Twilight Zone / Cry, the beloved country
'The sights in the territories even turn the stomach of someone who grew up under apartheid,' says South African Minister Ronnie Kasrils. A conversation with a Jew who is in conflict with his people.
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.
The 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.
The 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
At 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.
Tom 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
If 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.
"The 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.
"When 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."