Ever since his death, Nelson Mandela’s political and moral legacy has been subjected to intense analysis. But one misconception that has not been adequately debunked is that he equated the Jewish state to apartheid-era South Africa.
This view is largely based on a notorious memo from 2007, which was addressed to the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman and signed “Nelson Mandela”.
It read: “Palestinians are not struggling for a ‘state’ but for freedom, liberation and equality, just like we were struggling for freedom in South Africa. The so-called ‘Palestinian autonomous areas’ are bantustans. These are restricted entities within the power structure of the Israeli apartheid system.
“Apartheid is a crime against humanity. Israel has deprived millions of Palestinians of their liberty and property. It has perpetuated a system of gross racial discrimination and inequality.”
The “memo” went viral on the internet. It was cited by Jimmy Carter, the former American president, during a speech at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, later that year, and has since been a principal factor in fashioning the public perception of Mr Mandela as an anti-Israel figure.
Indeed, the notorious Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — which William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, recently referred to as “unjust” — enthusiastically cites Mandela’s support.
The only problem is that the memo was a fake.
In 2007, Joel Pollack, the American political writer, revealed that it was actually written by Arjan El Fassed, a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, a popular anti-Israel website.
Whether or not El Fassed intended the memo to be a hoax is debatable. In his defence, he claimed that it was submitted in the style of a series in which Friedman wrote mock memos by high-level figures.
“In a clearly labelled spoof, under my byline, I published a mock memo from Mandela to Friedman on March 28, 2001,” El Fassed wrote on his blog. “Unfortunately, someone forwarded it on the internet without my byline.”
Whatever his motivations, such are the strange ways of the internet that the memo was widely taken as truth (not least by Jimmy Carter).
The perception of Mr Mandela as hostile to Zionism was amplified by the views of his associates. Desmond Tutu — who refuses to share a platform with Tony Blair but is all too happy to join forces with members of Hamas — has frequently used the word “apartheid” to refer to Israel. As has Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
But the truth is that Mr Mandela had a friendly, but by no means uncritical, relationship with the Jewish state.
In his memoir, Long Walk To Freedom, he affectionately recounted the way he learned the fundamentals of combat from Arthur Goldreich, a South African Jew who cut his teeth during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. He recalled Menachem Begin with respect, and showed gratitude to the Israeli airline, El Al, for flying Walter Sisulu, the prominent ANC activist, to Europe even though he did not have a passport.
Of course, it was not all rosy. Mandela was close to the PLO and, in the first decades of its existence, Israel did have an alliance with apartheid-era South Africa, acting as its most important arms supplier.
At the same time, however, Israel was often publicly critical of apartheid. In the late 1980s it sharply curtailed its support for the South African regime, cutting many military, economic and cultural ties. It also ruled that only non-white South Africans would be allowed to study on certain courses in Israel, voted to condemn apartheid at the UN and took part in sanctions.
In the final analysis, Mr Mandela’s position on Israel was clear. He was a firm believer in the two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders; but he never questioned Israel’s right to exist. And he certainly never drew any comparison between Israeli society and apartheid.
…BUT OFTEN, HE WAS A FIERCE CRITIC OF THE JEWISH STATE
In October 1999, four months after he retired from the presidency of South Africa, Nelson Mandela arrived for his only visit to Israel.
He adopted a conciliatory tone, acknowledging that “Israel co-operated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate in any atrocities”. He added that “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing (from the territories) if Arab states do not recognise Israel within secure borders.” But he was adamant that Israel must be prepared to withdraw, saying that “talk of peace remains hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands”.
On other occasions, however, he was much harsher towards Israel.
Whether it was due to Israel’s co-operation with the apartheid government, the fact that the ANC had been embraced early on by Arab and Communist leaders (as a result he remained a life-long friend of Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro) or simply his world-view that was hostile to Western policy, Mr Mandela was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and a fierce critic of Israel.
He met PLO chief Yasser Arafat shortly after his release from prison in 1990 and called Israel that year a “terrorist state”. In a famous speech in 1997 he said that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians” and that “injustice and gross human rights violations were being perpetrated in Palestine”.
Two years later, when he did visit Israel, it was hard to ignore the fact that he had just come from visits to the Jewish state’s two mortal enemies — Syria and Iran.
Three years later, during the build-up to the Iraq war, he accused George Bush and Tony Blair of adopting a “double-standard” since they were not demanding that Israel give up its weapons of mass destruction.