Posted by: Lister | May 26, 2007

Levy interviews Kasrils

I thought I’d start a new page on Ronnie Kasrils, becuase this interview by Gideon Levy needs to top my post list for a while. It’s worth reading the beginning of the article also.

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.

[…] “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.”

Hat tip JSF


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