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Jewish Journal

The South African

by Rob Eshman

March 31, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Not long ago journalist Hirsh Goodman was sitting in his office at Tel Aviv University, where he belongs to a think tank. Watching Arab and Jewish students mingle, it occurred to him that despite three years of horrific Palestinian-Israeli violence, Arab and Jewish Israelis had not come close to turning on one another.

"No one here is arguing that there is not much to be done in Israel to improve relations between Arab and Jew," he wrote in a column soon afterward. "We all understand we are skating on thin ice. But between that and Israel being an apartheid or racist state is a far jump indeed."

The reason Goodman's words carry extra authority will become clear to anyone who reads his excellent new memoir, "Let Me Create a Paradise, God Said To Himself: A Journey of Conscience From Johannesburg to Jerusalem" (Perseus Books Group). Anyone who equates Israel with an apartheid state should be left in a quiet room with a copy of the book. If anyone can compare the old South Africa with the current Israel, it's Goodman.

Goodman was a defense correspondent for The Jerusalem Post for 16 years and founding editor of The Jerusalem Report. But his book begins long before he set foot in Israel, as a Jew growing up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

"Apartheid South Africa was a cruel and vicious society.... As with almost everything else in South Africa, it was convenient not to question 'why.' You traveled on white-only buses and sat on white-only benches and swam at white-only beaches and went to white-only schools and never gave it a thought.... It was considered a civilized way of life," he writes.

Goodman's eventual disgust with the oppressive social system of his beloved country led him to immigrate to Israel as a young man.

After serving in the army, he found his way into journalism, becoming one of the country's most distinguished and insightful commentators.

His new book is part memoir, part heartfelt analysis of where Israel is today. The two are linked -- Goodman's memories of what South Africa was provoke his concerns about what Israel, God forbid, could become.

Goodman wasn't always a critic.

The turning point came after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which caused devastating losses for Israel and almost led the nation to ruin. Before that, Goodman had played the loyal Israeli, reporting almost unquestioningly whatever top officials and commanders told him. After 1973, he realized he did Israel a greater service by remaining skeptical.

He watched with concern as one Israeli government after another extended the country's settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Goodman saw very clearly that the Jewish state would face a choice between being a democratic and just society or the kind of country he grew to despise in South Africa.

"When I listen to those in Israeli politics who want to keep the territories and believe that power can resolve all, I am reminded of how the Afrikaners put a lot of energy into creating a nuclear weapon that was supposed to have guaranteed their staying in power forever," he writes. "The problem ... was that it was useless against the real threat to their regime, the challenge from within."

Goodman was in Los Angeles earlier this month promoting his book, and we had lunch at his hotel in Beverly Hills.

These days -- despite the more ominous tone in his book -- the vigorous 59-year-old is optimistic that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in pushing for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, has put Israel back on the right path.

"You have to cut your losses," he said, his South African accent still very much intact. "It's like in poker: Don't put in good money after bad. Having 6,000 Jews living in a sea of 1 million Palestinians and sitting on 40 percent of the arable land just doesn't make any sense."

I asked Goodman why Sharon, the architect of the settlement movement, suddenly decided to reverse course, at least on Gaza.

"He built the settlements as a security consideration," Goodman said.

Once in office, Sharon saw things very differently: he had four brigades tied down in Gaza to protect 6,000 Israelis; Israel was spending $300 million each year on the territories in the midst of a financial crisis; the Bush administration was pushing for resolution; and trade, tourism and investment were suffering. Not least of all, a solid majority of Israelis supported withdrawal.

"The settlements have gone from a security asset to a security liability," he said. "Israel at the end of the day is a very pragmatic country."

This week, the Knesset voted against scheduling a separate referendum on the withdrawal, which is set to go forward in July.

"It's going to be ugly and the settlers are going to make it as traumatic as possible, so people will say, 'Holy s---, we're not going to repeat this on the West Bank.' But I think between offering good compensation and planning in advance, it will work," Goodman said. "This is a unilateral Israeli decision made from a position of strength."

I mentioned to Goodman one parallel between Israeli occupation and South African apartheid that struck me in his book. Just as some West Bank settlers support their positions by quoting biblical texts, so did Afrikaners. They justified apartheid by citing the biblical passage that tells of how Ham mocked Noah in his nakedness, so God punished Ham by making him black. As though that justified mistreating that country's black citizens.

It can't have been easy to have lived in two societies so torn by religious certainty and political strife.

Goodman smiled. "Maybe in my next life," he said, " I'll choose an easier place."

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