An Open Letter to General Ariel Sharon | The Nation


An Open Letter to General Ariel Sharon

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Paris, April 7, 2002

About the Author

Breyten Breytenbach
Breyten Breytenbach is a renowned South African writer whose opposition to apartheid resulted in his being convicted of...

Also by the Author

Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing
from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign
policy and US relations with the world,
The Nation asked a number
of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections
with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in
these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European
concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was
instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements
across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans
concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of
the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid
resulted in his spending seven years in prison.

   --The Editors

Dear Jack,

This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be
a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and
its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting
out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect
one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a
bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that
concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally
extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law,
domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an
extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the
criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions
are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of
your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your
President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of
priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other
totalitarian regimes?

The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or
ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So,
talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One
must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if
you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps
even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too
close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in
Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature

Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity
despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of
national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested;
it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for
alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have
strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you
have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why,
through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even
have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe
in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral
catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can
sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam
War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm
convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.

Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and
the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of
your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and
some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk
pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical,
morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world
but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are
these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions
of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the
havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies,
destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are
they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of
this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most
likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How
deadened we have become!

In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert,
while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency,
even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy
decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The
elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and
sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals
wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out
flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the

The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is
barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake
of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's
as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was
suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That
particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses
are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation
under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson
Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate
what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker
fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that
they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative

I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image
of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking
and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes
and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many
faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing
this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members
of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic
mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and
the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and
other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.

Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it
is difficult for you to know what's happening in the world, since your
entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between
information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial
manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating
understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a
much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to
limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the
manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war
criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous
and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for
the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to
specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local
products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world
against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is
blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother's son in power in
the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us
in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has
lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of
the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the
ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has
promoted--sponsored?--the bringing about of a deleterious international
climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance,
disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America,
giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any
recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the
emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized
and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin.
And the oilfields will be safe.

I'm too harsh. I'm cutting corners. I'm pontificating. But my friend, if
you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely
perceived as a rogue state.

Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of
possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding
assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the
survival of the world? I'm referring to your propensity for patriotism
(to me it's an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a
capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that
progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self,
that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband
the planet's diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of
the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that
the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and
described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a
while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last
with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your
prostheses to heaven).

If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect
is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a
threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military
danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.

I don't want to pass the buck. Don't imagine it is necessarily any
better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own
solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically
hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the
EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and
politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its
constituent parts.

And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and
Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I've always wondered whether
Thabo Mbeki would be America's thin globalizing wedge (at the time of
Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately
going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against
America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative
to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable
enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see
the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism.
Africa's leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no
different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western,
that's all.

What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold
(against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we
must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the
article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and
expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the
murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting
our steps. It is going to be a long dance.

Let us find and respect one another.

Your friend,

Breyten Breytenbach


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.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size