Beyond irony: Whitewashing Mandela’s legacy

It is not the least bit surprising to see Israeli political leaders praising Mandela’s memory, with some even going so far as to declare him an Israeli hero. Some of these will surely be cynical, conscious attempts to whitewash his legacy and escape criticism. Many, however, believe every word they say.

By Sean O’Neill

Nelson Mandela (photo: South Africa The Good News /
Nelson Mandela (photo: South Africa The Good News /

Working in Palestine from late 2006 to late 2009, mostly in the Yatta/Hebron area, I have had the distinct (and often surreal) privilege of meeting a number of Israeli settlers who had emigrated from South Africa.

One such man was G., the security guard for the settlement of Ma’on and its outpost, Havat Ma’on, who once explained to me that being from South Africa made it clear to him that the Arabs were trying to construct an apartheid state in Israel. He wasn’t joking. Another was Y., who went around in a cowboy hat and lived on a hill by himself. He was a settlement in his own right; a real pioneer in the bush, if you will.

The most surreal encounter I had, though, was with a South African woman in the settlement of Susya, just down Route 317 from Ma’on. Susya is a Jewish settlement that abuts the Palestinian village of the same name, whose residents are now scattered in tents around the perimeter of the settlement – their homes demolished on multiple occasions. I was leading a delegation of Americans who had come on an educational tour. One of the stops we always made was at a settlement because there’s truly nothing more revealing about the settlement project than allowing settlers to speak for themselves. There was a South African woman in Susya who gave tours to English-speaking visitors.

She showed us around the settlement, a tidy little suburban community with a brightly painted playground and lush green grass in the middle of brown and yellow hills whose Palestinian inhabitants constantly struggle for access to clean water. Then she took us into the synagogue for a small presentation and a question-and-answer session.

Inevitably, someone asked her about her decision to leave South Africa and come to Israel. She explained that her husband had been a conscientious objector in South Africa and that they left because they could no longer stomach the Apartheid regime.  She told us of her fear, that in some future dismantling of settlements, she might have to pick up and move again. Her husband, the conscientious objector, disagrees. She said this time he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. Rather, he will stay and fight. According to one solution she says is under discussion, Susya could stay in Israeli hands in a future deal with the Palestinians, the separation wall extending up to it and taking it in.

“But I don’t like this idea,” she explained. With a complete lack of irony, she continued, “Can you imagine this, living surrounded by a wall?”

She told the group that recently she’d seen an old picture of the train station in the town she grew up in, during apartheid times. She was shocked to look at the picture and see an entrance clearly marked for whites and another for blacks.

“The thing is,” she said, “I went to that train station so many times growing up and I never remember seeing that. It’s amazing how one can be surrounded by injustice and just not see it.”

The entire group looked at her in stunned silence as she waited futilely for someone to nod in agreement.

If there were one thing that shocked me above all else in the years I spent in Palestine it would be the ability some people have to simply not see something that would make them uncomfortable – something that might shatter their worldview. There is no point in trying to reason with someone engaged in that level of cognitive dissonance. Nor should settlers be singled out as a convenient scapegoat, as they often are by the Israeli “left.”  This is a problem that encompasses a large number of mainstream Israelis.

This is why it is not the least bit surprising to see Israeli political leaders praising Mandela’s memory, with some even going so far as to declare him an Israeli hero. Some of these will surely be cynical, conscious attempts to whitewash his legacy and escape criticism. Many, however, believe every word they say. They truly respect Mandela and mourn his passing, and see no irony in that at all.

It is important to remember that Apartheid South Africa was not Syria or North Korea. It was a regime propped up by a comfortable majority of whites in apartheid elections, much as the status quo is in Israel. The end of apartheid did not come because these majorities were persuaded. Mandela did not sit in prison for 27 years because it took him that long to realize that dialogue, not armed struggle, was the way forward. His commitment to dialogue, and his truly humbling ability to forgive, only came into play when the anti-apartheid struggle had pushed the country’s white rulers into a corner – when a transfer of power was inevitable and the only choice left was how relatively peaceful, or violent, it would be.

It’s not that dialogue isn’t important now. It is, and it’s taking place between Israelis and Palestinians. But it is also taking place within the anti-apartheid movement in Palestine, between Israelis and Palestinians fighting against the Prawer PlanFiring Zone 918 and home demolitions in Jerusalem. This will be the foundation of a shared future. At this time, there is no meaningful dialogue between the movement and the regime, the latter having yet to be pushed into a corner. One of the most consistent critiques one hears of the BDS movement, inspired to a considerable degree by the boycott movement in South Africa, is that it will cause mainstream Israelis to feel alienated. That’s exactly the point.

Read more:
Why aren’t Netanyahu, Peres going to Mandela’s memorial?
The top five most hypocritical Mandela eulogies by Israeli politicians