Comments from an incendiary discussion between Nadine Gordiner and Amos Oz
The International Writers Festival in Jerusalem was a week of encounter and discovery. Comments from the incendiary discussion between Nadine Gordimer and Amos Oz have been quoted in Ha’aretz and the Boston Globe. Here is their conversation.
AO: As soon as they taught me the alphabet I started to write fiercely chauvinistic little poems. I grew up in a militant, right-wing Zionist family and I wrote Israeli propaganda full of exclamation marks. That’s the beginning of my career and I hope the end of my career will not be the same. I draw the line between writing and politics roughly as follows:
Each time I agree with myself one hundred per cent I don’t write a story or a novel, I write an angry article telling the government to go to hell. The government reads my article and it does not go to hell. (I have been writing the same article for thirty or forty years telling the government to go to hell). But when I have a slight disagreement with myself, when I hear more than one voice in me, then I know that I am pregnant with a story or a novel. To make this distinction very clear to me for symbolic reasons I have two pens on my desk, one blue and one black. One pen is to tell the government to go to hell and the other is to write my stories and novels. I never mix the two because they are different voices.
There is always a certain sense of guilt which accompanies my work. If I wake up in the morning and start work on a novel while the news is full of injustice, violence, savagery and stupidity, I feel guilty for sitting and writing my novel while people are dying a few miles from my home. On the other hand, when I write an angry article telling the government to go to hell I sometimes feel guilty for using my voice, which should be more subtle and complex, for something one dimensional.
But where would we be without guilt? We Jews invented guilt. If don’t feel guilty for a whole day then in the evening I feel guilty for not feeling guilty.
Let me ask you a question, Nadine. How early did you discover that you were living in a wrong society, a corrupt society?
NG: It didn’t come from reading Karl Marx. My awareness of what was wrong in the way we were living came to me by something closer to home. Blacks were forbidden from buying liquor so everyone made home brew. There were raids on white homes where blacks worked. One evening, when I was about ten, there was a hullabaloo in our back yard. My parents and I went out and there were the police ransacking the mattress and belongings of Letty, our house servant. My mother and father stood there and said nothing. This was their private property. Why were the police allowed to treat Letty so brutally? It was incidents like this which made me aware.
My mother was, in many ways, a good liberal. She worked in a group which provided crèche facilities for black children. She also worked with the Red Cross. She believed that things would gradually change, but they both kept on voting for the only party.
When I went, briefly, to university just after the war in 1947, I met a group of white South Africans who had just come back from fighting. They were rebellious and befriended young, politically involved blacks. For the first time I met blacks not as servants but as people. Like me, one black man was writing stories. I realised I had more in common with him than with the young whites. So the human contact brought politics closer. I started to write about what happens within the families and relationships inside political circles. Politics is like a religious faith. It has to be followed, no matter what peripheral damage may be done to human relationships. Some of my black writer friends even had their houses raided and their typewriters taken away.
AO: Fortunately we do not experience anything like that in Israel, but Palestinian writers in the occupied territories do have trouble with the Israeli police. There are some publishing houses in Ramallah in East Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank, but these are heavily, closely watched and often censored. There is no censorship now in Gaza because Gaza is no longer under Israeli jurisdiction. The military censor decides whether a book is ‘inciteful’. Incitement is the key word.
Your books combine the political reality with the extremely personal. You can tell a love story against a background of political upheaval or tell a story of political upheaval against the background of a love story. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, family stories. After all, the subject of literature is, if I had to reduce it to one word, I would say ‘families’. If you gave me two words I would say ‘unhappy families’. If you gave me more than two words you will have to read all my works.
NG: I have! And I know your bridge-making and your political statements. The deep reality of everything that has happened here comes to me through your stories and novels.
AO: Almost all my characters have political views. Some of them have politics which are diagonally opposed to my own. Such as a certain character in Black Box. He votes for everything I vote against, nonetheless I tried to give him a credible voice and almost an attractive personality, as far as I could. The thing is trying to get inside the character and never use the struggle between the characters as a means of communicating a political message. To write the simplest dialogue between husband and wife over who takes out the garbage I have to be in the shoes of both of them. This is good practice for politics as well because it teaches you how to understand the other without necessarily agreeing with them.
NG: You waited a long time to write about yourself. You told me this was a personal story and it was painful. How did you finally come to write A Tale of Love and Darkness?
AO: For many years I would not even discuss my parents with my wife and children. I was too angry with my mother for killing herself and with my father for losing her, and with myself for probably being a terrible child. I was so angry I cut them out of my life for many, many years. When I reached the age, nearly sixty, ten years ago, when I could have been my parents’ parent, I began to develop a certain curiosity, and curiosity is a powerful antidote to anger. If I may digress momentarily I must say that I regard curiosity as a moral quality. I think a curious person is not a fanatic. Curiosity is an antidote to fanaticism, because curiosity means trying to imagine the other, trying to put yourself in another’s shoes. I became curious about my parents and this entailed compassion, tolerance, understanding and a certain smile. I found I could write about my parents as if they were my children. I don’t like calling A Tale of Love and Darkness an autobiography because I’m not even the protagonist of this book – it’s more about my parents. I’m a supporting character: my parents are the main protagonists.
