An Open Letter to General Ariel Sharon
Paris, April 7, 2002
You don't know me. There's no reason why you should and little cause for you to listen to what somebody like myself may have to say. I don't imagine you have time to pay attention to views that do not correspond to your own. In fact, I'm convinced that you do not listen to anybody who doesn't say what you wish to hear.
Should it interest you, I'm a writer born in South Africa now living and working abroad. For some time back there I also grew up among a "chosen people" who behaved as Herrenvolk--as all those who believe themselves singularized by suffering or entrusted with a special mission from God.
I apologize if my comparative allusion to Israel as Herrenvolk hurts because of the echoes from a recent past when, in Europe, so many Jews were the victims of a "final solution." But how else is one to attempt describing the comportment of your armies when one is flooded by the horror of what you're doing?
These rough equivalences don't come lightly. As a writer I'm deeply apprised of the need to keep the words uncluttered of any urge to rouse easy emotions. This is what facile comparisons do--they nullify understanding the complexity of the observed phenomena by a rush of outrage heating the throat and staining the adversary with the vomit of borrowed or vicarious condemnation. Apartheid was not Nazism, though to say so was a striking slogan. And the policies now perpetrated by Israeli forces on the Palestinian people should not be equated with Apartheid. Each one of these processes and systems is evil enough to merit a thorough description of its own historical singularity.
And yet... There are similarities and differences: This blind competition, on both sides, to be recognized as more-victim-than-thou; cloaking atrocities in the "divine" right to self-defense; the shameless manipulation of perceptions and the mendacious lying; the concomitant brutalization of your own society; the disdain shown for the humanity of the Palestinians--indeed, denying even the most elementary humane treatment to a terrified and trapped civilian population...
It is all only too familiar. The underlying assumptions informing your actions are racist. As was the case with the South African regime, the preferred methods by which you hope to subjugate the enemy consist of force and bloodshed and humiliation. Cynically, you think you can get away with this as long as you play up to the supposed vital interests of the United States. I don't think you really care a Jaffa fig for America's interests. You probably despise them for being blinded by their own material crassness and their ignorance of the world. True, your used-car-salesman doppelgänger, Netanyahu, deploys this craft of crude propaganda more openly, as if he were a dirty finger tweaking the clitoris of a swooning American public opinion. But you too, by opportunistically echoing the semantically challenged American President (and putting words in his mouth), who describes every "other" as a terrorist, have shown that you take the rest of the world for fools. Surely, not all of us agree that the highest good in the world is America's greed for cheap oil, and that we should hence be expected to adhere to the inviolability of corrupt regimes in the region!
There is a more pernicious red herring that needs to be smelled out forthwith. It is blatantly averred, again and again, that any criticism of Israel's policies is an expression of anti-Semitism. With that assertion the argument is supposed to be closed and sealed. Of course, I reject this attempt at censorship by thus disqualifying the grounds for debate. No amount of suffering--be it of the Tutsis, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Vietnamese, the Bosnians or the Palestinians--can confer immunity from criticism. (And, to put it sadly, no amount of persecution would seem to vaccinate people against perpetrating the same practices they suffered from.) No appeal to the incitement or supposed promises of some Holy Land edicted by One God can condone the exactions carried out by an invading and occupying army-- or, for that matter, the cold-blooded massacres of innocents ordered by fanatic warlords in the name of resistance. No reference to some ostensibly sacrosanct "Greater Israel" can camouflage the fact that your settlements are armed colonies built on land shamelessly stolen from the Palestinians, festering there as shards in their flesh, or snipers' nests, intended to thwart and annul any possibility of Palestinian statehood. There can be no way to peace through the annihilation of the other, just as there is no paradise for the "martyr."
I find this "anti-Semitism" allegation utterly deplorable, especially coming from Jewish intellectuals who so often constitute the reasonable, rational and creative backbone of Western societies. Why should we be subjected to this special pleading, or look the other way when it is Israel committing crimes? Is what's sauce for the goose then, in some Yahweh-inspired way, not sauce for the gander?
No, General Sharon, past injustices suffered cannot justify or excuse your present fascist actions. A viable state cannot be built on the expulsion of another people who have as much claim to that territory as you have. Might is not right. In the long run, your immoral and shortsighted (and finally stupid) policies will furthermore weaken Israel's legitimacy as a state.
Recently, I had the opportunity of visiting the territories for the first time. (And yes, I'm afraid they can reasonably be described as resembling bantustans--for only too often are they reminiscent of the ghettos and controlled camps of misery one knew in South Africa.) I only glimpsed Israel briefly, upon entering and then later leaving after spending a night in the opulent but dismally deserted David Intercontinental Hotel of Tel Aviv. You may say my view is fatally one-sided. Perhaps. Though one is always within sight of Israeli demarcation lines, checkpoints, tanks and armed outposts in the West Bank.
