Fighting apartheid in South Africa, celebrating apartheid in Israel
Open letter to Nadine Gordimer*
28 April 2008
In your response to our letters of concern and protest over your planned visit to Israel, to participate in a writers festival largely endorsed by the Israeli government, you brush off our criticism, citing the role of literature in “opening up the human mind” and claiming that “whatever violent, terrible, bitter and urgent chasms of conflict lie between peoples, the only solution for peace and justice exist and must begin with both sides talking to one another.” So talking, in your opinion, has replaced resistance as the starting point for ending injustice and fighting apartheid and colonial rule? Is that what you and your fellow anti-apartheid colleagues did in your struggle in South Africa – talk to the “other side”?
It is also worth reminding you that Palestinian writers in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), like all Palestinians under Israeli occupation, are denied their basic rights, including the “privilege” of freedom of expression which you — and all of us — so highly value. They are often denied their right to travel, sometimes even within the OPT; many are denied access to conferences and festivals where they can participate in a free exchange of ideas with their peers on an international level; and some are imprisoned, injured or killed by the occupation forces. By attending this conference you are helping to perpetuate this special form of apartheid that denies us our human rights.
You start your letter asserting that you are “not invited to Israel by the Israeli Government.” Is this accurate? Even if it is, is it relevant? You are invited, technically, by that Writers Festival; but the festival itself is primarily funded, promoted, and sponsored by Israeli government sources. Hair-splitting aside, you are, indeed, invited by the Israeli government. Even if that festival were not at all supported by the government, does it in any way take a stand against the occupation, racism and apartheid that essentially define the reality of Israel today for you to consider it acceptable to participate in?
Let us not forget, either, that those Israeli writers who invited you are themselves not exactly opposed to their state’s key forms of racist and colonial oppression against the indigenous people of Palestine. They are virtually all Zionists who fully endorse and sometimes openly advocate, to varying degrees, the main pillars of the system of racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens within Israel, the denial of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return, in accordance with international law, and even some aspects of the military occupation and colonization of the West Bank, especially in East Jerusalem. Imagine what your reaction would have been if a liberal international writer, of your stature, had accepted an invitation by some group of Afrikaner writers — most of whom not opposing apartheid itself, but only supporting of a subset of rights for blacks under apartheid — to a festival in apartheid South Africa that took no public position against the system of racial discrimination there.
Do you need to be reminded of how you, and the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, lobbied Susan Sontag to reject the Jerusalem Prize? As far as we know, your logic was that the involvement of the state, represented by Shimon Peres as a judge of the “literary” prize at the time, meant that Sontag and other writers should not participate.
In addition, we are utterly disappointed and saddened by your insulting attempt to “balance” your act of complicity by promising to visit a Palestinian university or some venue in Ramallah! Was visiting a Bantustan ever a moral or rational excuse for participating in a largely pro-apartheid gathering in South Africa? Your participation simply violates the Palestinian Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel , issued in 2004 and widely respected by progressive writers, academics and cultural figures around the world.
And what about the timing? You know well that this festival, like all other cultural36scheduled to take place in Israel during this period, is planned to, and most likely will, promote the “Israel at 60” celebrations. Regardless of your intentions, taking part in such an occasion that ignores the fundamental truth that Israel came into existence 60 years ago as a result of a systematic and brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, what Palestinian refer to as the Nakba, that led to the dispossession and expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians is itself an act of collusion in whitewashing Israel’s seminal crime. Doing so at this particular time, when Israel is committing war crimes and “acts of genocide,” as international law expert Richard Falk describes them, in occupied Gaza is indicative of a regrettable cross over to the side of the oppressor and a betrayal of your principles in defence of the oppressed.
* By Omar Barghouti and Haidar Eid, both members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (www.PACBI.org).
 The PACBI Call for Boycott is endorsed by tens of the leading academic, cultural, professional and other Palestinian civil society unions and organizations: http://www.pacbi.org/campaign_statement.htm