Palestinians Need a Nelson Mandela
Visiting South Africa confirms that beyond never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, Palestinians have a history of misreading history.
Just as the Palestinians blew their chance for a state in the 1990s (yet again!) by choosing dictatorship and terrorism over democracy and negotiations, they’re now drawing noxious lessons from South Africa’s history. Rather than libeling Israel with the “apartheid” lie and boycotting Israel, Palestinians should learn about compromise, decency, democracy and resisting vengeance from that extraordinary role model born a century ago – Nelson Mandela.
Having frittered away billions on programs enabling Palestinian violence and corruption, Western democracies would also benefit from mastering Mandela-ism. While ensuring that every aid dollar fosters progress rather than financing terrorists, while implementing financial controls to stop lining Palestinian pockets Arafat- and Abbas-style, Westerners need a bigger conceptual shift.
Western democracies love teaching Western democracy to non-Western undemocratic cultures. The message falls flatter than quoting Gandhi to Hamas. Embracing Mandela’s teaching involves more subtleties, but better fits traditional and tribal cultures – like that of the Palestinians.
Mandela bridged between worlds. The Nelson Mandela Foundation website reports that he was born “into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape, on 18 July 1918,” and that his “father was Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, principal counselor to the acting king of the Thembu people.”
Unlike Western post-modernists, Mandela valued his rooted identity. Johannesburg’s stirring Apartheid Museum introduces him by quoting Aristotle: “Good moral character is not something that we can achieve on our own. We need a culture that supports the conditions under which self-love and friendship flourish.” Trying to modernize Palestinians – or many traditional Jews – by sidestepping their heritage is futile. Mandela’s example of finding motivation to fight for freedom and build democracy through pride in his peoplehood better suits the Middle East.
Before growing into non-violence, Mandela founded the ANC’s underground military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Nation – in 1961. Mandela’s trajectory might inspire many Palestinians who need to undergo withdrawal from their terrorism-addiction but, like Mandela, resist renouncing the tactic – or repudiating their past.
Of course, we must emphasize what becomes obvious within minutes of landing in Johannesburg. Comparing Zionism to apartheid is not just offensive, but stupid, like comparing Americanism or Palestinianism to Nazism, or treating all nationalisms as equivalent. Apartheid enacted systematic race-based discrimination – the Apartheid Museum lists 148 laws that treated South Africans differently, if they were white, black, “colored” – and later, Indian. Reeking of Nazi assumptions of racial inferiority, these laws created segregated neighborhoods, schools, hospitals, entrances and water fountains. Apartheid laws dehumanized blacks and limited their fundamental rights. As a black prisoner for 18 years on Robben Island, Mandela, received fewer rations daily than colored prisoners did.
SUCH INJUSTICE could have curdled Mandela’s soul – just as 27 years’ imprisonment could have crushed his spirit. Yet in 1976, deep into his sentence, with no hope of freedom, he wrote a prison official: “I detest white supremacy and will fight it with every weapon in my hands. But even when the clash between you and me has taken the most extreme form, I should like us to fight over principles and ideas and without personal hatred, so that at the end of the battle, whatever the results might be, I can proudly shake hands with you, because I feel I have fought an upright and worthy opponent who has observed the whole code of honor and decency.”
Such sentiments, freshly published in The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela edited by Sahm Venter, moved Mandela beyond violence toward his most important lesson to his people, to Palestinians and to humanity. In 1994, when he – most improbably – became a democratic South Africa’s first president, he refused to seek payback. It’s striking how many South Africans today, despite mounting frustrations, echo that teaching. Mandela wouldn’t replace “white supremacy” with “black supremacy.” He and his allies came “not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered.” He sought “to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”
This key difference should also make compromise easier for Palestinians. In Mandela’s “rainbow country,” yesterday’s enemies live together today. Few Palestinians or Israelis want one state. Choosing to compromise, then accept, a neighbor’s right to exist behind new borders is easier than coexisting as fellow citizens with former torturers, guards, murderers and demagogues, and living peacefully with the once-tortured, jailed, orphaned or widowed, demonized and targeted.
I’m not naïve. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s administration foolishly miscalculated that Arafat the terrorist could become Mandela the healer. Alas, the “Palestinians did not have a Nelson Mandela at the moment in history when they needed somebody who could pivot from being a revolutionary… to being a statesman,” Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger sighed in his Miller Center oral history.
Arafat always was just Arafat, the grandfather of modern terrorism. No one could have predicted a century ago that a baby born in Mvezo would become this beacon of decency and reconciliation. Similarly, who knows when such a Palestinian leader will emerge? Perhaps such a person will be trained by Mandela-ized facilitators to wean Palestinians from terrorism and embrace a vision of accepting the fundamental facts most Palestinians have resisted since 1948, which still constitutes the biggest obstacle to peace: There’s a Jewish state, it has the legitimate right to live peacefully, it’s not disappearing, and the time has come for a true peace without vengeance.
The writer is the author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s . www.zionistideas.com
This article was originally published here