Mandela and Israel

Mandela, Netanyahu and Parashat Vayeshev


Howard Adelman

Rabbi Dow Marmur in his blog on Wednesday speculated on the reason Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled his attendance at Mandela’s funeral. Yudi Edelstein, the Knesset Speaker and a former prisoner in the gulag, as well as several other Knesset members, did attend. There was, of course, the official reason, given the need for security, the huge costs – a sensitive subject in the light of the recent publicity over the huge expenses of Prime Minister Netanyahu in running his political affairs and his household expenses charged to the state. President Peres did not attend because he evidently had the flu. There has been a great deal of speculation over whether a political message accompanied this snub by Netanyahu of the most important political funeral held thus far in this century.

Dow commented: “In view of the many challenges that the Prime Minister of Israel is facing today – Iran; negotiations with the Palestinians; cracks in his coalition, etc. etc. – his not being at the funeral doesn’t seem to be that serious a matter,” and then speculated whether Bibi received poor advice or whether his wife’s “intuition” decided such matters. I think missing the funeral was a very serious matter because symbolism matters. It will take a bit of sideways reasoning to make my case. And I do so because I both admire Joseph Mandela enormously but also want him to be seen with all his shortcomings.

I had written to my cousin, Sarah, who had earlier enquired about Mandela’s relationship to Israel. I told her that Mandela was indeed a “strong supporter of the Palestinian cause and a critic of Israel, but not of the likes of Desmond Tutu. He praised Zionism in his book and saw it as a legitimate expression of Jewish nationalism and self-determination that he wanted for his own people.. He openly admired Jews and many of his supporters were Jews. He thought that, because of their history, Jews were more sensitive to racism. The missive that went out under his name attacking Zionism was actually written and sent out by a  Palestinian activist, Arjan el Fassed. I also mistakenly simplified and wrote that Mandela never equated Israel with apartheid. I should have more correctly written that Mandela never reduced Israel to an apartheid regime though he actually did accuse Israel of apartheid practices.

Mandela also credited his understanding of guerilla warfare when he switched to violent opposition to the apartheid regime to a South African Jew, Arthur Goldreich, who fought in the Palmach in the Israeli War of Independence. Four of his lawyers at his trial for treason were Jews. Thirteen of his co-defendants were Jews. When the Chief Rabbi of South Africa declined his invitation to officiate at his wedding because it was being held on a Saturday, Mandela arranged a second ceremony for the preceding Friday so that the Chief Rabbi could come and officiate.

However, Mandela also identified with the Palestinian cause, viewed it as a continuation of the struggle in South Africa for self-determination and freedom, consistently opposed Israeli occupation and the expansion of the settlements and denied the characterization of the PLO as a terrorist organization. But he did echo, though he did not use a meagaphone, the views of Desmond Tutu, Mondli Makhanya and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge who continually publicized Mandela’s characterization of the situation in the West Bank as a form of apartheid that was worse and more brutal than anything experienced in South Africa, for the Bantustans in South Africa were never surrounded by a separation wall that so overwhelmingly inhibits freedom of movement. Nor were separate military courts used, as is done to try Palestinians from the West Bank, while reserving domestic courts for Israelis even in the West Bank.

My friend, George Solger, in response to my insistence that calling Israel an apartheid state is a calumny, offered a classic Mandela argument.

Your statement that what is seen in the West Bank is a military
occupation and not Apartheid would be OK if the occupation were
temporary, but it has become permanent .Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by military laws whereas settlers are governed by civilian law, the settlers seem to
get away with almost anything against their Palestinian neighbours.
There are roads in the West Bank for Jews only, mostly the best ones.
The Knesset makes rules that apply in the Occupied Territories yet the
inhabitants of same do not vote in the Knesset. Water use, even from
the aquifer in the West Bank is very unequal, favouring Israeli Jews.
Palestinians from the West Bank cannot go freely into  (or through)
Israel no matter what their business is. The right of return to Israel
applies to Jews but not to Palestinians. Jews and Arabs have different
identity cards and there are consequences for employment. If a
Palestinian living in Israel marries one in the Occupied Territories
there are residence problems for the spouse from the Territories and I
believe also for the offspring . This is by no means a complete list of
official discriminatory regulations. This official discrimination is
intended to keep Israel as free of Palestinian presence, influence and
power as possible, i.e. Jewish domination.
I think this fits the definition of the UN Rome conference

Most of those charges are true. Except the Occupation is not and has not become permanent. If Oslo had succeeded, if Arafat had not reneged on acceding to the peace agreement, occupation would have ended by now. Further, the intention of all the alleged discrimination was not intended to keep Israel as free of Palestinian presence, influence and power as possible. Rather, the launch of the terror solution by the PLO undermined all kinds of worker, business, tourist, academic, scientific and many more other exchanges and forms of intercourse between the two groups.

