COMMUNITY VOICES | Nelson Mandela, Israel, and me

When I was growing up, my mother instilled a very strong sense in me of right and wrong. The morals she imparted were firmly rooted in the history of the Jewish people and our persecution.  

She taught me about the pogroms in Russia,about the harsh working conditions Jews had to endure in sweatshops in America, and the discrimination Jews faced. She also taught me about the involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement and how Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman who gave their lives alongside James Chaney. And of course she taught me about the Holocaust, of the heroic ways that Jews fought back, and of the horrific ways in which they died. 

The lessons I learned were clear.  We must stand up for justice.  Discrimination and prejudice were wrong.   All people were equal and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.   

The holidays we celebrated were right in line with this. Every year at Passover we remember that we were slaves in Egypt and remind ourselves not to oppress the stranger.   

This was the history that gave the founding of Israel so much importance. It was as if finally after tragedy after tragedy, the story of our people had a happy ending.  As I was taught it, Arabs wanted to deny us this happy ending and drive all the Jews into the sea because we were Jewish.

When I got to college in 1985 I quickly became involved in trying to get the school to divest from companies doing business in South Africa.  I was arrested in an act of civil disobedience along with ten other students, including Amy Carter, the daughter of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President Jimmy Carter.  

Around this time I read an article about the unholy alliance between the United States, South Africa, and Israel.  I wanted to believe that this was an untrue anti-Semitic attack on Israel, but it wasn’t. Israel provided arms to the apartheid regime.

A few years later when Nelson Mandela was finally released from jail and visited the United States, several major Jewish organizations threatened to protest because of Mandela’s statements comparing the Palestinian struggle to that of South African blacks. 

Because this truth about Israel was too painful to process, I ignored it. Even as I lived the values my mother imparted through my work with labor unions and community organizations, I largely ignored what people were saying about the oppression of Palestinians.  I put Israel out of my mind, and for a long time, I also put being Jewish out of my mind.

Then, twenty years later I heard a group of young Jews speak out against what Israel was doing in the occupied territories and how they – as Jews – felt obligated to do whatever they could to stop this.  I realized that they were right, just as my generation had been right about South African divestment. 

Speaking about his opposition to the Vietnam War at the University of Minnesota in 1967, Martin Luther King said, “I have fought too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns.  Justice is indivisible.” 

That is what I had been doing. By ignoring the human rights violations committed by Israel, I was segregating my moral concerns.

I went to Israel to see for myself.  I saw that Israel has occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem for over 45 years, meaning that the Israeli military has total authority over every aspect of Palestinian life in these areas. I saw that Israel was building a 425 mile wall that separated communities and families from each other, cut off farmers from their land, and prevented Palestinians from getting to work or school.  I saw that the Israeli government was demolishing Palestinian homes while it continued to allow new Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

My experience confirmed what Jimmy Carter had written – that Israel had created an apartheid system. 

Inspired by the success of the boycott and divestment movement to abolish South African apartheid, a broad range of Palestinian civil society organizations issued a call in 2005 for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions as part of a non-violent campaign to end the Israeli occupation.

The people who opposed divestment from South Africa twenty-five years ago argued that the best way to change apartheid was through the “constructive engagement” of corporations with the apartheid regime. They were wrong.

To me, it is just as immoral for companies to profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, as it was for companies to profit from South African apartheid.   As the world and I learned 25 years ago, outside pressure is often required to bring about change and stop oppressive government policies.  Today’s generation is poised to play a historic part in helping to bring peace, justice, and equality to the Middle East. 


Jordan Ash of St. Paul is a member of Mount Zion synagogue and the Minneosta representative of Jewih Voice for Peace. 

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  • Thanks, Jordan. Great story, great picture, great argument. I signed on to the American Studies Association's resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions and, in response, received -- from fellow Jews -- the first hate mail I have received in many years. Please know that a lot of us agree with you. - by Peter Rachleff on Sat, 01/11/2014 - 5:23pm
  • It's troubling when someone can forget about their own DNA for 20 years until that heritage becomes useful in promoting some agenda & suddenly that person is all knowing? While Jordan cites Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to build his case against Israel BOTH actually were supporters of Israel. Dr. King said that anti-Zionism IS anti-Semitism. And Israel's Mossad actually trained Mandela in Ethiopia. And to equate Israel's situation to South Africa's Apartheid is not only historically inaccurate but an insult to the memory of those who suffered & died under that most brutal regime. There is NO differential treatment of Arabs who live in Israel. They have equal rights under the law... as do women, gays, people of all faiths... And the differential treatment of Arabs living in disputed territory is NOT based on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. Do you come in peace? You tell me? The Palestinians own founding documents call for the destruction of Israel. And even though the Israelis gave the Palestinians all of Gaza in '05, the Palestinians have indiscriminately fired tens of thousands of rockets onto Israel's civilian population centers... because they don't want just Gaza and the West Bank... they want all of Israel. What's immoral to me, Jordan, is that right next door in Syria, more than 150,000 have been killed... including tens of thousands of Palestinians who are now starving... Where are the aid flotillas? Egypt is massacring Christians, Sudan is massacring everyone. Kiev is up in flames. So are Venezuela and Brazil. And just this week the UN released a report comparing N. Korea brutal regime to the Holocaust. Only Israel, where democracy is actually working, is singled out for a whole week+ of special condemnation. There's something meshugge about your thinking. - by Cheryl Fields on Sun, 02/23/2014 - 7:36am
  • Jordan - thanks for giving voice to what a lot of Jews experienced over Israel. You illustrated what it means to really live our Jewish values and to stand up for justice wherever it is threatened. - by Allan Malkis on Sat, 01/11/2014 - 10:41am
  • Thank you for witnessing, Jordan. - by Jane Snape on Sat, 01/11/2014 - 2:10pm
  • Great article. You nailed it. - by Tom Marver on Sat, 01/11/2014 - 1:07am

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Jordan Ash