Nelson Mandela’s death evoked a worldwide outpouring of respect and love. Jewish leaders, from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (to South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein to President Obama, praised his greatness. Netanyahu called him “a freedom fighter who rejected any violence” and “a moral leader of the highest order.”
Yet there is an undercurrent of unease about Mandela in the Jewish community. After all, he embraced Yasir Arafat, variously calling him a “brother” and a “comrade in arms.” In 1990, he declared, “We do not reject the PLO as a terrorist organization.” In 2000, in a show trial, Iran falsely convicted 13 Iranian Jews of espionage for Israel. When Mandela defended the trial as “free and fair,” the American Jewish Committee cancelled its planned dinner honoring him for humanitarianism and statesmanship.
We must remember that when South Africa became independent, the whites created an oppressive, racist system and tightened it until it became the morally despicable system of apartheid, which denied blacks civil rights, including the right to vote.
Nelson Mandela and his friends courageously stood up for Africans’ full human dignity and rights. He started as a person committed to non-violence. However, in the face of tightening repression and especially after the Sharpeville incident in which 57 Africans peacefully demonstrating for their rights were shot to death by the police, Mandela and his circle concluded that only armed resistance could bring down the government and turned to violence. This gave the government the excuse to arrest and try him. He was imprisoned for 27 years.
During this period, Mandela and the ANC received support primarily from Arab and Third World dictators. Mandela’s allies denied Israel’s right to exist, portrayed their own struggle as one of human rights against colonialism, and practiced terrorism in the name of liberation. In the 1960s, Israel [then led by the Socialist Mapai party] reached out to Africa and Asia — offering aid to strengthen their economies and training for their nascent unions and civil rights movements. However after 1967 the Communist bloc/Arab joint economic and ideological pressures led most African and Asian nations to break relations with Israel. The Jewish state, having shifted to a Western orientation, also cooperated with the South African government (as did the United States). This reached an apex in Israel’s dash to attain nuclear power-where the South African government supplied needed sources of uranium and technical support.
Nevertheless, thanks to the spread of democratic values — such as the triumph of the civil rights movement in the United States — and a massive shift in public opinion, South Africa was deservedly labeled racist and apartheid. It was isolated, sanctioned, boycotted and investment divested — until the white government yielded and released Mandela. He renounced violence and was elected president.
Here, Mandela showed further moral greatness. He chose not to revenge decades of oppression and exploitation. He rejected the calls to drive out the whites. He protected minority rights and insisted on building a new South Africa together. He checked some of his comrades in arms, including his wife, Winnie, who wanted to impose radical economic policies that would also have driven out many whites. In truth, he did not solve the problem of poverty. However, he allowed a capitalist system to evolve, which hopefully can solve the problem eventually. Some of his comrades turned to self-enrichment. Others continue to push for radical economic policies. He remained moderate in policy and personally honest.
Mandela’s model of democracy and reconciliation is a shining example that deserves the love and respect shown to him on his death. Jews, too, should treasure and honor such a moral role model — all too rare in the annals of modern liberation movements.
Despite his personal policy at home, Mandela did not challenge or critique the policies of his comrades in arms abroad. He embraced abusive tyrants like Kaddafy in Libya and Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Having switched from non-violence himself, Mandela accepted their rationalizations as they turned armed resistance into terrorism. He did not employ or accept the Arabs’ genocidal language vis á vis Israel, but he did not rebuke or publicly condemn the Arafat/Palestinian continuing search for revenge. He spoke to the Jewish Board of Deputies in London and asserted that Israel should give over the West Bank to a Palestinian state — but not unless the Arabs first recognized the Jewish state. In 1999 he said: “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if the Arab states do not recognize Israel under secure borders.”
In short, Mandela is a moral icon of the highest order with real flaws and limitations — as with any real-life person. This is just as Israel is a real-life democracy with flaws and limitations, including limited cooperation with the undemocratic government when there was no other choice for survival.
In recent decades the left that whitewashed the crimes of the Third World rulers has “koshered” any policy that presents as being anti-colonialist. It has turned against Israel and sought to define it as an apartheid regime. They ignore the critical differences: that Israel’s Jewish population represents the return of a people to its homeland; that its Jewish land was bought and reclaimed, not seized; that Arabs were offered a nation of their own but chose to try to destroy the Jewish state; and that Israel is a vital functioning democracy despite living under constant siege.
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The key to the delegitimization strategy is to exaggerate normal faults and inescapable errors in self-defense, and to invent evils and thus define Israel as an apartheid society. The bald-faced lie of this claim is blatant because in Israel itself, the opposite of apartheid is true. Despite the Arab states’ unrelenting assaults from without, the internal Arab minority was granted full voting rights and all civil rights. Starting as a disadvantaged community, Israeli Arabs have steadily improved their levels of public health, education, and economic well being — beyond any of the Arabs in neighboring states. They are still behind the Jewish curve but — like blacks in America — they have the full range of democratic mechanisms available to improve their status. Their fate is significantly in their own hands.
The left that airbrushes the evils of “underdogs” or ex-colonial peoples and demonizes the Jewish state betrays the moral greatness of Mandela in his insistence on giving revenge no place and genocide no favor.
Jews should not be thrown off by the tension between Mandela’s universal stature and his flaws on Jewish issues. Jews should proclaim his greatness and urge — nay, challenge — the Arab nations to walk in his footsteps. The main hope for a true Arab Spring is that they come up with a Mandela of their own who can lead them beyond tribalism and sectarianism, beyond the politics of resentment and revenge, to a society that offers democracy and peace to all.
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a scholar and author, was the founding president of CLAL (the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership) and of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.