Shortly before Shabbat last week, South Africa’s chief rabbi, Dr. Warren
Goldstein, spoke to Dr. Makaziwe Mandela, daughter of former president
Nelson Mandela, to convey to the family the Jewish community’s prayers and
In thanking Rabbi Goldstein, Dr. Mandela asked him
specifically to convey to the Jewish community that her father cherished “the
special and warm relationship” he had had with South African Jews” and that he
deeply appreciated how throughout his life he had enjoyed the warmth, kindness
and support of the Jewish community.
With the life of this extraordinary
man now inexorably drawing to a close, South Africans of all races and creeds
are preparing with heavy hearts to bid a final farewell to their country’s
greatest son. It is not a time for recriminations and finger-pointing, nor is it
a time for any individual or group to presume to share in the light of his
South African Jews, notwithstanding Mandela’s generous
acknowledgment of the support he received from members of their community, are
well aware that in these sad times, it is to Mandela alone that all tributes
Nor should it be forgotten that while many Jewish individuals did
indeed play a valuable part in his life and career, the majority of Jews chose
not to confront the apartheid system in any meaningful way.
In 2011, the
South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) partnered with the Umoja
Foundation in bringing out Jewish Memories of Mandela, a history telling the
Mandela story from the perspective of the various Jewish individuals who were a
part of it. For me, as the author of this book, it was an inspiring project, one
that brought to light as never before the extent to which Jews were involved in
the cause of black liberation while providing many fresh, and often deeply
moving insights into the kind of man and leader that Mandela became.
have been a part of Mandela’s life from his arrival in Johannesburg in the early
1940s to the present.
The law rather than politics was what he initially
chose to go into, and it was Lazer Sidelsky that gave him his start as an
articled clerk in his law firm at a time when it was unheard of for young blacks
to be taken on in such a capacity. His fellow clerk, Nat Bregman, became his
first white friend in Johannesburg and, as a member of the Communist Party at
the time, also played a part in his early political education.
went on to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he
established enduring friendships with fellow students Jules Browde and Harry
Schwarz, both of whom were prominently involved in liberal politics
As he moved increasingly into political activism, Mandela
came more and more to be associated with members of the Jewish community who
were likewise confronting the apartheid system. Thirteen of his fellow
defendants in the 1956-1961 Treason Trial, for example, were Jews, among them
such Struggle stalwarts as Lionel Bernstein, Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Among the
founders of the underground military wing of the African National Congress,
Umkhonto we Sizwe, were Dennis Goldberg, Harold Wolpe and Arthur Goldreich (a
volunteer in the War of Independence who later settled in Israel).
lawyers were prominently involved in defending Mandela in the various political
trials in which he was involved, among them Isie Maisels (later a member of the
governing body of the Jewish Agency), Arthur Chaskalson, Joel Joffe and Sidney
Kentridge. He also worked closely with the journalist Benjamin Pogrund, who
later made aliya and in addition to promoting Israeli- Palestinian dialogue has
been a staunch defender of Israel in the propaganda war against it.
Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, he and the mainstream Jewish leadership
forged a cordial relationship and many leading Jewish businessmen were brought
on board to assist in addressing the legacy of poverty and inequality left by
the apartheid system.
He became especially close to Chief Rabbi Cyril
Harris, a charismatic leader who whole-heartedly embraced the new democratic
dispensation and encouraged the greater Jewish community to do
The SAJBD met with Mandela regularly, and its leadership, along
with Rabbi Harris, accompanied him on a visit to Israel shortly after he had
stepped down as president in 1999.
On the Israel-Palestine question,
Mandela was deeply committed to the attainment of Palestinian statehood, but at
the same time recognized that this had to be pursued through a process of
peaceful negotiations and never deviated from his belief in Israel’s right to
exist within secure borders.
Following his meeting with Mandela in 1996
the Dalai Lama, the revered world symbol of the Tibetan independence struggle,
commented that when he met with prominent personalities from around the world,
for the most part, they did not live up to their reputations. Nelson Mandela’s
reputation was the largest in the world, he said, and only in Mandela’s case did
he find the person larger than the reputation.
Nelson Mandela has been a
true colossus on the stage of history.
World Jewry can take pride in how
many of its members ultimately contributed to what he was able to achieve, for
his own people and for humanity at large.
The writer is the associate
director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and author of the 2011
book Jewish Memories of Mandela.