By Haroon Siddiqui
In the blanket coverage of the Nelson Mandela funeral, the T-word, terrorism, was briefly mentioned. It could hardly have been avoided, given his commitment to armed struggle against the apartheid regime and his steadfast refusal during his 27 years of imprisonment to renounce violence in return for his own freedom.
But the P-word, Palestinian, was studiously avoided, by both our politicians and the media, even though he was an unwavering supporter of the Palestinian cause and Israel was a staunch ally of the apartheid state. Also ignored was Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to attend the Mandela funeral.
Mandela was close to Yasser Arafat, and the African National Congress to the Palestine Liberation Organization. Both groups represented majority indigenous populations that were oppressed and denied basic rights — because of skin colour in one case and religion in the other. Both waged armed struggles. Both were backed by the Soviet Union, Cuba and also much of the world but denounced as terrorist by Pretoria and Jerusalem, with the latter staying loyal to the former longer than the rest of the West.
Yet there’s a big difference between the PLO and the ANC, notes James Reilly, professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations.
“Faced with a weak regional and international position, the PLO eventually accepted the reality of Israel in 1988, anticipating that in return Israel would accept the idea of a sovereign Palestine alongside the pre-1967 boundaries of the Jewish State.
“But the ANC never accepted apartheid. Rather, it worked to bring apartheid to an end. Palestinians today debate whether the PLO erred in agreeing to accept Israel, rather than working to build a movement to overturn Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies.”
The plight of the Palestinians is, in fact, worse, says Joanne Naiman, professor emerita of Ryerson University, an anti-apartheid veteran who chaired the group Canadians Concerned About Southern Africa. “Palestinians were displaced from their own land and many exiled,” she said in a phone interview.
About the argument that Israel is not the old South Africa, she has written: “Israel is not identical to South Africa. But that does not mean it is not an apartheid state. In fact, there are over 50 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinians … There are different rights and privileges for different categories of people that determine how and where they can live and work, with whom they can associate, where they can travel, whether they can live with their spouse, and so on. Permits for Palestinians to travel beyond their assigned areas are stringently controlled.”
The point was also made in June by the retired South African ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia. Unlike Stephen Harper, who plans to visit a bird sanctuary in Israel named after him by the Jewish National Fund, Coovadia rejected the planting of trees in his honour by the Fund: “I cannot be a proponent of what I’ve witnessed in Israel — a replication of apartheid.”
Mandela initially believed in Gandhian non-violence but took up arms in the 1960s, saying “there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.”
He was the first commander of the military wing of the ANC, the Spear of the Nation, which hit power stations and planted bombs and landmines, and carried out some acts of violence against civilians, to little effect.
But once he won, he did not make an issue of Israel’s ties with the apartheid regime. He accepted the legitimacy of Zionism, while upholding the rights of Palestinians: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians. All of us need to do more in supporting the struggle of the people of Palestine for self-determination.”
In 1994, on the first weekend after his election as president, he visited a Cape Town synagogue. He appealed to South African Jewish expatriates to return home to help build the new nation, but made an exception for “those Jews who left for their homeland,” Israel.
He had always been close to South African Jews. His first boss was Jewish — Lazer Sidelsky, who hired him as a law clerk in the 1940s. (On his 1999 visit to Israel, Mandela met Sidelsky’s son, Barry).
Mandela acknowledged that Jews were “disproportionately represented among our white compatriots in the liberation struggle.” In his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote: “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics.”
That liberal streak can be seen in the reaction to Netanyahu’s decision not go to the Mandela funeral, citing the high cost of the trip.
The prime minister was signalling that Israel “does not consider a man like Nelson Mandela … worth the price of a plane flight,” wroteBradley Burston in the Israeli daily Haaretz. “With a wink and a nod to the settler right, the academic rabid right, and the KKK-esque far right, Netanyahu is sending an even stronger message: ‘This is where I stand on this Palestinian-lover, Mandela. And this is where I stand on his Palestinian-lover heirs.’”
Note to readers: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I am off for two weeks.
Haroon Siddiqui, the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus, writes Thursdays and Sundays. firstname.lastname@example.org