East Timor Nobel laureate, in S.F., speaks out for Jews

"The Jewish people are historically the most oppressed people in the world," said Jose Ramos-Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner from East Timor. "They've been persecuted for 2,000 years."

Ramos-Horta, a guest speaker at a conference held in San Francisco last week with the Dalai Lama, spoke about his concerns for Jews.

"We must speak out time and again against racism…and against anti-Semitism," said the exiled freedom fighter whose troubled, tiny island lies 300 miles off Australia.

Ramos-Horta, who is Catholic, was among 100 writers, community organizers and political activists sharing the stage with the Dalai Lama at the event, titled "Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence."

The conference, held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, was sponsored by Tibet House of New York, and co-sponsored by the California Institute of Integral Studies.

In seven public appearances, addressing several thousand people, Ramos-Horta talked in-depth, and lovingly, about the Jewish people.

Twice a day in plenary sessions, the Dalai Lama, Ramos-Horta and Guatemalan activist Anita Menchu, the sister of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, regaled audiences with lessons on peacemaking, forgiveness and strategies for global rebuilding.

Other speakers and workshop leaders who appeared during the event included Harry Wu, Dolores Huerta, Bernadine Dohrn, Mimi Silbert, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Alice Walker, Jerry Brown and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

For two decades, Ramos-Horta has led a campaign against the Indonesian government, which invaded his country in 1976. Three of his brothers and a sister have perished in the conflict.

Last year in his acceptance speech, East Timor's Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with Ramos-Horta, said that 200,000 people out of the island's pre-1976 population of 900,000 had died from violence, starvation, imprisonment and persecution.

"Why do people discriminate for centuries against the Jews?" Ramos-Horta said softly in an interview.

The activist said he has a very personal connection with Jewish culture. Citing Jewish roots that date back hundreds of years, he said members of his family were victims of the Inquisition.

"With a native Timorese mother and Portuguese father, I can trace back my Jewish background to the period when Jews were forced to convert to Christianity. My name is a very typical Jewish name in Portugal," he said. "But even before I knew that I had some Jewish background, I was always fascinated by the Jewish history.

"If only people were to read Jewish history, and read about its culture, its creative thinking, its contribution to humanity, they would see that [Jews] are extraordinary people.

"Sometimes I wonder if there has been any nation in human history that has been so persecuted and humiliated and then finally threatened [with] its very extinction," he said. "Humanity should be ashamed of what was done to the Jews."

Asked why he links the Jewish experience to current tragedies in East Timor and in other countries facing genocidal conflict, he said, "We are all part of one race: the human race. The suffering and tragedies of people belong to all of us."

While he cited historical examples of injustices perpetrated against humanity, he also talked about courageous people like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and Oskar Schindler, who acted with strength and compassion.

In one of his final talks at the conference, Ramos-Horta told how, in the summer of 1940, thousands of desperate refugees lined up outside the Portuguese embassy in Bordeaux, France, hoping to see Consul General Aristides de Sousa Mendes.

Although the Portuguese Ministry strictly forbade the issuance of visas to refugees, the consul did not turn them away. In three days, de Sousa Mendes wrote more than 30,000 visas, 10,000 of which were given to Jews.

"At the time," Ramos-Horta soberly reflected, "Portugal was a so-called neutral country — neutral like Spain, like Switzerland. The fascist regime, though neutral, was profiting from the war."

He went on to explain that after the war, "de Sousa Mendes was fired. His 14 children were dispersed and he died soon after in a poorhouse.

"I've always had an instinct for the underdog, for the oppressed," he said.

"I've always admired Jews because for too long they were the underdog, the oppressed. They resurrected and survived and not too many people can frighten or threaten them today."