Mamdani’s ‘holistic’ challenge: Anti-Zionists must persuade Jews they can only be safe by dismantling the Jewish state

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Last Tuesday night, the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani gave a speech at Columbia University, where he is a professor, saying that Palestine has not yet reached its “South African moment.” Most of his speech is excerpted below. It followed Omar Barghouti’s speech, which I lately covered.

“The end of apartheid was a negotiated settlement,” Mamdani said. The South African anti-apartheid struggle did not succeed by military resistance so much as by education, bringing whites to understand that they would only be safe if they ceased to be settlers. They came to agree. In Israel and Palestine, the work is also educational. Israeli Jews and their western supporters have been indoctrinated in the wake of the Holocaust to believe that Jews will only be safe with a Jewish state.

The majority Jewish population within the state of Israel is not yet convinced that it has an option other than Zionism. This is the real challenge. The Zionist message to the Jewish population of Israel is this, Zionism is your only guarantee against another holocaust.

The opposite is the case. Jews can have a homeland in the Middle East, but their safety can only be achieved by dismantling the Jewish state, Mamdani said. His speech was a political challenge to Jewish anti-Zionists, now just a splinter, to launch a political struggle inside the Jewish community to liberate it from Zionism.

Substantial excerpts:

There was no military victory against apartheid in South Africa. I begin with that. The end of apartheid was a negotiated settlement.

Boycott and collaboration are two ends of a spectrum of tactics. In the middle lie different forms of critical engagement. The Boycott was one instrument among many. To view the boycott in isolation would be misleading. To see the boycott in a larger context is to understand the politics that informed the boycott. Thus my question: What was the decisive moment of that anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, what was the South African moment?

My argument would be the following. I believe the South African moment involved a triple shift. It was first a shift from demanding the end of apartheid to providing an alternative to apartheid.

Second, it was a shift from representing the oppressed, the black people of South Africa, the majority, to representing the whole people of South Africa.

Third, it was a turn from resisting within the terms set by apartheid to redefining the very terms of how South Africa should be governed.

I’ll try to explain this in some detail now.

The South African moment took shape over time, in response to a set of challenges faced by the anti-apartheid struggle. I want to begin, 1963, Sharpeville, the birth of the armed struggle, the armed guerrilla whose objective was to liberate the unarmed population, the professional revolutionary patterned after Lenin’s injunctions in What Is to Be Done? a vanguard whose mission was to to lead and liberate the people. In Marxist imagery, guerrillas were like the fish in water, the guerrilla, the fish, was active; the water supportive. As armed struggle unfolded as a project, the results were by and large disappointing, even negative: the more activists moved into exile, the more the population was pacified. Capital took command. The 1960s was a time of rapid economic development. It was a time of the huge inflow of capital, foreign capital into South Africa. Economic historians speak of the 60s as the decade that led to the secondary industrialization of the South African economy. From the point of view of the people, the 1960s was a decade of relative silence, the silence of the graveyard.

That silence was shattered by Soweto 1975. The significance of Soweto was threefold. First, it shifted the initiative from the professional revolutionaries in exile to community-based activists. Second, it shifted the focus from armed struggle to direct action. The youth of Soweto had no more than stones. In both these [respects] Soweto invokes the first intifada in Palestine, But Soweto also involved an ideological shift, a shift in popular perspective so vast that one may speak of it as a sea change. Before Soweto, the resistance in South Africa developed within the framework set by apartheid.

To understand this framework, we need to look at the apartheid mode of governance. Apartheid divided the whole population into races, Africans, Indians, coloreds, whites, called so many population groups. In response each population group organized separately as a race, Africans as African National Congress, Indians organized by Gandhi as Natal Indian Conference — I’m sorry but the historical Gandhi does not conform to the image of Gandhi you are being asked to produce in Palestine– the coloreds organized as the Coloured People’s Congress, and the whites organized as Congress of Democrats.

