Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Limits of Acceptable Opinion: Is Palestine a topic too far?

A version of this was posted at http://mondoweiss.net/2013/12/palestine-african-american.html

Over the years I have been an occasional op-ed contributor to a Boston African-American owned newspaper, The Bay State Banner. The editors gladly printed pieces of mine about Iran and the price of gas (the Banner piece was removed – another version on CounterPunch here; military spending and US Budget priorities; a visit to an ANC colleague in South Africa (also removed - a version reprinted here).

But a few months ago, I submitted the following article about Palestine and civil rights. It never appeared – and despite repeated inquiries to the editor I never got an explanation as to why.


Israel is often called a democracy – even “the only democracy in the Middle East.” That may be true in part – if we ignore the 2.5 million Palestinians with few rights under Israeli military rule for 46 years in the Occupied West Bank, and another 1.5 million under continuous Israeli siege in the Gaza strip.

But even within Israel’s recognized borders “democracy” is mainly for the Jewish majority. The 25% of the population who are not Jewish – over a million Muslim and Christian Palestinians – are nominally citizens of the Jewish State, but in practice live their lives separate and unequal. In many ways their status resembles African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights South.

On a trip to the Middle East last June I was able to witness this situation first-hand.

Some Palestinians in Israel live in impoverished urban ghettos within the larger Israeli cities of a type that would be familiar here in the US. But mostly they are forced to reside in separate and segregated towns scattered in Israel’s center and north. In the south of the country, approximately 70,000 Bedouins live in traditional villages which are “unrecognized” by the state and so remain without basic services of water, electricity and public schools (the Israeli government is in the process of forcing tens of thousands of them off their land and into poor, segregated townships that look a lot like “Indian Reservations”) Israeli regulations openly codify goals to achieve “Judaization” – the promotion of Jewish settlement – in regions of the country with high Palestinian populations.

Not surprisingly, Palestinians inside Israel fare poorly by every economic and social measure compared to Jewish citizens. Unemployment is markedly higher for them and wages for those who have jobs are significantly lower; many jobs and benefits are out of their reach through formal or informal restrictions. Palestinian towns are crowded and hemmed-in by Jewish-only settlements and zoning laws that restrict residential construction. Most of Israel’s land is reserved legally for Jews and Palestinians find it almost impossible to buy or build outside of their own communities. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates are significantly worse for Palestinians.

All of this might sound familiar to the historical condition of racial minorities in the US. But in Israel there is an additional twist.

A thorough-going system of affirmative action is built-in to the Israeli legal structure, but it is a legal framework to benefit the already privileged Jewish majority. ADALAH (“Justice” in Arabic), the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – an organization that functions somewhat like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the US – has documented more than 50 Israeli laws that favor Jews over Palestinian citizens in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures.

Jewish communities receive significantly more per-capita funding for education, health, recreation, transportation and housing; many public sector jobs are reserved specifically for Jews. Given their inferior segregated school system and the fact that entrance exams are exclusively in the Hebrew language, Palestinians also find it extremely difficult to gain entrance to Israeli universities.

Defenders of Israeli “democracy” often point out that Palestinians have the right to vote, and that is true. Three political parties represent Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Israeli Knesset, with about 10% of the seats (much lower than their percentage of the population).

But none of these parties has ever been accepted as a partner in any of the dozens of Israeli coalition governments over the years; no member has ever served in a national ministerial/cabinet post. In fact, the Palestinian parties are under constant threat of being outlawed. A recently proposed Knesset bill would remove their representation completely.

And consider the fact that Israel uses exclusively Jewish symbols in its flag and government, and its national anthem sings only about the “Jewish soul yearning to be free.” It’s as though the US adopted the Confederate Battle flag or replaced The Star-spangled Banner with “Onward Christian Soldiers”.
This is not a system that would be recognized as a democracy in any way that we understand it here in the US.

We, of course have plenty of work to do in order to achieve real equality at home. Fifty years ago, Dr. King pointed out that “the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.” As we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington, much still needs to be done, but progress has also been achieved.

In Israel though, Palestinians continue to be literally “exiles” in their own land and to suffer legalized discrimination in many spheres of life. Should the US continue to support that system with more than $30 billion in military aid of the coming decade – especially with so many unmet needs at home?

