Did Nelson Mandela label Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime? Israel’s apologists claimed he did in 1990, apparently misquoting Mandela for their own political objectives.
Shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Mandela described Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as “our friend and comrade . . . like us, fighting against a unique form of colonialism.” These comments, made on February 27, 1990 as Arafat joined Mandela at a pan-African summit, provoked a storm of push-back among Israel’s apologists. The next day, Mandela told a reporter: “If the truth alienates the Jewish community in South Africa, too bad.” Questioned about Mandela’s remarks, Arafat said: “We are in the same trench, struggling against the same enemies, against apartheid, racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism.”
The Israel Lobby rushed to attempt to counteract the damage to Israel’s image. “South Africa’s influential Jewish community [wants] to meet Nelson Mandela to tell him he was wrong to compare the Palestinian struggle with the black liberation movement,” Newsday reported a day later. When Mandela traveled to the U.S. three months later, in June of 1990, to meet with President Bush and Congress, Israel’s mainstream defenders prepared an indifferent, if not hostile, reception.
Right-wing Israel-boosting pundits went further, welcoming Mandela to the U.S. with opeds misquoting him and claiming that Mandela had called Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime. On June 19th The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page asserted:
Mr. Mandela has met the PLO’s Yasser Arafat three times, more than with any other foreign leader. Mr. Mandela says, “We are in the same trench struggling against the same enemy: the twin Tel Aviv and Pretoria regimes, apartheid, racism, colonialism and neocolonialism.”
According to Newsday’s report from three months earlier, these were Arafat’s words, not Mandela’s. A few days after the WSJ oped, Pat Buchanan wrote in a June 24th column: ”Mandela’s past activities and present alliances should alarm, not awe, free men,” and Buchanan repeated the “same trench… apartheid” quote as being Mandela’s. Neoconservative Israel backer Joshua Muravchik repeated the same quote as attributed to Mandela in a similar be-scared-of-Mandela piece that ran in Commentary, October 1990. Neoconservative Mona Charen piled on a day after Buchanan, repeating the same quote and claiming it was Mandela’s. Charen wrote:
It has fallen to the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative columnists to make the point that Nelson Mandela has embraced one of the most pernicious ideas of the 20th Century, namely communism; that he has refused to renounce violence in the struggle to end apartheid; that he has on three occasions since his release from prison met and praised Yasser Arafat, saying, “We are in the same trench struggling against the same enemy: the twin Tel Aviv and Pretoria regimes, apartheid, racism, colonialism and neocolonialism…”
What exactly had “fallen” to these conservative columnists, as Charen put it? Apparently, to make Mandela seem even scarier than he already was to a certain segment of Americans, most especially American Jewish supporters of Israel, who were wholly unprepared to consider the possibility that Israel was, in fact, an apartheid regime. Were these columnists acting in concert, according to pre-determined talking points?
By putting Arafat’s words into Mandela’s mouth, they inflated Mandela’s already serious accusations against Israel to a level that, perhaps they hoped, would damage his credibility. At the time, no major world leader – certainly not one U.S. President and two former Israeli Prime Ministers – had gone so far as to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South African apartheid.
Even if it was a genuine mistake by the Journal (hard to believe), that was then picked up by the Journal‘s allies without vetting (also hard to believe), Charen’s comments seem to crack open a window into the philosophy of Israel’s most strident mainstream media boosters at a time when the Israel Lobby’s power was nowhere near as robust as it grew to become under the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations.
With Mandela’s passing, it is certainly not in the interest of Israel’s apologists to repeat the claim that he labeled Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime, which would simply validate the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and the rampant ‘apartheid’ charges that have been leveled at Israel in the past 12 years. Instead, hypocritical eulogies that remove any trace of his indictment of Israeli policies are the norm.
An interesting postscript to the debate over whether Mandela called Israel ‘apartheid’… In 2002 Dutch-Palestinian political scientist Arjan El Fassed wrote a ‘mock memo‘ to Thomas Friedman — in the style of one of Friedman’s own ‘mock memo’ columns — pretending to be from Mandela, and labeling Israel an apartheid state. Although El Fassed’s ambition to get it published in the New York Times was never realized, when he posted it on a discussion board under his own name, activists stripped out El Fassed’s byline and circulated it widely, leading major editors to believe it was in fact penned by Mandela and quote it at length. El Fassed describes the saga of the mock memo here.
Although I have been unable to find a reliable record of Mandela using the word ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel, his comments accusing Israel of colonialism, as well as his subsequent remarks, should lay to rest any doubts about his beliefs regarding the legitimacy of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.