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February 10, 2003



Nelson Mandela has always deserved respect, but he treaded on dangerous ground in the way he assailed Israel.

Because of his approach, he helped to ratchet up tensions between Jews and blacks in America where members of both minority groups have built up a measure of distrust because of discord in the Middle East.

As an icon for black people all over the world, the former president of South Africa is in a powerful position to influence people with his words. He is widely recognized not only by black people but those of every group as a champion of freedom. He could build bonds between peoples or fan the flames of hatred. In late January, Mandela chose the latter course.

It isn't bothersome that he criticized Israel but how he did it.

"It is a tragedy what is happening, what Bush is doing in Iraq," Mandela said, as quoted in The New York Times. "What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.

"Why does the United States behave so arrogantly? Their friend Israel has got weapons of mass destruction, but because it's their ally they won't ask the U.N. to get rid of it. They just want the oil."

Notice that he slips Israel into the conversation? His reference to Israel is just strong enough to infer guilt by association, but it is too vague to ascribe any offensive behavior on Israel's part.

There is plenty of room for legitimate criticism of Israel, but if Mandela thinks Israel has done anything inappropriate, he offers no coherent explanation.

You can tell that Mandela goes off the deep end when he blames America for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Because they decided to kill innocent people in Japan, who are still suffering from that, who are they now to pretend that they are the policemen of the world?" he asked.

He neglected to mention the circumstances - that President Truman decided it was our innocents or their innocents. I would hazard a guess that many of those victims supported Japan's role in World War II and cheered when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

This kind of rhetoric is dangerous because Mandela is so universally respected. His reputation affords people reason to take his words seriously.

His approach could easily inflame racial tensions in the United States where a growing number of African-Americans view events in Israel and Iraq with wariness.

They fear risking the lives of poor black people to war in the Middle East; object to spending billions of dollars on Israel while social problems in America are neglected; and identify with Palestinian poverty.

You can't blame them for being concerned about sacrificing the lives of black servicepersons in Iraq or possibly even Israel. Many critics of the war staunchly believe President Bush wants to invade Iraq partly because Israel is pushing it. Their figuring is: Why should they die for Israel?

For the record, I oppose a war with Iraq at this time in large part because the Bush administration has made no public assessment of the risks and rammed through Congress's resolution authorizing military force. It would be wonderful to oust Saddam Hussein and transform Iraq into a democracy, but even if it can be done, what would be the cost in money and human lives?

The issue of sending billions of dollars to Israel is a legitimate concern, but if an issue is be made of that then critics should be even more concerned about all the oil money made by the Arab countries. We spend a lot more money just gassing up the car than paying taxes to aid Israel. I recently read that Saudi Arabia alone raked in $3 trillion from oil revenues in the last 30 years.

While many African-Americans identify with Arab poverty, they overlook some key differences. Palestinian poverty is brazenly exploited by religion in which mass murder is promoted. Religion served as the anchor for America's civil rights movement in which peaceful methods were employed by black people to gain many of their civil rights. African-American churches are still involved in social causes and political activities.

While there is dysfunctional conduct in some segments of the black community, as in most groups, African-Americans don't engage in honor killings of women who violate sexual mores, blood feuds and communal trials of women who commit adultery - all widespread traditions in Arab and Muslim countries.

On the other hand, most Jews and blacks in America vote for progressive candidates, and more African-Americans than Jews voted for a Jewish vice presidential hopeful in both numbers and proportions.

Mandela only becomes part of the problem when he voices confusing and heated rhetoric. Hopefully, he'll find a way to become part of the solution.

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