The Reprehensible Use of Mandela’s Legacy to Support Oppression

One of the greatest and most repulsive of tactics employed by repressive regimes and bigoted ideologues is the co-opting of the

Mandela's image on a bad held by a San Francisco protester against Israel's assault on Gaza in 2009. [Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes, published under a Creative Commons license]

Mandela’s image on a bad held by a San Francisco protester against Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009.
[Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes, published under a Creative Commons license]

legacies of great figures in the fight for justice and freedom. It never fails to happen, and it is never anything less than morally reprehensible. Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of it since Nelson Mandela’s passing, and equally unsurprising, Israel has been among the leaders in this practice.

Now, let me be clear, Israel is not unique in this regard. Indeed, the lunatic right wing in the United States which has been so influential in destroying US politics and the US economy, which has led the US into disastrous wars that have wreaked havoc on the globe but which, thankfully, is at least losing the social battles in the United States has raised this practice almost to an art form. Consider the recent statement of GOP congressional candidate from Illinois, Ian Bayne, comparing the anti-LGBT, racist and …well, the list of bigotries is too long, statements of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson to the actions of none other than Rosa Parks:

“In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians…What Parks did was courageous. What Mr. Robertson did was courageous too.”

Of course, Bayne is precisely the sort of person who would have seen Rosa Parks lynched in 1955, but this is of a piece with the far right’s attempts to convince people that Martin Luther King opposed affirmative action, and numerous other examples. It’s a mark of how far we have come that people like King, Parks and Mandela have to be co-opted and cannot be opposed post-mortem anymore (although Malcolm X still tends to be fair game).

Israel has fallen all over itself in trying to do this with Mandela. Bear in mind that Israel and the United States were the last countries to get on board with substantive opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. Israel, indeed, sold South Africa weapons in defiance of a UN Security Council arms embargo for many years and probably tried to sell it nuclear weapons as well. The United States government never wanted to act definitively against the apartheid government, but eventually popular sentiment left it no choice. It was only when Israel stood alone with Pretoria that it reluctantly came to the party.

But with Mandela’s death, Shimon Peres, a lead architect of Israeli support for the Apartheid South African regime said this: “On behalf of the citizens of Israel we mourn alongside the nations of the world and the people of South Africa, who lost an exceptional leader. Nelson Mandela was a fighter for human rights who left an indelible mark on the struggle against racism and discrimination. He was a passionate advocate for democracy, a respected mediator, a Nobel peace prize laureate and above all a builder of
bridges of peace and dialogue who paid a heavy personal price for his struggle in the years he spent in prison and fighting for his people. Nelson Mandela’s legacy for his people and for the world will forever remain engraved in the pages of history and the hearts of all those who were touched by him. He will be remembered forever.”

Benjamin Netanyahu was even more slimy, having been a key ideological leader of the Israeli right just starting his climb up the political ladder as Mandela was rotting in jail during the last few years of his imprisonment: “Nelson Mandela was among the greatest figures of our time. He was the father of his country, a man of vision and a freedom fighter who disavowed violence. He set a personal example for his country during the long years in which he was imprisoned. He was never haughty. He worked to heal rifts within South African society and succeeded in preventing outbreaks of racial hatred. He will be remembered as the father of the new South Africa and a moral leader of the highest order.”

Netanyahu used the opportunity to imply that Mandela opposed on principle armed struggle against an oppressive regime. He most certainly did not, and indeed waged one when he believed that was the path to freedom. Mandela’s embrace of non-violence was always his preference (and in his youngest days was a course he pursued), but he recognized that it would not always succeed. In Bibi’s alternate reality, apartheid in South Africa fell because the regime was convinced it was the right thing to do, just as he hopes to make that the only available avenue for advocates for the Palestinians’ freedom. It is a transparently false vision, albeit one shared by too many, including a lot of folks who oppose Netanyahu’s provocative policies.

But perhaps the slimiest lie was the claim that the Mossad had secretly trained Mandela in “judo, sabotage and weaponry,” to support the African National Congress’ struggle against Pretoria. The notion is absurd on its face, to be sure, as Israel would have every reason, both Machiavellian and appreciable, to pursue precisely the opposite course, especially during the height of the Cold War. But such was the claim, widely reported.

Less widely reported, unfortunately, is the clear denial by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which is the main repository for the records and artifacts of Mandela’s life. Here is their statement:

“The Nelson Mandela Foundation can confirm that it has not located any evidence in Nelson Mandela’s private archive (which includes his 1962 diary and notebook) that he interacted with an Israeli operative during his tour of African countries in that year. Both the diary and the notebook were used as evidence against him in the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial for sabotage.

“In 1962 Mr Mandela received military training from Algerian freedom fighters in Morocco and from the Ethiopian Riot Battalion at Kolfe outside Addis Ababa, before returning to South Africa in July 1962. In 2009 the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s senior researcher travelled to Ethiopia and interviewed the surviving men who assisted in Mandela’s training – no evidence emerged of an Israeli connection.”

Consider these quotes from Mandela, as reported by the Associated Press, from his visit to the Shati Refugee Camp in 1999, which he did qualify by saying “I understand why [Israel] occupied territory during the (1967) war and after the war.’”:

“Our men and women with vision choose peace rather than confrontation, except in cases where we cannot get, where we cannot proceed, where we cannot move forward. Then, if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence.”

“The histories of our two peoples, Palestinian and South African, correspond in such painful and poignant ways, that I intensely feel myself being at home amongst compatriots.”

“The long-standing fraternal bonds between our two liberation movements are now translating into the relations between two governments.”

Do those sound like the words of a man who has any patience for the Israeli occupation, or who owes a debt to the Mossad?

The moral failure of the co-opters, whether they’re trying to use MLK, Mandela or Rosa Parks, is clear, as is their own attempt to distort some pretty clear moral points.

Look, people have all sorts of disagreements on various issues around the Israel-Palestine issue. And, yes, they’ll even argue against things that are ethically crystal clear. And here’s one piece of it: Even for those who still buy into the ridiculous and patently false notion that the Israeli occupation has anything whatsoever to do with security concerns, there is no such thing as a security concern that can justify 46 years of dispossession and deprivation of rights to millions and millions of completely innocent people, who have never harmed or attempted to harm anyone. There simply is no moral calculus that can justify that without saying that Israeli Jews are more deserving of basic rights than Palestinian Arabs.

Some people believe that is precisely the case. And those people have a disproportionate amount of power to influence the situation in the Middle East. But you can rest assured that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and most certainly Nelson Mandela would have no sympathy whatsoever for their position or for the ongoing occupation.

If you’re not sure of that, just listen to Mandela’s words in 1990, shortly after his release. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency paraphrased that Mandela said he “’unreservedly’ supported Zionism insofar as it meant a Jewish state within secure borders. But he opposed Zionism ‘when it meant deprivation of human rights in the occupied territories.’” Here are some of the quotes the JTA attributed to Mandela in the same report:

“We agree with the United Nations that international disputes should be settled by peaceful means. The belligerent attitude which is adopted by the Israeli government is to us unacceptable.”

“If one has to refer to any of the parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government, because they are the people who are slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable.”

“We identify with [the Palestinians] because we do not believe it is right for the Israeli government to suppress basic human rights in the conquered territories.”

So, what do you think Mandela would have thought about the hypocrisy that has been oozing out of Israel since his death?

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