Nevertheless, like Solger, Mandela did think of Israel as not only engaging in apartheid practices, but was in essence an apartheid state. In a 2001 letter to Thomas Friedman (, he wrote, “Perhaps it is strange for you to observe the situation in Palestine or more specifically, the structure of political and cultural relationships between Palestinians and Israelis, as an Apartheid system.” For Mandela, the root cause of the apartheid is not the occupation but the ethnic cleansing of three quarters of a million Palestinian refugees, the denial of their right to return and the destruction of all those villages in 1948. My friend George Solger has written and supports applying the epithet of apartheid to Israel for the same reason Mandela did, because Israel insists that it must ever remain a Jewish state and denies the right of the Palestinians to ever become a majority of the polity in all of historic Palestine.

Mandela wrote, “Apartheid is a crime against humanity. Israel has deprived millions of Palestinians of their liberty and property. It has perpetuated a system of gross racial discrimination and inequality. It has systematically incarcerated and tortured thousands of Palestinians, contrary to the rules of international law. It has, in particular, waged a war against a civilian population, in particular children.” Yet Irwin Cotler, a Zionist champion, was also Mandela’s lawyer.

Must Jews, in championing Mandela as a prophet of freedom and self-determination also ignore his accusations against Israel as guilty of apartheid or, perhaps hypocritically, push that characterization into a closet while eulogies are showered upon a man of greatness. Some, as Roy Iscawitz does, urge Netanyahu to follow in the footsteps of de Klerk in South Africa and opt for peace and reconciliation.

If the South African analogy is applied to Israel, Netanyahu plays the De Klerk role. He can continue being the bloody ethnic warlord with a powerful army at his disposal or he can overcome the atavistic tribalism of his background and undergo what De Klerk described in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech as “a process of introspection, of soul searching; of repentance; of realization of the futility of ongoing conflict, of acknowledgement of failed policies and the injustice it brought with it. As De Klerk said in the same speech: ‘The question that we must ask is whether we are making progress toward the goal of universal peace, or are we caught up on a treadmill of history, turning forever on the axle of mindless aggression and self-destruction? Repression, injustice and exploitation are inimical with peace. Peace is gravely threatened by inter-group fear and envy and by the unleashing of unrealistic expectations. Racial, class and religious intolerance and prejudice are its mortal enemies.’ The choice is Netanyahu’s.

Ironically, however you characterize Mandela, one could never say he was two-faced let alone multi-faced. On one hand, he can be seen as both a champion of national self-determination but critical of “separatist” Jewish self-determination akin to Zulu separatist nationalism in South Africa. From that ideological position, Mandela arrives at his characterization of the Israeli state as guilty of apartheid practices. However, there are those who simply ignore his politics, ignore his assertions about apartheid applied to Israel and engage only with Mandela as a man of justice and reconciliation. Linda Rabinovich, a 44-year old South African Jew who stood for hours in line to pass by his coffin and pay tribute to the great man said, “As a Jew, I think there’s a similarity between the Holocaust and apartheid…I feel that we, the Jews, could have done more … Mandela was an amazing man and I felt the need to be here today, to take part in a historic, seminal moment. I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren one day that I was here, and show them pictures.”

There are also those who go even further, who see Mandela not only as a champion of reconciliation while ignoring his ideological politics, but view Netanyahu as akin to de Klerk in need of coming to an epiphany. They would urge Netanyahu to follow in de Klerk’s footsteps without indicating any critical self-consciousness of what such an equivalence signifies. Fourth, on the abstract theological plane, the great and illustrious Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was born in South Africa, follows that course but at a level removed from politics altogether. ( Sacks had a personal connection with Mandela because his family law firm was the first to have a black lawyer, Nelson Mandela, as a member of the firm.

