Nelson Mandela: A Jewish Perspective
Jews love and loved Nelson Mandela. He inspired us with his insistence that the old regime of apartheid would crumble more quickly and fully when faced with revolutionary love and compassion than when faced with anger and violence.
Mandela also challenged us to think deeply about whether the current situation in Israel/Palestine reflects the ethic of compassion that is so central to Judaism.
Some people on the Left reject Mandela’s strategy. “How can one be openhearted toward one’s oppressors?” they say. “Fostering compassion toward oppressors will undermine the revolutionary spirit needed to defeat the evil ones.”
Yet Mandela showed us the opposite – that one can generate more solidarity and more willingness to take risks in struggle when one can clearly present one’s own movement as morally superior to the actions of the oppressors. Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement claimed this moral superiority through being able to respond to the oppressors’ hatred with great love. When Che Guevara said, “A true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love,” he was alluding to this same truth. And this is what the Torah teaches when it instructs us to “love the stranger” (the “other”).
Although Mandela started out as the leader of a revolutionary movement that had engaged in violence against the racist system of organized violence called apartheid, he later became a convert to the efficacy of a nonviolent struggle. The white power regime in South Africa convicted him of conspiring to overthrow their power and handed him a life sentence. He served twenty-seven years in prison before the growing international support for the anti-apartheid regime, combined with the pressure from the growing power of the African National Congress inside South Africa, led to his release. Those same pressures also forced the whites-only racist government into negotiations as it sought to find a way to appease the increasingly militant majority of black South Africans and grew fearful of the economically crippling impact of a global movement of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.
When he was finally released from prison, Mandela challenged those in his own movement whose encounters with the violence of the apartheid regime had led them to believe that hatred of the enemy and armed struggle against them was the only way to liberation.
Every oppressive regime fears that when it lifts up its boot from the neck of those whom it oppresses, the previously oppressed will jump up and do to the oppressors what the oppressed did to them. That fear keeps people locked into the system of oppression, fearful of what would happen if the previous victims become “power-over-others” fanatics and seek retribution for their very real suffering.
The brilliance of Mandela was in his ability to lead the majority of South Africans to not do to others what had been done to them. In speech after speech, he taught his huge movement – and eventually the entire population of South Africa, which had elected him president – that revenge was the wrong way to go. Reconciliation, he argued, was the path to liberation and to a peaceful transition to African majority rule. And he was shown to be right!
It was this spirit of generosity that convinced the white minority rulers of the apartheid state that they would be safe after giving up their illegitimate power. The Truth and Reconciliation tribunals that were set up only worked, to the extent that they did, because of the background condition of openheartedness, caring for others, and even generosity toward one’s oppressors that Mandela fostered even while his own people were being brutalized.
Mandela’s framework of compassion is deeply resonant with Jewish worldviews. It was part of the greatness of galut (exile) or Diaspora mentality that Jews had grown to see the primacy of compassion (rachmanus in Yiddish) as central to Jewish life. Having been thrown out of our ancient land by Roman imperialism, Jews came to recognize that our survival depended not on our military power (of which we had none for most of the past 1,800 years) but on the ethical quality of our lives. When the king of nearby Moab had sought to destroy us by having the prophet Bila’am come to curse us, but the prophet instead said, “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob, thy dwelling places, O Israel,” the medieval biblical commentators said he was praising the high ethical standards that were manifest in the way the Israelites comported themselves. No wonder, then, that so many Jews felt a special kinship to Mandela because of his insistence on ethics and compassion.
Mandela made a fateful choice in accepting a deal with the white minority government that granted political power to black South Africans without dismantling the white-dominated economic power system that continues to leave tens of millions of black South Africans in deep economic misery. Preferring an imperfect democracy to the bloodbath that was the likely alternative, Mandela achieved a first step toward full liberation, and created political structures that could eventually lead to economic democracy as well. It was the same choice made by the American revolutionaries of 1776.
It remains to be seen whether we or other societies that made that compromise will ever be able to use democratic forms effectively so long as the economic elites are able to use their huge wealth to shape public discourse and manipulate electoral outcomes. Yet democratic political rights give some power to the people to expand those rights, and this expansion of rights is generally a more effective, lasting vehicle for transforming society than an armed struggle is. So here too we have to appreciate Mandela’s choice, even as we cheer on those who now will seek the next steps toward greater democratic control of the economy and substantive (not just formal) equality.
