South African Nobelist Coetzee on Israel and apartheid: ‘Draw your own conclusions’

Israel/Palestine
on 8 Comments

 

Rarely are introductions more gripping than main acts, yet that was the case with keynote author J.M. Coetzee’s reading last night at the Palestine Festival of Literature. Now in its ninth year, the arts fair brings together literary giants and up-and-comers to tour Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, where the writers give free recitals and workshops along the way.

The authors traveled by bus, lugging their suitcases through checkpoint turn-stiles. Among their day trips, they followed locals down the divided streets of Hebron, and explored the now chic Israeli gallery town of Ein Hod, which was a Palestinian village before 1948. The original inhabitants were forbidden to return and instead gaze upon their former homes from a hilltop two kilometers away under the peculiar status of a “present absentee,” which is legal-speak for those who shall remain dispossessed.

Such sites are bound to affect a tourist.

If that tourist is also a legendary South African intellectual known for diving into the dynamics of race and country and the force of empire, such as Coetzee, then this tourist’s analysis becomes the most anticipated event of the night.

Coetzee is not known as being much of a publicity man. He is by no means a recluse, but he gives interviews sparingly, and did not sit for one while attending the literature festival.

His books garner acclaim and are taught across the globe in university classrooms in a range of disciplines from English to critical race theory. He won a Nobel Prize in literature in 2003 for among other achievements his first novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), a parable for South Africa or any fading colonial outpost.

“I was born and brought up in South Africa and so naturally people ask me what I see of South Africa in the present situation in Palestine,” Coetzee said at the Ramallah closing event of the literature festival, standing on a stone and earthen stage in the courtyard of a great Ottoman building. The audience was a mix of well-to-do artistic types, hipsters, students and the West Bank’s hard-working and under paid professional class. They have one thing on their mind: did you find apartheid here?

Probably, but Coetzee did not say outright.

He explained he knows what apartheid looks like, its mechanics, but avoids throwing around the term. “Like using the word genocide to describe what happened in Turkey in the 1920s, using the word apartheid diverts one into the inflamed semantic wrangle, with which cuts short the opportunities of analysis,” he said.

“Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation based on race or ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest particular to cement its hold on the land and natural resources,” Coetzee said, relaying this definition almost verbatim in application to Jerusalem and the West Bank, minus the word apartheid.

Ultimately, Coetzee landed on “Draw your own conclusions,” to which he received an even louder round of applause than when the DJ was announced to take stage about an hour later.

Coetzee read from a prepared statement handwritten on unlined sheets of paper, recited in the fashion of a poet reading prose. (Read Coetzee’s full introduction at the bottom of this post)

For its part, the Israeli government has found the apartheid comparison particularly rancorous. With the word becoming exceedingly common among pro-Palestinian activists, Israel’s Prime Minister has gone to the lengths of asking other governments to remove its use from public spaces. Finance minister Yair Lapid said earlier this year Israeli apartheid posters in London’s underground metro were “antisemitic” and “anti-Israel.”

In 2008 the Palestine Festival of Literature began with a commitment to embody Edward Said’s words of, “the power of culture over the culture of power.”

From May 21st to May 26th the writers performed for primarily Palestinian audiences, reading from their published works. For some it doubled as a return to a homeland.

“My mother’s side is from Yaffa and my father’s side is from Haifa and Nazareth,” spoken word poet and Palestinian-American Remi Kanazi said when performing a piece about a 2014 visit. The emotional backdrop of that visit: “a very intensely awesome and proud Palestinian mother and family and coming back to Palestine for the first time, and always kind of feeling unrooted and wanting to grasp onto the ground that I was with and wasn’t able to properly do so.”

Although not everyone coming home was able to get home.

British-Palestinian Ahmad Masoud was denied entry at the border with Jordan. He wrote a blog post about the experience, which left him in tears hugging the festival’s organizer and saying goodbye to a new friend, festival participant and Manhattan bookstore owner Sarah McNally:

“‘What does that even mean?’ I was genuinely confused

‘Go back to Gaza’ he carried on

“’But I can’t’ I bloody can’t, I damn can’t, I truly and honestly can’t,” wrote Masoud whose words were read aloud to the Ramallah audience by a fellow writer.