In Jonathan Sack’s commentary on this week’s parashat dealing with the story of Joseph (thank you Sandy), the story is seen as the first exemplification of political reconciliation and forgiveness between Joseph and his brothers. Further, the story is also an exemplification of providence and trust in God’s ultimate intentions instead of surrendering to the bleak prognostications that seem to be dictated by current circumstances. “This is a crucial moment in the history of faith. It marks the birth of forgiveness, the first recorded moment at which one person forgives another for a wrong they have done. But it also establishes another important principle: the idea of divine providence.” Mandela, a modern Joseph, is here viewed not merely as the modern exemplification of forgiveness and reconciliation but of faith and trust in the final beneficent outcome rather than in surrendering to the bleak prognostications of the present. His tenacity and determination is as important as his sense of forgiveness and reconciliation. But his politics are bracketed.

I, however, differ in all these interpretations and do not ignore the biblical interpretive one to hep shed light on the situation. Recall that Joseph was not only a mature man of reconciliation and forgiveness, but a snitch on his brothers whenever they did anything amiss. (Genesis 37:2) Further, Joseph was a seer and visionary who prophesied his own power over his brothers who hated and resented him. (Genesis 37:7-8) And they conspired against him and cast him in a pit from which he was rescued. Rather than living in a cell for 27 years, Joseph was sold into slavery instead. The difference between Mandela and Joseph is that Mandela spent a long period in purgatory while Joseph rose to power within an authoritarian regime.  Mandela rose to power by standing against an authoritarian and oppressive regime. Joseph’s act of reconciliation was an act of noblesse oblige rather than just overcoming resentments, a rediscovery of a desire to be one again with his family once he had achieved power. There are so many ways in which Mandela was a far greater man than Joseph.

But there are also many ways in which Mandela was worse. First, Joseph never made the mistake of resorting to terror to bring about greater justice and ensuring a fair distribution of resources. Mandela did. For a brief period, he was a member of the South African Communist Party after the Sharpeville massacre. Along with Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo, he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) that bombed military and infrastructure targets for which he was captured, tried, convicted and sent to prison for 27 years.

Further, Joseph was a brilliant economist in developing the financial strategies of a state. Mandela was honest, but was inadequate when dealing with the structured inequalities and the horrific housing for Blacks in post-apartheid South Africa. He espoused economic empowerment of Blacks and encouraging small and medium entrepreneurial development to restructure locally while encouraging and fostering global trade (the Reconstruction and Development Program – RDP – of the ANC), in other words, pursue capitalism at both the global, national and local levels through a neo-liberal agenda of controlling inflation and encouraging foreign trade. At the same time, his party insisted that the socialist politics of redistribution was also needed to guarantee a better life for all, Mandela proved unable to significantly advance the latter while pursuing the former.

When the focus is on exports both regionally and globally through trade liberalization, when the infrastructure was geared to roads and railroads, communications and transportation but housing policies were ignored, then the slums continued and the conditions were not in place to take up the labour of all those in the vast townships.  True, health, education and welfare services improved for Blacks, but not the housing situation in any significant way, and the terrible housing contributed to the ill health and despair of the Back population more than anything else. The proof was in the pudding – the large firms under white control thrived but accompanied by very low growth rates and high Black unemployment while the costs of social security and the wages for public servants soared. Further, though his neo-liberal export strategy largely succeeded, in good part because of the pent-up demand for South African agricultural products, especially wines, apples and oranges, its booming mines and its role as the centre for automobile assembly for Africa, even his monetary policy failed. Though inflation was kept in check, the country experienced attacks against its currency, the Rand, both in 1996 and 1998.

If Mandela lacked Joseph’s peaceable instincts and his fiscal astuteness, he also lacked Joseph’s deceptive cunning. For Mandela remained a moralist in which ideological convictions, rather than detailed empirical analysis and psychological astuteness, determined his strategies and tactics. Just as he superimposed Sweden – incidentally, the ANC’s largest funder by far – inappropriately on South Africa, he also superimposed his analysis of South Africa on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In this dimension, Joseph also comes out on top for he always adapted his strategies and tactics to the particulars of a situation.   

Does that mean that I do not think that Mandela was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century? Not at all. I see no one who comes close. But was he a god or even a saint? No, just a very great man with serious human and intellectual flaws and we do him a disservice to not point them out. For we end up perpetuating injustices on others by turning an icon into an object of saintly worship, especially when it leads to denigrating others like Netanyahu, needs criticism but not demonization to complement the canonization of Joseph Mandela. Nevertheless, Netanyahu did not help Israel by cancelling his trip just when the BDS campaign against Israel is getting several boosts.

That does not make Mandela right about applying the epithet, apartheid, to Israel. Idolatry remains the greatest sin for Jews.