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Beyond irony: Whitewashing Mandela's legacy

It is not the least bit surprising to see Israeli political leaders praising Mandela’s memory, with some even going so far as to declare him an Israeli hero. Some of these will surely be cynical, conscious attempts to whitewash his legacy and escape criticism. Many, however, believe every word they say.

By Sean O’Neill

Nelson Mandela (photo: South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za)

Working in Palestine from late 2006 to late 2009, mostly in the Yatta/Hebron area, I have had the distinct (and often surreal) privilege of meeting a number of Israeli settlers who had emigrated from South Africa.

One such man was G., the security guard for the settlement of Ma’on and its outpost, Havat Ma’on, who once explained to me that being from South Africa made it clear to him that the Arabs were trying to construct an apartheid state in Israel. He wasn’t joking. Another was Y., who went around in a cowboy hat and lived on a hill by himself. He was a settlement in his own right; a real pioneer in the bush, if you will.

The most surreal encounter I had, though, was with a South African woman in the settlement of Susya, just down Route 317 from Ma’on. Susya is a Jewish settlement that abuts the Palestinian village of the same name, whose residents are now scattered in tents around the perimeter of the settlement – their homes demolished on multiple occasions. I was leading a delegation of Americans who had come on an educational tour. One of the stops we always made was at a settlement because there’s truly nothing more revealing about the settlement project than allowing settlers to speak for themselves. There was a South African woman in Susya who gave tours to English-speaking visitors.

She showed us around the settlement, a tidy little suburban community with a brightly painted playground and lush green grass in the middle of brown and yellow hills whose Palestinian inhabitants constantly struggle for access to clean water. Then she took us into the synagogue for a small presentation and a question-and-answer session.

Inevitably, someone asked her about her decision to leave South Africa and come to Israel. She explained that her husband had been a conscientious objector in South Africa and that they left because they could no longer stomach the Apartheid regime.  She told us of her fear, that in some future dismantling of settlements, she might have to pick up and move again. Her husband, the conscientious objector, disagrees. She said this time he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. Rather, he will stay and fight. According to one solution she says is under discussion, Susya could stay in Israeli hands in a future deal with the Palestinians, the separation wall extending up to it and taking it in.

“But I don’t like this idea,” she explained. With a complete lack of irony, she continued, “Can you imagine this, living surrounded by a wall?”

She told the group that recently she’d seen an old picture of the train station in the town she grew up in, during apartheid times. She was shocked to look at the picture and see an entrance clearly marked for whites and another for blacks.

“The thing is,” she said, “I went to that train station so many times growing up and I never remember seeing that. It’s amazing how one can be surrounded by injustice and just not see it.”

The entire group looked at her in stunned silence as she waited futilely for someone to nod in agreement.

If there were one thing that shocked me above all else in the years I spent in Palestine it would be the ability some people have to simply not see something that would make them uncomfortable – something that might shatter their worldview. There is no point in trying to reason with someone engaged in that level of cognitive dissonance. Nor should settlers be singled out as a convenient scapegoat, as they often are by the Israeli “left.”  This is a problem that encompasses a large number of mainstream Israelis.

This is why it is not the least bit surprising to see Israeli political leaders praising Mandela’s memory, with some even going so far as to declare him an Israeli hero. Some of these will surely be cynical, conscious attempts to whitewash his legacy and escape criticism. Many, however, believe every word they say. They truly respect Mandela and mourn his passing, and see no irony in that at all.

It is important to remember that Apartheid South Africa was not Syria or North Korea. It was a regime propped up by a comfortable majority of whites in apartheid elections, much as the status quo is in Israel. The end of apartheid did not come because these majorities were persuaded. Mandela did not sit in prison for 27 years because it took him that long to realize that dialogue, not armed struggle, was the way forward. His commitment to dialogue, and his truly humbling ability to forgive, only came into play when the anti-apartheid struggle had pushed the country’s white rulers into a corner – when a transfer of power was inevitable and the only choice left was how relatively peaceful, or violent, it would be.

It’s not that dialogue isn’t important now. It is, and it’s taking place between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is also taking place within the anti-apartheid movement in Palestine, between Israelis and Palestinians fighting against the Prawer PlanFiring Zone 918 and home demolitions in Jerusalem. This will be the foundation of a shared future. At this time, there is no meaningful dialogue between the movement and the regime, the latter having yet to be pushed into a corner. One of the most consistent critiques one hears of the BDS movement, inspired to a considerable degree by the boycott movement in South Africa, is that it will cause mainstream Israelis to feel alienated. That’s exactly the point.

Read more:
Why aren’t Netanyahu, Peres going to Mandela’s memorial?
The top five most hypocritical Mandela eulogies by Israeli politicians

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    1. Kolumn9

      The major difference between Israelis and South African whites is that the former don’t have any particular conceptual issue with being boycotted or alienated. Israeli Jews have a long conceptual history of being persecuted and boycotted through no fault of their own. In pushing Israeli Jews into the position of being persecuted you are actually pushing them deeper into Zionism, which assumes a perpetual persecution of Jews by everyone else. Within the context within which the conversation is held within Israel you are really only proving the right-wing Zionists prescient and right. The UNGA resolutions declaring Zionism as racism, the hostility of the Socialist bloc, and the boycott by the Socialist and Muslim blocs since almost the beginning of Israel have led to not much more than a reinforcement of the Zionist narrative. It would, and is, just as easy to write off the current round of anti-Israeli actions on the part of people like you as just another in a long series of persecutions.

