Though parallels and echoes between South Africa and Israel-Palestine seem obvious, over the years I hadn’t given much thought to the lessons to be learned from Nelson Mandela’s approach to apartheid. In light of his death today, his moral example and legacy seem even more relevant than they were yesterday, while he still lived. Here was a man who turned from a liberation fighter to a renowned statesman. A leader who once espoused violence and who came to lead his nation to a peaceful resolution. A man who became beloved around the world.
In the 1960s, before he was tried, convicted and imprisoned for life (he was confined for 27 years), Mandela made a momentous decision to embrace armed struggle. But rather than articulating the decision as a volitional act, he maintained that the choice to take up arms was dictated by the oppressor himself, rather than the oppressed. If the powerful uses force to maintain its power, then the powerless must adapt to this challenge. But when the ruler renounces arms and turns to negotiation and compromise, then the ruled must respond in kind.
This poses a powerful lesson for the Israel-Palestine conflict as well. Though the Israelis don’t precisely mirror apartheid-era South Africa and the Palestinians don’t precisely mirror South African Blacks, the parallels more than outweigh the differences. Since 1948, Israel has adopted the view that it must defend itself by brute force. Negotiation and diplomacy have always been seen as secondary to military might. As a result, over 20,000 Palestinians have died in the course of this conflict. This does not include the Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians killed in separate conflicts with Israel. While Israelis have died as well, the numbers are significantly lower (a one to six ratio).
Using Mandela’s example, Palestinians had a right to resort to armed struggle in pursuit of their national aspirations. To be clear, I’m not personally endorsing violence as a path I would choose. But Palestinians, according to the example offered by Mandela, were within their rights to take up arms. Of course, there comes a time when every revolutionary struggle must make a fateful decision to lay them down again. The Palestinians are currently struggling with that question.
Of course, the Israelis have never offered what F.W. deKlerk finally offered Mandela: the unbanning of the African National Congress, an end to the pass system and apartheid itself, offering of full citizenship to all Blacks (including those within bantustans) within a democratic South Africa. The Israelis have never offered Palestinians either within Israel or in the Occupied Territories full, equal rights, or the rights to their own state. They never offered to end the equivalent of apartheid–the Occupation. Israel, unlike white South African leaders, never fully renounced state violence. It continues to be a primary tool for enforcing Israeli dominance.
So until Israel does fully recognize its similarities to white South Africa and adopt some of the compromises it made, there can be little hope for change. There is no Israeli de Klerk. Some may argue that there is no Palestinian Mandela, but Israel has hardly allowed one to develop since, like Mandela, it has imprisoned the leading Palestinian national leader, Marwan Barghouti.
I do not believe Israel can afford to wait 22 more years (the amount of time it took to free Mandela) to release Barghouti from prison. That is why the BDS movement, along with the sanctions movement against apartheid South Africa before it, has a role to play. I’m also afraid that unlike in South Africa, where there were two leaders ready to make peace, that there is no such internal dynamic possible between Israelis and Palestinians. That is why I fear outside intervention like the protectorate that was declared for Kosovo, may be necessary. I don’t see any stomach for this sort of pressure internationally, which is why a real solution to the conflict may be a long way off.
I got to thinking about the role of violence in the Palestinian resistance movement after hearing from Rima Najjar, an English professor at Al Quds University. I first discovered her via her Facebook posting of the Semitic Swag advertisement which I blogged about. She then mentioned that she’d been involved in the Islamic Jihad protest on campus, which I’d also written about. I told her I would publish her personal statement, which covers some of the territory I mentioned above. Though she would clearly prefer me to endorse her views myself, I publish them here as hers and those of the Palestinian resistance:
Islamic Bloc Rally on Campus Honors Palestinian Martyrs
WHAT BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY AND OTHERS DO NOT UNDERSTAND: PALESTINIAN ARMED RESISTANCE TO ZIONIST COLONIZATION IS A PATH TO LIBERATION
Those of you following the story re: Brandeis University suspending its partnership with Al-Quds University might like to take another look at the campus rally that instigated the ruckus. The rally was meant to honor the martyrs of Islamic Jihad and specifically the father of martyr Mohammad Rabah ‘Asi. Regarding the salute at the Islamic Bloc rally that was likened to a nazi salute, it is done by extending the arm and pointing the index finger to indicate the basic “there is no Allah but Allah” Muslim religious” creed. Was there military zeal and a subtext of violence in the imagery used and the slogans chanted against the Jewish Zionist state as symbolized by the star of David that students were stepping on? Yes, of course, there was. It’s the right of the oppressed to use violence against the oppressor and no amount of “terrorist” labeling or Islamophobic ranting is going to change that.
As it happened, we had (by coincidence) three professors from Brandeis visiting us while all this was happening – in fact, they met with members of the English department to discuss course design and development, and they do not share the view of their administration that suspending the partnership between the two universities was the right action to take.
