I wasn’t going to write anything in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. I thought it would be lost in the sea of posts and columns praising the man as a revolutionary figure for freedom.
I expected to see numerous news outlets, politicians, and commentators sanitize him, turning him into some sort of conciliatory figure that we could all universally digest. I didn’t expect much review of the history of apartheid in South Africa or Mandela’s radical history in uprooting it.
I was watching CNN on Friday, the day after his death was announced. Much of the coverage revolved around Mandela and world reactions to his death. The stories were varied:
Ex-Fellow Inmate Remembers Mandela
How Mandela Influenced Obama
Crowds Gather to Mourn Mandela
Mandela to Lie in State Next Week
Colin Powell Remembers Mandela
It was everything I expected to see. And just as I was about to turn off the TV and get on with the rest of the my day, my daily Palestinian moment happened. Sometime in the early afternoon, Wolf Blitzer popped on to the screen with none other than former Israeli prime minister, defense minister, and commando Ehud Barak. Now I couldn’t turn off the TV. My “Palestinianality” required me to watch.
I imagine that Mr. Barak’s appearance on CNN that day was scheduled well before the news of Mandela’s death broke. But who cares? What happened next is the really interesting part. Blitzer quickly noted that Mandela had criticized Israel in the past and then asked Barak to describe his thoughts when the former president of South Africa visited the former prime minister of Israel:
I was a young prime minister… He tried to convince us that we should do more… He had very clear ideas. I tried to convince him somehow Arafat is not of the same character in terms in greatness and a much more kind of narrow, fixated kind of character. But he, you know, he supported the idea. He felt that there are certain similarities, however remote, with that situation and tried very hard to convince us that nothing which seems now to be an obstacle should not be taken as an insurmountable because when there is a will, we can overcome everything.
Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century. He left imprints on hundreds of millions, not just on his own people, and changed history as a result of being consistent, determined, in a way, a benign zealot. He was zealot for his case but a great kind of mind and open-minded, could carry the burden of not just the responsibility to lead but also responsibility to be self-disciplined once he won.
That is what he said according to CNN. I know that some of it sounds incoherent. But in all fairness, English is, at best, Barak’s second language. And since I consistently deal with people for whom English is a second, third, or fourth language, (including my father) I can sympathize.
But a couple of things were clear from Barak’s words.
First, he reminded us all that Arafat was no Mandela. This is undeniably true. Mandela understood that he must be unwavering until the full measure of justice was dispensed. He knew that he could not allow his oppressors to shake his hand on a world stage, using him to pretend that everything was all right. He understood that he could not share a Nobel Peace Prize with his counterpart until the racist system that had for so long tormented his homeland was completely done away with. He would have never signed the Oslo Accords. He recognized that justice could not be delivered piecemeal, morsel by morsel. He understood all of these things. Arafat did not.
So, yes, Arafat was no Mandela. But the absence of a Palestinian Mandela is no excuse for the continued Israeli treatment of us as subhuman. Unless, of course, you are Ehud Barak and just about every other Israeli leader. In their world, Palestinians must behave before any sort of Israeli “concessions” can take place. Additionally, in their world, Palestinians never behave. Since Palestinians never behave, Israel cannot make any “concessions.” Do you understand? It is very important to understand this way of Israeli thinking. Otherwise, Ehud Barak’s statements might seem like complete nonsense.
Second, his praise for Mandela was muted, calling him a “benign zealot.” Now I will be the first to say that I have heard this term before, but I am not always sure exactly what it means. A “zealot,” by definition, is “a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of his religious, political, or other ideals.” “Benign” can mean “gentle” or “agreeable.” It can also mean “harmless.” Now, if Barak meant that Mandela was a nice guy, it seems from everything that I have ever seen that he is correct. But that is not what he meant. “Benign zealot” is a term used by oppressors to describe the kind of zealots they are willing to live with.
Of course, Mandela was not “benign” in any sense of the word. One can very strongly make the case that without him, apartheid in South Africa may not have been abolished, or at least not as quickly. He was not “harmless,” at least not as far as the South African regime of that time was concerned. One could also, almost without any doubt at all, say that Nelson Mandela would have never have described himself as a “benign zealot.” But this is of no concern to Ehud Barak. In his world, Mandela became acceptable only when he became “benign.” A gentle former revolutionary in post-apartheid South Africa could visit Israel in 1999. Of course, just ten years earlier, Israel, along with Ronald Reagan, had supported the apartheid regime. In fact, immediately after his release in 1990, almost every country in the world invited Mandela to visit. Israel did not.
I am writing all of these things because it is important to understand this way of Israeli thinking. Otherwise, Ehud Barak’s statements might seem like complete nonsense.
After Mandela’s death, Israeli President Shimon Peres got in on the praising as well, calling Mandela a “venerable leader” and a “strong proponent of democracy.” Netanyahu joined in, describing Mandela as a “freedom fighter who opposed violence” and a “man of vision.”
Now, perhaps you can imagine the sense of ironic disbelief and paradoxical astonishment I experienced in these “Palestinian moments” listening to Barak, Peres, and Netanyahu. If you cannot, let me try to make an analogy.
Listening to Israeli prime ministers praise Nelson Mandela is as ridiculous as… well, it’s as ridiculous as listening to Israeli prime ministers praise Nelson Mandela. Sorry, that’s the best I can do.
* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."