      This is our land. It always has been. This is a part of our history and our religion. The ‘worldview’ that you want shattered is one in which Jews actually believe that Israel is their homeland. You are literally demanding that people give up their religion and identity. Anyone who pursues BDS on the basis of trying to get Israeli Jews to reject their claim to Zion or to give up their ability to defend themselves is going to get nowhere.

      The South African woman you met sees the Arabs as trying to set up yet another Arab Muslim state where Jews are tolerated at best and more likely massacred and expelled, like was done to Jews in every other Arab Muslim state. You can call that resulting state an apartheid one, or just another garden variety Arab Muslim one. Her fears are entirely legitimate given the apparent incapability of the Arabs to actually set up anything resembling a pluralistic democracy with respect for minorities in any of the 22 states they currently have. There is no cognitive dissonance there.

      The other reason why your project is doomed to failure is because unlike in the South African scenario Jews have been subject to numerous campaigns of murderous attacks on civilians by the Palestinians. The project of trying to sell to Israeli Jews the idea that the Palestinians who still worship as heroes suicide bombers that blow up Israeli women and children are interested in living in peace in a single state is dead in the water. What idiot would give the power of life or death to a group of people who think that the murder of his children is an act worthy of celebration?

      The last reason why your project will fail is even simpler. Your analogy is bogus. Israel can annex the West Bank tomorrow and still have a 60% Jewish majority. It can set its own borders to exclude the Palestinians and feel no major economic impact. The options you think Israel faces are not the actual options that Israel faces. The underlying flaw in the dream world that people like you inhabit is that you have lost sight of reality by getting lost in irrelevant analogies.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Israeli leaders, in praising Nelson Mandela, were showing their typical hypocrisy. They sided with Apartheid South African regime against Mandela-lead struggle against the Apartheid State.

      As far as the common Jews are concerned – the have choice to believe Rabbi Kaplan, who called Mandela a “Jew hater” at the Jewish Daily FORWARD – or Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal who called Mandela “a modern day Moses”.


      Reply to Comment
      • Vadim

        “They sided with Apartheid South African regime” – dude, that was more than 30 years ago. Are these the same Israeli leaders?! Are all our leaders the same? Are all Jews the same? Share the same opinions and characterises? What is a common Jew (given than less than half of Jews reside in Israel)?

        Yes, some Israelis, Israeli leaders and public figures have different opinions. That’s called a pluralistic society. I know it sound rad, but you should try it sometime.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Gideon Gitai

      Worse still are former anti-Apartheid men who left SA after the victory of the ANC, and became the protagonists of ISRAELI APARTHEID.
      Such a person is Benjamin Pogrund, a former journalists in the only (white) newspaper, the “Rand Daily Man”.
      Well, Israel did not copy most of the PETTY APARTHEID Laws. But Didn’t Israel (Under Ben Gurion) expel some Three-Quarters of the Palestinian population? And did Israel enact the “Law Of Return of 1951” to ban their return to their homeland which the Zionists forcefully acquisitioned? And didn’t Israel (under PM Levi Eshkol) expel more Palestinians in 1967? And doesn’t Israel (under Netanyahu) continue to expel Palestinian from the Holy City, Al Quds, Jerusalem???

      And wasn’t Israel, the “Jewish State”, the country that (in Breach of UNSC EMBARGO) delivered NUKE TECHNOLOGY and “Jericho” Missiles to the Apartheid Regime?

      When, in 1987 I interviewed PM Yitzhak Rabin (in Le Bourget Salon Aeronautique) about this he replied by saying “the Government decided that no NEW Arms deal with South Africa will be signed”. . . But the old deal the Shimon Peres signed was still in force, and it was not repudiated. . . And now (President) PERES is regarded by some as a Very Honourable Man.

      You can see Peres signature next to Apartheid MoD in the link

      Reply to Comment
    4. Richard Witty

      Thanks for the sensitive (partially) article.

      South Africa and Israel/Palestine are not fundamentally parallel. They are incidentally parallel.

      The fundamental aspect that is utterly different is the demographics. In South Africa, 20% of a 10% minority ruled over a 90% majority, and all of the minority had some privileges based on color. (But, the reality of the elite of the white ruling in fact is undeniable, to anyone that reads.)

      In contrast, ethnically, the demographics from river to sea (including Gaza) are 50-50%.

      90-10 is a single majority nation with an ethnic minority, whatever the minority’s economic status.

      50-50 is either a unique environment of fundamental mutual respect, or a partition.

      It is NECESSARY to know about even South Africa, that change occurred ONLY when there was a path, and Nelson Mandela negotiating privately (without ANC consultation) constructed that path. Then the combination of boycott and press concensus that the writing was on the wall, with the Mandela offered path, made it possible.

      That is the current construction requirement.

      Nothing changes if there is not a path. A pressure cooker with no exhaust explodes. A pressure cooker with controlled exhaust cooks beans in a third of the time.

      Reply to Comment