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Us and Them—Race and Politics

The decades-old conflict in the Middle East highlights once again the dangers of "othering," of dehumanizing people on the basis of ethnicity or race.


Twenty years ago, Interahamwe militants in Rwanda started a wholesale massacre of the Tutsi people, killing an estimated one million of what they called "cockroaches." This was only the latest of a series of conflicts between Hutu and Tutsi that had characterised and still paralyses this Central African region. At the root is a theory of two different groups, one composed of cattle herders, one of garden farmers. Historical analysis tells a different story—one of a nation divided over centuries into ruling and laboring classes. But this proven fact is unpalatable to political elites who flourish on division, fear and tension.


Nazi Germany pushed the dehumanizing of opponents to the extreme, denouncing them as subhuman ("untermensch") races such as Jews, Roma, Slavs, Ukrainians and Black people. This, in their view, justified the extermination of millions. Their ideology was based on the 1770 Göttingen school of history, which sought to categorize humanity at the hand of Biblical interpretations.


These thoughts still inform politics today, despite having been conclusively disproven. I grew up under the Apartheid regime in South Africa. From a belief that "our people" had a distinct religious, cultural and social structure separate from the tribal and ancestor-worshipping races in Africa, this ideology led to a dehumanizing system of control that was doomed to fail. I was told that Black people are somehow less intelligent and more cruel than "we" were. But some of my Black acquaintances were kind, smart people. I served under a Black person who had been a leading "terrorist" and Communist. He was one of the kindest, most principled and smartest people I had ever worked with. 


An Apartheid Minister of Government once said in Parliament that "Black people were slow thinkers." This was at a time when a leading Scandinavian nuclear physicist was of South African origin. He had won a national mathematics prize at school but was not allowed to receive it, as the venue was "for whites only." He won a scholarship elsewhere and spent his life contributing to another country. So much for racial typing. 


Current discussions regarding Israel and Gaza are hedged around accusations of "anti-semitism." In the old distinction of human "races," Semites were those people speaking Semitic languages. All Arabs, Jews, Palestinians and more are thus Semites. Somehow, anti-semitism has become associated with anti-Jewish, later anti-Zionist, thought and action. 


Noam Chomsky talks of 'living in a bubble" of identity that denies the rights of "others." Many others who identify as Jewish and Israeli people do much to communicate such racial antagonisms, but any criticism of the actions against "human animals" is denounced as "anti-Semitic."


It is time that these obsolete theories and ideologies are ignored in favor of seeing humans as humans. When children die under bombs and rubble of bombed apartment blocks, there is no race or ideology left. When peaceful musical festivals are attacked, when villages are destroyed and inhabitants massacred, all humanity must note and act. 


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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