How it started?
On March 27, 2001, Thomas Friedman wrote a column in the style of a ‘mock memo’ entitled Bush’s First Memo. In this ‘mock memo’ Thomas Friedman writes in the name of U.S. President George W. Bush a memo to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
This ‘mock memo’ — Thomas Friedman had published a number of them in the New York Times, for example, a ‘mock memo’ he wished Secretary of State Colin Powell would have sent to President George W. Bush was published on February 20, 2001 — triggered me to write to the New York Times’ Readers Opinions in the the ‘mock memo’ style that Friedman himself liked to use and offered Nelson Mandela responding to Friedman’s Bush’s First Memo to Arafat.
Since Thomas Friedman tells his readers that Palestinians should forget about 1948 and forget about returning to their homes, I wanted to show that current policies against Palestinians resemble an apartheid-like situation. Since Nelson Mandela has become the personification of the struggle against apartheid, I thought a ‘mock memo’ including Mandela was the logical thing to do. I could also have taken Steven Biko who has said that “the most potential weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” or Oliver Tambo or others anti-apartheid activists.
On 27 March 2001, after reading Friedman’s ‘mock memo’ I wrote a letter entitled Mandela’s first memo to Thomas Friedman to the op-ed editor of The New York Times and I posted the memo on the Thomas Friedman Discussion Board of the New York Times, hoping that Thomas Friedman would read it and that the New York Times would publish it. However, after two days, I came to the conclusion that the New York Times would not dare publishing this piece and I sent it on March 30, 2001 to Media Monitors, “a Platform for Serious Media Contributors”, an online daily.
Soon, however, I found the ‘mock memo’ I wrote and which clearly indicated that I wrote it, on various listservers and websites but without the byline mentioning that it was in fact written by me.
The main purpose of the Mandela-memo was to respond in a satirical way to Thomas Friedman using the exact same style and even phrases he uses in his columns. Obviously, the ‘mock memo’ had been forwarded to several e-mail lists containing the memo, which originally included the title “Mandela’s First Memo to Thomas Friedman” and a byline “by Arjan El Fassed”, but eventually was forwarded without my name and sometimes without title.
I posted the ‘mock memo’ myself on 30 March on an mailinglist of Al-Awda. Despite this, I’ve seen it several times being posted on the same list, something that gives you an idea of the lack of attention many people give to material they forward. In various posts I read, the subject title was changed for example, “Mandela supports…”, “must read”, etc. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. If Nelson Mandela would seriously have written to the New York Times, wouldn’t the New York Times just publish it? Moreover, I believe Nelson Mandela has better things to do then responding to columns written by Thomas Friedman.
How things got worse
On April 24, 2001, Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist and editorial writer for the Israeli national daily Ha’aretz wrote in his Strong Quote from Mandela that the Palestinian daily Al Quds published a letter that Nelson Mandela sent to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in response to a March 27 Frideman column, dubbed “Memo to President Bush.”
Immediately, I wrote a letter to Ha’aretz explaining what happened. Most probably, someone translated the memo (without byline) into Arabic and which was taken up by the Palestinian daily and printed on April 16, 2001, however, without verifying the source. The editor of Al Quds, Marwan Abu Zalaf, said that he had no idea it was a fake, and that one of his reporters found it on the Internet.
On Friday, April 18, the Lebanese daily As-Safir re-published the ‘mock memo’ in Arabic based on the article as printed by the Palestinian daily Al-Quds. On Monday, April 21, The Daily Star had an op-ed entitled “Sharon: Why does the world ignore me?” and at the top of the ‘memo’, they had the following boxed introduction:
"New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has recently popularized the idea of writing opinion pieces framed as "memos" from world leaders to various recipients, prompting various other writers to mimic the practice.
For the byline, at the bottom, the Star wrote in italics: Arjan El Fassed wrote this commentary for MediaMonitors, a website dedicated to providing a platform for all political opinions (NB. The Daily Star’s archive is currently not working).
The Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen published a commentary in which it quoted The Jerusalem Times which published the ‘mock memo’ on April 6, 2001, again without source, byline, or author, in its publication.
On April 24, 2001, someone wrote to Akiva Eldar the following:
——- Original Message ——-
From: ******* <********@yahoo.com>
Sent: Tuesday, April 24, 2001 7:26 PM
Subject: Strong quote from Mandela
For the record, I have received the original messages containing each of Arjan El Fassed’s “memos,” sent directly from him (via an e-group). Mr. El Fassed’s byline is clearly present on each article, the articles come from his own e-mail address, and the more recent ones contain an explicit warning against forwarding the article without the byline. There is no possible basis for arguing that Mr. El Fassed intends for people to believe the memos were written by anyone other than himself.
It is hard to imagine that anyone would accuse Tom Friedman of impersonating a world leader if one of his “memos” was forwarded, sans byline, and then re-printed in another newspaper (though the newspaper re-printing the story would be a legitimate target for criticism).
To claim that Mr. El Fassed “tends to sign various missives he sends out to the world signed with the names of famous people” is, if not an intentional lie, than an inadvertent gross misstatement of fact. Whether you like Mr. El Fassed’s writing or not, you have a responsibility to correct what you wrote.