Let us now, Nadine, move into areas where you and I may not agree as much as we have done so far: the popular comparison between Israel and South Africa. I know it is popular in left wing circles around the world to label Israel as an apartheid country. Do you or do you not accept this comparison?
NG: I accept it in certain reserved aspects. But we’ve got to go back to ancient history. I’m white. We whites have no ancestral claim whatever to one square inch of the continent of Africa. We don’t come from there in ancient times. So right away you’ve got a difference. It clearly belonged to the blacks and we invaded. So there is no comparison there. Where there is comparison, increasingly in the last few years, is in the methods your police use in the occupied territories; they seem to do exactly what they like, as if they have been given carte blanche to treat people in the most inhuman fashion. If it is a question of forcibly removing people from their homes, this is exactly what happened in South Africa. So there I would compare the methods used and the fact that you have reserved areas where people are herded in.
AO: In my view, twentieth-century well-meaning intellectuals had it easy because all the major conflicts were clear-cut: fascism and anti-fascism was about good guys and bad guys. You knew exactly who you were for and against. Colonialism and decolonisation was black and white. Vietnam was black and white. Apartheid was about good guys and bad guys. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not. It is essentially a conflict between right and right. Or, more recently, between wrong and wrong. The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is their homeland in the same sense that Norway is the homeland of the Norwegians. The Israeli Jews are in Israel for exactly the same reason. They have no other historical homeland, they never had another home. As individuals, Jews can find homes in other countries but not as a nation. The only place where the Jewish people can have the right to self-determination is in their historical homeland. This is a very small country — the size of Sicily. It’s the one and only homeland of the Palestinians and the one and only homeland of the Israelis. Now what we get is two conflicts for the price of one. To the extent that the Palestinians are fighting to be liberated from Israeli occupation, to have their own independent state, to have their own right to self-determination is unquestionable. But to the extent that many Palestinians want Israel to die; that’s where they are wrong. Now the same applies to the Israelis: to the extent that they want to be a free nation in their own country, it’s unquestionable. To the extent that the Israelis want to swallow the Palestinian territories and get two extra bedrooms for the nation, that’s wrong. This is very confusing because on both sides there are legitimate and illegitimate intentions.
It’s very simple to launch a demonstration against the bad guys, sign a petition in favour of the good guys and go to sleep feeling good. In the case of Israel and Palestine you will have to take a complex attitude because the issues are complex. It is not a black and white issue. That’s why I reject comparisons to apartheid. Apartheid was a terrible phenomenon.
NG: You don’t accept that the methods being used are the same as during apartheid?
AO: The methods used by the Israeli military regime in the West Bank have some common denominators with apartheid. But the condition is essentially different because in the case of apartheid, in South Africa, there was no religious clash. There is a religious clash here.
NG: You’ve got your ultra-religious Jews and of course we don’t even have to name the religious fanatics on the other side. This is a great complication. The Palestinians — a large part of them — deny the right of Israel to exist. And on the other side there is the question of occupying Palestinian territory and the right of return. In 1948 Palestinians were removed from their homes. Now in South Africa why didn’t the liberation movement say, ‘You whites! Go back home!’
AO: Which is what many Palestinians are saying to the Israelis. Let’s begin with 1948, an all-out ruthless war. There was a messy ethnic cleansing of both sides. In the territories seized by the Palestinians in 1948 not one Jew was allowed to reside, including the population of the old city of Jerusalem (right behind our backs) who had lived in the old city for centuries. They had been there long before the Arabs. They were cleansed completely at the same time as hundreds of Palestinian Arabs fled or were kicked out of Israel. But let us not forget that, a couple of years later, one million Jews were forcefully kicked out of the Arab Islamic countries so there was a massive transfer of populations on both sides. There is no way the Palestinian refugees of 1948 can return to Israel because if they do there will be two Palestinian states and not one for the Jewish people. The problem of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 will have to be resolved in the future state of Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza. I am talking about those Palestinians who still live in camps. Those who found themselves new jobs and lives in other countries are looked after. There are tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who have been rotting in camps in inhuman conditions for sixty years and I’m not going to go now into who’s to blame for their plight. It is not a simple question because the Arab governments wanted them to stay in the camps to provide fuel for anger and fanaticism. They starve them and make them angry so they start making home-made bombs. However, their problem is our problem. If I were negotiating on behalf of Israel, I would have made the issue of the Palestinian refugees in the camps the prime Israeli consideration: Israel will sign no deal unless there is a solution for those refugees in the future state of Palestine. This should be made possible by an international Marshall Plan. Some of the money will have to come from the rich oil-producing Arab countries. And, indeed, some of it will have to come from Israel along with an Israeli recognition of a partial responsibility for the tragedy of these people.
