Nelson Mandela: A Lesson for the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict
by Marlin Vis, RCA missionary to Israel/Palestine
On several occasions, one of which was his 1999 visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial near Jerusalem, Nelson Mandela commented on the immensity of Jewish suffering. It seemed as though he felt he could identify with their suffering, although he was wise not to try to make that comparison.
While instances of human suffering often have much in common, each circumstance is nuanced differently. It is impossible to say that one group has suffered the same as another—to make the comparison tends to inadvertently put distance between parties that ought to be sympathetic to one another.
Mandela had a warm affection for the Jewish people. It was a South African Jewish man who afforded young Nelson Mandela a job as a clerk in the face of apartheid restrictions. Jewish anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, visited Mandela in prison. On the eve of Passover 1992, Mandela for the first time publicly acknowledged South African Jewry's "particularly outstanding contribution" to his people's "struggle for freedom and social justice."
However, Mandela was able to separate his feelings for the Jewish people from his feelings about the actions of the State of Israel. He clearly understood and supported the yearning of the Jewish people to have a place of their own. He was supportive of the State of Israel to the extent that in October 1999, during his first visit to Israel, Mandela appealed to the surrounding Arab states to recognize Israel's right to exist within secure borders.
Mandela simply wanted the same for the Palestinians. How complicated is that! He roundly and soundly criticized Israel for the cruel occupation that has been in place since 1967. He called for Israeli leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu to end the occupation and sincerely work for a fair and just peace.
Mandela realized from his own painful experience that the powerful have to come down to meet the powerless for reconciliation to happen.
He connected the struggles of black South Africans under apartheid with the struggles of the Palestinians. To the chagrin of many on the world stage, he frequently and publicly embraced Yasser Arafat, calling him "my brother in arms." Mandela feared that the same racist attitudes that underlaid the slowness with which the West responded to apartheid in South Africa also exist toward the Palestinians.
He never forgot Israel's support of the apartheid regime in South Africa, or that Israel was the one nation to completely ignore the United Nations' appeal for sanctions and the one nation that supplied weapons to white South Africa until it became obvious that to continue to do so would damage Israel's image beyond repair.
It was a struggle for Mandela to imagine that a people subjected to as much discrimination and persecution as the Jewish people would not be sensitive as a collective entity (the State of Israel) to the suffering of either his people or the Palestinian people, over whom they held so much power.
Despite all of this, Mandela tried to find a way to be a bridge. I think this might be the lesson for us in the wake of his passing. Mandela moved from being labeled a terrorist—he wasn't removed from the U.S.'s terrorist watch list until 2008, a fact that Condoleezza Rice, then Secretary of State, called "embarrassing"—to a worldwide spokesperson for reconciliation through nonviolent resistance.
How he got from point A to point B is a long story, one that involved a long process of inner turmoil and outer evolution, but he did get there. After his release from prison, Mandela urged the Palestinians to embrace nonviolence in the way of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as the best way to resist the occupation and work toward a state of their own and the freedoms they long for.
Wherever you are in your own journey with conflict—and there is plenty of it in each of our lives—remember that Mandela's journey was ever toward reconciliation. During his life he worked his way toward being the "third side" between conflicting parties.
This was his distinctive Christian perspective, one that came to define him as a person of influence. Mandela came to see that the way to a better tomorrow was the way of Jesus, the way of emptying oneself to become a servant, of innocent suffering being redemptive, of the stubborn cross as the only way to the empty tomb.