Open letter to Trevor Noah

Photo: Youssef Massoud/AFP via Getty Images

Dear Trevor,

I truly admire your shows. I watch them on an almost daily basis. You have a great sense of humor, you talk about important issues, you are politically engaged, and you educate people in a fun way. And in these stressful pandemic times, they are a welcome relief. So, I was looking forward to hearing your views about the so-called Israel-Palestinian ‘conflict’. I was expecting something pretty radical; after all, you are an outspoken and seemingly fearless person. You have written, for example, in your autobiographical book Born a Crime that “Soweto was designed to be bombed—that’s how forward-thinking the architects of apartheid were.” And we all know what you think about Trump and other right-wing lunatics.

So, a few days ago, I watched your show titled ‘Let’s Talk About the Israel-Palestine Conflict’ on YouTube. I must confess that I was sorely disappointed because what you said was, to a large extent, tepid. Let me explain why. You spent the first half of the show explaining that this a ‘contentious topic’, ‘a 73-year-old beef’, that the ‘layers are packed’ and “what makes it even harder is the fact of who’s right and who’s wrong always seem to change.” I respect the fact that you were trying really hard to be neutral. Fair enough, Trevor. But what about the truth? What about deconstructing the narratives of power? This is a complex issue, no one will claim otherwise, but complexity must not hide essential and elementary facts. Let me quote a summary of a report (A Threshold Crossed, Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution), published by Human Rights Watch, “In certain areas (controlled by Israel) as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” We are talking about settler-colonialism, apartheid and systemic oppression, Trevor. This is not about, like you said, who is the bad guy and the good guy, this is about the powerful oppressing the powerless. This is about a settler-colonial state killing children because they have the power to do so. This is about an apartheid state which is very much similar to the South African apartheid state. Here is a quote from Desmond Tutu, “I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.” And yet Trevor, you did not utter these simple words, your attempt at objectivity was hiding obvious truths. In the second part of the show, you did talk about the ‘difference in power ‘ but those words, considering what is happening right now, are, to say the least, lukewarm.

I don’t blame you, however, Trevor. Some might say that you were brave. People, especially in the West, are afraid to speak out against Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. There is a heavy price to pay for voicing out against the oppressor. You are tagged anti-semitic. You work for corporate-mainstream media and it is obvious there are limits to what can be said. You chose to express your views while many intellectuals and artists stay silent. But this is not enough Trevor. Let me ask you a few questions. What would you have said, during the South African apartheid era, to a black mother whose children had been killed by the apartheid regime? That this is a ‘contentious issue’ and that it is hard to know who is right and who is wrong? That right and wrong keep changing? Or that whatever the pain and the suffering of the oppressor might be, nothing can ever justify the genocidal massacre of children? Or that killing children is evil? What would you have said, Trevor? One cannot sugarcoat oppression. One cannot use abstract arguments to suppress basic truths. We do live in a complex and non-Manichean world, but we should name oppression when we see it. And this issue goes well beyond Palestine. I believe that the Palestinian body has become a metaphor for the bodies of the powerless all over the world. The destruction of our bodies is what is awaiting all of us, if we don’t do anything about it.

I will keep watching your shows, Trevor. I need, more than ever, to laugh. And I know you are a great person. Let me end my letter with a quote from Nelson Mandela, “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” You, more than anyone, being a South African, will understand the exact meaning of these words.

Umar Timol (Mauritian artist)


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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


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