Monday, January 6, 2014

When “International Solidarity” was More Than a Slogan

This is an account of a meeting in Johannesburg with some international activists who risked a lot to help the ANC when the internal resistance had difficulty functioning within the Apartheid state.  It took place while I was visiting my friend Jabulani in June, 2012

The ANC’s “London Recruits”


There was a reunion of sorts in South Africa last month.

A group of white-haired visitors, mostly Brits with a scattering of other nationalities, were gathered at the University of Johannesburg along with veteran leaders of the African National Congress, former underground anti-Apartheid activists, students, faculty and administrators.  It was a genteel affair, with cocktails and canap├ęs at the posh Council Chambers of the University’s Kingsway campus, but the atmosphere was as far as imaginable from the times and events that were being recalled.

The foreigners had once directly aided the resistance to Apartheid, often at great personal risk to themselves; their host was Ronnie Kasrils, one-time underground “terrorist” within South Africa, later a leader of the ANC’s armed wing, Unkhonto we Sizwe (MK).  For most of them it was their first visit to free South Africa.

Nearly everyone knows about the South African mass movement and the ANC that, with significant international support, finally brought down the Apartheid system after 1990.  Sanctions, boycotts, diplomatic pressure and isolation of the South African government played an important role in defeating the racist regime.  But another story went on behind the scenes, in secret, which has never been told in detail before and has remained largely unknown.  This was the direct participation over the years of international volunteers in the in the fight against Apartheid under the direction of the ANC, facing off against the ruthless South African security forces.

The event in Johannesburg celebrated the publication of a new collective memoire LONDON RECRUITS: The Secret War Against Apartheid (London: Merlin, 2012) which recounts some of that untold history.

In the mid-1960’s the internal resistance to Apartheid had been largely crushed and dispersed.  The ANC and the SACP had been banned some years before, and after the Rivonia raids many of the movement leaders who had gone underground to begin the armed struggle were arrested and jailed.  This was when Nelson Mandela began his long prison term on Robben Island.  Others had managed to escape abroad but had lost contact with surviving internal anti-Apartheid activists.

It was during this period of weakness and isolation of the South African resistance that Kasrils and others who had found refuge in the UK began to recruit volunteers who could use the cover of their foreign passports and white skin to smuggle ANC and Communist literature into the country.  The scale was small but inventive methods carried out largely by the internationals kept the flame of resistance and knowledge of the ANC alive in South Africa until the movement took on new life in the mid-1970’s.

For example. the London recruits used false-bottom suitcases to smuggle ANC and SACP literature into the country.  Some of these leaflets were circulated within South African through the post; others were scattered in busy public streets using ingenious “leaflet bombs” – shopping bags full of literature propelled by small time-delayed explosive charges.  ANC banners were unfurled over public buildings in the downtowns; tape-recorded messages from exiled ANC leaders were broadcast from loud speakers.

The volunteers were drawn largely from the British working class movement — the CP and other leftist groups, the trade unions — and student contacts at the London School of Economics where Kasrils and other ANC activists were enrolled; eventually they included  participants from Ireland, the Netherlands, the US and other countries as well.  The spirit of radical optimism and revolutionary fervor that was widespread among young people and workers in the late 1960’s meant there was no shortage of willing recruits.  “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” – as Wordsworth remembered about an earlier revolutionary time.

But this was also very dangerous work, as the volunteers understood.  In 1972 several of them were captured and tortured by the South African security forces, then sentenced to long prison terms.

Some of the veteran internationals, including Ken Keable, the editor of the book, recalled their own experiences at the Johannesburg meeting; others told their stories in chapters they wrote for LONDON RECRUITS. The visitors also brought along one of the surviving smuggler’s suitcases, which they donated to the Rivonia Museum of the South African resistance.

After the Soweto uprising in 1976, the internal and external movements gained a momentum which enabled them to challenge the Apartheid regime more directly.  The ANC rebuilt its underground network within the country and its armed forces outside. Foreigners were no longer needed for propaganda missions, but they did continue to aid the struggle in other clandestine ways, again at great personal risk.

International volunteers contributed by helping to set up secure communications networks or safe houses for ANC agents and armed fighters in the frontline states and inside South Africa;  others smuggled arms into the country for the MK’s internal fighters.  Some of this is retold in the later chapters of LONDON RECRUITS and in the book’s introduction by Kasrils.  Memoires of this aspect of struggle, which was little known even within South Africa, have also begun to appear in recent years

It’s a story idealism and internationalism well worth remembering.  And that spirit is alive today also, as Kasrils, Tutu and other anti-Apartheid veterans, having achieving their own county’s liberation, now work with unstinting dedication in the cause of Palestinian freedom.