For others, the festival marked a return to a temporary place of residence. Author Ben Ehrenreich journeyed to participate in the literature fete weeks before the publication of his latest book, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (2016).

Have things changed since he was here at the beginning of the year, no. “I’ve only been back a few days and I wish I could say otherwise, but my superficial impression is that the situation around the West Bank is one of general paralysis,” he told Mondoweiss.

“Everyone I speak with seems quite depressed, and more so than usual. Arrests are up, demolitions are up, land is being seized at an accelerated pace, and the last eight months have only brought more funerals,” Ehrenreich said.

Both Ehrenreich and Kanazi are friends of this site. We wish them well.

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE - MAY 27: Remi Kanazi performs at the closing event at the Sakakini Cultural Centre May 27, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE – MAY 27: Remi Kanazi performs at the closing event at the Sakakini Cultural Centre May 27, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

NABLUS, PALESTINE - MAY 25: Festival participant J.M. Coetzee takes a set of headphones at a public event in the Municipal Library Gardens on May 25, 2016 in Nablus, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

NABLUS, PALESTINE – MAY 25: Festival participant J.M. Coetzee takes a set of headphones at a public event in the Municipal Library Gardens on May 25, 2016 in Nablus, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE - MAY 27: Festival goers listen to J.M. Coetzee read at the closing event at the Sakakini Cultural Centre May 27, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE – MAY 27: Festival goers listen to J.M. Coetzee read at the closing event at the Sakakini Cultural Centre May 27, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE - MAY 21: A table of merchandise for sale at the opening event of the annual Palestine Festival of Literature at The Ottoman Court on May 21, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE – MAY 21: A table of merchandise for sale at the opening event of the annual Palestine Festival of Literature at The Ottoman Court on May 21, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

EIN HOD, PALESTINE - MAY 25: Festival participants visit Ein Hod, an Israeli artist colony in a former Palestinian village, one of very few that wasn't destroyed in 1948 on May 25, 2016 in Ein Hod, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

EIN HOD, PALESTINE – MAY 25: Festival participants visit Ein Hod, an Israeli artist colony in a former Palestinian village, one of very few that wasn’t destroyed in 1948 on May 25, 2016 in Ein Hod, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE - MAY 23: Festival participant Remi Kanazi poses for a selfie with a student at Bethlehem University on May 23, 2016 in Bethlehem, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE – MAY 23: Festival participant Remi Kanazi poses for a selfie with a student at Bethlehem University on May 23, 2016 in Bethlehem, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

HEBRON, PALESTINE - MAY 24: Festival participant Rickey Laurentiis walks through a checkpoint in Hebron on May 24, 2016 in Hebron, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

HEBRON, PALESTINE – MAY 24: Festival participant Rickey Laurentiis walks through a checkpoint in Hebron on May 24, 2016 in Hebron, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

QALANDIA, PALESTINE - MAY 22: Festival participants travel through the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah on May 21, 2016 in Qalandia, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

QALANDIA, PALESTINE – MAY 22: Festival participants travel through the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah on May 21, 2016 in Qalandia, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE - MAY 22: Raja Shehadeh reads to festival participants during a walk in hills on the outskirts of Ramallah on May 21, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE – MAY 22: Raja Shehadeh reads to festival participants during a walk in hills on the outskirts of Ramallah on May 21, 2016 in Ramallah, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE - MAY 23: Festival participants walk along the wall on May 23, 2016 in Bethlehem, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE – MAY 23: Festival participants walk along the wall on May 23, 2016 in Bethlehem, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

HEBRON, PALESTINE - MAY 24: Festival participants walk through an area of the city inhabited by Israeli settlers on May 24, 2016 in Hebron, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

