Saturday, May 26, 2007

Twilight Zone / Cry, the beloved country

By Gideon Levy

PRETORIA, South Africa - It was like being in the movies. Only there
would you see an inert photo suddenly come to life. We were standing at
the memorial museum in Soweto, next to a photo of a dead boy with other
children around him, and our guide Antoinette was telling us about it.
Antoinette said that the young girl in the picture was her.

photo is at the entrance of the museum, built to commemorate the
blacks' struggle against apartheid, which began here. Across the way is
Nelson Mandela's tiny hut, nearby is the house of Desmond Tutu and down
the street is the present home of Winnie Mandela.

The picture
was stunningly familiar to us. We were four: MK Ran Cohen (Meretz);
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations; Diana
Buttu, a former legal advisor to the PLO; and myself. We were all
making the same associations: Hector is Mohammed al-Dura; the white
soldiers shooting at children are us.

The passage of time was
evident with Antoinette. The teenager in the picture was now a woman in
her late forties. Her brother would have been 44, but a bullet from the
rifle of a white policeman deprived him of the chance to witness the
miracle of how the cruel racist regime collapsed.

It was
another UN conference about peace with the Palestinians, but this time
it was being held in a particularly "loaded" location. We were only two
Israelis there, but the calling cards I collected were quite varied:
Arab and African ambassadors, the previous Egyptian foreign minister,
representatives of Muslim countries and diplomats posted in Pretoria.
The Syrian ambassador smiled and did not offer his card; the Libyan
ambassador did the same. But they listened to us attentively.

new regime has been good for South Africa; no Palestinian refugee camp
looks nearly as attractive as Soweto 2007. But not far away is a
shantytown called Alexandra and the sights there are worse than in any
Palestinian refugee camp we've seen. This is where South African blacks
who haven't been able to pull themselves out of poverty live, together
with refugees from neighboring Zimbabwe.

Less than a kilometer
separates the impoverished Alexandra from a fancy Johannesburg
neighborhood called Sandton. There, behind the electric fences and
personal bodyguards, hide the city's wealthy - many of them Jews and a
good number former Israelis. On Shabbat we ate cholent. On Friday night
we dined with a former Israeli from Nahalal. We drove to Alexandra with
a guy who originally hails from Tivon, who has been here for 30 years
and owns a huge agricultural enterprise that employs 1,800 black
workers earning $2 an hour.

It's impossible not to admire what has occurred in this battered land since the yoke
of white tyranny was lifted.

Not in his name

the conference luncheon, Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa's minister for
intelligence services, hurried over to grab a seat next to us. Kasrils,
a Jew, had never been to Israel (where he has relatives) until his
visit to the territories earlier in the month, when he invited
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to his country. He then made
his first, quick trip to Tel Aviv, saw Rabin Square and ate fish in
Jaffa. "It was the most pleasant evening I had," he acknowledges.

Segev once wrote that he is "a guy I wouldn't choose to be stuck in an
elevator with," but I would be glad to get stuck with Ronnie Kasrils,
inside or outside an elevator. He is a Jew in conflict with his people,
perhaps also with his identity - a courageous freedom fighter and
communist, who joined the oppressed race in its struggle, was exiled
from his country for 27 years and is now a minister.

A son of
Lithuanian Jews, who had a bar mitzvah and belonged to Jewish youth
movements, Kasrils is one of the most fascinating characters to come
out of the local Jewish community - which now thoroughly denounces him.
He brandishes his Jewishness openly, perhaps defiantly, even when he
recently made an official visit to Iran and Syria. He once founded a
movement called "Not in My Name," to underscore his disassociation from
the injustices committed by Israel in the territories. Ronnie Kasrils
hates the Israeli occupation.

When we talked he said the
Israeli occupation is worse than apartheid: The whites never shelled
the black neighborhoods with tanks and artillery.