Jeff Klein worked for the ANC at its headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia between 1987 and 1990.  He recently visited South Africa for the first time.

NELSON MANDELA and the Unfinished Revolution in South Africa

Like Martin Luther King, Mandela, 1918-2013,  has been praised after his death by hypocrites who opposed everything he stood for while he was alive. Mandela was a staunch supporter of revolutionary Cuba and the Palestine liberation struggle. Apparently the CIA played a role in his capture by the Apartheid authorities in 1962 – though this has been little noticed in the US press. He was officially categorized as a “terrorist” by US law until 2006.

Mandela was also a member of the South African Communist Party – at least for a while.  There was nothing unusual about that – the SACP functioned as a kind of brain-trust for the ANC and included many of the movements leaders and activists in its ranks.  However, by and large the SACP served the interests of the liberation movement, rather than the other way around.  This is still largely its function as part of the governing ANC Alliance that has ruled South Africa since its first free election in 1994.
The achievement of equal rights for all is no small thing.  Mandela’s role in this change has made him a beloved figure -- watch this touching video for a heartfelt tribute to Mandela by South African youth.
But as we have also learned in the US, it is not enough to lift the oppressed out of enforced poverty and social subordination. Tragically, the ANC came to power at the worst possible moment, when their allies in the Soviet Bloc had collapsed and Neoliberalism seemed everywhere triumphant. Mandela and the other ANC leaders suffered a failure of nerve and felt compelled to make compromises that left Big Capital dominant in the new South Africa, now with an occasional Black face in the boardroom.  This set the stage for the sad degeneration of the former liberation movement into the political spoils-seeking and corruption that is evident today.  Many former liberation movement leaders have parlayed their political connections to achieve great wealth within the corporate world. But if the South African elite is now partially integrated, the poorest of the poor are still exclusively Black.

A detailed analysis by South African activist Patrick Bond:  The Mandela Years in Power

“Youth Day” in South Africa, 2012  

When I visited my old friend in South Africa we spent Youth Day in the township of Atteridgeville, just outside the South African administrative capital of Pretoria, where he lived. 

In the new South Africa June 16 is Youth Day, a national holiday commemorating the 1976 student uprising in Soweto which signaled the beginning of the end for the Apartheid system. The celebration is second in importance here only to Freedom Day, which marks the date of the count first non-racial democratic election on April 27, 1994 that made Nelson Mandela president of the country.

This is what I wrote at the time.

Though just a few kilometers away, the sprawling, dusty community of 45,000 could not be further from the seats of government and economic power in this country.  While the “official” national Youth Day celebration rotated this year to the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth, where the news was full of factional maneuverings within the ruling African National Congress and potential candidates for president jockeying  for support in the upcoming elections later this year, here the day had a decidedly spontaneous and grass-roots spirit.

Local youth led the way in Atteridgeville, with a message of “back to Basics” calling for more government support for education, job creation and improved public services.  Here the young people still idolize former ANC Youth leader Julius Malema, who they refer to as “Juju”, despite his  expulsion from the ANC for his fiery populist rhetoric, strident attacks on the established party leadership – and his sometime veiled threats of violent protest.

Poverty, substandard housing and disastrously high unemployment are still urgent problems in Atteridgeville and other townships, despite the political emancipation that was achieved with the end of Apartheid 18 years ago.

The needs are daunting.  Although there has been significant progress in South African development under democratic rule, wealth and economic power continues to remain in the hands of the large corporations and the wealthy – now including black as well as white billionaires. 

In Atteridgeville, tiny older brick houses crowd the neighborhoods, alternating with new zones of makeshift corrugated iron shacks sheltering more recent migrants from impoverished rural areas arriving in search of scarce urban jobs.
Many of them have no access to water, electricity or toilets.  Resources at the disposal of the ANC government remain inadequate to meet the challenges, and frequent revelations of official corruption have further undermined confidence in the reform process.