HEBRON, PALESTINE – MAY 24: Festival participants walk through an area of the city inhabited by Israeli settlers on May 24, 2016 in Hebron, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

HAIFA, PALESTINE - MAY 24: Festival participants pose for a photograph at the Mediterranean coast on May 24, 2016 in Haifa, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

HAIFA, PALESTINE – MAY 24: Festival participants pose for a photograph at the Mediterranean coast on May 24, 2016 in Haifa, Palestine. (Rob Stothard for The Palestine Festival of Literature)

J.M, Coetzee’s full introduction:

I came to Palestine to see and listen and learn and over the course of the past week I have seen and heard and learned a great deal. I come away with an enduring impression of the courage and the resilience of the Palestinian people at this difficult time in their history. Also of the grace and humor with which they respond to the frustration and the humiliations of the occupation.

I was born and brought up in South Africa and so naturally people ask me what I see of South Africa in the present situation in Palestine. Using the word apartheid to describe the way things are here, I’ve never found to be a productive step. Like using the word genocide to describe what happened in Turkey in the 1920s, using the word apartheid diverts one into the inflamed semantic wrangle, with which cuts short the opportunities of analysis. Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation based on race or ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest particular to cement its hold on the land and natural resources. In Jerusalem and in the West Bank—to speak only of Jerusalem and the West Bank—we’ve seen a system of enforced segregation based on religion and ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive self-defined group to consolidate the colonial conquest, in particular to maintain and indeed extend its hold on the land and its natural resources. Draw your own conclusions.

 

 

About Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Mondoweiss.net. Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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8 Responses

  1. Pixel
    May 28, 2016, 2:37 pm

    Perfect.

  2. Andreas Schlueter
    May 28, 2016, 5:24 pm

    Great post! And we shouldn´t forhet: Israel was the most open ally of Apartheid South Africa! And over the two: the US Power Elite! And the racist Apartheid Spirit lives on also in the US Neocon Power Elite:
    “US Power Elite Declared War on the Southern Hemisphere, East Asia and all Non-Western Countries in September 2000”: https://wipokuli.wordpress.com/2016/03/13/us-power-elite-declared-war-on-the-southern-hemisphere-east-asia-and-all-non-western-countries-in-september-2000/
    Andreas Schlüter
    Sociologist
    Berlin, Germany

    • Misterioso
      May 31, 2016, 4:18 pm

      For the record re apartheid South Africa:

      Hendrik Verwoerd, then prime minister of South Africa and the architect of South Africa’s apartheid policies, 1961: “The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years [actually, for thousands of years]. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” (Rand Daily Mail, November 23, 1961)

      Jacobus Johannes Fouché, South African Minister of Defence during the apartheid era, compared the two states and said that Israel also practiced apartheid.
      (Gideon Shimoni (1980). Jews and Zionism: The South African Experience 1910-1967. Cape Town: Oxford UP. pp. 310–336. ISBN 0195701798.)

      Ronnie Kasrils, key player in the struggle against the former South African apartheid regime, minister for intelligence in the current government and a devout Jew: “The Palestinian minority in Israel has for decades been denied basic equality in health, education, housing and land possession, solely because it is not Jewish. The fact that this minority is allowed to vote hardly redresses the rampant injustice in all other basic human rights. They are excluded from the very definition of the ‘Jewish state’, and have virtually no influence on the laws, or political, social and economic policies. Hence, their similarity to the black South Africans [under apartheid].” (The Guardian, 25 May 2005)

      “Former Foreign Ministry director-general invokes South Africa comparisons. ‘Joint Israel-West Bank’ reality is an apartheid state”
      EXCERPT: “Similarities between the ‘original apartheid’ as it was practiced in South Africa and the situation in ISRAEL [my emphasis] and the West Bank today ‘scream to the heavens,’ added [Alon] Liel, who was Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria from 1992 to 1994. There can be little doubt that the suffering of Palestinians is not less intense than that of blacks during apartheid-era South Africa, he asserted.” (Times of Israel, February 21, 2013)

  3. lysias
    May 28, 2016, 7:34 pm

    What happened in Turkey during the 19 teens (only the tail end of it happened in the 1920s) most definitely was genocide. Indeed, Raphael Lemkin had the treatment of the Armenians at the time in mind when he coined the term “genocide”.

