Nelson Mandela has always deserved respect, but he treaded on dangerous ground in the way he assailed Israel. Because of his approach, he could have helped ratchet up tensions between Jews and blacks in America, where members of both minority groups have built up a measure of distrust due to 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 he can fan the flames of hatred. In late January, Mandela chose the latter course.

It isn?t bothersome that he would criticize Israel, but how he did it.

?It?s 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, while avoiding any criticism of the Arabs.

Certainly there has been much criticism of Israel over the current conflict and its relationship with the United States. If Israel has done anything inappropriate, Mandela offers no coherent explanation.

Mandela really went off the deep end when he skewered 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 policeman 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 black service-persons in a war in the Middle East; they object to spending billions of dollars on Israel while social problems persist in America; and they identify with Palestinian poverty.

It?s understandable that they don?t want African-Americans sacrificed in a war that they would compare to Vietnam. The issue of sending federal money to Israel is a legitimate concern. Yet, if an issue is made of that, then we need to remember that we spend far more each time we gas up our cars. I read recently that Saudi Arabia alone pulled in $3 trillion during the last 30 years.

What especially gets overlooked are key differences between African-Americans and Palestinians. Poverty in the Middle East is brazenly exploited by religious exhortations to mass murder. In contrast, religion served as the foundation for the American civil rights movement, in which peaceful tactics were promoted, and African-American churches have long been involved in social causes and political activities. There is dysfunctional behavior in some segments of the black community, but nothing on the scale in the Arab world. African-Americans don?t murder female family members who engage in premarital sex, participate in blood feuds or conduct communal trials that result in stonings of wayward women ? all practices that are deeply ingrained in Arab and Muslim societies.

In addition, both Jews and blacks vote overwhelmingly for progressive candidates. Blacks voted for a Jewish vice-presidential hopeful not only in greater numbers, but in higher proportions.

There is room for legitimate criticism of Israel, but Mandela becomes part of the problem when he offers confusing rhetoric. Hopefully, he will clarify his views and try to bring Jews and African-Americans closer together.


Bruce S. Ticker is a freelance writer and former journalist living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at