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The Real Lessons From the Death of Nelson Mandela

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THE REAL LESSONS FROM THE DEATH OF NELSON MANDELA

John Chuckman

The press has echoed for days with admiration for Nelson Mandela and his genuinely heroic fight against the apartheid government of South Africa. There have been many recollections of the brutal quality of that government, all perhaps carrying an unstated sense of how could people live that way?

As I listened on the radio, I couldn't help thinking of the common human frailty which sees us caught up in gasping over and memorializing what is past while ignoring much the same thing that is present, as on what is called Remembrance or Armistice Day, we've recalled for the best part of a century the terrifying experiences of a war which was to end all war, while yet marching on to even more brutal and murderous conflicts. This seems contrary to logic, and it certainly works against the interest of institutionalizing and making permanent what it is that we praise, but it remains a conflicting duality of thought we find almost universally established. After all, it is so much safer and easier to praise heroism once the threat it struggled against has faded into history. And, sad to say, but history does tend to support the idea of most people behaving like cowards while they sing the praises of heroism.

We have no less an authority than Nelson Mandela himself, in an opinion shared by the equally admirable Bishop Tutu, that the terrible system of oppression against which they struggled in South Africa is very much alive and flourishing in still another place today. That place is, of course, Israel and its occupied territories.       

No matter what past abuse by the former apartheid government the newsmen and commentators may mention, there is an equal, or in some cases an even greater, one not mentioned for Israel. For the Soweto and Sharpeville Massacres, we have Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the several invasions of Southern Lebanon, the toll of these measured in thousands killed and thousands more injured. For the many people, like Mandela, arrested for opposing oppression and left to rot in prison, we have tens of thousands of illegal arrests by Israel of people also left to rot in prison and often tortured there. For the secret murders which South African security forces routinely carried out in the manner of the Argentine Junta's "disappearing" people, we have scores of assassinations of Palestinian leaders, including not so very long ago Yasser Arafat.   For the Bantustans South Africa created to pen up millions of blacks, depriving them of access to most of the country, we have Israel's Wall, an armored fortress which snakes through the homes and farms of countless people without regard for their welfare or rights and the utter isolation of Gaza's one-and-a-half million behind razor-wire fences with radar-controlled machine-gun towers set at intervals and warships blocking the coast. For South Africa's two classes of citizenship with unequal rights and responsibilities, we have Israel's two classes of citizenship with unequal rights and responsibilities plus the perpetual consignment of millions to a life of occupation with no defined citizenship or rights.

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And what actually brought down the oppressive South African regime? Not really the bravery of the Mandelas and Tutus directly, but the outside world's gradually turning against that government's excesses and bringing the force of embargo and economic penalties. The United States was a late-comer to the process -- after all, it highly valued the anti-Communist stance of the apartheid government in the Cold War, given its strategic position on the Cape. But once the United States was turned by its own people to join the boycott, apartheid's days became numbered. And, happily, the end came with remarkable peacefulness.

I have often said that only pressure from the United States will correct the terrible abuses of Israel, but the United States shows few signs yet of exercising that potentially decisive power for good. It is, first, in the midst of another massive equivalent of the Cold War, its so-called War on Terror. In this War, Israel plays the role South Africa once played in the Cold War as occupier of a key strategic point. Israel also makes every effort to have Americans and others see its brutalities as part of a shared battle, a fight against terror, even though its struggles more closely resemble those of the late South African government, a war against the rights and dignity of millions of people with whom they do not want to live. And many Americans still do not understand, being given every encouragement in their press not to understand, that the War on Terror is blowback from Israel's oppression.

Israel has another advantage it exercises to the fullest. American elections have become utterly corrupted by special interests and money, so much so that American democracy is, at best, described as on life support. This is the work of Americans themselves, but Israel has cleverly devised an expert and systematic way to exploit the corruption. Its lobby rewards with campaign funds and good publicity those who support Israel's interests, and it punishes those who do not. Newly-elected officials are given the clearest set of guidelines for what is expected of them with initial paid trips to Israel for every new Congressman and regular consultation thereafter concerning issues on which they are to vote.

I have to believe that ultimately the basic human impulse for fairness -- something we find remarkably in many people in many lands no matter what kind of government they may live under -- will prevail, but I have no hope that can happen soon. In the meantime, maybe we can learn a little bit about our tendency to sing praises with our eyes closed.           

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