Commentary Magazine


Don’t Distort the Meaning of Mandela

As our Max Boot has written, Nelson Mandela’s example is more proof that individuals and personal choices are the decisive factors in history. By not choosing to be embittered by his personal experience of persecution and by his embrace of the principles of reconciliation and peace once apartheid ended, he changed the fate of South Africa. As such, his legacy is not just one of a symbol of resistance to oppression but as an example of how humanity can rise above hatred and violence. He is not merely one of the iconic figures of the 20th century but of the history of the world.

As the world honors Mandela this week, there will be much written and said about the difference he made in his own country and the way he inspired others to listen to the better angels of their natures. This is entirely appropriate, and we hope the flood of remembrances of the South African leader will spark not just a greater appreciation of what he did but of the cause of freedom. At a time when tyranny and hate seem to be on the upsurge around the globe, the focus on Mandela should not be just one that honors the demise of apartheid but on the need to resist tyranny, whether it is perpetrated in the name of racism, nationalism, or religion. If Mandela’s lessons are merely confined to the conflicts between black and white in Africa or apartheid is allowed to become a metaphor rather than a specific form of authoritarianism, his legacy will be lost.

Mandela came to be embraced by all peoples, both black and white, as a role model, not just because the cause of his opponents was unjust. Tyrants are, alas, a dime a dozen. But freedom fighters that can translate their struggle into one that makes the lives of their people better rather than worse are rare. Mandela was not perfect and the allies he was forced to accept during his struggle were often unsavory. But whatever his associations, he proved once he was freed that his principle interest was in establishing a genuine democracy in South Africa and one in which all of its peoples could play a role. That is why it is vital those who do not share his devotion to liberty or to human rights should not be allowed to hijack Mandela’s story or that of the anti-apartheid struggle. And by that I refer to those who would wish to invoke the struggle against racism in South Africa to justify support for those who seek to destroy the State of Israel.

It has become commonplace on both the extreme left and the extreme right where anti-Zionism flourishes to libel Israel as an apartheid state that is reminiscent of the South Africa that was ruled by a white minority. Given that Israel is a democratic nation in which the Arab minority enjoys equality under the law, this claim is an absurd lie. Moreover, even though the Palestinians refused to make peace and accept a two-state solution (their leadership rejected such offers in 2000, 2001, and 2008) and the West Bank remains in legal limbo, it should also be pointed out that unlike white South Africans, Jews remain a clear majority of those living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. If Israel remains locked in conflict, it is because it still remains under a siege in which the Arab and Muslim world seeks its elimination.

The use of the South African analogy against the Jewish state is also particularly disturbing because Mandela was personally a strong opponent of anti-Semitism and a friend to the South African Jewish community. As Richard Goldstone, the controversial former judge who allowed his name to be used to front a vicious attack on Israel before ultimately renouncing that libel, writes in the Forward today, though his relationship with Israel was difficult at times because of his embrace of Yasir Arafat and Israel’s relations with the old South Africa, “Mandela sympathized with Israel and the aspirations of the Jewish people to live there in peace with their Arab neighbors.”

Thus, it is manifestly dishonest of those who seek to use the tactics of the struggle against apartheid against a democratic state like Israel. The goal of those who boycotted South Africa was to replace tyranny with freedom. Those who support the effort to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel wish to destroy a democracy and to deprive the Jewish people of the same right of self-determination that Mandela wished for his people.

Those who would use Mandela’s memory as a cover for Jew-hatred and intolerance do him and the world he helped enlighten an injustice.

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