Above us, two eagles fought: One swooped ahead, the other caught up and dove, the two of the them locked together, plunged, let go, and flew again. “They’re fighting about territory,” said Brad, our guide. “One has entered the other’s territory, and is being warned to leave.”
Elephants emerged from the trees into open grassland near the river bank, a line of dark beasts, moving silently in the late afternoon light. We sat, awed, in the small open truck on a dirt road through the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Brad explained the cushioning of their feet, which allows them to move like apparitions through the bush. He pointed out at a small elephant and said it was a young male. “They reach sexual maturity when they’re 12-13, like humans,” he said. “Then his mother will force him out of the herd, which will be quite traumatic for him.” For the next 10 years, Brad said, the young bull will live on its own. Then it will start fighting the older bulls for breeding rights.
Elephants, Brad said, are very emotional creatures. “They don’t like death at all. When one dies, the others try to lift her up.” The elephant population in the reserve is rising, he said, and eventually will have to be “culled.” The experts say that whole families have to be “culled.” They’ve learned experience: When only adults were “culled,” the young ones were traumatized. They were much more aggressive, attacking humans more willingly. Some mature bulls had to be brought in from elsewhere, and after a very long time were able to impose order.
At dusk, three rhinoceroses – mother, father and little half-ton child – ambled onto the dirt road in front of us. They like the heat rising from the packed dirt of the road, Brad said. The mother’s long lower horn and shorter upper horn were both curved and sharp. The father’s upper horn was short and dull, apparently broken off in a fight with another male. The females’ horns stay complete, Brad said, because they don’t fight each other. No, said someone in our party of four, they just gossip viciously about each other for many years. Eventually, as Brad moved our truck inch by inch closer, the rhinos rambled back into the trees.
We didn’t see any lions or leopards. Brad had warned us not to expect any. The big predatory cats are elusive. If I heard him right, he also said that they are not bothered by seeing death. They see it all the time. They create it.
The big beasts remind you of the beauty of creation and of its cruelty. They fight over territory, and expel intruders. The males fight over females. The females choose the winners of battle, the powerful and overbearing, who will mate and wander back into the bush. There is a reason we call certain behavior “beastly.”
Yet elephants mourn. They teach their young, who will turn criminal if they lack parenting. Wolves nurse the pups of other wolves. Closer to home, I’ve watched one street cat adopt and nurse a kitten abandoned by another. Male cats are reputedly utterly uninterested in their offspring. But I once saw an adolescent male alley cat adopt an abandoned kitten, lick it like a mother licking its child, lead it to look for food. He cared for it until it was grown and then the two stayed together.
Say this is all instinct. Say that the elephants’ empathy for the dead is instinct. Then compassion and xenophobia are both part of the wiring of the animal brain. The war between those inclinations may also be part of the hard wiring of the beast – despite the old belief that such choices are the sole province of human beings. Perhaps people choose empathy more often. Perhaps the only difference is that humans are capable of symbolic thinking and abstract language, and have created beliefs and texts to explain compassion and pass it on and sharpen it and sometimes give it a slightly better chance against evil. Or maybe we will only be able to believe in that absolute distinction until we decipher the language of giraffes – who, as Brad told us, communicate with each other infrasonically, in voices that fall below the range of human hearing. The bush is humbling: How much more is there that we don’t hear?
History here is also humbling. I came to South Africa for Limmud, a festival of Jewish learning, organized by volunteers. It’s a bottom-up, volunteer effort, and I’m told that many of the people who came to study together in Cape Town and Jo’burg have never been seen before at Jewish community events. In Jo’burg, I attended a discussion on Jews in human rights activism and another on South African Jewish history. At the discussion, the names of many Jews who’d fought apartheid were mentioned. Some went to jail or into exile. A participant in the discussion said, “Let’s face it: Most Jews were fascists.” There was rustling in the audience. He corrected himself. “Well, most Jews were willing to live with fascism.” With that, nearly everyoe could agree.
There were Jews who risked everything. And there were those who lived with the reality, or who at most voted for an opposition party. In between were people who opposed the system, even said so publicly, but continued with their lives. I understand them. They did not want to endanger themselves or their community. And life was comfortable – as life based on other’s labor and poverty can be. Self-interest won out. Call it an instinct for apathy. Yet those who fought seems always to be reaching beyond words, beyond ideology, to explain why they made their choice. They looked (this is critical, they looked) at pass laws, at people being consigned to the shacks of the townships, at a society built from cruelty, and responded with feral empathy.
It is terribly impolitic to write from South Africa with any comparisons to home. It is even more impolitic to think of apartheid and occupation in the same hour while in Durban, where I now am, because the city has become a name for unjust comparisons, for dehumanizing Israel in the name of faux humanism. If I dare mention apartheid and occupation while in Durban, NGO Monitor may issue a special report against me.
All right, the occupation and apartheid aren’t at all the same. We can list all the differences at another time, including the real threats to Israel and the errors of sundry Palestinian leaders.
Occupation and apartheid aren’t the same, except in this: The occupation is dehumanizing. It is built on the presumption that some people, on the basis of their ancestry, can be caged so that other people will live comfortably. And the great majority of Israelis can lead their lives without ever seeing it. Even the teachers who teach in Jerusalem religious schools and truly believe that they are teaching their pupils to be good people can drive past the checkpoints without thinking about them or about the people who live beyond them.
I listened to stories of South African activists and wondered why we let it continue – rather, why I can live next to it. How much is enough opposition? How does one reach past the instinct of apathy to the instinct of empathy?