South Africa: A lesson for Israelis, Palestinians?

South Africa: A lesson for Israelis, Palestinians?

Lee Chottiner
Lee Chottiner

Before he boarded a flight for South Africa last week to attend his medical school reunion, Dr. Farrel Buchinsky, a pediatric ENT at Allegheny General Hospital, took time to discuss the changing face of his native country.

We’re talking a night and day difference.

The Cape Town native, who’s lived in Pittsburgh for 12 years, recalled a South Africa where, prior to Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison on Feb. 11, 1990, it was open for debate whether the country would deteriorate into civil strife and tear itself apart.

Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president, who died on Dec. 5, changed all of that, thanks largely to his policy of national reconciliation.

“Conventional wisdom saw South Africa as a powder keg that would blow up,” Buchinsky recalled. “I have no doubt Nelson Mandela changed that course.  It was basically because he came out of prison and he did not have resentment or bitterness as his policy. He could have easily gone for retribution, but he realized retribution may make you feel better, but it doesn’t open the country.”

It was a remarkable gesture in a land that had been riddled by racism and hatred. There would be no retribution when Mandela became president in 1994, no “payback.” There would, however, be a truth and reconciliation commission, a legally mandated forum where victims of apartheid could state for the record what happened to them, and perpetrators of crimes could allocute to their misdeeds possibly in return for amnesty.

It was a way for a country horrendously scarred by bad acts to heal.

Since then, it has become fashionable to accuse Israel, in her dealings with the Palestinians, of apartheid — a loaded term if ever there was one. Even former President Jimmy Carter recklessly used the word in the title of his otherwise forgettable book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”       

Buchinsky, who has spent plenty of time in both countries, correctly dispelled that notion.

“The two [apartheid and Zionism] had little to do with one another,” he said. “The underlying global dynamics and underlying history and the milieu in which these two struggles existed, while they had similarities, I am quite confident in saying they were totally different.”

He even pointed out the high regard in which South African Jews held Mandela, and in which he held them.

Make no mistake; Mandela was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but he also recognized Israel’s need for security.

“Nelson Mandela made it abundantly clear that he favored the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Buchinsky, said. “He also said he recognized the need for Israeli security, but he saw the day-to-day oppression [of Palestinians] as unacceptable.”

And yet, peace continues to elude both peoples, each of whom point accusatory fingers at the other side while rattling off past grievances.

Makes you wonder if a truth and reconciliation commission, much like the one in South Africa, could help move Israelis and Palestinians to a final peace treaty.

Maybe, but it wouldn’t be easy.

As Buchinsky noted, the situations that existed in Israel and South Africa — and continue to exist in Israel — are very different.

The people on both sides of the Green Line would have to be prepared for a process in which dark stories could be told, but in a spirit of forgiveness, not punishment.

And, of course, leaders on both sides would have to be courageous enough to buck their extremist elements and take their people through this laudable, but difficult, process.

A pipe dream? Perhaps. But we are constantly told how peace in our time is not possible in the Middle East because hostilities run too deep; quarrels are too old.

Well, wasn’t that the situation South Africans faced?

Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela, and may, in our time, leaders with your vision arise in many other lands.

(Lee Chottiner, executive editor of the Chronicle, can be reached at

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