the armed struggle as the only way… To see Leila Khaled as a black woman, as an Arab woman and as a Muslim woman with all the stereotypes that existed, take up a gun and fight her oppressors, is something that appealed to us.” Rejecting violence now, Nasir is thoroughly committed to creative nonviolence, as are all the interviewees. But speaking frankly and from his own experience, Nasir says, “It would be hypocritical to rail against the Palestinians because of their armed struggle, particularly when they often don’t see any way out ….” 

“Hanna”, a Jewish Israeli, was jailed for her refusal to serve in the IDF, as were other Israeli interviewees. She signed her refusal letter at age 15, three years before she would have been enlisted. Hanna describes how her focus now is on “the economic side of things… [People] generally don’t know about the military-industrial complex that is linked to the occupation. It’s also part of a much bigger conversation that takes you out of Israel-Palestine. If you follow the money and the ammunition, you find yourself in South Sudan and then in Eritrea, with Israeli weapons….”

Like Hanna, most of the interviewees point to the interconnectedness of the many global struggles for human rights.

“Mpho”, a South African Christian, was introduced to the occupation on his second visit to the area. He points to his passing through Israeli checkpoints: “The terror that goes through me remembering what it used to be like when I went through roadblocks in South Africa is indescribable… to be at the mercy of a young [Israeli] soldier re-traumatized me.” Mpho cites his faith as a second reason for his activism. “There is a travesty of the Gospel that needs to be corrected,” he says, “and it is for me almost a missiological task. Unless we uncover the true face of Christianity in and for that region, it seems as if we can’t make sense of it anywhere else.”

One of the most moving interviews was conducted with “Gideon”, who, with friends, organized the 2003 Pilots Letter signed by 27 reserve Israeli air force pilots, declaring, ”We refuse to participate in air force attacks on civilian populations.” He says, “One of the things that happened to me personally is the realization that the organization I’m part of, the Israeli air force, was involved in the killing of innocents.”

“To realize this,” he says, “even if it’s something that you don’t do personally because I was flying helicopters that mostly did rescue missions [of injured Israelis]… this is something that penetrates through all the layers of justifications, rationalizations, compartmentalizations. It just… it brought me to a crisis, to an emotional crisis.” 

In describing how, as he says, “the ‘they’ became a part of ‘me’,” Gideon tells of participating in a workshop with Palestinians his age:

What happened is that the guy next to me, the Palestinian guy I told you about, mentioned that his younger sister was paralyzed by a helicopter missile that hit their neighbor’s house. Then came my turn to say, I’m a pilot and I want peace and stuff like that—and I couldn’t utter the word ‘pilot’. It was suddenly clear to me that something very, very strong, a big part of my identity, is connected to horrible, evil things that happened to his sister. You make this connection suddenly, that for some people it doesn’t matter that you want peace and are against the occupation. You are an air force pilot and you are flying a helicopter.  And another helicopter just like yours hit the house of my neighbor and almost killed my sister.”

The interviews were conducted in 2015. In a Zoom conversation, I asked Momberg—who serves now as research fellow at Stellenbosch University and as postdoctoral researcher at Nelson Mandela University—what changes/developments over the eight years might have led to different responses on the part of those she interviewed. “I actually wrote to all,” she said, “asking if things have shifted for them, if they would see things from a different angle, anything they would want to change. They replied, ‘no.’” The activists agreed: things have worsened, but the dynamics remain the same, the issues are timeless.

In describing his 2004 participation at a forum in London—where he shared the stage with two Palestinians and another Israeli activist—“Gideon” speaks of a deep satisfaction that, in one way or another, many the interviewees experienced along the way,

While I stood there on the platform and talked about my beliefs… the way I saw myself in respect to the world totally shifted … that experience made me feel that my belonging shifted to something that is so much bigger than the circle of activists in Israel. There are many, many other struggles that are happening parallel to this struggle [in Israel/Palestine]… It was just a sudden realization that so many people from all over the world care about these things… they care about the refugees in their own countries and the gap between rich and poor in their communities. These are the people I love. I’m going to be connected to them; I want to be their friend, and now I can be their friend because I made a few decisions that put me on the side that I now perceive to be the solution and not the problem.

As author Momberg said in our conversation, “The ‘cause is life, really,’ as I think Rachel [a Jewish Israeli interviewee] phrases it. The book, Momberg said, “is about life and love and how to become more fully human.”

21 Voices can be ordered as an e-book ($15.85) or in softcover ($27 plus delivery) from tertia@naledi.co.za. 

Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)