In the coming days, there will be much reflection on the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, following the former South African president’s passing on Dec. 5. And in the coming weeks, we can anticipate a febrile exchange over his true views on Israel and the Middle East.
We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of such a debate. Mandela has entered the pantheon of 20th-century figures that exercised the most extraordinary influence over global events, touching the lives of ordinary mortals in the process.
In the 1940s, many Britons could tell you exactly where they were when Churchill delivered his famous “Blood, Sweat and Tears” speech to the House of Commons; in the 1960s, it was hard to find an American who couldn’t remember his or her precise location when the news of Kennedy’s assassination came through; and in the 1990s, it seemed, at least to me, that absolutely everyone could recall what they were doing at the moment the world learned that Mandela had been released after serving 27 years in a South African jail.
I certainly remember where I was on February 11, 1990, when Mandela finally exited prison. Along with thousands of others, I stood at the gates of the South African Embassy in London, an imposing edifice on the eastern side of Trafalgar Square. During my late teens, I’d become a regular attendee at rallies and protests outside the embassy demanding Mandela’s release. I can still hear the joyous roar of the crowd gathered around me, as we celebrated the fact that Mandela was no longer a prisoner of the apartheid regime.
Before this account gets overly saccharine, I should add that not every opponent of apartheid was a consistent advocate of democracy elsewhere in the world. Many of the protestors around me were, frankly, diehard Stalinists. And while they accurately perceived the monstrosity that was apartheid, they were only too happy to excuse the brutal crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. They had copious words of condemnation for the white minority regime in Pretoria, but they rolled their eyes in irritation at the suggestion that the Soviet KGB, the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate were just as bad, if not worse. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that they regarded Mandela’s release as welcome relief from the gloom that set in when communism unraveled around the same time.
Which brings me to the question of Mandela’s political legacy. There will be no shortage of platitudes on the left about Mandela’s nonetheless heartfelt commitment to racial tolerance, painstaking negotiation and civil disobedience in the face of injustice. Equally, many on the right will accurately recall that Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) was closely aligned with the Soviet Union and with a host of thoroughly unpleasant terrorist organizations, like the PLO, who dressed themselves up as “liberation movements.” As a recipient of both the Soviet Order of Lenin and the American Presidential Medal of Freedom, it might be said that Mandela embodied this contradiction.
Still, Mandela was no orthodox leftist. In his autobiography, he discusses how he was strongly influenced by the Atlantic Charter of 1941, a mission statement shaped by the visions of Churchill and FDR for a post-war order in which freedom would reign, fear and want would be banished, and self-government would emerge as a core principle. Elsewhere in the book, he takes care to distinguish the African nationalism he subscribed to from the communist beliefs that prevailed among those he worked with—and his understanding of nationalism bears a close resemblance to the national movements that surfaced in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, including Zionism.
This latter point is important because there is a widespread misapprehension that Mandela was an opponent of Zionism and Israel. In part, that’s because a mischievous letter linking Israel with apartheid, purportedly written by Mandela, went viral on the Internet (in fact, the real author was a Palestinian activist named Arjan el Fassed, who later claimed that his fabrication nevertheless reflected Mandela’s true feelings.) Yet it’s also true that, in the Cold War conditions of the time, the ANC’s main allies alongside the Soviets were Arab and third-world dictators like Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. The confusion is further stirred by the enthusiasm of some of Mandela’s comrades, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to share the South African franchise on the word “apartheid” with the Palestinians.
But those activists who want to make the Palestinian cause the 21st-century equivalent of the movement that opposed South African apartheid in the 20th century will—assuming they conform to basic standards of honesty—find it very difficult to invoke Mandela as support. Mandela’s memoirs are full of positive references to Jews and even Israel. He recalls that he learned about guerilla warfare not from Fidel Castro, but from Arthur Goldreich, a South African Jew who fought with the Palmach during Israel’s War of Independence. He relates the anecdote that the only airline willing to fly his friend, Walter Sisulu, to Europe without a passport was Israel’s own El Al. And the ultimate smoking gun—the equation of Israel’s democracy with apartheid—doesn’t exist.
Mandela once wrote that Jews, in his experience, were far more sensitive about race because of their own history. Now, it is absolutely true that there are parallels between the oppression suffered by South African blacks under racist white rulers, and Jews living under hostile non-Jewish rulers. The notorious Group Areas Act, which restricted black residency rights, brings to mind the enforced separation of Jews into the “Pale of Settlement” by the Russian Empress Catherine in 1791. Many of the other apartheid regulations, like the ban on sexual relationships between whites and blacks, carried echoes of the Nazi Nuremburg Laws of 1935.
Mandela’s diagnosis was that Africans should be the sovereigns of their own destiny. Similarly, the founders of Zionism wanted nothing less for the Jews.
Sadly, none of that will stop today’s advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement from falsely claiming Nelson Mandela as one of their own. But the truth is subtler than that. Mandela’s complicated legacy doesn’t really belong to any political stream—and that is one more reason to admire him.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.