By Brian Goldfarb.
Ben Cohen has written a most perceptive remembrance of Nelson Mandela on 5 December, the day he died, in The Algemeiner. Before quoting some of that, I’d like to add my own memories of Mandela.
Early on, Cohen remembers where he was when Mandela walked free from prison. Well, we watched it on television at home, and then listened on the radio. I remember being astounded when the radio commentator expressed surprise, not to say astonishment, when Mandela got out of his car and walked out of the prison gates.
I am old enough to have been a student with a poster remembering the Sharpeville Massacre (those reading this aged less than 30 may need to Google that) on my wall, as well as other anti-apartheid posters thereon. Indeed, the Sharpeville massacre was the final straw in creating my own personal boycott of South African goods (from then – in 1960, two years before I became a university student – until 1991, when Mandela was released from prison), and I can remember when Mandela and his comrades were sentenced to jail for “treason”. Just imagine it, being called a traitor for demanding equal treatment, indeed freedom, for your people: difficult for those under 40, perhaps even for those under 50 (sorry, I’m trying not to be a reverse ageist here, but you have to have been there, in the 60s and 70s to understand this): we saw it unfold and wondered at the stupidity of the Afrikaaner South Africans – not difficult, they did appear to have a problem in coming to terms with the modern world.
I remember thinking, when the apartheid regime (the real one: the one at the tip of the African continent) sentenced him to life imprisonment that maybe, just maybe, they had avoided the obvious risk of creating a martyr. It turned out that that they had, instead, created the only avenue of escape from the corner they were painting themselves into, even it did take 27 painful years to become a reality.
I also remember Steve Biko, effectively beaten to death, who might otherwise have been one of the contenders for the succession to Mandela as President. And I also remember that other far right whites killed another likely (and potentially great) successor to Mandela: Chris Hani, leaving only, sadly, mediocre people to succeed Mandela.
But I also remember that many of Mandela’s comrades were Jews: I remember Joe Slovo, who survived to become Housing Minister in the Rainbow Nation, before succumbing to cancer; I remember Ruth First, his wife, assassinated by BOSS (the South African Bureau of State Security) with a parcel bomb when she had been exiled to Mozambique; I remember Benjamin Pogrund, anti-apartheid fighter who, having made aliyah, now rejects the equation of Israel=apartheid; and I remember Arthur Goldreich, of whom Cohen says:
“[Mandela] 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.” Further, Mandela “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.”
Of course, many of these Jews were Stalinists (such as Joe Slovo and the viciously anti-Israel Ronnie Kasrils). To understand their position (if it’s possible to do that), I would remind readers of the book by Colin Shindler “Israel & The Left“, mentioned in my report on London’s Jewish Book Week, 2012, on this blog.
On the other hand, there are those non-Stalinists Jews, such as Albie Sachs, who lost an arm and an eye to the struggle, and the Jewish lawyers who took Mandela on as an articled clerk, when this just wasn’t done. This enabled Mandela to complete his qualifications and become an accredited lawyer of the South African system. Just as we all know that there are anti-Zionist Jews (would we condemn all Haredi Jews just because of Naturei Kartura? I hope not), similarly, we shouldn’t condemn all anti-apartheid South African Jews because of those who were and are anti-Zionist (and by implication, cast doubts on Mandela’s own philo-semitism and support for Israel).
Furthermore, for anyone who still wants to believe that Mandela was an anti-Zionist, Cohen goes on to say (re Mandela autobiography) that
“the ultimate smoking gun — the equation of Israel’s democracy with apartheid — doesn’t exist.”
There is more. Cohen goes on to note that:
“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.”
Indeed, whatever their political orientation, Jews are noted for their respect for human rights, both for themselves and their fellow Jews and, just as importantly, for others, having their own flouted so often. Why else create Israel as parliamentary democracy?
All this culminates in Cohen noting that:
“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.”
That is, Nelson Mandela was not only did not oppose Zionism and the idea of self-determination for Jews (i.e., a state of their own), he also recognised that South African Jews had played a great part in the fight for equality in South Africa, out of a conviction that, as the American Declaration of Independence has it, “All [people] are created equal”.