Political Morality

I'm squeezed in among animated, expectant, socially-conscious Israelis speaking with hushed South African accents about human rights. Book-lined walls, tightly-packed chairs in a garret room. I imagine that it must have been like this when clandestine anti-apartheid activist cells gathered decades ago in that land without ambiguity. In my youth in the United States, I dreamed of being one of them. When Nadine Gordimer enters the room in Jerusalem's Tmol Shilshom bookshop café, my heart misses several beats. I would feel only slightly more awed if one of my other outspoken adolescent heroes, say Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell, or Bilbo Baggins, suddenly materialized before me, and that only because they are either dead or imaginary. Gordimer, despite her 85 years, is in no way ectoplasmic. You can see from her stride that she has had little trouble negotiating the steep staircase up to this second-story haven of literature and ideas, located in the midst of the capital's commercialized city center. The South African author, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, is in the city as a guest of the International Writers Festival sponsored by Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a writers' and artists' colony and center for the arts. Nostalgia is in the air. I'm not the only one here longing for the time when you knew which decision was right and which wrong and the only question was whether you had the courage to stand up for what was right. But there's some resentment in the air, too, because Gordimer first turned down the invitation as a protest against Israel's policies in the occupied territories. Indeed, she has been a vocal critic of Israeli policy and supporter of Palestinian rights. In the end, at the urging of David Grossman and other Israeli writers she has long known, she came, much to the chagrin of her comrades from the great struggle, who constitute a potent pro-Palestinian force in her country. She's a bit early - it's a quarter to seven in the evening - but the small L-shaped room has already been packed for more than an hour. Gray-haired Gordimer, in a black shirt, white slacks, and a striped silk scarf that reaches down to her knees, surveys the audience intensely. Smiling wryly, she settles into her seat; a boom mike is adjusted to her height. The moderator perches himself on a high chair above her. He's Benjamin Pogrund, another Jewish anti-apartheid legend, the journalist who reported the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 for the Rand Daily Mail and served time in prison for writing about the South African government's treatment of blacks. Pogrund has lived in Israel since 1997. This is a literary café but we're all here to talk politics. In particular, we all desperately want Gordimer to acknowledge that, when we moved from the lands of apartheid and Jim Crow to the Jewish state, we did not leave our consciences behind. It's not that we're not confident of what we believe, or that we think Gordimer knows more about our plight than we do ourselves. But it's not enough for us to be right; we want to remain part of the great mythic struggle for a better world. Pogrund asks the question on everyone's mind - how could she possibly consider not coming? The middle-aged, white-bearded man sitting next to me tenses, knocking my hand off my laptop keyboard in the process. "Bishop Tutu told me not to come," she says. "But in the end we must make decisions for ourselves. Looking at our incredible situation in South Africa, the beginning of finding solutions is that the sides have to talk and writers are part of that work." Pogrund points out that Hamas is not willing to talk to Israel. Murmurs of agreement, along with one or two exclamations of dissent come from the audience. "They don't want to talk?" Gordimer asks incredulously. Hamas isn't willing to recognize Israel, so it can't talk to us, Pogrund explains. Gordimer's face takes on the mien of an exasperated schoolteacher. "You must keep pressing for Hamas to recognize that they must recognize Israel," she rules. But the story here is not Gordimer, it's us, her audience. The room's geography of accents indicates that at least half of them are immigrants from South Africa. Most of the others, like me, were American children and teenagers during the 1960s and 70s. Read: civil rights and the Vietnam War. The dominant emotion is wounded moral pride; we were once firmly on the side cheered by all fair-minded men and women, but now we are vilified by many of our former allies. I know a number of South Africans who immigrated to Israel, and I think it reasonable to assume that the people in this room are probably much like them: that they nearly all grew up in solidly anti-apartheid families that were active, to one degree or another, in opposing the regime. If they are indeed like their compatriots whom I've met, they lived as Jews in a country where racial laws set the course of people's lives, where they enjoyed the benefits of whiteness but, as outsiders in the white community, could empathize with the other. In other words, they were in many ways like my own family, except facing an even more evil regime, and one much less amenable to democratic change and totally intolerant of dissent. Nadine Gordimer, courageous, uncompromising, even Jewish (though, as she tells us, not really Jewish in anything but her descent), was a childhood hero. Now the hero of that black and white world speaks to us in a room in a gray stone building. "I was in the occupied territories today, at a university whose name I don't even want to try to pronounce," she says. Al-Quds University, Pogrund prompts her. "Yes. And I stood before what is called a wall but which is really much more, a story high and cutting through people's lives, between one home and the next. It's really a monstrosity. But I have to listen to everyone about it. People tell me that it is a fact that since the wall was built, suicide bombers have been unable to get into Israel. So there are two sets of facts and I must think about them. The wall is an inhuman thing. So is a suicide bombing." My neighbor relaxes. She's going to Ramallah tomorrow, she says, then to Arad to spend a few days at Amos Oz's home. "If you're going to al-Quds University and Ramallah, why aren't you going to Sapir College and Sderot?" an agitated voice from the back calls out. Gordimer doesn't know either of those names; Pogrund explains, and tells the audience that she is here for only a short time and can't go everywhere. She says that she conditioned her visit on being taken to places where she could see the conflict first-hand. "Perhaps my contacts have not planned my schedule well," she says. Again that wry smile. Gordimer is careful. She sees parallels with the white regime in the way Israel's army and police treat the Palestinians in the West Bank, "just like it was in South Africa then." But she draws distinctions, too. The solution here, she stresses, is not one state in which all are equal, but two national states side by side. Mostly, she acknowledges her ignorance. The greatest distinction comes to the fore when she talks about writing rather than about politics. Fiction is misnamed, she maintains, because it tells truths. Its role is not to inform the reader, but to make the reader know. It offers inward testimony of why people make the kinds of moral and personal decisions they make. Fiction tells us about what happens inside people. In apartheid South Africa, where some of her books were banned, oppression was not just politics; it was an inner experience. "If you were creating characters, you could not ignore apartheid because racial legislation controlled people's most personal relations, not only who they could marry but who they could befriend and who they could sleep with," she says. And who they could squeeze in next to at a downtown literary evening, one might add. So Israel is not an apartheid state and Gordimer can remain a hero. Although being alive, she is a flawed and fallible legend. But in the here and now, we can ask for no more. • Haim Watzman is author of 'Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel' and 'A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley.' He blogs at http://southjerusalem.com click here.