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Peter Beinart’s Strange Hero

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Posted on May 28 2010 9:58 pm
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By Ron Radosh

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 BBCobituary 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.’”

Read the rest at PJM

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