Friday, 6 December 2013

Lessons from Mandela's long walk to freedom

Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

As President Obama said yesterday (Thursday 5 December), echoing words said at the death of Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela no longer belongs to us but "to the ages".

I remember first becoming aware of the struggle against Apartheid in 1980 after listening to Peter Gabriel's song about the death in police custody of the black civil rights activist Steve Biko. I was playing the same song in my car last night with my son just before we returned home and turned on the television to hear the breaking news coming out of Pretoria.

'Biko' was part of my awakening to the issue of human rights as a teenager. As a student in Manchester in the mid eighties the boycott strategy of the Anti-Apartheid movement and the campaign to Free Nelson Mandela were part of my emerging political understanding of the way the world ticks. More recently, the South African story has influenced my understanding of the situation in Israel/Palestine. They are not identical scenarios but there are enough similarities to draw conclusions.

So what are the lessons we must take from Mandela's long walk to freedom?

  • Palestinian violence, however provoked, will always undermine the cause of human rights and allow all resistance to be branded as terrorism and be brutally suppressed. Meanwhile, genuine grievances will be dismissed as irrelevant compared to the needs of Israeli State security.

  • The campaign for freedom in Israel/Palestine must be a global call for the restoration of human rights. All the complexities and history must not obscure the basic fact that one people has been dispossessed, and continues to be discriminated against, by another people.

  • Change will not come from above until politicians around the world recognise a tipping point in the public understanding of the Palestinian people and their story. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement will create that consciousness and eventually shift the political paradigm in Israel and globally just as the same tactics did in South Africa.

  • The way ahead must acknowledge the human rights of all those who call the Holy Land their home. Solving one injustice must not create another (that's what happened in 1948). This fundamental understanding of the equal worth of all humanity and the need for compassion on all sides was the outstanding contribution of Nelson Mandela in the immediate post Apartheid years. Jews and Palestinians must acknowledge each other's narrative. The future cannot be built on past hatred. However, just as in South Africa, there can be no doubt as to who has been the oppressed and who the oppressor.

Some will see this as utopian nonsense. The same was said about South Africa. Some will say that the Palestinians lack a Nelson Mandela that can unify the people and show moral and political leadership.

I strongly believe that the Palestinian Mandelas do exist. They are men and women who are currently in exile, sitting in Israeli jails, or working right now to build a non-violent worldwide campaign to liberate their people. You may want to read the statement from Marwan Barghouthi in Hadarim prison who has been in Israeli jails since 2002.

While still President of South Africa, Mandela gave a speech in December 1997 to mark the United Nations Day of Palestinian Solidarity.

"It behoves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world."

This is a statement that recognises how interconnected justice must be. It reminds us of Martin Luther King Jr's. statement that: “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.”

Sadly, when others, close to Mandela during the South African Apartheid struggle, speak about Israel (such as former Archbishop Desmond Tutu) they are often dismissed as over-stating their case in drawing any parallels to their own experience. That couldn't be more wrong. Tutu recognises injustice when he sees it.

As I have said many times on this blog, Jews have a right to a homeland through our historic, religious and cultural connection to the land. But it doesn't have to look like this. In fact, what Mandela's story tells us is that it can't look like this. The way in which Israel is currently constituted is ethically unsustainable and it is eating away at the soul of Judaism.

For me, and for a great many others, Mandela may belong to "the ages" but he also belongs to every struggle that has justice and human rights at its core. And that means he belongs to all those who want to see a just peace in Israel/Palestine.

In the end, as Obama said in his tribute, there is a moral arc to the universe that can be bent towards justice. Until that moment comes for Israel/Palestine we wait and we work and we take inspiration from the life of a great man.