What Mandela teaches Israel (but she isn’t listening)

The great Gideon Levy in Haaretz (and one of the finest columns on the death of the great South African, though Jonathan Cook’s dissenting view is vital):

South African President Nelson Mandela, in his address for International Solidarity Day with the Palestinian People on December 4, 1997, said: “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.” And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after Mandela’s death: “Nelson Mandela was among the greatest figures of our time … a man of vision and … a moral leader of the highest order.”

The sharp-eyed surely noticed the picture in the background when Netanyahu delivered his statement: an Israeli flag and the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. There he was, eulogizing the “moral leader” against the background of the occupied city, whose Palestinian residents are oppressed and dispossessed. It’s a city where a separation regime prevails – an example of Israeli apartheid, even if it’s not the worst example. The sharp-eared must have noticed how false his flowery words sounded.

President Shimon Peres also offered high praise for the “leader of immense stature,” and his words were no less hypocritical. The man who was involved up to his neck in the disgraceful cooperation between Israel and apartheid South Africa, who hosted its prime ministers with pomp and circumstance while Mandela languished in prison, is suddenly admiring the man who symbolized the struggle with that regime.

Neither Peres nor Netanyahu have any right to eulogize Mandela; both are responsible, more than any other statesmen in the free world, for undermining his legacy and establishing the (nonidentical) twin of the regime he battled. They’re eulogizing him? Mandela will turn in his grave and history will laugh bitterly.

Israeli public opinion tolerates everything, even intolerable, two-faced eulogies. But Israeli cooperation with the apartheid regime, and the continuation of its legacy in the occupied territories, cry out beyond the gloomy skies of a grieving South Africa.

The world’s mourning should inspire some pointed questions here as well. Why was Israel virtually the only country that collaborated with that evil regime? Why are so many good people convinced that Israel is an apartheid state? While it may not pay to dwell on past shame – even Mandela forgave Israel – questions about the present should disturb us greatly.

In April I visited the new South Africa that Mandela had forged as a guest of its Foreign Ministry. The visit was etched deeply in my heart, as comparisons to the Israeli occupation regime cried out from every stone, and with them also hope for change.

For example, there was the Supreme Court in Johannesburg, built on the ruins of the prison where blacks were thrown when they dared enter forbidden areas to find work. And in Soweto I visited Mandela’s home, where you can still see the bullet holes of a failed attempt at a “targeted killing.”

The comparisons echoed, as did the lessons. Roelf Meyer – a defense minister, constitution minister and deputy minister of law and order during apartheid, and later chief negotiator with the African National Congress – told me: “If we had started a few years earlier, we could have prevented a lot of bloodshed and gotten a better deal.” After beating his breast over many sins, Meyer is now part of the new regime, like many whites.

An unjust state becomes a just state; discrimination and dispossession are replaced by equality and democracy. The scowling faces tell of South Africa’s backwardness and rising crime, which are serious problems. But they don’t reduce the enormity of the historic achievement and its lesson for Israel: When a country turns from unjust to just, everything else is dwarfed in comparison.

Mandela proved that the dream is realistic, that what seemed like a fantasy only 20 years ago is achievable, and without much bloodshed. He showed that enemies of the past can live together in one country and even have equality; that a new chapter can be opened against all odds.

Mandela said he was not liberated as long as the Palestinians were not free. Those in Israel who seek to eulogize him can’t continue to ignore this.

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