Now the disputed Holy Places, these four square kilometres of Jerusalem behind us. Whose Holy Places are they? My grandmother had a wonderful explanation, although she died before 1967. When I was a little boy she clarified for me, in simple terms, the difference between Jew and Christian. She said, ‘Look, my boy, the Christians believe that the Messiah has been here once and he is coming again one day. We Jews believe he has not been here and is yet to come. Over this you cannot imagine how much bloodshed and hatred and persecution we have suffered. Why can’t everybody simply wait and see? If the Messiah comes saying, “Hello. It’s nice to see you again,” the Jews will have to apologise to the Christians. If, on the other hand, the Messiah comes saying, “How do you do? It’s nice to meet you,” the entire Christian world will have to apologise to the Jews. Until then, she said, live and let live. This is what it’s all about. The question of the Holy Places in Jerusalem should remain unresolved. Everybody should be allowed to pray there. I have suggested that the Holy Places be transferred to Scandinavia for one hundred years, after which they should be returned intact to Jerusalem. By this time we will have worked out something.
NG: I often wish someone had dropped a bomb on them, I’m sorry. But then the ruins would be fought over! It is a ridiculous complication. We are living in modern times; whether we are Jews or Muslims, we have to deal with reality now. And to have to complicate the situation with this problem of the Holy Sites …
AO: To my mind, in Judaism there is no such thing as Holy Sites. The only holy thing is life itself. But you don’t get two Jews to agree with each other. You don’t get one Jew to agree with himself because everyone has a divided mind and soul. So this is a nation of seven and a half million citizens, seven and a half million Prime Ministers, seven and a half million prophets and messiahs, each and every one with their own personal formula of what is Judaism. And this includes the religious people who believe in the holiness of the Holy Places and I have to respect their views out of empathy for difference. We discussed earlier the need to put ourselves inside the shoes of others.
NG: I can’t believe that whatever God’s people believe in can be so destructive. This is not a race conflict. It’s about land.
AO: It’s about land but the fanatics on both sides are trying to turn it into a religious battle. Essentially it’s a real-estate dispute and a tragic one because both the Palestinians and the Israelis are right in claiming this land for themselves. The only solution is a painful compromise between right and right. And I’m a great believer in compromise.
NG: You want a semi-detached house!
AO: My formula for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that they cannot live like one happy family because they are not one, they are not happy, they are not even family — they are two families.
NG: But it’s not a colour thing.
AO: If you look at the audience in front of you, you will see that there is no such thing as a Jewish race. The Jews come in every colour and shape. There are 100,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel and I am told that when the first aeroplane landed in Israel the religious leader of the Ethiopian community cast one terrified glance at the airport and said to his people, ‘Let’s go back. This is not a Jewish country. Everybody here is white.’ So there is no Jewish race or colour. This is about real estate, which is a version of a struggle for power. It’s the only home of both and therefore the house has to be divided in two smaller apartments.
NG: You know the ancient prehistory. Was there not a time when Jews and Arabs lived together here?
AO: There was a time when Jews lived under Arabs. They were tolerated, well treated but made to remember that they lived under the Arabs. This is exactly what we don’t want. We don’t want either the Palestinians or Israelis to live this way.
Prior to that there was a time when Hebrews lived surrounded by other inhabitants of the land and there were endless struggles. The conflict over this land is as old as time itself. Now some people claim that the Hebrews are not the same Hebrews and the Palestinians are not the same Palestinians. What does it matter? What difference does it make?
NG: As you know I, in my own private, humble opinion, believe there must be two states with frontiers agreed upon. It will be painful, but it is the only way.
I want to push you more on a subject we don’t agree on: the wall. You agree that the wall is invading Palestinian territory but you still think there should be a wall.Who decides where the frontier is?
AO: I would not object to the wall if it had been built between Israel and Palestine, but it’s being built in the middle of Palestine. We have the pre-1967 line in place. This is the basis for negotiation. Essentially everybody knows this, including people who object on both sides. Deep down in their heart of hearts both the Israelis and the Palestinians know that the two state solution will be implemented along the lines of the pre-1967 ceasefire lines. Are they happy with it? Not in Israel and not in Palestine. It’s like an amputation for both and it hurts like hell. But this solution is going to be implemented in the end. I can’t tell you when. It’s hard to be a prophet in Jerusalem: there is too much competition.
NG: You would agree that what is happening in the occupied territories is really shameful for the Israelis and for the Jewish people?
AO: I will use a word stronger than shameful. It is criminal. I think the lasting occupation of the Palestinians by the Israelis is a crime, the crime of Israeli society. Now this crime has circumstances, it has background. It began with an all-out Arab attack on Israel, but nonetheless I regard the lasting occupation as a crime.
NG: Well, I have to agree entirely
AO: On this agreement, on this unhappy note, we must end and thank our audience for their patience.