Wednesday, December 11, 2013

He Freed a Lot of People

Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro
Nelson Mandela was a great man. In fact I would say that he was a Gadol among the nations of the world. History will remember him as a hero who not only changed the horrible way the Apartheid State treated its black majority… but for the example he set in forgiving and reconciling with his former oppressors. 

I say this knowing full well about his antipathy for the State of Israel. Something I obviously very strongly disagreed with him about. But I also understand where he was coming from. He incorrectly saw an Apartheid type state in Israel. He saw an oppressed people in the Palestinains who live under Israeli occupation. In his mind that mirrored what happened in his own country during its Apartheid years – before he and then President  F.W. de Klerk joined forces to end Apartheid and form a unity government. Where all its citizens would be treated equally and given the power to vote.

The most remarkable thing about Mandela was in his ability to forgive his tormentors. And by example to convince his people to forgive the government for Apartheid. He was not always that forgiving. In fact he was pretty violent during his African National Congress (ANC) days. The ANC turned violent after a particularly harsh crackdown on a peaceful protest. People were killed. It was ANC violence that landed him in prison under a life sentence. He was released from prison 27 years later after an international boycott of South Africa – demanding the end of Apartheid and his release.

Mandela emerged from prison a changed man. His time in prison was spent reflecting on the problems of his country and how to best handle them. He knew that any real change would best come by dealing directly with the Apartehid government and any change would have to include an attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation. De Klerk too was a courageous man. He  presided over the end of Apartheid and the formation of a unity government which granted voting rights to all South African citizens. Mandela ran for Presdient and won – becoming the first black president of South Africa. This is a remarkable achievement  if one considers the extremely harsh treatment of its black citizens under Apartheid.

Lest anyone wonder how terrible Apartheid was, suffice it to say that conditions in the West Bank of Israel (Judea and Sumaria) are like Disneyland by comparison. I recall hearing descriptions of the kind of torture that blacks endured under Apartheid. I’m told that the reaction of black South Africans who experienced real Apartheid when they hear people comparing it to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians - is laughter!

But that doesn’t stop the Jimmy Carters of the world from making those comparisons. Shame on them all! While it is true that Palestinians live under difficult conditions because of the security measures Israel must take for its own survival… to say that this equals Apartheid is an insult to every black South African who lived under it! I do not believe for a minute that Nelson Mandela believed that the conditions on the West Bank are the same as they were in Apartheid South Africa.

This is the way I see Mandela.  It took a man of very high character and moral conviction to accomplish that kind of peaceful transition. To the best of my knowledge there were no reprisals taken by blacks against their former oppressors. I believe that can be directly attributed to the example set by Mandela. He set the tone for the new South Africa. He served one term and then retired from politics. But his influence is still felt.

Nelson Mandela was an inspiring figure. Those who say he was an anti Semite because of his negative attitude towards Israel truly do not understand this man. His relationship with the Jewish community of South Africa was very warm. His views about Palestinians were obviously colored by his experiences with Apartheid. He saw an oppressed people and an oppressor government.  He thus sided with the oppressed. He considered Yassir Arafat a comrade in arms – struggling for his Palestinian people that way he - Mandela - struggled for his.

But he always supported Israel’s existence. He probably believed that there would be the same kind of reconciliation there as in South Africa. I had once hoped that too.

Much as I wish that were true, Mandela was very wrong about that. The history of the Arab Israeli conflict has taught the Jewish State some very important lessons. They have learned that the theology of the Islam sees Israel as completely illegitimate. They have learned the hard way that Islamic fundamentalists advocate the destruction of Israel at all costs – including the cost of innocent lives among of their own people if necessary. They have learned that Islamic Fundamentalism is an overpowering force among Arabs.

They have learned that making peace with moderate Arabs (who in theory believe that Israel does not have a right to exist but are willing to make practical concessions to their existence for peace) are poor peace partners. Because Fundamentalism always seems to win over moderation and will overtake any peaceful government that would result under a peace treaty. Same as Gaza. So as things stand now making peace with moderates is not a realistic option in my view.

Nelson Mandela somehow did not see any of that. He thus felt that peace should be pursued without regard for the negative consequences. Not because he didn’t care about them. But because he didn’t believe they would happen. Unfortunately experience has taught Israel that he was very wrong.

But despite his errors of judgment about Israel, his greatness remains. The fact is that he had views that were problematic not only for Israel, but for the United States. For example he supported the Iranian Revolution and laid a wreath at the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeni! He also admired Fidel Castro. The United States is surely not all that thrilled about that.

But none of that factored into the admiration that virtually all leaders of the free world had. Including 3 of the four former living Presidents of the United States and the current one whoall traveled to South Africa to attend his funeral. Which brings me to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He decided not to attend. He cited the high cost of security during an austerity budget. I would not be surprised if Mandela’s negative views about Israel contributed to his reason for staying away. But he was wrong. He should have attended – even if he disagreed with him.

Nelson Mandela was a good man. The good he did for his people and his country… and the contributions he has made to the world by his example is rare among leaders. Israel should have been there to acknowledge that.