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Nadine Gordimer and Gaza's dismay

This year Israel is marking the 60th anniversary of its declaration of independence in May 1948, which for the Palestinians immediately became a continuing disaster. Yesterday, for example, Israeli shells killed four children and their mother at their home in Ezbet Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. Now former anti-apartheid activist and Nobel-prize winning author Nadine Gordimer is accused of lending her support to the oppression of Palestinians by joining in “Israel at 60” events. Gaza lecturer Dr Haider Eid, has written Gordimer an open letter.

I am a Palestinian lecturer in cultural studies living in Gaza. I happen to also have South African citizenship as a result of my marriage to a citizen of that beloved country. I spent more than five years in Johannesburg, the city in which I earned my PhD and lectured at both traditionally black and white universities. At Vista in Soweto, I taught your anti-apartheid novels My Son's Story, July's People and The Late Bourgeois World. I have been teaching the same novels, in addition to The Pick Up and Selected Stories, to my Palestinian students in Gaza at Al-Aqsa University. This course is called "Resistance, Anti-Racism and Xenophobia." I deliberately chose to teach your novels because, as an anti-apartheid writer, you defied racial stereotypes by calling for resistance against all forms of oppression, be they racial or religious. Your support of sanctions against apartheid South Africa has, to say the least, impressed my Gazan students.

The news of your conscious decision to take part in the "Israel at 60" celebrations has reached us, students and citizens of Gaza, as both a painful surprise, and a glaring example of a hypocritical intellectual double standard. My students, psychologically and emotionally traumatized and already showing early signs of malnutrition as a result of the genocidal policy of the country whose birth you will be celebrating, demand an explanation.

They wonder in amazement, as do I, that you might have missed Archbishop Desmond Tutu's contention that conditions in Israeli-occupied Palestine are worse than those under apartheid? They ask how you can ignore UN human rights observer John Dugard's dispassionate and insightful report on the dismal state of human rights in the occupied territories? Surely, you have not been unaware of South African minister Ronnie Kasrils' writings following his latest visit to Gaza and the West Bank? Like you, these three men, all South Africans, were also active in the fight against racism and apartheid. Dugard's words on Palestine are very significant: "I certainly have a sense of deja vu ... The sad thing is that Israel is unwilling to learn from the South African precedent." In an article titled "Apartheid: Israelis adopt what South Africa dropped", Dugard observed that the human rights situation in the occupied territories continues to deteriorate and called the conditions "intolerable, appalling, and tragic for ordinary Palestinians." Significantly, Dugard made shocking parallels between the situation in Palestine and your country South Africa under apartheid: "Many aspects of Israel's occupation surpass those of the apartheid regime. Israel's large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, levelling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa."

Moreover, in its final declaration, the World Conference against Racism non-governmental organization forum, held in Durban in 2001, stated that: "We declare Israel as a racist, apartheid state in which Israel's brand of apartheid as a crime against humanity has been characterized by separation and segregation, dispossession, restricted land access, denationalization, 'bantustanization' and inhumane acts."

You are no doubt aware of Israel's deep ties with apartheid South Africa, during which Israel, breaking the international embargo, supplied South Africa with hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons. Apartheid South Africa relied on apartheid Israel to persuade Western governments to lift the embargo. How did you relate to Israel during that period and what was your position regarding countries and individuals that did not support the policy of isolating apartheid South Africa? You were surely critical of the infamous policy of "constructive engagement" led by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan at the height of the struggle in the 1980s. And today, inexplicably, you have joined the ranks of sanctions busters.

The eminent Palestinian scholar Edward Said, who gave you his friendship, would have been dismayed by your decision. He named you as a model for what he called "oppositional intellectuals." It was his strong belief that, with regard to Israel, "[it] only takes a few bold spirits to speak out and start challenging a status quo that gets worse and more dissembling each day." Little did he know that you would fail the oppressed in Palestine.

My cold and hungry students have divided themselves into two groups, with one group adamant that you, like many of your courageous characters, will reconsider your participation in an Israeli festival that aims to celebrate the annihilation of Palestine and Palestinians. The other group believes that you have already crossed over to the side of the oppressor, negating every word you have ever written. We all wait for your next action.

29 April 2008

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