Given the great feeling of affinity and kinship for Mandela within the Jewish community, some Jews were shocked when Mandela called upon the Jewish people to apply the same lens of compassion – the very values that had led so many Jews to fight against segregation in the United States and apartheid within South Africa – to the situation in Israel. Mandela wanted Jews to recognize the way they were betraying their own heritage by becoming oppressors to another people after having endured so many centuries of oppression. He called on both Israeli Jews and the organized Jewish community globally that supported Israeli policies to see how Israeli policies were oppressing Palestinians.
Instead of opening to that message, some Jews began to denounce Mandela and his followers, though luckily that did not happen till well after Mandela was already the elected president of South Africa.
Yet there were also many Jews who listened carefully to Mandela and agreed with his critique of the cruel Occupation, blockade, and exile that Israel had inflicted on several million Palestinians. Many of these Jewish progressives dared to wish (and sometimes even to suggest to their Palestinian allies) that they too should be trying to follow the path of Mandela and provide the Israelis with a concrete and compassionate vision of what a two-state solution could look like.
Many of us reject the notion that Israel itself is an apartheid state because Palestinians living inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel have equal voting rights, representation in the Knesset, and full access to the Israeli universities, beaches, and public accommodations. This is not to downplay the severity of the racism Palestinians face there – Israeli society has grown ever more racist not only against Arabs but also against Jews who look like Arabs, Jews of color, and the thousands of non-Jews invited in to replace Palestinians in the worst paying jobs in Israeli society.
The experience of Palestinians within the pre-1967 borders of Israel is in some ways comparable to the experience of people of color in the United States, where there is legal equality on paper but considerable racism enacted on every level of the society. Just as people of color are harassed and brutalized by police in the United States and face structural racism of all sorts, so Palestinians in Israel face racist practices and rhetoric, not least from right wing religious fundamentalists and atheistic nationalists.
But if you consider Israel-as-society rather than Israel-as-state, the picture changes. For all the Palestinians living in the West Bank under Occupation and for all the Palestinians living in Gaza, barely surviving the ruthless blockade Israel has imposed on them, the legal restrictions and conditions of daily life are comparable in their harshness to apartheid and de facto as oppressive as apartheid, albeit not explicitly based on the racial category of “Palestinian” but rather on fear of the national struggle Palestinians have been fighting to retain some part of the land and the rights that they held before the Jews started returning to what our sacred texts had taught us was our ancient homeland and thus causing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee.
Mandela was falsely accused of having labeled Israel an apartheid state – he never did – and he frequently praised other aspects of Israeli society. At times he even seemed to embrace Jewish nationalism as a model for the kind of nationalism he sough to develop in South Africa. But he clearly and powerfully spoke out against the oppression of Palestinians, and rightly so. I was very moved when former Archbishop Desmond Tutu suggested that my latest book Embracing Israel/Palestine “could make a major contribution to reconciliation” in Israel/Palestine not only because of Tutu’s role as one of Mandela’s closest supporters but also because Tutu had once explicitly pointed to the Jewish value of reconciliation as opposed to conquest and “power over” in his calls for reconciliation in South Africa.
In a certain sense, by critiquing the Occupation, Mandela was being a better Jew than many of the right-wing Zionists who have controlled the government in Israel. And indeed there are many Jews, myself among them, who wish that the Jewish people today could either find a leader with the values of Mandela or produce a generation of Jews so infused with the spirit of Mandela that they could change our people from its current fearful place to a place in which we (and Israel) became famous not for our political, economic, or military power but for being a deeply generous and openhearted people toward those who acted as our enemies.
There are really two Jewish peoples today. One is still connected to the most generous and love-oriented elements of our tradition and is seeking to renew them. The other is grounded in what I call “Settler Judaism” – a Judaism that has its roots in our tradition as well, and that sees the “other” as an enemy. Adherents to this worldview argue that God’s empowerment of the Jewish people and the world’s flagrant disregard for Jews when we were being murdered by the millions in the twentieth century entitle us to be callous toward the suffering that Israel imposes on the Palestinian people.
Jews are not alone in facing this contradiction. The truth is that in all of us there is one voice inclining us toward trust, love, and a generosity of spirit and action, and another voice of fear that inclines us toward domination in the name of self-protection. Mandela’s successes in South Africa have strengthened for much of the world and for a section of the Jewish people the voice of hope, love, and generosity, but not enough to overcome the deep voices of cynicism and despair that lead so many Jews and non-Jews alike to revert to the knee-jerk response of violence whenever a situation triggers in us our deep feelings of fear.