As memorials continue for Nelson Mandela this week, many groups are claiming Mandela as a champion of their cause, including Palestinians and Jews. Mandela’s support for national self-determination garnered the appreciation and support of both sides in the intractable Middle East conflict. But while they share a common hero, they take away different lessons from his struggle.
“We do consider Nelson Mandela to be our leader,” said Hatem Abudayyeh, a Palestinian-American and the Executive Director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago. “There’s a sort of replication of that anti-apartheid movement in Palestine and across the world for those that are doing Palestine advocacy and Palestine support work.”
Abudayyeh points to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, started in 2005 by supporters of the Palestinian cause. The campaign aims to build international economic and political pressure against Israel, to secure withdrawal of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territories and a dismantling of the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, among other demands. “That is something that we learned from the anti-apartheid movement and that we’re incorporating into our own movement,” said Abudayyeh. An international divestment campaign helped to formally bring South Africa’s apartheid era to an end in 1991.
“Israel is your apartheid, pariah state, just like South Africa was your apartheid, pariah state in the ‘70s and ‘80s and during the movement,” said Abudayyeh.
Other high-profile figures have compared Palestinian conditions to that of black South Africans under apartheid — and found themselves at the center of significant controversy as a result. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter sparked a fierce debate with the 2006 publication of his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu made a similar comparison. Mandela himself, however, never publicly used the word “apartheid” when speaking of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“Arafat is a comrade in arms, and we treat him as such.” Mandela famously said of Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat in 1990. During an interview with ABC’s Ted Koppel on Nightline, Mandela defended this position, even when Koppel pressed him to consider whether it could alienate American Jews from his cause in South Africa.
“It would be a grave mistake for us to consider our attitude toward Yasser Arafat on the basis of the interests of the Jewish community,” Mandela explained. “We sympathize with the struggles of the Jewish people and their persecution right down the years. In fact, we have been very much influenced by lack of racialism amongst Jewish communities.”
Mandela noted that many white leaders in the African National Congress party were Jewish, and that his first job as a lawyer was with a Jewish firm. For many Jews, Mandela’s support of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination did not mean he was against Israel.
“There was no contradiction for Mandela of his also embracing Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” says Aaron Cohen of the Jewish United Fund in Chicago. “He supported Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
Cohen says comparisons between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa are false, and that they attempt to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist. While Mandela reportedly called Israel a “terrorist state” in 1990 for offering military and arms support to South Africa’s apartheid government, Cohen said that criticism was borne out of Mandela’s belief that all people have a right to self-determination. It did not mean that Mandela was anti-Israel.
“When he became president of South Africa, Mandela went out of his way to also assure Israel and the Jewish world that he supported Israel’s safe and secure existence in the Middle East,” said Cohen, “and that furthermore, the Arab world should do the same.”
Cohen says instead of being mired in the past, Mandela felt Israelis and Palestinians could resolve their differences if they simply looked to the future. The two sides may draw very different lessons from Mandela’s legacy, but as they prepare for Mandela’s burial this Sunday, they’ll mourn together.