Nadine Gordimer in Jerusalem Excerpts from a dialogue with South African Nobel Literature
Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer, at the Jerusalem International
Writers Conference on May 13, 2008. The dialogue, held at Tmol
Shimshom literary café, was moderated by Benjamin Pogrund,
former deputy editor of the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail and a
member of the Palestine-Israel Journal Editorial
Benjamin Pogrund: Welcome to Jerusalem. I must say that
Nadine was under a lot of pressure not to come. She phoned me a few
weeks ago; we talked about it and I left it to her. If I may say
so, I thank you for your courage, real courage because pressure
came from your comrades in the struggle. It was a tough thing to
do. Why did you decide to come?
Nadine Gordimer: I decided to come under a lot of pain,
which I felt due to the fact that friends, including Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, told me not to come, but I feel that you have to make
the decision for yourself.
Looking at the resolution of our incredible situation in South
Africa, the beginning of finding solutions is that both sides have
to talk to one another. Writers are part of the use of the word.
You have to accept being insulted. You have to accept being
questioned by your closest friends.
I didn't come under the invitation of the Israeli government. I
came at the invitation of this writers' conference. I came to talk
to my fellow writers as to what our responsibility is, as writers,
about what happens inside us. In the end, you have to see for
yourself. Here in Israel, I am going to try to see as many things
as possible while I am here and not just stay here in luxury.
In addition to being a writer, you are also a human being, a
citizen in your own country, extending from your family to your
society and the world around you. When you are born, only after
nine months, your head is shaped by the passage through the birth
canal. Once you are an individual and growing up, you go through
another shaping of your mind and spirit; it is where you live in
There is a huge difference between information and knowledge. The
inward testimony happens inside people. TV, newspapers show the
event, the crisis, the conflict. For the writer of fiction,
stories, what we do is to try to find out why people confronted the
police and the army, and how they found the courage and instinct to
do this. How did they deal with the total situation and its
Pogrund: Let me ask a question that is inevitable when you
are sitting in Jerusalem and in Israel. To what extent did being
Jewish affect and infuse your work?
Gordimer: It can only be subconsciously. I have had no
Jewish upbringing. My grandparents and parents knew they were Jews,
but they didn't go to synagogue. They didn't deny they were Jews,
but they didn't adhere to any of the customs. I wasn't brought up
with the consciousness of being brought up Jewish. There was never
any sense of denial. I luckily never suffered any threats of
anti-Semitism. I only saw us as Jews who were white and part of the
struggle against apartheid.
Pogrund: We are obviously experiencing conflict at the
moment [in Israel] and particularly have had a problem with Hamas.
I believe, and you certainly believe, that we must talk to them.
The problem is that Hamas doesn't want to talk to us, and they
don't recognize our existence.
Gordimer: Well, I will pass on advice from friends we trust:
One must pursue those who do not talk; one must keep on pressing
because what will happen? You will sit down and talk soon,
hopefully, with other Palestinians or representatives. You will
then sign some kind of treaty of agreement and then proceed from
there to discuss the existence of two states with their frontiers
justly agreed upon. After this is done, all hell will break loose
because someone who was not present at the negotiations will refuse
to accept this-for example Hamas-because they were not included.
You see this in a number of countries. So one has to keep pressing,
however distasteful, for Hamas to recognize that Israel
Audience: Can you explain why you hesitated at all to come
Gordimer: My comrades felt that my coming here, coinciding
with the 60th anniversary of Israel's celebration, was giving
credence to what is occurring in the occupied territories. I share
their feelings about the occupied territories. The violent
treatment in the occupied territories here reminds me of what
occurred in South Africa.
Audience: Have you been to the occupied territories?
Gordimer: I have been to the West Bank and Al-Quds
University. It is very different from what you read. I drove around
and I stood before the [separation] wall. It is almost a storey
high. It cuts through the people's very existence. The wall really
is a monstrosity. I have also heard people say that it is a fact
that the suicide bombers have been kept out due to the wall. I have
been presented with two sets of facts that I have to digest. War is
truly an inhuman thing.
Audience: Concerning the situation you see in the occupied
territories, can you explain your thoughts about the use of the
Gordimer: To me, it is accurate in one sense. The way people
are treated in the occupied territories is exactly the way the
blacks were treated in South Africa.
Audience: Do you believe that international pressure will
bring about change in the occupied territories? What is your
outsider opinion of the situation?
Gordimer: It took a very long time, even with international
pressure, in South Africa to bring about change. Other forms of
support meant a great deal to us. The blacks believed they had a
tremendous stake in the land, while the whites did not deny their
claim at all. As for the Israeli-Palestinian situation, this is
much more complicated.
Pogrund: What sort of reception are you receiving from
Gordimer: The Palestinians that I talked to today have been
very welcoming. I have had a good reception. They didn't reproach
me at all.
Audience: Do you see the conflict as similar to South
Africa, which is now one state? Can it be viewed as a question of
the civil rights of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel and within the
West Bank and the Gaza Strip?
Gordimer: The one-state solution is not on the negotiating
table. A two-state solution, hammered out with great difficulty and
consternation, is the only answer.
These excerpts from the dialogue were prpared for publication by