Israel apologists attempted to discredit Mandela with false Israel apartheid quote

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 22 Comments

Did Nelson Mandela label Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime? Israel’s apologists claimed he did in 1990, apparently misquoting Mandela for their own political objectives.

Nelson Mandela meets with Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, right, on Sunday, May 20, 1990 in Cairo. (Photo via news.naij.co)

Nelson Mandela meets with Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, right, on Sunday, May 20, 1990 in Cairo. (Photo via news.naij.co)

Shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Mandela described Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as “our friend and comrade . . . like us, fighting against a unique form of colonialism.” These comments, made on February 27, 1990 as Arafat joined Mandela at a pan-African summit, provoked a storm of push-back among Israel’s apologists. The next day, Mandela told a reporter: “If the truth alienates the Jewish community in South Africa, too bad.” Questioned about Mandela’s remarks, Arafat said: “We are in the same trench, struggling against the same enemies, against apartheid, racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism.”

The Israel Lobby rushed to attempt to counteract the damage to Israel’s image. “South Africa’s influential Jewish community [wants] to meet Nelson Mandela to tell him he was wrong to compare the Palestinian struggle with the black liberation movement,” Newsday reported a day later. When Mandela traveled to the U.S. three months later, in June of 1990, to meet with President Bush and Congress, Israel’s mainstream defenders prepared an indifferent, if not hostile, reception.

Right-wing Israel-boosting pundits went further, welcoming Mandela to the U.S. with opeds misquoting him and claiming that Mandela had called Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime. On June 19th The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page asserted:

Mr. Mandela has met the PLO’s Yasser Arafat three times, more than with any other foreign leader. Mr. Mandela says, “We are in the same trench struggling against the same enemy: the twin Tel Aviv and Pretoria regimes, apartheid, racism, colonialism and neocolonialism.”

According to Newsday’s report from three months earlier, these were Arafat’s words, not Mandela’s. A few days after the WSJ oped, Pat Buchanan wrote in a June 24th column: “Mandela’s past activities and present alliances should alarm, not awe, free men,” and Buchanan repeated the “same trench… apartheid” quote as being Mandela’s. Neoconservative Israel backer Joshua Muravchik repeated the same quote as attributed to Mandela in a similar be-scared-of-Mandela piece that ran in Commentary, October 1990. Neoconservative Mona Charen piled on a day after Buchanan, repeating the same quote and claiming it was Mandela’s. Charen wrote:

It has fallen to the Wall Street Journal editorial page and conservative columnists to make the point that Nelson Mandela has embraced one of the most pernicious ideas of the 20th Century, namely communism; that he has refused to renounce violence in the struggle to end apartheid; that he has on three occasions since his release from prison met and praised Yasser Arafat, saying, “We are in the same trench struggling against the same enemy: the twin Tel Aviv and Pretoria regimes, apartheid, racism, colonialism and neocolonialism…”

What exactly had “fallen” to these conservative columnists, as Charen put it? Apparently, to make Mandela seem even scarier than he already was to a certain segment of Americans, most especially American Jewish supporters of Israel, who were wholly unprepared to consider the possibility that Israel was, in fact, an apartheid regime. Were these columnists acting in concert, according to pre-determined talking points?

By putting Arafat’s words into Mandela’s mouth, they inflated Mandela’s already serious accusations against Israel to a level that, perhaps they hoped, would damage his credibility. At the time, no major world leader – certainly not one U.S. President and two former Israeli Prime Ministers – had gone so far as to compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South African apartheid.

Even if it was a genuine mistake by the Journal (hard to believe), that was then picked up by the Journal‘s allies without vetting (also hard to believe), Charen’s comments seem to crack open a window into the philosophy of Israel’s most strident mainstream media boosters at a time when the Israel Lobby’s power was nowhere near as robust as it grew to become under the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations.

With Mandela’s passing, it is certainly not in the interest of Israel’s apologists to repeat the claim that he labeled Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime, which would simply validate the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and the rampant ‘apartheid’ charges that have been leveled at Israel in the past 12 years. Instead, hypocritical eulogies that remove any trace of his indictment of Israeli policies are the norm.

An interesting postscript to the debate over whether Mandela called Israel ‘apartheid’… In 2002 Dutch-Palestinian political scientist Arjan El Fassed wrote a ‘mock memo‘ to Thomas Friedman — in the style of one of Friedman’s own ‘mock memo’ columns — pretending to be from Mandela, and labeling Israel an apartheid state. Although El Fassed’s ambition to get it published in the New York Times was never realized, when he posted it on a discussion board under his own name, activists stripped out El Fassed’s byline and circulated it widely, leading major editors to believe it was in fact penned by Mandela and quote it at length. El Fassed describes the saga of the mock memo here.