Nevertheless, the youth celebration in Atteridgeville was enthusiastic and joyful.  We followed a parade of cars and vans that wound its way  through the narrow township streets, horns tooting, young people leaning out of the doors and windows waving colorful ANC banners and loudly shouting political slogans.  Town folk cheered the kids with shouts of support and clenched-fist salutes. 

Now and again the caravan would stop for a spontaneous march with high-energy singing and the traditional bouncing “toyi-toyi” dancing that was seen everywhere during the anti-Apartheid struggle.

The parade climaxed with a big demonstration at the new township shopping center – itself a visible sign of progress in recent years.  Before that, the residents of Atteridgeville had to buy what they needed at tiny – and expensive – local “Spaza Shops” or travel a long way into the city.

Finally, the activities ended at an indoor hall, where youth leaders spoke to the crowd and also invited contributions by older veterans of the freedom struggle.
My friend Jabulani, a participant in the original 1976 Soweto protests and now after years in the ANC guerilla army Ukhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) a colonel in the new South African National Defense Force, spoke about the struggle to achieve the liberation of South Africa. He recounted to the young audience how the events unfolded after 1976 that lead to the defeat of Apartheid --  though not without the sacrifice of many thousands in exile, underground political organizing, mass protests and armed resistance. 

“I’m old now.  People of my generation laid the groundwork for you young people, who have grown up in a democratic South Africa.  But the work of building a truly free and just country has a long way to go.”  He added: “The future is up to you.  The torch is yours to carry.”  The young crowd cheered.

During the ride back to Pretoria, where once only whites were allowed to live, it was natural to think about the larger significance of the Soweto youth rebellion – and not just for South Africa.

It was hard to disagree with the words I read the next day, in  City Press column by Sibongile Mkhabela, director of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund:

“The 1976 uprising was a wake-up call to all sectors of society.  It gave new meaning to the spirit of resistance, the civil rights movement and black power among communities in South Africa and elsewhere -- including that bastion of white supremacy, the United States…   We have not yet reached the end of our journey.”

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Remembering Nelson Mandela

The recent death of Nelson Mandela brought back a lot of memories for me – and prompted this new blog entry after many months of no new postings.  For those who have followed this blog and wondered about the silence here, I have no special excuse.  Just the press of ordinary daily routine, coupled with feeling the lack of anything very original to say.

I worked for the African National Congress in Lusaka from 1987-1990.  The article below was written on the eve of my first visit to a free South Africa in June 2012, where I had a long-postponed reunion with an old comrade from the struggle.  I hope eventually to post some further accounts of my work with the ANC and my visit to South Africa, along with some of the many interviews I had with “Wiseman’s” family members and comrades in the struggle – mostly military men and underground fighters during the anti-Apartheid struggle.

The two color photos just below are my own; the black-and-white one is from Ronnie Kasrils’ book, ARMED AND DANGEROUS (Kasrils is pictured in the center; Lulamine Dantile, on the right, was assassinated by Apartheid agents in Lesotho); the last photo was sent to me by my friend Jabulani/Wiseman)The large photo of Nelson Mandela appeared with the original article in the June 7, 2012 issue of the Bay State Banner, an African-American owned newspaper in Boston (the original link no longer works).

Many international volunteers helped the ANC over the years. I wrote about meeting some others while I was in South Africa:  When “International Solidarity” was More Than a Slogan: The ANC’s “London Recruits”
Nelson Mandela at the Hatch Shell in Boston,
June 23, 1990

“Little ANC” Andrew Nelson Carver Klein, age 9 months, at the Hatch Shell

“Wiseman” (left) with ANC fighters in Angola
Colonel Jabulani Jali,
South African Defense Forces

 A journey to South Africa

Former South African President Nelson Mandela waves as he left his hotel in London while in the United Kingdom to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2008. (AP photo/Simon Dawson)

Jeff Klein

Do you remember Nelson Mandela’s visit to Boston? 

It was almost 22 years ago, in June 1990, when the famous South African leader traveled here — just a few months after being released from prison on Robbin Island. Mandela had been held in detention for almost 28 years as a “terrorist” for resisting the apartheid system of white minority rule in his country. 

The highlight of Mandela’s visit was his joyful appearance on June 23 before a huge crowd at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. I was there, pushing my nine-month-old son, Andrew, along in a stroller. My little boy — his middle name is Nelson —  had a homemade flag with black, green and gold ribbons, the colors of the African National Congress.