Before anyone denounces views that endorse violence as a form of resistance to oppression and Occupation, remember the example of Mandela. This is a man who was denounced by the apartheid regime as a terrorist and imprisoned for life. He endorsed the creation of the ANC’s military wing and its transformation from non-violent resistance to a hybrid form that included armed struggle:
“I admit immediately that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, and that I played a prominent role in its affairs until I was arrested in August 1962. 50 years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.
Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
As violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.”
Mandela and the ANC only came off the U.S. government terror watch list in 2008! Therefore, we must see Palestinian national resistance including leaders like Barghouti in the same context. Peter Beinart’s article honoring Mandela’s radical legacy conveniently ignores that there is precisely such a Palestinian legacy that he must honor. He refuses to do so because his liberal Zionism blinds him to the same radical impulse necessary to destroy South African apartheid is necessary to destroy Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
I am convinced that within a decade or so of an agreement ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israelis themselves will understand that Palestinian militants were little different from leaders of the pre-Yishuv Jewish resistance, who themselves took up arms against the British and were labeled terrorists by them. Some, like Lehi and the Irgun, did indeed commit terrorist acts against Palestinians. Many of those who attacked the British (and some who attacked both the British and Palestinians), themselves became prime ministers and generals after the founding of the State. In the same way, Palestinian resistance leaders have and will take their place leading a Palestinian state once it comes into existence.
For those who are still unconvinced, remember Ehud Barak’s famous comment that if he were Palestinian he would take up armed resistance against Israel. Thus, the Palestinian choice to take up arms is a rational one, though it may seem anything but to Israeli victims.
That’s why Brandeis Pres. Fred Lawrence’s decision to bow to right-wing pro-Israel pressure and sever his school’s ties to Al Quds University because it allowed a protest by Islamic Jihad on campus is so ridiculous. Can you imagine a foreign university severing ties with the Hebrew University because it held a ceremony to commemorate those Jewish liberation fighters who lost their lives in what Israelis call the War of Independence? Can you imagine a foreign university severing ties with George Washington University because it is named for the military leader of American armed resistance to British tyranny?
Finally, I close with a story very close to home. After picking my youngest son (age 9) up from school today, we listened to the radio coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela. It aired past speeches of Mandela and appraisals of his historic significance. One of the themes both the hosts and interviewees who knew Mandela emphasized was his refusal to bear a grudge. His willingness to forgive and move on.
Adin asked me who Mandela was. I explained that he was the leader of South Africa. But that before that there was a war between Blacks and whites because the latter wanted the country under their control, despite the fact that the Blacks were a majority. I told my son that Mandela had spent many years in jail until he met a white leader of the country who was willing to allow Blacks to have an equal say in running the country.
My son has Asperger’s Syndrome, which among other things, gives him a rigid sense of right and wrong, and a certain inflexibility in dealing with social relationships. When he finds his routine disturbed in school, or when he becomes bored in class, he can become unruly and lose control. This happened the other day, when one of the instructional aides tried to persuade Adin to leave the classroom so he wouldn’t disturb the learning of the other children. Naturally, he nursed a grudge against this individual, even though he was only doing his job as best he could.
So in the midst of discussing Nelson Mandela’s amazing ability to see the humanity in his enemies and forgive them for whatever trespasses they committed against him or his movement, a light bulb went off in my head (when you’re an Asperger’s parent you need lots of these light bulb moments to deal with the various behaviors children manifest) and I asked Adin if perhaps he could emulate Mandela and forgive Dirk for what happened.
He sighed and said: “Don’t hold your breath!” After I stopped laughing (which took quite a while), I asked him why. He said that if he had been Mandela he would’ve wanted to kill those who had hurt or killed Blacks. I pointed out that if Mandela had done that, there would’ve been a war between the races and that thousands would’ve died. As leader of his people, he didn’t want such bloodshed. He wanted his country to pull together and be healed, so he couldn’t nurse a grudge. That’s the tough part of this moral lesson. My son may not have gotten it. Israelis certainly haven’t gotten it. But Nelson Mandela got it.
If we look back at other resistance movements in history, we see a similar pattern of violent resistance yielding to a negotiated solution and transformation into a political process. Think of the American Revolution. If the King had captured any of our Founding Fathers he would’ve hung them from the nearest tree. But in the context of a few centuries of historical development, these men look infinitely wise. They were revolutionaries who supported violent resistance and put their names to a document that surely would’ve ensured their death had their cause lost. But they also laid the groundwork for one of the most successful democracies in the history of the world.
I don’t know if anything similar can happen in Palestine. But even if it cannot, even if the future leadership of a Palestinian state turn out to be as venal and flawed as the current and past leaders of Israel, at least they will be taking their own national destiny in their hands, and not be under the boot heel of an oppressor. Just as the fate of post-apartheid South Africa has been deeply flawed by violence, crime and corruption, so will Palestine probably disappoint many in terms of realizing its promise and destiny. But Israel has had sixty years to perfect itself since it was founded, and its citizens and leaders haven’t done such a splendid job either.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.