The Congress alliance was an umbrella alliance of these separate, racially-based resistance groups. This is how the mode of governance of apartheid became naturalized as a mode of resistance. There were two major breaches in this mindset. The first breach was 1955, the ANC charter, the Freedom Charter which contained a clause, “South Africa belongs to all those who live in it.” This was an elite declaration, but it was a declaration of huge significance ideologically. It was the birth of nonracialism.

The second breach, just as fundamental if not more so, was the work of Steve Biko and the black consciousness movement. And this was from below, an alliance of ordinary people, mainly students, and the left. The Freedom Charter created a basis for an alliance at the top; its effect was to incorporate individual whites into the apartheid movement. That was its importance. South Africa claimed to be the only democracy south of the Sahara, just as Israel claims to be the only democracy in the region. Both were democracies, but they were democracies for a clearly defined racial group. Both were and are racially defined, a democracy for Jews only in Israel, and a democracy for whites only in South Africa. Turning democracy into a figleaf hiding racial privilege.

The ANC put forward a meaningful notion of democracy. Not a democracy of only one racial group, not even of the majority as opposed to the minority, but a democracy for all. Individual white anti apartheid activists began to join the ANC. I was very happy to hear that there are Jewish members of BDS. I didn’t know that. I’m very happy to hear that.

Black consciousness was a unity from below. It was a unity of all the oppressed, because black consciousness included Africans, Indians and coloreds. Apartheid power had fragmented the subject population. The census recorded this fragmentation as separate groups. The great historical achievement of black consciousness was to pull the rug from under the apartheid governance. Black, said Biko, is not a color, black is an experience. If you are oppressed you are black.

Now is there a lesson here for the anti-Zionist struggle? I believe there is.

The Palestinian predicament is not the same as that of the South Africans under apartheid. In 1960’s there was a Palestinian delegation which came to Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, and they met [President Julius] Nyerere. Nyerere told them, “Your situation is worse than anything we have faced on this continent. We lost our independence, you lost your country.” Only a small minority of South Africans were driven out of their country. The majority of Palestinians live outside historic Palestine. That is a phenomenal disaster.

On the other side, the positive side, the extraordinary resilience of the Palestinian people in the face of overwhelming odds, cannot go unnoticed by anybody. We live at a time when political violence has been conflated with criminal violence, when all forms of resistance are being redefined as terror, when repression is embraced as a war on terror. The major exception to this global trend is Palestine. It is a tribute to the tenacity of the Palestinian people, led by those in Gaza, and the political work done by the Palestinian resistance, including BDS, that Israel and the United States have been unable to tar popular resistance in historic Palestine with the brush of terrorism. More than ever the world is convinced that the cause of the Palestinian people is just.

What then is the major hindrance to moving forward?

Is it the military power of the US and Israel? I think it would be a mistake to think so.

In my view the problem is twofold.

Secondarily, the US and Israel are not yet convinced that a military solution to the Palestinian resistance is out of question.

Primarily, the Israeli people, the majority Jewish population within the state of Israel, is not yet convinced that it has an option other than Zionism. This is the real challenge. The Zionist message to the Jewish population of Israel is this, Zionism is your only guarantee against another holocaust. Your only defense against a second holocaust is the state of Israel.

The real challenge the Palestinian resistance faces is political not military.

Let me return to apartheid south Africa to clarify that challenge. Consider two facts.

