The Strange and Revealing Choice by Peter Beinart for his "Hero"

So much has been written about Peter Beinart’s essay in the new issue of The New York Review of Books that I will not add to it.  The two best critiques of Beinart’s arguments are by Jamie Kirchick and Noah Pollak. You can read Kirchick’s  here and Pollak’s here. Many more have appeared since then, including a forum between eight different people in Foreign Policy, and a response by Beinart in The Daily Beast.

Peter Beinart is a proud liberal who grew up as a Jew. His parents were from apartheid South Africa. In a society where the majority of the white community was composed of the Afrikaners who created apartheid, the small Jewish community stood out in its opposition. One question must be asked.  If you were a Jew and a liberal opposed to apartheid, what member of your own community would you view as a hero?

I  believe the candidate for hero would most likely be the late Helen Suzman, who died at age 91 on New Year’s Day of 1999. Representing liberals in Parliament since 1959,  from 1961 to 1974, Suzman was the only member of parliament who day in and day out fought apartheid and defended the rights of the regime’s political prisoners. When a minister said she was asking questions that embarrassed South Africa, she replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa. It is your answers.” She was the only candidate, the BBC obituary noted, “since the first South African parliament was established in 1910, to be elected by a white constituency on a platform that clearly rejected racial discrimination.” And she was a Jew in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaners who were the mainstay of the apartheid government.

Suzman became a major defender of Nelson Mandela, regularly visiting him in prison. When he was released and the new South African constitution was signed, Mandela invited her to the ceremony. He publicly thanked her for her outspoken defense of the opponents of apartheid, and for her decades-long campaign to overturn it. This is how tough she was. The BBC obit points out that as “the lone voice of real opposition in parliament, Mrs. Suzman spoke out against such measures as the 90-day detention law of 1963, which, she maintained, brought South Africa ‘further into the morass of a totalitarian state.’  At a public rally in Johannesburg in 1966, she condemned the use of arbitrary powers by the justice minister and excoriated the government as ‘narrow-minded, prejudiced-ridden bullies.’”

What is important is that Suzman was not afraid to speak her mind, even if she differed with the African National Congress. She opposed the worldwide campaign for sanctions, arguing that they would hurt poor  blacks.  “She was dismissive of the death threats she received by telephone and in the mail, and undaunted in her showdowns with the men she described as apartheid’s leading ‘bullies,’ who in turn dismissed her as a ‘dangerous subversive’ and a ‘sickly humanist.’”

I have spent so much time on Suzman to illustrate why someone who has a family connection to  South Africa like Beinart, and who calls himself a liberal, should have had her as a hero. She was not exactly invisible. That is why it is more than strange to find out who his hero is. He identified the person in a three-part interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Here is Beinart’s answer after Goldberg asks him, “Do you consider yourself a Zionist?” and “What is the goal of your essay?” Beinart writes:

My hero growing up was Joe Slovo [emphasis added] who spoke only Yiddish until he was nine and upon moving to South Africa as a boy from Lithuania (we South Africans are almost all Litvaks, except my mom's side, who are Sephardi) became the head of the military wing of the African National Congress. There are Slovos in every place Jews have gone, people who have devoted themselves as Jews (though I'll admit Slovo was not as good a Jew as say, Abraham Joshua Heschel) to the fate of non-Jews. There's a tension, but for me the value is in the tension, in loving Zionism and Judaism and also feeling that one's love of who one is impels one towards moral universalism. I see that spirit powerfully in the Israeli left…

Who was Joe Slovo? Was he a liberal like Beinart or Suzman? No. He was not only the leader of the Stalinist South African Communist Party (SACP) whose top members made up the leadership of the African National Congress, but a man whose very concept of Judaism and views on Israel reveal him to be anything but liberal. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is true that Slovo suddenly became critical of Stalinism — in an effort to save South African communism from its critics on both the left and the right. But as one of his comrades, Pallo Jordan, explained at a memorial service for him:

In a world in which people, especially those involved in liberation politics, were compelled to choose sides, many found it very difficult to publicly voice their misgivings about the flaws of existing socialism. On both sides of that great divide, at the height of the Cold War, there was little room to accommodate critical supporters.