Although I have been unable to find a reliable record of Mandela using the word ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel, his comments accusing Israel of colonialism, as well as his subsequent remarks, should lay to rest any doubts about his beliefs regarding the legitimacy of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

Thanks to Hostage for prompting this inquiry with a comment on this story. For what it’s worth, an extended Wikipedia conversation about the validity of the “same trench…apartheid” quote can be found here. Lastly, a caveat: Although I spent many hours researching, it’s possible there’s a relevant news clipping out there that I missed that might affect some of the contours of this story.

22 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    December 8, 2013, 11:01 am

    Well, mis-quoting by politicians (to say nothing of Zionists) is nothing new. The despised
    annoying the powerful is a bit unusual:

    The next day, Mandela told a reporter: “If the truth alienates the Jewish community in South Africa, too bad.” Questioned about Mandela’s remarks, Arafat said: “We are in the same trench, struggling against the same enemies, against apartheid, racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism.”

    But what of today? Today, I’d suggest, it is time for the world (led by those South Africans who knew and opposed apartheid, Palestinians, and their allies) to announce that, although Mandela is dead, apartheid is not yet dead — it is alive and well in occupied Palestine. The struggle goes on, and let no-one say that Israel does not practice apartheid in occupied Palestine (if not, indeed, within the Israel of 1966).

  2. Hostage
    December 8, 2013, 11:45 am

    Neoconservative Israel backer Joshua Muravchik repeated the same quote as attributed to Mandela in a similar be-scared-of-Mandela piece that ran in Commentary, October 1990.

    Yes, but IIRC his article indicated Mandela had made the comment in New York during an interview broadcast on WABC-TV.

    • Matthew Taylor
      December 8, 2013, 6:06 pm

      Hostage – While Muravchik’s Commentary piece does indeed reference remarks Mandela made on television, Muravchik does *not* specifically say that the “same trench…apartheid” quote was made on television. In fact, Muravchik offers NO reference of any kind for that quote. I stand by my analysis I gave in the above article.

      • Hostage
        December 8, 2013, 6:16 pm

        So you are speculating that the reports are fabricated. That doesn’t prevent the rest of us from accepting the reports at face value.

      • Hostage
        December 9, 2013, 10:33 am

        I stand by my analysis I gave in the above article.

        Oh, I agree that the authors in question intended to discredit Mandela, but I don’t know for certain that quotes were completely falsified. The remarks of Arafat and Mandela to the press were made over the course of a few days, while both men were within spitting distance of one another or standing side by side at the airport.

  3. Annie Robbins
    December 8, 2013, 12:07 pm

    matthew, the definitive nature of this article leaves me uncomfortable. i’m wondering, did you gain access to the (unavailable at the link) 1990 newsday articles? and if so could you provide any blockquotes?

    i’m occasionally weary of the accuracy of contentious source docs allegedly published pre internet. that’s how they tried to highjack mlk’s legacy.

    • Hostage
      December 8, 2013, 1:36 pm

      The Newsday article didn’t quote Mandela verbatim, their version employed ellipsis: Arafat, whose small Iraqi Airlines jet had come to a stop at the edge of the red carpet only one hour before Mandela arrived from Johannesburg, appeared particularly excited as he kissed the ANC leader several times on each cheek. Later, as Mandela stood on the makeshift podium erected on the tarmac, he paid tribute to Arafat as “our friend and comrade . . . like us, fighting against a unique form of colonialism.”

      • Hostage
        December 8, 2013, 2:30 pm

        P.S. There were a number of Newsday articles which made it plain that Mandela had made a statement a day earlier during a conference in Africa that Israel and South Africa both practiced the same type of colonialism, i.e. employed separate development or Bantustans – and that Mandela and Arafat were both asked about Mandela’s earlier comment the very next day:

        PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, one of the few dignitaries here to meet with Nelson Mandela not from a sub-Saharan country, drew special attention from onlookers and special praise from Mandela.

        Mandela was asked at a news conference yesterday if he were “frightened” that his statement comparing his fight to that of Arafat would “alienate the powerful Jewish community in South Africa.”

        “If the truth alienates the Jewish community, my position is, it’s too bad,” Mandela said. “I sincerely believe that there are many similarities between our situation and that of the PLO.”

        He also said, “We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel, and a lot flows from that fact.”

        Asked about Mandela’s remark, Arafat said, “We are in the same trench, struggling against the same enemies against apartheid, racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Israel and South Africa are cooperating in everything, and {there is}all kinds of cooperation between the two regimes.”

