Last Friday, the sheriff of Pickens County, South Carolina, my current county of residence, attracted a minor ebullition of national media attention when he announced via Facebook that, contrary to the order of President Barack Obama, he refuses to lower the flag to half-mast for Nelson Mandela because he refused to do so for a non-American. The flag was actually lowered for the recent death of a state trooper, but Rick Clark (perhaps a relative of Selma, Alabama’s notorious sheriff, Jim Clark) wanted the world to know that Nelson Mandela did not deserve any such honor.
Rick Clark’s reasoning, of course, is besides the point (and was probably intended to call attention to the alleged un-Americanness of the crypto-Kenyan in the White House). What matters is his action, which showed a positive disrespect to the memory of Nelson Mandela, and almost everyone saw his actions in such a light.
I was at a Christmas party last night, and everyone there was appalled by Clark’s actions, and said that it reinforced the general stereotype about places like Pickens County as a redneck nigger-baiting racist backwater, that has yet to enter the 1960s—a stereotype, that I hasten to add, atavisms like Clark aside, is definitely not true. (The other interesting conversation I had last night was with an Iranian-American who runs a travel service, and urged me to take a tour of Iran—“It’s now the safest country in the Middle East—where would you want to go?—to Syria, to Egypt? to Jordan?” But this is another story.)
As far as I can tell, the only other public official in the world, other than my county sheriff, who has publicly disrespected the memory of Nelson Mandela is Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided not to travel to South Africa offering the ridiculous explanation that the trip would cost too much. At least Rick Clark offered a fig leaf of a rationalization for his racism. You sort of have to do that in South Carolina these days, which specializes in politicians who love to call Democrats (and a fortiori, black Democrats) racist. I suppose in Israel no such hypocritical pretzel-twisting is necessary, and you can openly own your prejudices.
The episode does raise the interesting question of the relation of Nelson Mandela to Jews and to Israel, a subject on which I am not an expert. In Ha’aretz the other day, Sholmo Avineri argued that Israel was Mandela’s blind spot, and the fact that he never visited Israel was an opportunity missed. No doubt it was a blind spot, but the open support of the Israeli government for the white regime in South Africa certainly made Mandela reluctant to embrace Israel once he became president. In addition to which, and like Gandhi, I think Mandela had an instinctive aversion to settler colonies, particularly those sponsored by Britain. Israel is much more than a settler colony, but I think one shouldn’t be too severe about Mandela’s lack of empathy with Israel.
But whatever Mandela’s views were on Israel—and I really don’t know what he said about Israel over the years—as Avineri pointed out, many of his best friends were Jewish, primarily members of the anti-Zionist South African Communist Party. The South African Communist Party, which, like most Western Communist parties, had a very high percentage of Jewish membership, has long fascinated me. At a time, when, after 1956, other Western Communist parties were becoming moribund, the South African party was going strong. (Including, as recent research has demonstrated, Mandela as a secret member of its central committee.)
And its crucial role in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the creation of Umkhonto we Siswe (Spear of the Nation) was probably, after Castro, the last truly revolutionary thing any Communist Party ever did. It was a quixotic failure, of course, and it’s hard to see how people as intelligent as Mandela and Walter Sisulu could have ever thought otherwise, but the desperate times called for desperate measures. And perhaps, in the long run Umkhonto we Siswemight have marked the only time in history that the silly Leninist strategy of “heightening the contradictions,” of making a bad situation worse, ever had its intended effect, and in the long run contributed to the weakening of the apartheid regime.
One plausible reason that has been given for Netanyahu’s refusal to attend the funeral is the company he would have had to keep: Raul Castro, Rouhani of Iran, and I am not sure how many other Middle Eastern leaders. Many of these leaders can only celebrate Mandela from the vantage of their own hypocrisies, but as was long ago said, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The virtues that Mandela spent his life trying to realize are many: anti-colonialism, national self-determination, anti-racism, and a commitment to inter-racialism. These are probably at the moral core of every sentient person in the world today, whatever their other ideological commitments, or at least should be. Like no one else in the course of the past century, no one else has incarnated these virtues and suffered for them, and realized them. That is why he is so honored at his passing. It’s a pity that the only places in the world where this is apparently not recognized is in Pickens County, South Carolina, and Israel.