The party of apartheid, the National Party, came to power through elections in the 1960s and was returned to power with a greater majority in every other election, every four years. The dissolution of political apartheid also involved a whites-only referendum, whereby the white population authorized its government to negotiate with representatives of the black majority. This referendum went alongside a debate in both the white and black population. In the black population, the rejectionist view was advanced by the Pan African Congress, the PNC. The PNC slogan was, One settler, one bullet. The Algerian solution: get the settlers out. In the white population, the rejectionist view was challenged by a number of organizations, from the conservative party to the AWB [Afrikaner Resistance Movement], but it was best reflected in a book by a journalist called Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart. Rian Malan was the descendant of a former state president of South Africa. [Mamdani states that Malan’s book was composed of reports of gruesome crimes perpetrated by blacks in black parts of Johannesburg].The subtext of the book was, If this is what they can do to their own, what will they do to you? This is what black South Africans are. Rian Malan failed to convince the majority of whites in South Africa. Why? Because important sections of the liberation movement had begun to think in holistic terms. The struggle in South Africa was not against settlers, it was against settler power. Without a state that legally underwrites settler privilege, settlers would just turn into ordinary immigrants.

The South African moment was when important sections of the liberation camp redefined the enemy not as settlers but as the settler state, not as whites, but white power. By doing so, they provided whites with an alternative: not a democracy for whites only, but a non racial democracy.

In 1993 I was in Durban when the head of the South African communist party Chris Hani was assassinated in a suburb of Johannesburg. Hundreds of thousands gathered at his funeral to pay homage and to listen to Mandela. The police said they were not sure they could control the crowds. The mine workers said they could– and they did control the crowds. Mandela did not just address the mourners at the stadium at Soweto, he addressed the whole country. From that day, though [F.W.] de Klerk was still the the president of South Africa, Mandela was its undisputed leader.

[Mamdani relates that he taught at Capetown University and gave an inaugural lecture in 1998].

The title of my lecture was, “When does a settler become a native?” And the auditorium was packed with whites! They wanted the answer! When does a settler become a native?  And my answer was never. Never. Because I argued, native is the creation of the settler state. The native is invented as the other of the settler. If the settler is defined by history, the native is said to be defined by geography. If the settler makes his and her own history, the native is said to be the unthinking captive of an unchanging custom. And so on. And my conclusion was, settler and native go together. They are reproduced through a relationship between the two. Neither can exist in isolation. When you destroy one, the other ceases to exist.

Liberation in South Africa was the result of a combination of factors. War in the region, direct action within the country, and a changing balance of power globally. The decisive battle of the war in the region was Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, between Cuban forces and the South African forces [in 1987-88], and the South African defense force was defeated. It precipitated the independence of Namibia. The regional isolation of South Africa was complete. And the limits of its military power were clear.

The decisive factor was internal, direct action. From Durban 1973 and Soweto 1975, to insurrection in the townships, and divestment and boycott in the 1980s– internationally you had the end of the cold war, and once the cold war ended there was no morally compelling reason to support apartheid. All these developments were important but as I said the decisive development was the internal development.

Direct action began in the 1960s and developed in the 70s and the 80s, it was a response to what was evident to all. That the armed struggle was a propaganda weapon at best and an empty boast at worst. The beginning of direct action was in the late 60s with a split in the liberal white student organization. The liberal white student organization had admitted black members, and the black members in the late 60 decided to form their own separate organization, started AZASO, and out of AZASO came Black Consciousness. Both wings, the white and the black wings now in separate organizations, reached out to mobilize different sections of the community against apartheid. The black students moved to the townships and they organized the communities and resident workers against apartheid. White students moved to the hostels to organize migrant labor.

Out of this organization were born two different federations, at two different times, separated by a decade. One FOSATU, whose leadership included very important young white students or former students. The other COSATU whose leadership came from the community itself. The importance of the white students was not numerical, they were few in number. But they were key organizers of migrant labor and FOSATU. They joined the ANC and the Communist Party and when the time came they provided the most effective channels of communication with the white population.

I have two conclusions. My first conclusion is that the Anti apartheid struggle educated white South Africa, that Apartheid’s claim that there would be No white security without white power was a hoax. That the reverse was true, that security required that whites give up their monopoly of power.

The Palestinian challenge is to persuade the Jewish population and the world, Just as in South africa, the longtime security of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine requires the dismantling of the Jewish state. The lesson for Palestine and Israel, is that historic Palestine can be a homeland for Jews but not for Jews only. Jews can have a homeland in historic Palestine. but not a state.