        – Les Payne; Newsday; (Mar 1, 1990), p. 13

        It’s very possible that Arafat was simply repeating and approving exactly what Mandela had said the day before. Mandela was subsequently asked to meet with Jewish leaders and to grant interviews on the subject of those comments. So, its very possible that he did echo the same sentiments expressed by Arafat on a number of occasions and say that it was too bad if the truth upset Jewish leaders.

        Newsday reported that Jewish leaders were furious with Mandela. They were also afraid that if they remained silent for prudential reasons, that would be understood as passive acceptance of Mandela’s ties to the PLO and Arafat. So they made a point of repeatedly brining the subject up:
        * PLO, S. Africa Struggles Compared
        Payne, Les; Newsday; (Mar 1, 1990), p. 13
        *Jews in NY Are Still Split On Mandela By Vivienne Walt and George E. Jordan; Newsday; (Jun 8, 1990);
        * Don’t Fault Mandela For Hugging Arafat
        Jackson, Jesse; Newsday; (Jun 18, 1990), p. 44
        * Mandela, U.S. Jewish Leaders To Discuss PLO in Geneva
        By Vivienne Walt and George E. Jordan; Newsday; (Jun 7, 1990)
        * Jewish Leaders End Threat Of Mandela Protest
        By Bob Liff; Newsday; (Jun 16, 1990),
        * U.S. Jews Meet Mandela Say ANC leader accepts Israel, rejects anti-Semitism Combined News Services; Newsday; (Jun 11, 1990)

        • Matthew Taylor
          December 8, 2013, 6:17 pm

          Hostage, when you say “It’s very possible that Arafat was simply repeating and approving exactly what Mandela had said the day before,” this is just speculation. If you can find a legitimate, reliable source that Mandela ever used the word ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel — or, that the “same trench… apartheid” quote was ever uttered by Mandela — please share it! However, I think it’s important that we be thorough in our research when we quote anyone, especially a leader of Mandela’s caliber, and at this point I can’t find a single reliable source showing Mandela ever said ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel. Mandela’s comments about ‘colonialism’ and so forth are more than enough to make the point, no need for anyone to embellish his already righteous and accurate remarks.

        • Hostage
          December 8, 2013, 6:30 pm

          Hostage, when you say “It’s very possible that Arafat was simply repeating and approving exactly what Mandela had said the day before,” this is just speculation

          I’m not speculating that 1) Mandela said something the day before which compared his fight with that of Arafat and the PLO against Israel; 2) that the interviewer thought those remarks would anger or alienate the Jewish community, 3) that Mandela was unapologetic and claimed that the people lived under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel, and 4) that various members of the Jewish community subsequently attributed comments about the twin apartheid regimes to both Mandela and Arafat.

        • Sibiriak
          December 8, 2013, 11:21 pm

          Matthew Taylor:

          Hostage, when you say “It’s very possible that Arafat was simply repeating and approving exactly what Mandela had said the day before,” this is just speculation.

          I agree. Putting aside the actual word ” apartheid” , what would be useful would be a compilation of verifiable Mandela statements on Israel/Palestine.

    • Matthew Taylor
      December 8, 2013, 6:12 pm

      Annie, I’m sorry if my story makes you feel uncomfortable. If you can find facts that contradict any of what I’ve presented, please share them.

      Yes, I paid to access the behind-firewall Newsday reports I mentioned from February/March 1990.

      Here is a precise quote from “African Summit Rallies to Mandela” by Les Payne (Newsday, March 1, 1990):

      Most of the discussions held to regional concerns African states are facing in a rapidly changing world. However, one diversion arose Tuesday when, during a news conference, Mandela was asked if he was “frightened” that his statement comparing his fight with that of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat would “alienate the powerful Jewish community in South Africa.”

      “If the truth alienates the Jewish community in South Africa, too bad,” Mandela said. “I sincerely believe that there are many similarities between our situation and that of the PLO.”

      He also said, “We live under a unique form of colonialism in South Africa, as well as in Israel and a lot flows from that fact.”

      Asked about Mandela’s remark, Arafat said, “We are in the same trench, struggling against the same enemies, against apartheid, racism, colonialism and neocolonialism.”

      So far as I know, this is the first place that the “same trench…apartheid” quote appeared, and this indicates that it was Arafat’s quote, not Mandela’s.

      • Hostage
        December 8, 2013, 6:44 pm

        If you can find facts that contradict any of what I’ve presented, please share them.

        You haven’t presented any conclusive evidence yet which demonstrates that all of these reports about the Mandela quote were actually false or fabricated. It’s not a question that can be answered conclusively by resorting to inductive logic.

        By way of analogy, you couldn’t prove that President Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John Kerry had never said that Israel must be capable of defending itself, by itself, by simply showing that Netanyahu had said that. Mandela and Arafat both attended a political conference and both men made multiple comments to the press over a period of days that compared Israeli colonialism to the unique form of South African colonialism. From all accounts, it’s very likely that they backed up one another’s remarks.

