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.
“This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
SOURCE: Arab League Secretary General Azzam Pasha, May 15, 1948, the day five Arab armies invaded the new state of Israel, one day after Israel declared its independence
“The Arab nations should sacrifice up to 10 million of their 50 million people, if necessary, to wipe out Israel … Israel to the Arab world is like a cancer to the human body, and the only way of remedy is to uproot it, just like a cancer.”
SOURCE: Saud ibn Abdul Aziz, King of Saudi Arabia, Associated Press, January 9, 1954
“I announce from here, on behalf of the United Arab Republic people, that this time we will exterminate Israel.”
SOURCE: President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, speech in Alexandria, July 26, 1959
“We shall never call for nor accept peace.
We shall only accept war.
We have resolved to drench this land with your (Israel’s) blood, to oust you as aggressor, to throw you into the sea.”
SOURCE: Hafez Assad, then-Syrian Defense Minister, May 24, 1966, who later became Syria’s president.
“Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.”
SOURCE: President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, May 27, 1967,
nine days before the start of the Six-Day War.
“The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is our opportunity to wipe out the ignominy which has been with us since 1948. Our goal is clear — to wipe Israel off the map.”
SOURCE: President Abdel Rahman Aref of Iraq, May 31, 1967
“All countries should wage war against the Zionists, who are there to destroy all human organizations and to destroy civilization and the work which good people are trying to do.”
SOURCE: King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, in a speech in Uganda, Beirut Daily Star, Nov. 17, 1972
“The battle with Israel must be such that, after it, Israel will cease to exist.”
SOURCE: Libyan President Mohammar Qadaffi, al-Usbu al-Arrabi (Beirut) quoted by
Algiers Radio, Nov. 12, 1973
“After we perform our duty in liberating the West Bank and Jerusalem, our national duty is to liberate all the Arab-occupied territories.”
SOURCE: Jordan’s King Hussein, Radio Amman, December 1, 1973
“Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity is there only for tactical reasons.
The establishment of a Palestinian state is a new expedient to continue the fight against Zionism and for Arab unity.”
SOURCE: Zoheir Muhsin, head of the PLO Military Operations
Department and member of the PLO Executive Council, 1977
“I have never met an Arab leader that in private professed a desire for an independent Palestinian state. Publicly, they all espouse an independent Palestinian state — almost all of them – because that is what they committed themselves to do at Rabat (the 1974 Arab League summit conference).”
SOURCE: President Jimmy Carter, at a 1979 press conference
“There has been no change whatsoever in the fundamental strategy of the PLO, which is based on the total liberation of Palestine and the destruction of the occupying country. … On no accounts will the Palestinians accept part of Palestine and call it the Palestinian state, while forfeiting the remaining areas which are called the State of Israel.”
SOURCE: Rafiq Najshah, PLO representative in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabian News Agency, June 9, 1980
“The struggle with the Zionist enemy is not a struggle about Israel’s borders, but about Israel’s existence. We will never agree to anything less than the return of all our land and the establishment of the independent state.”
SOURCE: Bassam Abu Sharif, a top Arafat aide and PLO spokesman, quoted by the Kuwait News Agency, May 31, 1986
“There are two different approaches in the Arab world: that Israel can be overwhelmed militarily, or that a military victory is impossible. The power struggle between Israel and the Arabs is a long-term historical trial. Victory or defeat are for us questions of existence or annihilation, the outcome of an irreconcilable hatred.”
SOURCE: Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, July 11, 1986
“The establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip does not contradict our ultimate strategic aim, which is the establishment of a democratic state in the entire territory of Palestine, but rather is a step in that direction.”
SOURCE: Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad) interview with Al-Safir, Lebanon, Jan. 25, 1988
“This is the ideology of the PLO and of Yasser Arafat: To destroy the state of Israel and to establish a Palestinian state instead. They will accept the territories — but only as a beginning, as a base for further attacks to conquer all of Israel.
Why give them this opportunity to strengthen their efforts to attack us?”
SOURCE: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, U.S. News & World Report, March 21, 1988
“The armed struggle must continue, everywhere, against the Zionist enemy and his allies. … We have no alternative but to carry out armed activity in order to vanquish the enemy and establish our state.”
SOURCE: Salim Zaanoun, Deputy PNC speaker and member of the Fatah Central Committee, in Al-Anba, Kuwait, December 23, 1988
“The Middle East peace efforts have reached a stalemate. … The PLO now has no alternative but to escalate armed struggle outside the occupied territories in support of the uprising.” –Arafat’s # 2 man, Salah Khalaf, January 22, 1990, Associated Press
“We will enter Jerusalem victoriously and raise our flag on its walls. … We will fight you (the Israelis) with stones, rifles, and ‘El-Abed’ (the Iraqi missile)…”
SOURCE: Yasser Arafat, reported by the Associated Press, March 29, 1990, at the start of the Gulf War.
“In the name of Allah, we shall cause fire to devour half of Israel. …”
SOURCE: Iraqi News Agency, April 2, 1990
“We say to the brother and leader Saddam Hussein –
go forward with God’s blessing.”
SOURCE: Yasser Arafat, the next day, Iraqi News Agency, April 3, 1990
“The resurrection of the dead will not occur until you battle with the Jews and kill them.” SOURCE: Excerpt from a July 28, 2000 sermon by Palestinian religious leader
Dr. Ahmad Yusuf Abu Halbiah on Palestinian television, Palestine Media Watch, August 22, 2000.
“There is no alternative other than to destroy Israel.”
SOURCE: A sixth grade test book, newly reprinted by
the Palestinian Authority, Arutz-7, September 26, 2000.
“Kill Jews everywhere.”
SOURCE: Convicted imprisoned terrorist and Egyptian cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, The New York Times, Quoting Reuters, October 22, 2000.
“All weapons must be aimed at the Jews … whom the Koran describes as monkeys and pigs … We will enter Jerusalem as conquerors … Blessings to he who shot a bullet into the head of a Jew.”
SOURCE: a spokesman for Yasser Arafat’s “Palestinian Authority” August 2001
“inability to arrange for adequate security in such a short period of time. …is equally specious”
I am not certain that is correct. An editorial in Yated Ne’eman claimed it was vindicated as some people entering the stadium were not screened. Also, the fact that the phony ‘sign language interpreter’, who was involved in murder in the past was so close to world leaders shows that security was not the greatest, at the least. Israeli security standards are higher than others. Maybe they felt that there was inadequate appreciation for and coordination with their special needs.
Would Israel’s PM be a greater target than any other world leader in such a setting? We think, maybe, but is that so? And would the Speaker of the Knesset be any less a target, if evildoers wanted to harm a symbol of the State of Israel? But he did attend.
About Mandela. The last 7 years of his incarceration were actually quite comfortable. He had a cottage with swimming pool, TV etc at the Victor Verster Prison in the Western Cape -on the mainland and not on Robben Island. True he was a prisoner, but one with more priviliges in the line of comfort that the average white South African. Quite a few S.Africans voiced their objection that he had these privileges, paid out of the taxes levied by the Fiscal authorities. Mandela was offered freedom 3 times in exchange for
renouncing violence if he was liberated – which he refused.
I lived in S Africa between 1952 and 1986… for me Mandela scores about the same as Obama …see your article One Year Later.
Your blog is great.. keep it up.