PM Binyamin Netanyahu was roundly criticized by the usual suspects for absenting himself from the memorial service for South Africa’s late leader Nelson Mandela. To be sure, the lamest of reasons was offered: the expense of traveling and the inability to arrange for adequate security in such a short period of time. The former is bogus – a delegation led by Israel’s Knesset Speaker attended anyway – and the latter is equally specious, unless the security needed was to protect the Prime Minister from some of the other world “leaders” in attendance. And therein lies the paradox of Nelson Mandela.
The coverage of his life, death and prolonged funeral has effectively characterized Mandela’s remarkable career and life story, even as it has downplayed some of the more sordid aspects. That is usually understandable after someone’s death, but is especially reserved for iconic figures whose lives transcended their personal stories and thereby transmit a deeper message. Considering that South Africa is not a major world power and geographically isolated from much of the civilized world, and even conceding the ignominy of the apartheid system that kept blacks enslaved and second-class residents in their own country, what is it about Mandela – a national hero to be sure – that transformed him into an international symbol? And what are the limits of the adulation?
One simple comparison illustrates Mandela’s uniqueness, and alone justifies much of the lionization. Look at Zimbabwe’s thuggish dictator Robert Mugabe – who also prevailed over the apartheid system extant in Rhodesia – and the distinctions become clear. Mugabe has driven his country into dire poverty amid his own brand of persecution, ruling with a brutal, iron fist, preventing free elections, filling his prisons with his opponents and lining his own pockets and those of his supporters. It is inarguable that whites – and even blacks – were better off under the prior system, even with its racism, that they are today.
By contrast, Mandela emerged from prison humble, human, and dignified. He ushered in an era of reconciliation, which, if imperfectly implemented, was at least an effort at something positive. He was elected president, and then stepped down after one term, enshrining the façade of democracy and providing an example to his successors (not to mention other African strongmen). There was no reign of terror. For simply choosing a different path than Mugabe, Mandela deserves praise.
Nonetheless, as one looks at his history, and without justifying either the apartheid system or certainly not its excesses, one wonders, given the context of the era, if another narrative could have been written. The African National Congress, created almost 90 years ago to fight discrimination, became a terrorist group with strong Communist ties. It was almost reflexively anti-American, and attempting to overthrow a naturally pro-American government. Even discounting the racial dimension, that was not an approach that could have garnered much Western support at the time, and Mandela – arrested, tried and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to commit other violent acts – and himself drawn to Communism, paid a very heavy personal price for his beliefs –nearly three decades of imprisonment under inhuman conditions. And yet he emerged from prison with moderated, not hardened, views, and astonishingly, not embittered by his experiences and the loss of so many years of his life.
Further analysis reveals his thorny relations with Jews and Israel. South African Jews themselves had a comlicated relationship with the apartheid regime, not enamored by it and yet mostly benefiting from the system. Certainly, South African Jews – primarily emigrants from Lithuania and their offspring – experienced persecution in their native land, escaped it, and undoubtedly were not eager supporters of the regime. Indeed, many South African Jews were prominent opponents of apartheid, including the Communist ANC leader Joe Slovo (born into a frum family in Lithuania) and Helen Suzman, longtime Member of Parliament and a crusader against the white government. By the same token, Mandela’s prosecutor – Percy Yutar (originally Yuter) – was also Jewish, indeed, South Africa’s first Jewish Attorney-General and a staunch defender of apartheid. (Interestingly, Yutar later claimed to have saved Mandela’s life by purposely asking for a sentence of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty, which, he says, the judge would have imposed had it been requested. When the two met again in 1995, at Mandela’s invitation, Yutar was served a kosher lunch and Mandela expressed no hard feelings.)
Regarding his attitude to Israel, Mandela followed lockstep the trendy, Third-World demonization of Israel that taints most countries until today. Whatever one maintains about the ANC, not every terrorist group in the world fights for a legitimate cause, and not every terrorist is a freedom fighter. Some (most?) are just bloodthirsty savages, and in Israel’s case, motivated more by passionate, Islamic-inspired Jew-hatred than by politics, statehood, territory, refugees or freedom. Here, Mandela had a blind spot. His closeness with Arafat (and Castro, Qaddafi, et al) demonstrated a lack of discernment as to the nature of people and their causes. Consequently, among the world leaders at Mandela’s funeral was a veritable rogues’ gallery of unsavory people, including a healthy assortment of murderers, oppressors, thieves, blackmailers and Jew-haters.
The Israeli press, anxious not to be left of the international love fest, scoured the record of the last two decades for Mandela statements that were positive about Israel. They did find some – he had a streak of graciousness and magnanimity that was admirable – but his negative rhetoric was more pronounced and perceptible. He was, and the South African government remains today, harshly critical of Israel, trapped in the vocabulary of the 1960s and 1970s that denounced colonialism regardless of whether or not the slur fit the situation. Mandela’s Third World ties, and world view, remained too firmly ensconced in the idiom of the oppressed to appreciate the nuances of the Israeli dilemma, and certainly not the drama of the Jewish people’s return to its homeland in fulfillment of the biblical prophecy.
As such, it was wise for PM Netanyahu not to attend, and thereby not be subjected to the unpleasantness of rubbing shoulders with some of the scoundrels who did come – villains who mean Israel and the Jewish people only harm. On balance, which is how we are all judged, Nelson Mandela lived an inspirational but flawed life and should rightfully be a hero to his people. But just like one cannot dance at every wedding, one also cannot mourn at every funeral. Sometimes, grief and appreciation of the indomitability of the human spirit, best takes place at a distance.