On the flight back from South Africa I began reading Andrew Feinstein’s After the Party. Feinstein was a young member of parliament representing the African National Congress in South Africa’s new democracy after 1994. While his own involvement with the ANC only began in earnest with the transition to democracy, he revered the people who had succeeded in overthrowing apartheid.
By August 2001, Feinstein had quit parliament, forced out because he had pushed for a full investigation of the arms-purchasing scandal that has led to the top ranks of the party. Even beforehand, he was furious with President Mbeki Thabo’s surreal refusal to deal with the AIDS pandemic sweeping through South Africa. Mbeki insisted that poverty, not a virus, caused the disease, and that Western pharmaceutical companies were trying to bankrupt Africa by selling dangerous and useless drugs. It was a conspiracy theory turned into a national policy of ignoring a plague.
The tie between the arms scandal and AIDS denial was the transformation of the ANC from a liberation movement embracing a wide variety of opinions to a top-down party where dissent was crushed. No questions about AIDS, no questions about government officials and their relatives getting rich in the process of buying unnecessary, inferior and overpriced arms.
As an aside, yes, Feinstein is Jewish, marginally. His chapter on being Jewish is not quite the shortest in the book. “… The majority of South African Jewish activists [against apartheid] describe themselves as non-Jewish Jews,” he says, paraphrasing another writer in order to explain himself obliquely. He knows that the lesson he learned from Europe’s dehumanization of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, is to oppose dehumanization anywhere. It doesn’t occur to him to connect this message with “remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” His historical memory or cultural literacy doesn’t reach there. We don’t know whether the parents who influenced him or the grandparents who influenced them were moved by that idea. The reluctance of the organized Jewish community in South Africa to challenge apartheid didn’t encourage people like Feinstein to show up for an evening class and learn more about their tradition. Feinstein is a brave man, but he’s not the man to address the riddle of whether modern Jewish radicalism stems from ancient tradition or recent circumstances. But it would be unfair to fault him on that. This is a memoir of a politician who instinctively, rather than philosophically, tried to do what was right – first opposing apartheid, then breaking with his party.
Reading Feinstein reminded me of conversation once with a friend who worked as a managerial consultant to non-profits. To every organization, she said, she had to give the same advice. They paid her, but never took her advice: Fire the founder. The organizer who knew how to put the group together and get it going was usually abysmal at running it, at sharing power, at tolerating new ideas.
The same advice may apply to revolutionary movements: If only it were possible to fire them as soon as they won, or at least soon after. The movement with the élan of victory does do well at rallying support at the start. But it has already made itself obsolete. Its methods were developed for the struggle, not for runnig the state. As Feinstein points out, secrecy and discipline served the ANC well as an organization in exile fighting the regime, but not as a ruling party.
Israel’s founding party was Mapai, which later morphed into Labor. I give the party credit for leadership in the early years, for creating a social welfare system, for building the economy, for accepting some judicial limitations on its power, and perhaps most of all for eventually accepting an electoral defeat and giving up power. As a founding movement, it did more than most to accept limitations. But it also went right on sanctifying rural settlement – a tactic that helped create the state but that was misdirected after independence and destructive after 1967. The party leaders’ admiration for Jewish fighters eventually led to turning Israeli politics over to generals. It treated the institutions it created before statehood – the Histadrut labor union, the kibbutz movements, and more – as interest groups to be satisfied. To this day, Labor hasn’t really come up with a platform for an established country, which is why it is fading into obscurity.
Ah, but this theory is to too simple to explain our local woes. I returned to Israel to Israel in time for the police recommendation to charge Ehud Olmert for habitual corruption, for corruption as addictive behavior. The same day as that recommendation, Olmert managed to get his cabinet to back a bill that would reduce the powers of the Supreme Court to overturn legislation. Olmert, the lawyer, is doggedly trying, to his last day in office, to rip down the rule of law.
You can’t accuse him of being a product of Mapai or of the founding generation. He’s a second-generation product of the Israeli right. His Kadima party is merely the more pragmatic wing of the Likud, which itself is the political descendant of the pre-state rightwing opposition. What Kadima shares with the Likud is a shamelessness about machine politics. Investigations of the prime minister were regular news under Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Besides that, Likud/Kadima have yet to come up with a coherent policy to replace their 1948 platform of the Whole Land and waving one’s fist in the face of the gentiles. Maybe it is time to fire the founding opposition as well. Or at least to ask Feinstein to make aliyah and head the Knesset Control Committee.
Oh yes, Feinstein. A recent blog entry he posted indicates that for now his book is only in print in South Africa, but he’s preparing a U.S. and U.K. edition. I hope he includes a map and a cast of characters at the opening, so we can keep track of the names we haven’t seen in our own newspapers, and that he adds in a bit more background. But even if he doesn’t, I’d still recommending reading it.