The next day, Akiva Eldar, replied:
—- haaretz email@example.com wrote:
To: “*******” <*******@yahoo.com>
Subject: Re: Strong quote from Mandela
Date: Wed, 25 Apr 2001 09:15:42 +0200
Mr El Fassed has give me a full account of his position and it will be reported in my next column.
However, instead of being reported in his next column, Ha’aretz published my own response instead.
Worse, however, Toronto Star columnist, Michele Landsberg wrote on May 20, 2001, Forged letter slights dignity of Nelson Mandela, in which she claimed that she checked with Mandela’s office in South Africa and that she heard from his assistant:
"You enquired about the infamous article that has been doing the rounds across the globe. We’ve received numerous enquiries… . Mr. Mandela did not write the article/letter, and this matter has been referred to his lawyers for further action."
Nigel Parry responded to that column by writing a letter to the Toronto Star editor:
"Regarding Michele Landsberg’s column, "Forged letter slights dignity of Nelson Mandela", there was no "rat". Someone obviously forwarded her the memo without its byline and she failed to seek out its source.
The memo was a clearly signed spoof that was first published on the Media Monitors Network.
Landsberg’s assertion that the letter was a “forgery” is as baseless as her claim that the political philosophy of Zionism — which directly resulted in the establishment of an Israeli state on the ruins of 415 Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed of nearly one million Arabs, with a legal system that still discriminates between “Jewish” and “Non Jewish” citizens in areas such as property ownership — is somehow not racist.
The Toronto Star chose not to publish his letter.
On May 26, 2001, the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar published a clarification in Arabic which is similar to my own response in Ha’aretz.
Even now, some emails are still circulating with the ‘mock memo’. For example, the Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace circulated the ‘mock memo’ and sent a message to their own list on 14 February 2002, saying that
"We sent you a letter, which was supposedly written by Nelson Mandela and addressed to Thomas Friedman. As we received it by email from a friend who was excited about a good answer to Friedman’s latest article in the New York Times, we misread the address, and thought it was in fact written in the New York Times. Thanks to the queries of some of you, we went to the source, and now we know for certain that Mandela did not write the article. It is still a good response, but we have no clue so far as to the author."
What other readers said
In a message posted on April 13, 2002 on a listserver called Ecunews, Rick Mitchell wrote that the ‘mock memo’:
"reinforces [my] claim that Israel is maintaining a system of Apartheid by keeping Palestinians in captivity (the current occupation dates back to June, 1967) and subject to second-class status. One need not agree with all of his statements, but it is illuminating to recognize that we see and hear very little of this argument in the U.S., as the policy of our government and of the mainstream media has been consistently pro-Israeli. Politics is, of course, politics, but the important point to consider is El Fassed’s (and others’) contention that Zionism is inherently racist and un-democratic, resulting quite logically in an apartheid system of discrimination. It is also the policy of the U.S. government."
What’s interesting is that some even argued, “but there is also a sense in which the ‘true’ or original author does not matter — and that sense is related to the question, ‘Is it true?’”
Others wrote on various lists, “If this is authentic, it is truly a moral bombshell in the present level of discussion…” and “[It may have been written] as a statement about what perhaps Nelson Mandela would say to someone such as journalist Thomas Friedman.”
"For those of you who are concerned about the authenticity of the Mandela memo, I have researched the matter with the help of others. Apparently Thomas Friedman often writes as though he were someone else and this piece is written with this understanding. I do not question the content because from my own personal experience, I can attest to an apartheid situation."
Someone else posted this question:
"How could I find an email for Nelson Mandela to alert him to the efforts of us in the Jewish world who oppose Israel’s current treatment of Palestinians - and to discuss with him strategies for having an impact?"
"My husband (among other people) forwarded the ‘Nelson Mandela memo’ to me. I checked up on it through my sources in Palestine and found that it was not written by Nelson Mandela but by someone else using the style of Friedman’s articles. The name of the person is in some email in my file but the name doesn’t really matter. Someone was trying to do good but left the rest of us with egg on our faces. You may want to pass this information on to those from whom you got it and to those to whom you sent it."
Another reader made this observation, “The existential reality of injustice witnessed first-hand…is a far more powerful teaching tool than injustice heard or read about.”
What Nelson Mandela indeed has said
"It is completely wrong that the United States must be the mediator in this conflict. Everybody knows the United States is a friend of Israel."
"As far as we are concerned what is being done to the Palestinians is a matter of grave concern. We are the friends of Yasser Arafat. We are the friends of the Palestinians. We support their struggle" (Reuters, 1 June 2001, Mandela, speaking at a news conference after talks with French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin).
"Israel should withdraw from the areas which it won from the Arabs — the Golan Heights, south Lebanon and the West Bank — that is the price of peace" (Dispatch, 20 October 1999)
"Our men and women with vision choose peace rather than confrontation, except in cases where we cannot get, where we cannot proceed, where we cannot move forward. Then, if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence" (Associated Press , 20 October 1999)
"The histories of our two peoples, Palestinian and South African, correspond in such painful and poignant ways, that I intensely feel myself being at home amongst compatriots" (Associated Press , 20 October 1999)
"The long-standing fraternal bonds between our two liberation movements are now translating into the relations between two governments" (Associated Press, 20 October 1999)
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