Just like the pogroms

this warm, outgoing 69-year-old has any personal security protection,
it is invisible. We sat in a vacant room in a building on the
University of Pretoria campus and talked. "You're an Israeli and I'm a
South African," he emphasized immediately, as if to negate any common
identity. "I'm confident that the circle will be closed one day and
people will understand that I'm not anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli ... It
really pains me as a Jew that in this country such hostility has
developed toward Israel, because of its treatment of the Palestinians

"When we saw on television the drama going on in your
country, the oppressive pictures of the methods you use toward the
Palestinians, the uprooting of trees, the tanks entering Jenin, and the
old woman weeping over the demolition of her house and crying 'The
Jews, the Jews' - it's just like what my grandmother used to tell me
about the pogroms: The Cossacks are coming, the Cossacks are coming.
I'm trying to say: It's not the Jews, it's Zionisms that's doing this.
So I decided to get up and say something. I found this in the Jewish
tradition: to open your mouth, in the name of conscience.

man who greeted me when I returned to South Africa after the years of
exile was Rabbi Cyril Harris ... He gave me a red skullcap with a
dedication: to the freedom fighter. When I started to express criticism
of Israel, I thought that the Jews would denounce Ariel Sharon, but
then I found out that I was naive. I was stunned to see that the Jewish
community here didn't care who was in power in Israel and how extreme
the policy was against the Palestinians ... They would blindly support
any government. Rabbi Harris became my enemy. He called me a fringe Jew
and my response was: We were the only ones who stood up against
apartheid and now we're the minority against the injustice.

I visited the territories I also passed through Israel and I saw the
forests that cover the remnants of the Palestinian villages. As a
former forestry minister, this was especially striking to me. I also
went into a few settlements. It was insane. Young Americans spat on the
flag that was on my car. The occupation reminds me of the darkest days
of apartheid, but we never saw tanks and planes firing at a civilian
population. It's a monstrousness I'd never seen before. The wall you
built, the checkpoints and the roads for Jews only - it turns the
stomach, even for someone who grew up under apartheid. It's a hundred
times worse.

"We know from our experience that oppression
motivates resistance and that the more savage the oppression, the
harsher the resistance. At a certain point in time you think that the
oppression is working, and that you're controlling the other people,
imprisoning its leaders and its activists, but the resistance will
triumph in the end.

"We saw the entrance to Qalqilyah, the
wall, the people standing hours in line at the checkpoints. It's a
beautiful country, I love its landscapes, but I know that it's big
enough to contain more people. Israel has developed very impressively,
but how much more impressive it would be if you brought about a just
solution ... I don't care if it's two states or one - it's up to you,
the Israelis and the Palestinians, to decide.

"I had coffee
with the commander of the Erez checkpoint. It reminded me of the
central prison in Pretoria, a place I've visited many times. And it was
so awful to go through this thing in order to get to Gaza. At first I
said that I don't want to speak with the man at the checkpoint, but
then I decided that was foolish. The Israelis were actually very nice
to me.

"What is Zionism to me? When I was 10 years old, it
meant security and a national home for the Jews. I waved the Israeli
flag at my bar mitzvah and I was very proud of my Judaism. The first
book I received for my bar mitzvah was 'The Revolt,' by Menachem Begin.
My biggest hero was Asher Ginsberg, Ahad Ha'am ... Later on I started
reading not only Herzl, but also [historians] Ilan Pappe, Benny Morris
and Tom Segev, and I came to see 1948 in a different light. I
understood that it was an ethnic cleansing.

"South Africa
changed me and strengthened my South African identity. And then I began
to understand that the main problem of Zionism is the exclusivity of
the establishment of a national home and the concept of the chosen
people. Very soon I started to oppose it. The establishment of a
national home for Jews alone seemed to me like a parallel of apartheid.
The apartheid leaders also spoke about a chosen people. In 1961, prime
minister Hendrik Verwoerd said that Israel is like South Africa. That
opened my eyes. For many years we were also aware of the military
cooperation between Israel and South Africa - a joint offensive naval
force, missile boats, the Cheetah planes and the big secret of the
nuclear weapons. Prime minister Johannes Vorster, who had a declared
Nazi past, received a hero's welcome from you. This added to my
feelings regarding Israel.

"I am very conscious of the
Holocaust and of anti-Semitism, but my experience here leads me to one
conclusion: that all forms of racism must be fought by means of a
common struggle. I have a dream: That you will change your outlook, as
happened here, and that change will come. When politicians reach
agreements, it's amazing how fast ordinary folks can come to a change
in thinking. Change the leadership and the economic conditions and
you'll see how easy the change is."

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