I wondered, are your two peoples really all that different? You are of a similarly diverse mix of cultures and origins, you are all of you diaspora people, you are equally intelligent and quick-witted and excitable. You may well be brave in similar fashions. On both sides there are creative minds of exceptional integrity at work. On both sides, also, there are an extraordinary number of self-serving, power-hungry individuals, fanatics with their spirits obfuscated by this God-nonsense. Or using that as a pretext.
As provocateur--cold-blooded and cruel--you stand out among your peers. In your dogged but ill-considered attempts to subvert previous agreements and to scupper the possibility of peace--except for the peace of the graveyard and of exile, premised on the "total transfer" or "disappearance" of the Palestinian entity--you are bringing turmoil to the region. This you probably planned for. It remains to be seen whether the growling of your principals in Washington will inflect your campaign of calculated terror and wanton destruction--or whether it is but a smokescreen behind which to better align the "free world's" war on "terrorism." And for the domination of resources and a global control of markets and cheap oil and "democracy."
The few days I spent there, with the delegation of the International Parliament of Writers, left me with a mixed bag of strong but conflicting impressions. How small Palestine is! How inextricably linked your peoples are. The stones everywhere. The topography of names familiar from the Bible. The beautiful light. The attempts to make the place look like Switzerland by planting out-of-place conifers. The inhospitality of the land, except for lush coastal plains. How abysmally sad the villages are, reminding one of the lifeless and apathetic towns of East Germany. The green lights in the mosques and all the unfinished habitations. The ugliness of the architecture everywhere--the ubiquitous light-gray limestone building blocks. The inanity of your occupation--all those lit-up detour roads built for the exclusive use of settlers and Israeli citizens. The surly pettiness of your controls at checkpoints, having little to do with security and everything with the primitive urge to humiliate, frustrate, harass and drive to insane rage an occupied population. The extreme youth of your soldiers, and sadly they are so obviously well-cultivated boys and girls. The ruthless rapaciousness with which you destroy the possible Palestinian economy and steal their goods. The ancient revenge--bulldozing houses, destroying olive groves. The equally primitive sight of armed positions under camouflage netting and Israeli flags in commandeered houses. Your vaunted "democratic" media lying to your own people, denying the war crimes carried out by your troops. The Berlin walls around your settlements in Gaza (and behind them university extensions, research institutes, American-linked hotels, golf courses), and then the rubble of destroyed Palestinian quarters looking now like Ground Zero. The way little kids looked us straight in the eye, apparently uncowed, but then we were told that they're probably all traumatized not only by the hovering dogs of your gunships and your prehistoric tanks and your men in uniform shooting at everything that moves, but by all the hyperactive adults around them. The old kerchiefed women in some refugee camp screaming that you, Sharon, will never make them move, that they chased away your soldiers "like dogs." Proffering abuse, also, at the spineless Arab states and the cowardice of their own Palestinian Authority. The ebullience of the intellectuals and artists under siege in Ramallah--arguing, laughing at their own plight. How they all say, "We don't want to be heroes, we don't want to be victims, we just want to lead normal lives." Their wry despair. Mahmoud Darwish: "There is too much history and too many prophets in this small land." The visit to Abu Ammar, Yasir Arafat, a holed fox, his waxed yellow hands clinging to the empty clichés of "a peace of the brave" and "the conscience of the international community." A bourgeois lady lamenting the desecration of the Palestinian landscape. And a human rights lawyer claiming: "We are grateful to Sharon for two things--he united all the Palestinian factions and he took away every option except to resist." Later on, the same haunted man, chain-smoking and with the sweat of death already on him, remarked bitterly that repression has penetrated the skin of the people, and that now they have nothing else to defend themselves with except their skins. Thus the human bombs.
For these will be my contrasted conclusions: You have not broken the spirit of the Palestinian people. Quite the contrary--they are now more resolute than ever to build a state; it doesn't matter how much you bully them. They saw the renewed onslaught coming, they knew you were but playing footsy with General Zinni--probably in agreement with Dick Cheney. They also know that, since you have now made them stronger, you must strike harder and deeper, because you are caught in a conundrum of your own making. Like Bush in his crusade against the infidel and the disobedient, you have to accelerate your distention of international public ethics and flaunt common sense even more, and throw good moral money after bad political assessments. They know that nothing they can do will appease you, short of turning turtle. They fear you will have to compound this crime against humanity which you are committing at present, that you may indeed break their hopes for a secular, modern and democratic state responsible to its population, and bring forth the devil among them. They also know that this will profoundly divide and weaken Israel.
But you don't care, do you ?
This is the pity and the horror. The pity and the horror.