In October, the African National Congress dropped all pretense and announced its support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The declaration came at the third International Solidarity Conference, a conclave of left-wing groups that was hosted by the ANC in Pretoria and overwhelmingly endorsed the call. Baleka Mbete, ANC chairperson and former deputy president, stated that Israel is “far worse than apartheid South Africa.” The move comes shortly after the South African government promulgated a policy mandating that goods originating from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem be labeled as having been produced in “Israeli Occupied Territories.”
South Africa’s ruling party has always been predisposed to the Arab side of the Middle Eastern conflict, seeing the Palestinian cause as identical to its own erstwhile struggle against white minority rule. But, at least while under the tutelage of former president Nelson Mandela, the ANC had attempted to adopt a neutral face, supporting the international consensus of a two-state solution based on the proposition of “land for peace.” Such gestures of impartiality are now moot.
The official shift comes after the culmination of years’ worth of anti-Israel agitation by ANC and other former anti-apartheid figures. In August, South African Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim called upon South African citizens to refrain from visiting Israel. In May, Archbishop Desmond Tutu penned an open letter to the United Methodist Church urging it to boycott Israel, alleging that the Palestinians “are being oppressed more than the apartheid ideologues could ever dream about in South Africa.” (Tutu also suggested that the extermination of European Jewry was actually to Jews’ benefit, writing that “the Jewish Holocaust, engineered and implemented primarily by Europeans, gave some ideologues within the Jewish and Christian community an excuse to implement plans that were in the making for at least 50 years, under the rubric of exceptional Jewish security.”) In 2009, the ANC’s deputy foreign minister alleged, “The control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money.”
Absent from this debate has been any consideration of the ideas or temperament of the greatest figure to grace not just the ANC, but also South Africa: Mandela. The former president, who is 94 years old, rarely makes public appearances or comments on important matters. But it is not merely Mandela’s voice that is sorely missing from the country’s arguments over the Middle East — it’s his legacy.
To be sure, Mandela was critical of Israel throughout his political career, and he defended fellow Third World liberation leaders like the late Moammar Qaddafi and Yasser Arafat. Yet Mandela also had a deep appreciation for Judaism, his feelings influenced by the countless South African Jews who supported him in his resistance to apartheid and then during his term as the country’s first democratically elected president. With their virulent attacks on Israel and aspersions cast on their Jewish countrymen as disloyal, Mandela’s political heirs are tarnishing the values of reconciliation and democracy for which their hero stood. And with Mandela in his twilight, the situation will only get worse.
The deep and abiding extent to which Mandela was influenced by Jews is told in “Jewish Memories of Mandela,” a richly illustrated volume published late last year by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and written by David Saks, the organization’s associate director. One is almost overwhelmed by the number of Jews who played prominent roles in Mandela’s life and in the broader anti-apartheid movement, far exceeding their minuscule proportion of the South African population. For instance, Saks reports that in the 1950s, more than half of the white anti-apartheid activists in Johannesburg were Jews. Mandela’s first job as a young law clerk came at the behest of Jewish attorney Lazar Sidelsky, who, Mandela wrote, was “the first white man who treated me as a human being.” Working with Sidelsky was but the beginning of a life filled with relationships, leading Mandela to conclude, in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”
Every one of the whites arrested in a 1963 police raid of an ANC hideout — which would later lead to the trial in which Mandela was sentenced to life in prison — was Jewish. The defense counsel in the case who saved Mandela from a death sentence, Israel Maisels, was Jewish, as too, however, was the prosecutor, the first Jewish South African attorney general, Percy Yutar. The latter’s role underscores how the personal involvement of so many Jewish individuals in anti-apartheid politics should not be mistaken for widespread, organized Jewish opposition to white minority rule. “Regretfully,” Saks writes, “the Jewish association with Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle as a whole prior to 1990 did not extend to the mainstream Jewish leadership, which controversially chose instead to adopt a position of strict non-involvement in political affairs.”
Mandela’s experience in negotiating a relatively peaceful transition with the men who jailed him for 27 years led him to think that Israel’s enemies could be handled in a similar fashion. “Time and again, he would tell me, ‘Let me mediate in the Middle East,’” Sally Krok, a Jewish philanthropist who befriended Mandela in the post-apartheid period, told Saks. “There is no reason why I should not be friends with your enemies.” Mandela did not visit Israel until 1999, after he left office, having rejected four official invitations during his presidency. There, he said that he understood Israel’s need “for Arab recognition of its existence within secure boundaries,” and that disarmament prior to such recognition would be “foolhardy.”
Mandela’s chumminess with various autocrats (“I did not save your life at the Treason Trial so that you could associate with Israel’s enemies,” Maisels once told Mandela, scolding him after his release from prison) and his occasionally unfair criticisms of Israel are lamentable. But they are tepid in comparison with the bile emitted by today’s ANC. Perhaps Mandela’s views on the Middle East were situational; his entire presidential tenure coincided with the Oslo process, which, in Saks’s words, “did much to soften the ANC’s traditionally hostile stance towards Israel.” But the ANC’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and legitimization of an organization like Hamas are simply beneath the man. Never in his long career did Mandela ever descend to anything like the anti-Semitism of his colleague Desmond Tutu. On the contrary. “I owe a debt of honor to the Jews, even if sometimes I have made restrained remarks about Israel,” Mandela said in 1999.
Attempts to appraise the anti-apartheid and Palestinian national movements as morally equivalent are self-discrediting. The Hamas Covenant, the terror organization’s 1988 founding document, is not the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s 1955 manifesto. “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious” is not “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” Yasser Arafat was not Nelson Mandela. The last is a particularly abominable comparison, and to even suggest it does nothing but dishonor the world’s most admired man.
James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor for The New Republic and has reported from South Africa.