My second conclusion is this. Legal and political apartheid ended in 1994. Now 1994 is a critical event in African contemporary history. It’s the time when two very different events took place: the transition from apartheid in South Africa, and the genocide in Rwanda. Both of them happened in the first half of 1994. Ten years earlier, 1984, if you had asked African intellectuals, if you had told them that ten years from now there is going to be a reconciliation in one of these countries and a genocide in another, and asked them to predict the identity, I bet you every one of us would have been wrong. Every one of us. Why? Because 1980s was the time of the township struggle in South Africa. The South African army was occupying townships, shooting, killing, throwing people in prisons. And the 1980s was the time when the regime in Rwanda was attempting a reconciliation.

Ten years later the world had changed. It is testimony to the fact that nothing is inevitable in politics.

I wish you the best. Thank you.

A few comments. Please note the great political insights in this speech: that violent Palestinian resistance is not understood as terrorism by the world in light of the Palestinian experience, and this is a Gazan/Palestinian achievement in the face of massive propaganda. Also, that the US and Israel have not yet been convinced that there is not a military answer to resistance. What a pity, that (and the media are the courtiers of empire).

As for the heart of the speech, that night at Columbia an elderly Jewish man asked the panel about a “political solution that might satisfy Jewish paranoia.” Omar Barghouti’s answer to that (and other related questions) was that Jewish safety can’t be achieved by taking his land. Mahmood Mamdani’s answer to that man’s fear is that this is a Jewish and global political problem; Jews must work with Palestinians who are resisting occupation so as to educate themselves; and a vanguard of enlightened Jews must work inside the Jewish community to persuade it of the conceptual error of Zionism.

Mamdani’s speech should be required reading in the fledgling Open Hillel/IfNotNow movement. He is saying, Your work is essential, it is a historic shift in Jewish life. But it must involve organizing with Palestinians and then going into the Jewish community to explain what the future holds.

One last point. In 1963 Mamdani won an American scholarship to study at the University of Pittsburgh; and he soon joined the SNCC bus rides to Birmingham, Alabama, and was arrested. He recalls that experience:

Allowed to make one phone call from jail, I called the Uganda ambassador in Washington DC. ‘What are you doing interfering in the internal affairs of a foreign country?’, he asked.

‘This is not an internal affair. This is a freedom struggle. How can you forget? We just got our freedom last year’, was my response. I had learnt that freedom knew no boundary, certainly not that of colour or country.

How many young people today understand this charge?

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The Palestinian challenge is to persuade the Jewish population and the world … the longtime security of a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine requires the dismantling of the Jewish state. The lesson for Palestine and Israel, is that historic Palestine can be a homeland for Jews but not for Jews… Read more »

Is this satire? How would dismantling Israel make jews safe? Jews didn’t have Israel for 2000 years and certainly weren’t safe. Sure it looks dangerous – – Hamas, hezbollah, Isis, etc. But it’s much safer than jews being a scattered minority. The cognitive dissonance required to believe in anti zionism… Read more »

Truly profound and thought-provoking, just amazing. Thank you Mr. Mamdani. The fundamental proposition he’s making, that Jews can only be safe when they dismantle the Jewish state, is supported by zionism itself. I always believed that zionism caused the most lasting and long-term harm, not to Palestinians, but to Jews.… Read more »

Phil: “Mamdani’s speech should be required reading in the fledgling Open Hillel/IfNotNow movement. He is saying, Your work is essential, it is a historic shift in Jewish life. But it must involve organizing with Palestinians and then going into the Jewish community to explain what the future holds.” So right!.… Read more »

This is all part of a psychological warfare against Israel by Muslims. Having tried everything conceivable against Israel: wars, terror, embargo, sanctions, missiles, boycott threats, UN resolutions and failed in all they now turn to such vague threats. Are not they aware of their own constituency`s plight throughout the world?… Read more »