    Similarly, what is going on in Israel/Palestine today most definitely is apartheid. Perhaps using the term inflames people, but shouldn’t they be inflamed on the matter?

  4. chocopie
    May 29, 2016, 1:05 am

    Preventing Ahmad Masoud from participating in PalFest is simply gratuitous cruelty. But that’s Zionism.

    Glad to see PalFest continues to attract very important, high-profile writers and artists, as well as younger artists who are still developing and have many years ahead of them.

  5. David Doppler
    May 29, 2016, 6:03 pm

    I nice technique worthy of a Nobel laureate wordsmith: describe in your own words the commonality between two systems you would compare, thereby avoiding the labels that can be hijacked into “label-discussion” as a way to avoid discussing the real issues.

  6. Talkback
    May 30, 2016, 8:14 am

    ““Apartheid was a system of enforced segregation based on race or ethnicity, put in place by an exclusive, self defined group in order to consolidate colonial conquest particular to cement its hold on the land and natural resources,” Coetzee said, relaying this definition almost verbatim in application to Jerusalem and the West Bank, minus the word apartheid.”

    The international defiinition of the Crime of Apartheid even goes far beyond this:
    “Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including … the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, …”

    So forget about East Jerusalem or the Westbank. Israel has been an Apartheid state from the get go by not transfering its new nationality unto all of its habitual residents who were citizens of mandate state of Palestine, but chose to expell them either directly or post facto by preventing them to return.

    • Misterioso
      May 31, 2016, 4:27 pm

      For the record:

      Shlomo Gazit, retired IDF Major General: “[Israel’s] legal system that enforces the law in a discriminatory way on the basis of national identity, is actually maintaining an apartheid regime.” (Haaretz, July 19, 2011)

      http://www.haaretz.com/the-racist-entity-that-is-taking-over-israel-must-be-toppled-1.345929
      “The Racist Entity That Is Taking Over Israel Must Be Toppled”
      Haaretz, Feb 27, 2011 by Sefi Rachlevsky
      “…Israel has built a world where the Jews are citizens and the Arabs are not, both in the occupied territories and in Jerusalem; where a Jewish man is a citizen and his Arab neighbor is not. Most Jewish first-graders attend ultra-Orthodox and religious schools. The majority of them are educated along the lines of ‘The King’s Torah.’ A Jew is human. A non-Jew is non-human. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ does not apply to non-Jews. And this is not delivered in the form of incitement, but as a simple statement of a fact. As simple as calling a chair a chair.”

      One example of apartheid within Israel:
      http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1134898.html
      Ha’aretz, Dec. 14/09: “Jewish town won’t let Arab build home on his own land ”

      Excerpt: “Aadel Suad first came to the planning and construction committee of the Misgav Local Council in 1997. Suad, an educator, was seeking a construction permit to build a home on a plot of land he owns in the community of Mitzpeh Kamon. The reply he got, from a senior official on the committee, was a memorable one. ‘Don’t waste your time,’ he reportedly told Suad. ‘We’ll keep you waiting for 30 years.’”

      “…EU broadside over plight of Israel’s Arabs”
      EXCERPT: “The confidential 27-page draft prepared by European diplomats… [shows] that Israeli Arabs suffer ‘economic disparities… unequal access to land and housing… discriminatory draft legislation and a political climate in which discriminatory rhetoric and practice go unsanctioned.'” (The Independent, Dec. 27/2011)

      In its 2015 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for ISRAEL [my emphasis] and the occupied Palestinian territories, the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor acknowledges the “institutional and societal discrimination against Arab citizens of
      ISRAEL [my emphasis].” (U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015 Israel and The Occupied Territories, http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm?year=2015&dlid=252927#wrapper)

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