“My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid,” President Obama said in his eloquent, moving, and hypocritical eulogy of Nelson Mandela. As a citizen activist Obama opposed apartheid, and today as president he is presiding over billions of dollars in military aid to an Israeli regime that, by any reading of international law, is committing the Crime of Apartheid against the Palestinian people.
“Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Mandela famously said in 1997, and he favorably characterized the UN’s stance as “recognition that injustice and gross human rights violations were being perpetrated in Palestine” going as far back as 1977. Archbishop Demond Tutu and other South African leaders have equated Israel’s regime to Apartheid or worse, calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions.
If Obama withheld aid to Israel conditional on Israel respecting international law, human rights, equality, and the relevant U.N. resolutions, his eulogy of Mandela would be delivered by a leader worthy of the stage. As it is, Obama is doing what so many other Presidents have done: co-opting a revolutionary to hide his own shame. It’s reminiscent of those in the U.S. government (including Obama) who glorify Dr. King’s “I have a dream speech” and the movement for racial equality, entirely eliding King’s criticism of the Vietnam War, his strident insistence on nonviolence as the basis for a just society, and his indictment of the U.S. Empire as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
Perhaps Obama feels he can do no better than he’s done, that he’s tied to the mat by the Israel lobby and any move to confront the Israelis on colonization, human rights violations, and so forth would be political suicide. However, in a second term with no re-election around the corner, could he not at least be as courageous as Bush Senior and condition some of the aid on a change in behavior? As ex-President, freed of political constraints, will he recover the courage he had as a citizen activist, and join today’s struggle against apartheid?