  4. Theo
    December 8, 2013, 12:09 pm

    If Mandela did not accuse Israel of being an apartheid regime, then he should have done it!! It was true then and it is still true.
    Rest in peace Mr. Mandela, our own president could learn a lot from you.

    • Ecru
      December 9, 2013, 2:21 am

      Mandela might never have used the exact words but he wasn’t the only person who understood what life under apartheid was like. Desmond Tutu was there too so knows what he’s talking about and he’s been unequivocal about Israel being an apartheid state.

  5. Krauss
    December 8, 2013, 2:22 pm

    It’s interesting to note that the Jewish establishment hated him so much, I didn’t know that. Also interesting to note that people like Ta-Neishi Coates at the Atlantic has only focused on right-wing Christian conservatives during the 1980s to attack them on their stance towards’ their indifference on Mandela.

    In fact they are not even close to this. Those guys failed to attack Apartheid under the guise of anti-Communism. The Israel lobby outright attacked Mandela himself, not merely refused to support him, yet Coates and others are staying mum on that.
    (I may be unfair to Coates; but I do not think so. I never read him otherwise but did stumble upon his writing on this topic after reading James Fallow’s defence of Max Blumenthal).

    Also, finally, even if it was Arafat and not Mandela which uttered those words, I don’t think it would have been farfetched to think that Mandela said those things, given his principled stance on Israel/Palestine and his refusal until the very end to denounce the Palestinian resistance, especially during the early 1990s when it was nigh’ impossible.

  6. seafoid
    December 8, 2013, 5:54 pm

    Apparently Joe Kennedy used to refer to Zionists as Canadian geese – loud, pesty and foreign. Plus ca change.

  7. MHughes976
    December 8, 2013, 6:00 pm

    When M’s death was announced I thought it would be interesting to see what he had said about the ME and was surprised at how difficult it was to pin down verified and published rather than attributed or interpreted statements. Somehow the texts swam before my eyes. I was left with the feeling that M was pretty consistent in belief in the 2SS, that he was highly critical of the ‘occupation’ at all times and that, or but that, the tenor of his remarks became steadily gentler towards Israel. There seemed to be strong reports that in Gaza in 2003 he sounded rather as a British official visitor might have sounded, saying that he could not conceive of any Israeli withdrawal that did not leave Israel with secure frontiers. The very interesting sequence of Newsday reports showing that he mollified his pro-Israel critics, ie must have persuaded many of them that they had misinterpreted him – they would have been reluctant to interrogate him harshly, seems to fit with the same pattern. That is to say he was generally in the mainstream of liberal opinion, which has always left the ME situation basically unchanged. As I said on another thread, the overall realistic and conciliatory tone of the words coming from a source so respected would have been a very powerful conscience-salve for others in that good old liberal mainstream.

    • Sibiriak
      December 8, 2013, 11:50 pm

      MHughes976 s:

      I was left with the feeling that M was pretty consistent in belief in the 2SS, that he was highly critical of the ‘occupation’ at all times

      Mandela was a very liberal Zionist.

  8. Scott
    December 8, 2013, 6:59 pm

    Slightly off topic, but you probably found the last historical moment when Buchanan and Joshua Muravchik were on the same side. Ditto Mona Charen.

    • Hostage
      December 8, 2013, 8:10 pm

      Slightly off topic, but you probably found the last historical moment when Buchanan and Joshua Muravchik were on the same side. Ditto Mona Charen.

      There was no question at the time that Mandela and Arafat were on the same page. Mandela had embraced Arafat at the Lusaka Airport on 27 February 1990 and delivered a speech that likened Israel to a terrorist state and the PLO to the foes of apartheid. In the days that followed, Mandela refused to back down or retract what he had said and didn’t contradict when others, including Arafat, when they described Zionism as racism and Israel as an apartheid regime.
      Here is a picture of the two at the airport:
      link to mid-day.com

      Here is a JTA article about the Airport speech and other comments: South African and U.S. Leaders Dismayed over Mandela’s Remarks, March 2, 1990
      link to jta.org

  9. piotr
    December 8, 2013, 10:29 pm

    I have a weird feeling. Perhaps WSJ was slandering Mandela by attributing Arafat’s words to him, but while a typical dentist reading WSJ would be appalled (my own dentist is a subscriber, hence by biased sample on the readership), this dental patient would not be. While not “twin”, the governments in Israel and South Africa were surely close, and so on. Hard to see that the statement was malevolent, ill-informed etc. To the contrary.

    Today a columnist in NYT discusses if Mandela was a Communist. A reader ventured an opinion that if so, it just shows that during that time (1960s) the Capitalism was pretty crappy.

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