In just a few days since the passing of Nelson Mandela, and as South Africans begin a 10-day mourning period for their elder statesman, a slew of articles have been written about his stance regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Of particular interest have been his sympathies towards the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its head, Yasser Arafat.
Whilst anti-Israel types fawn over Mandela’s legacy and point towards his support for the PLO and his relative antipathy towards the Jewish state as proof of the righteousness of their cause, supporters of Israel seem to be divided. Whilst some scramble to salvage some “brownie points”, by pointing out that “Madiba’s” support for the PLO did not extend to negating Israel’s right to exist (which is apparently how low the bar has sunk these days), others lazily write him off as an anti-Israel “Marxist”, and end it at that.
Both are wrong.
Was Mandela close to the PLO, a terrorist group sworn to the destruction of the State of Israel and which has been responsible for the cold-blooded murder of countless Israeli civilians? Yes, he was. It is indeed ironic that whereas Mandela fought for the rights of the indigenous people of South Africa, when it came to the Middle East he sided with one of the groups which has always stood at the forefront of the push for Arab colonization, the Arabization of other indigenous nations and the eradication or appropriation of the legacies of non-Arab peoples.
And if any more proof were needed of his moral failure when it came to the Middle East, there was his friendship with former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which he once defended by proclaiming that “those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Gaddafi can go jump in the pool.”
Again, the irony of that relationship was not simply that Gaddafi was a monstrous violator of human rights, but more specifically that he too was a key figure in the Arab colonialist project, who systematically sought to wipe out the Amazigh (Berber) people who are indigenous to northern Africa, and who ethnically-cleansed the entire Jewish population of Libya.
So, yes, Mandela was far from the infallible, universal icon of human rights he has been portrayed as. But instead of attacking him or seeking to deny the facts, we should ask ourselves two questions.
Firstly: why do we care? Mandela fought a just war against the forces of apartheid, but that did not make him infallible, and nor did it somehow confer upon him the kind of demi-god status which so many accolades attributed to him. He was a man – a great man, no doubt – but a man nonetheless. And men get things wrong. He fought for African rights in Africa, but what did he really know about the Middle East? His silence regarding the ongoing slavery of black Africans in Arab states, and the deeply-embedded racism within Arab society at large indicated that he knew precious little about the region.
But secondly – and more essentially – we must ask what drew Mandela to the likes of Yasser Arafat and Colonel Gaddafi in the first place.
The answer will be uncomfortable for many supporters of Israel to hear, but it must be said, because it exposes precisely how anti-Israel groups have succeeded in manipulating the discourse to their advantage and in gaining so many fellow travelers. And, more appropriately for this period of reflection so soon after his passing, the answer to that question will help us learn something from the life of such an undeniably remarkable man.
For although Mandela was no Middle East expert he understood well the discourse of “resistance” – a discourse which the proponents of Arab imperialism have so successfully, and so perversely, managed to co-opt for their own benefit: from PLO to Gaddafi, and from the genocidal Hamas to the bloodthirsty Assad – who continues preaching “resistance” even as he butchers his own people, and who issued a statement mourning the anti-apartheid hero even as he fights to preserve minority Alawite rule in Syria.
Mandela was a man who had the courage to sacrifice everything to challenge a powerful system of oppression and injustice which was determined to crush him. His moral clarity in the fight against apartheid gave him the strength to sit in jail for a quarter of a century without compromising his principles one iota. But more astonishingly, it enabled him to emerge from his imprisonment without bitterness, but with a deep-seated and genuine will to continue to change the world – this time through reconciliation as well as justice.
Such a moral and ideological giant cannot be conveniently dismissed because we don’t like everything he said.
Instead, we must honestly and openly ask: why? Why would such a man – the hero of the African liberation movement – side with the enemies of Zionism, the Jewish liberation movement?
Because we let it happen.
Because of successive Israeli governments whose national policies are so deeply rooted in all the insecurities and paranoia of the 2,000-year exile that they rushed to abandon the revolutionary ideals of Zionism for the peace and quiet of “normalcy”, even as they moved tantalizingly close to completing the liberation of the Jewish homeland in 1967.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the very embodiment of such a mentality, who advocates that Israel become America’s vassal state, said it best when he explained why Israel “desperately needed” the 2005 “Disengagement” from Gaza. Speaking in New York shortly before the deportation of 9,000 Jews and the destruction of their communities, he told the audience at the Israel Policy forum that “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies, we want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors.”
How should a man like Mandela look upon such a political establishment? With scorn at best and antipathy at worst. For the lack of resolve over the Jewish ownership of Judea and Samaria (and Gaza) exhibited by almost every Israeli government since 1967 can only be understood in one of two ways: either they lack the moral fiber to sacrifice for what is rightfully their’s, or it is not their’s at all.
Courage to stand alone
And it is that same raft of insecurities which is to blame for the other – equally shameful – reason for Nelson Mandela’s less-than-warm embrace of Israel: Jerusalem’s engagement with apartheid South Africa.
To be sure, it was not an alliance forged through shared values – far from it. Prior to 1967 Israel was in fact a harsh critic and staunch opponent of Pretoria, but a sense of isolation following the Six Day War triggered a shameful about-turn in relations between the two countries, and the formation of an alliance which was morally wrong, even repugnant.
The fact that the success of the militant left in isolating Israel from much of Africa and the rest of the so-called “Third World” could result in such an astonishingly quick decision to abandon ideology in favor of the crassest of pragmatism is a testament to the insecurities picked up by the Jewish exiles, scattered as minorities and huddled in ghettos desperate for someone – anyone – to throw us a rope. As the saying goes: it is harder to take the “galut” (exile) out of the Jews than it is to take the Jews out of the galut.
And yet we seem continually blind to the lessons of history, even as our Prime Minister sends his heartfelt condolences to the people of South Africa. How else can we explain the decision to send a government minister to “mend relations” (read: grovel) with the Turkish regime, which supports none other than Hamas – a group which is dedicated to committing a second holocaust? But from a wider perspective, building a relationship with a Turkish government which is responsible for attempting a cultural genocide against the Kurdish people, and which continues to provide active support to Islamist groups in Syria which seek the annihilation of the Kurdish nation, is morally wrong.
If “a bad deal is worse than no deal“, then surely having evil friends is worse than having none at all. The option of backing the Kurdish liberation movement once again over the AKP (Turkey’s answer to the Muslim Brotherhood) would both send a clear message of defiance to the proponents of Islamism, as well as putting Israel on the right side of history, regardless of Erdogan’s hissy fits.
Nelson Mandela’s legacy is one of courage, perseverance and the willingness to stand – alone if necessary – for what you know to be right. It is the wisdom to understand that all the injustices which exist today, no matter how set-in-stone they seem to be, are never permanent, and cannot withstand the iron will of a just cause.
Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and it is just for one reason and one reason only: because this land – from the river to the sea – is Jewish, and has been so for 3,500 years. We are in the right because justice is on our side. The “settlements” are just because Judea and Samaria are Jewish lands – a fact which even the Arab conquests of the 7th century could not alter.
Mandela was wrong to support Arafat, Gaddafi and all the rest of them. He and others are wrong to join the chorus of calls for Israel to cede Judea and Samaria, and are completely misguided in viewing the PLO’s cause as a just one.
But if we do not say so, loudly, firmly and with courage, how can we expect them to know?