Don’t fall for the false claim that Nelson Mandela was anti-Israel! It is based on a hoax–a letter written by anti-Israel activist Arjan El Fassed more than a decade ago in the style of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s made-up letters from world leaders. The letter, purportedly from Mandela to Friedman, compares Israel to apartheid South Africa and has been quoted widely, including by Jimmy Carter. But it is a fraud.
Irshad Manji and I busted the fake “Mandela letter” in 2007. When the hoax was exposed, the perpetrator–“an Arab living in The Netherlands,” Manji noted–admitted making up the letter for rhetorical purposes:
There is no possible basis for Pollak to say I intended people to believe the memo was written by anyone other than myself. At the time, Friedman, a staunch defender of Israel, was famous for writing mock memos in the voice of the US president. In a clearly labelled spoof, under my byline, I published a mock memo from Mandela to Friedman on March 28 2001. Unfortunately, someone forwarded it on the internet without my byline, as I explained to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
In El Fassed’s view, the analogy was nonetheless valid. But despite owning up to the “unfortunate” fact that the letter was made up, I suspect he was actually rather pleased at the extent to which it was taken seriously.
In truth, Mandela was pro-Israel throughout his life. As he revealed in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in the early 1960s Mandela studied the life of Menachem Begin and enlisted the aid of artist Arthur Goldreich, who had fought in the Palmach, Israel’s pre-independence army. In later years, Mandela continued to support Israel’s right to exist and never endorsed the false claim that Israel resembled South Africa in any way.
Mandela’s support for Israel was complicated by his party’s alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and with its chairman, Yasser Arafat. The PLO had lent the African National Congress (ANC) a hand during its long years of exile, at a time that Israel entered an alliance of convenience with the South African regime (though Israel voted to condemn apartheid at the UN and later joined sanctions against South Africa.)
Therefore Mandela supported Palestinian statehood, and a two-state solution roughly along the 1967 boundaries. That position corresponds roughly to the left-wing outlook in Israel–and, indeed, Mandela enjoyed good relations with Israeli leaders during the era of the Oslo Peace Process in the 1990s. He was never anti-Israel and certainly never antisemitic–though the ANC did move in that direction after Mandela’s retirement.
The reason El Fassed wrote his letter, and anti-Israel activists have circulated it ever since, has been to support the false idea that Israel is an apartheid state. Supporters of Israel, understandably alarmed by the anti-Israel direction taken by the South African government and the global left in general, have taken the letter at face value recently. But it is a hoax, and even its author admits he made it up. It deserves to be ignored.