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Zionists saw themselves as part of a Jewish liberation struggle

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Nelson Mandela addresses the UN's Special Committee Against Apartheid. (UN Photo/Flickr)

Nelson Mandela addresses the UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid. (UN Photo/Flickr)

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

It is now being widely reported that in the 1960s, Nelson Mandela was trained in the art of warfare by the Mossad. Surprised? I’m not. More than a few of Africa’s revolutionaries were so trained.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Israel had a somewhat progressive foreign policy in Africa. In some quarters, this included trenchant criticism of South Africa’s apartheid. That many Israelis didn’t see the contradiction staring them in the face is instructive. What caused this blindness is important to understand.

Israelis aren’t the only ones who don’t see themselves clearly. If you ask Americans about American imperialism today, most will have no idea what you’re talking about.

Another revelation yesterday: Bob Dylan went to a Zionist youth camp. Staying with Dylan for a moment, did you know that Jeff Halper, an American now Israeli activist and former Zionist, attended Dylan’s Bar Mitzvah?

Life – and history – is complicated. What else is new?

Israel hasn’t always been the bad boy on the global block. And indeed, as I’ve often stressed, Israel isn’t – only – a colonial endeavor.

It’s a bit like Christianity. While we tend to emphasize Christianity’s faults, of which there are many, Christianity isn’t – only – a negative force in the world. That’s true for religion in general.

Pope Francis is an interesting example. His checkered history in Argentina doesn’t disqualify him from making a Papal justice splash on the world scene.

The idea that secularity and universalism is – only – enlightened is ridiculous. Rather than religion, it may be the secular modern experiment that brings our world to its knees.

With all the violence and destruction occurring in our world, is it possible to be aware of complexity and still take a stand?

Ilan Pappe’s recent testimony on Israel and genocide before a tribunal in Belgium is instructive. There he spoke openly of Israel’s checkered history while also confirming that his parents were saved during Hitler’s time by seeking refuge in Palestine.

In Pappe you see the very complexity that is difficult to speak about in the present climate. It’s the same atmosphere that finds it hard to admit that Mandela and more than a few other African revolutionaries were trained by Israelis who, in turn, saw themselves as coming from a Jewish liberation struggle.

Yes many Israelis saw Israel as a liberative act. The fact is that back then they weren’t alone.

Mahatma Gandhi was surrounded by Jewish advisers, some of whom were Zionists. There was an attempt to win Gandhi over to Zionism. Gandhi held his ground. While he supported Jewish refugees in Palestine, Gandhi refused the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine. Rather than liberation, Gandhi understood that a Jewish state in Palestine would ensnare Jews in colonialism. Gandhi thought Jews, as important witnesses to the world, would lose their way. Gandhi was right.

Whatever Mandela thought about Israel in his early years, in his public life he spoke consistently about Palestine and the Palestinian struggle to be free.

Where we’ve been is less important than where we are. Where we are is the place of decision.

Whatever Israel was in the beginning, we know where it is today.

History is complicated. Why deny those complications?

We are measured by what we do with what we know. How our knowledge curve expands in response to suffering is key. In the meantime, we have to act, with others, to right the wrongs of history.

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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5 Responses

  1. Nevada Ned
    Nevada Ned
    December 21, 2013, 11:51 am

    Dear Marc Ellis:
    I agree with your statement that the role of religion is not always conservative or reactionary.
    For example, during the black liberation struggle in the US in the 1960’s, Christian clergy played an important role on both sides. The black clergy, incorporated in the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) included Martin Luther King, Jr., and his acolytes like Jesse Jackson. On the other side, white Christian ministers were among the most forceful supporters of Jim Crow, the US form of apartheid. According to these conservative white ministers, God had created the US as a white Christian nation, and Jim Crow was God’s will. These conservative Christians resented the meddling by ignorant outsiders (e. g., Yankees) who failed to appreciate the Southern Way of Life and its alleged virtues. For example, Jerry Falwell first rose to regional prominence as an opponent of racial integration of public schools.

    I would say that the political impact of religion is often ambiguous. The Rabbis for Human Rights oppose the oppression of the Palestinians. The Rabbis for Human Rights are outnumbered by about 100:1 by hardcore Zionists, as far as I can tell. It’s like white Christian ministers in the South in the 1960’s.

  2. MHughes976
    December 21, 2013, 1:49 pm

    Logically, it was always possible for Zionism to take many different attitudes to problems elsewhere in the world, according to what analogies seemed fitting, perhaps supporting Mandela and the black South Africans because ‘that land is theirs’, perhaps supporting the other side because they were brave pioneers amidst hostile and underdeveloped indigenes. Because of this logical openness to all manner of alliances Zionism has had a kind of genius at recruiting a degree of support from right across major political and religious spectra: there was Gandhi, there was Churchill to whom G was a naked fakir. Proto-Zionism had the support of reactionaries like Cyrus Scofield and of ultra-progressives in religious matters like George Eliot. Many thought that Zionism would lead the world towards socialism, many now think that Zionism was an indispensable Cold War ally of the United States. I don’t think that Zionism was progressive once but a roadblock to progress now so much as that it was always chameleonic in all matters not directly pertaining to Palestine.

  3. seafoid
    December 21, 2013, 3:53 pm

    Killing Palestinians to liberate Jews was like cutting a deal with the devil. Immorality to found a moral enterprise was always bullshit. They became hooked on violence and built their society around it. Israel is going to fail because of this. But that is life. God really challenges his people.

  4. Keith
    December 21, 2013, 5:16 pm

    MARC ELLIS- “If you ask Americans about American imperialism today, most will have no idea what you’re talking about.”

    And that is part of the problem, isn’t it? When myth becomes reality, understanding actual history becomes impossible and prospects for meaningful change become nil.

    “We live entangled in webs of endless deceit, often self-deceit, but with a little honest effort, it is possible to extricate ourselves from them. If we do, we will see a world that is rather different from the one presented to us by a remarkably effective ideological system, a world that is much uglier, often horrifying.” (Noam Chomsky)

  5. Citizen
    December 22, 2013, 5:35 pm

    Oh hum; yep. Churchill himself was hypocritic. So were America’s founding fathers. So were the Puritans. So is Israel now, etc. So, let’s talk about Affirmative Action in the 60’s in America, and, now, in 2013? And, let’s keep an eye on those German dolphin submarine near gifts to Israel too. Meh. There’s always a learning curve. Did Wilson’s naivety contribute to raising Hitler? Was he blackmailed? Anyway, of course, he did. The only thing really constant in modern times is not the dough boys, but the real dough boys: Bankers. Wall Street. Wanna talk about the history of the labor movement in USA? It barely exists today–only as to government workers in the main… Wanna take a close look at Passover?

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