Nadine Gordimer is a great writer and had been a model engaged intellectual. One would like to believe that the qualities of the mind that make for a great writer are stable and uniform. Unfortunately that isn't true. Gordimer has a soft spot for Zionism. This week she went to Jerusalem to celebrate Israel. Jerusalem is a holy city that most people from nearby towns and villages are not allowed to visit, because they are Palestinians. From where she sat she probably had a line of sight to the place where once stood a Palestinian neighborhood that was bulldozed in 1967, its people expelled and made refugees because their houses interfered with the easy access of Jews to the Western Wall. And from that unique vantage point she made stupid, platitudinous remarks.
How, asked one woman, does she feel when she hears Israel described as an apartheid state? The writer responded judiciously: What she hears about "the methods" that Israel uses in the territories indeed "reminds me of South Africa," but "there is no historical comparison" between the situations. "Whites have no claim to even a single square inch of the whole African continent. In your country, you have two peoples with claims to the land." Gordimer also said quite clearly that it was "unacceptable prejudice" for Hamas and other Islamist groups to deny Israel its very right to existence. (Haaretz, May 13th, 2008)
So, according to "Gordimer in Jerusalem", historical situations must be judged and compared according to the grand ideologies that dominate them and that are used to justify the unjustifiable. What actually happens to people, the reality of life, what Gordimer use to call 'being,' is now secondary and not truly "historical." As if what was deficient about South African Apartheid was not what it did to people, but the poor quality of its "claims to the land." Thank God this isn't how Gordimer wrote her fiction, else she would have been quite anonymous today. Can one more completely betray the ethics of one's writing than she did with this endorsement of bullshit over empathy? Here is how Gordimer--the intelligent, fully within her senses Gordimer--used to define that ethics:
The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties, trusts the state of being, as it is revealed, to hold somewhere in its complexity filaments of the cord of truth, able to be bound together, here and there, in art: trusts the state of being to yield somewhere fragmentary phrases of truth, which is the final word of words, never changed by our stumbling efforts to spell it out and write it down, never changed by lies, by semantic sophistry, by the dirtying of the word for the purposes of racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs. (Gordimer, Writing and Being)
Oh how far this is from Jerusalem:
"Whites have no claim to even a single square inch of the whole African continent. In your country, you have two peoples with claims to the land."
Namely, a man whose grand parents moved to Brooklyn from the Ukraine, where his family lived for as far as family memory goes, has a "claim" on Jerusalem based on fictional kinship with people who lived there 2,000 years ago. And not just any claim, but a claim strong enough to justify dispossessing the current owners. But a White Afrikaner women who's ancestors took part in the colonization of South Africa in the seventeenth century and who never set foot outside Africa and has no family outside Africa has, according to Gordimer, no claim to live in Africa. For "Gordimer in Jerusalem," stultified by inhaling Zionism, particular human existence is nothing. Only the abstractions of race and nationality are real.
This ties directly into Gordimer's uninformed, and by all account, willfully uninformed, comment on "Israel's right to exist". This right is not only denied by Hamas. It is denied by anyone on the left side of the Enlightenment divide, that is on the side that sees states as instruments that ought to be made to serve human needs. On the other side of that divide, the side of political theology, are the inheritors of the "divine rights of kings". That is the side of De Maistre, Carl Schmitt and, in a long moment of stupidity, Martin Heidegger. It is also the side Nadine Gordimer chose to sit on in Jerusalem.
"Israel" is a state based on Apartheid, on "racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs." It has no more right to exist than a hammer has a right to smash skulls. That has no bearing on the rights of Israel's Jewish residents, who ought to have the same rights that everyone has, just as White South Africans have a right to continue to live in the country where they were born. Neither ought to have the right to oppress and to exclude.
Nadine Gordimer betrayed her allegiance to justice by ignoring the call for solidarity with Palestinians and going to Jerusalem to participate in a propaganda event funded by the Foreign Ministry of Apartheid Israel. She also betrayed herself and her art. This is what inhaling Zionism does to people.
In explaining her decision to visit Jerusalem, Gordimer assures us of her good faith:
"My solidarity with our struggle against apartheid surely can leave no doubt in the minds of my comrades and others concerned that I do not support the present (Israeli) government of their country and deplore many of its actions." (IOL)Gordimer therefore portrays her decision to come to Jerusalem as a tactical disagreement relating to the weapon of boycott. If that were true, her decision would merely be another example of White arrogance and privilege. It is not Nadine Gordimer's job, no matter how important she thinks she is, to decide where the picket line should be. Her job is not to cross it. And she did.
But unfortunately this is not a case of mere arrogance. Gordimer is simply not an ally of the anti-Apartheid struggle in Israel. To say one opposes "the current government" is a clear choice of words. It means that Gordimer supports the regime in Israel. Her past struggle against Apartheid is therefore irrelevant if not doubly damning. She is FOR APARTHEID. Because that is the regime in Israel. And her refusal to grant historical significance to the similarities between Apartheid South Africa and Apartheid Israel is not a mere quibble. In addition to negating the very core of her literary sensibility, it reflects an acceptance of a particular reading of the map based on taking the side of and accepting the framework of Zionism.
And here is some more corroboration: Ellis Sharp brought up the story of Gordimer's falling out with her biographer. Among other issues
Roberts said he and Gordimer “deadlocked” over her insistence he rework passages criticizing her Middle East politics, including her reluctance to equate the Israeli- Palestinian conflict with apartheid South Africa. (The Times, December 31, 2006)