As I introduced myself, feeling the strength in his large hand, he smiled and
said, “Shalom!” I was dumbstruck by the powerful presence of Nelson Mandela, the
legendary leader of the country in which I had grown up, the man credited with
ending the brutal apartheid regime.
But there he was, his large frame
cutting a regal figure, choosing his words carefully in his distinct African
accent, sitting opposite me and several other journalists and photographers
around a table at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on October 19, 1999.
Holding hands as he walked out of a meeting with foreign minister David Levy,
Mandela agreed to answer a few questions, and – as a reporter for Israel Radio’s English News – I recorded his answers.
Asked why he had
finally decided to visit Israel, he replied, “To the many people who have
questioned why I came, I say: Israel worked very closely with the apartheid
regime. I say: I’ve made peace with many men who slaughtered our people like
animals. Israel cooperated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate
in any atrocities.”
Mandela voiced his vehement opposition to Israel’s
control of the territories it had “occupied” in the Six Day War, and he urged it
to concede land to the Palestinians and Syrians, just as it had done with the
Egyptians, for the sake of peace.
“My view is that talk of peace remains
hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands,” he said.
completely well why Israel occupies these lands.
There was a war. But if
there is going to be peace, there must be complete withdrawal from all of these
He did, however, acknowledge Israel’s legitimate security
concerns, declaring: “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do
not recognize Israel within secure borders.”
One of Mandela’s greatest
strengths was his ability to bury, but not forget, the bitterness of the past
and actively work for a fairer future.
He did so when, upon his release
from 27 years in jail, he emerged without exhibiting any signs of anger,
reconciling with president F.W. de Klerk (earning them both Nobel peace prizes)
and even sipping tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the 94-year-old widow of apartheid’s
architect, Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd.
He did so when he became president of
the new democratic South Africa in 1994 and set up the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, pitting perpetrators of apartheid crimes against its victims and
He did so when he went to watch the Springboks team beat
the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup in 1995, depicted in the Clint Eastwood
And he did so when, at the age of 81, he paid what was
termed “a private visit” to Israel for two days after completing his five-year
term as president and handing over the reins to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, in
June, and choosing to fly first to Iran, Syria and Jordan.
overtures of thenprime minister Ehud Barak had paved the way for Mandela – a
devout Christian – to make his first and only pilgrimage to the Holy
After taking a jab at the Jewish state for being the only nation
not to invite him when he was appointed president, and then refusing several
invitations to travel here, Mandela said this trip was aimed at burying the
hatchet – or, in his words, “to heal old wounds” both with Israel and South
Mandela had an ambivalent, almost love-hate relationship
with Jews and Israel. Like Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi before him, his first job
had been with a Jewish law firm in Johannesburg, and some of his closest
friends, political advisers and business associates were Jewish.
needed advice or money, they were the first people he called upon.
South African Jews had supported him, but others had openly backed or implicitly
endorsed apartheid. One of his close Jewish friends, Arthur Goldreich, provided
refuge to Mandela and other ANC leaders at his farm in Rivonia, later made aliya
and became a professor at the Bezalel Art School.
On the other hand,
Percy Yutar, the chief prosecutor at the infamous Rivonia treason trial at the
end of which Mandela was given a life sentence, was Jewish, too.
Mandela resented Israel’s military relationship with apartheid South Africa and
passionately supported the PLO, which he saw as a liberation movement similar to
his own ANC.
He supported Israel’s right to exist as a democratic Jewish
state, yet felt closer to its enemies: the PLO’s Yasser Arafat, Libya’s Muammar
Gaddafi, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iran’s Mohammed Khatami and Syria’s Hafez Assad.
Nevertheless, he praised his Israeli hosts for their warm reception and
peace-making efforts. Mandela received a red-carpet welcome at the King David
Hotel, where South African chief rabbi Cyril Harris, together with leaders of
the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Israel’s ambassador to South
Africa, Uri Oren, greeted him.
Hugging Harris, a good friend, he quipped:
“Now I feel at home – my rabbi is here.”
At a luncheon hosted by
president Ezer Weizman and attended by cabinet ministers and other dignitaries,
Mandela chose to thank the South African Jewish community. “One of the reasons I
am so pleased to be in Israel is as a tribute to the enormous contribution of
the Jewish community of South Africa. I am so proud of them,” he
After a guided tour of Jerusalem’s Old City and Yad Vashem, he
wrote in the Holocaust museum’s visitors’ book: “A painful but enriching
After an upbeat meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, he
described Ehud Barak as “a man of courage and vision.”
“The people of the
world and Israel should support Barak. He has aroused our hopes,” Mandela said.
“What has emerged from all my conversations is that the yearning for peace is
During the meeting, Mandela was thrilled to see Rabbi Dov
Sidelsky, a South African immigrant and the son of Lazar Sidelsky, who had given
Mandela his first job as a law clerk.
Whites hiring black professionals
was “almost unheard of in those days,” said Mandela, who remembered Dov as a
young boy in Johannesburg.
“I have found Jews to be more broad-minded
than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves
have historically been victims of prejudice,” he wrote in his autobiography,
Long Walk to Freedom.
In his talks with Levy at the Foreign Ministry,
Mandela shared his impression during his visit to Iran that the country had
become more “moderate” under then-president Khatami.
He said he had
received assurances that the trial of 13 Iranians Jews arrested earlier that
year on charges of spying for “the Zionist regime,” which was of great concern
then, would be “free and fair.”
Levy protested politely against Mandela’s
reading of the situation, telling him that Iran, which backed terrorist groups
targeting Jews and the Jewish state, was certainly not giving the 13 Jews a fair
In July 2000, after a closed trial that violated international legal norms, 10
were given harsh sentences, while three others were acquitted. Levy had been
right, Mandela wrong.
Following his visit to Israel, Mandela flew to
Gaza, where he enthusiastically embraced Arafat and endorsed Palestinian
statehood but made a point of urging Arab acceptance of Israel.
leaders must make an unequivocal statement that they recognize the existence of
Israel with secure borders,” he stressed.
Mandela was undoubtedly one of
the greatest leaders of the 20th century and an iconic symbol of hope and
freedom in his beloved South Africa.
While he supported Zionism in
principle, he believed that if there was to be peace in the Middle East, Israel
must negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians and avoid becoming a
binational “apartheid state” – or risk becoming an international pariah like
apartheid South Africa.
A humble hero, Mandela was the first to
acknowledge that he wasn’t always right, but as an advocate of justice for all,
he was always ready to stand up and fight for what he believed was right, even
when his views were not popular.
During my youth in South Africa, Mandela
was portrayed by the “white media” as the enemy, the jailed leader of a
terrorist insurrection against the Afrikaner government.
him “the Black Pimpernel” before he was arrested.
But the seemingly
impossible occurred: the Black Pimpernel became the beloved leader of “the
Rainbow Nation,” affectionately called “Madiba” (the name of his Xhosa clan) by
South Africans of all colors and creeds.
Mandela once said, “It always
seems impossible until it’s done.”
May you rest in peace,