South African Jews recall close friendship with president

Synagogue memorials to be held in cities throughout the country over the coming days for S. Africa's first democratically elected president.

December 8, 2013 04:07
2 minute read.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela 390. (photo credit: Reuters)


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The South African Jewish community will commemorate the life of Nelson Mandela at a series of synagogue memorials to be held in cities throughout the country over the coming days, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies announced on Friday.

South Africa’s Jews remembered Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president, as a close friend, one with deep ties to prominent community figures and a partner in the decades-long effort to end apartheid.

The Jewish community mourns the passing of Mandela, whom the SAJBD called the “father of our nation,” the group said in a statement. “Many heroic men and women played their part in bringing about the triumph of justice and democracy in South Africa, but the name of Nelson Mandela towers above them all.”

The South African Jewish community enjoyed a “long, close and meaningful relationship” with Mandela, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said in a statement.

“South African Jews were with Mandela as fellow liberation fighters and as lawyers defending him at the Rivonia trial, as visitors during his long and lonely years on Robben Island, and then in assisting in the exciting years of building the new South Africa. And so we mourn his loss together with our fellow South Africans and with all people across the world.”

Goldstein called on his co-religionists to “live like Mandela” in accordance with the values he taught.

“What’s really most important to me is that after 27 years in prison, to come out and not seek revenge, but to preach peace and reconciliation between blacks and whites is really a sign of true greatness,” Rabbi Yossy Goldman, a longtime Chabad emissary in South Africa, told He will be remembered for “really putting South Africa on the right path.”

“I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice,” Mandela once wrote.

Despite his close relationship with the Jewish community, however, Mandela’s legacy was not without controversy. A noted champion of the Palestinian cause, he was close with several Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat.

His party, the African National Congress, cultivated close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization, possibly due to Israel’s ties with the apartheid regime.

In December the ANC passed a resolution in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

However, Mandela did not allow his support for Palestinian aspirations to descend into antagonism with Israel and concurrently maintained warm relations with Israeli leaders.

Jewish leaders around the world noted their sorrow at his passing.

The American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith and Anti-Defamation League all issued statements mourning the passing of Mandela.

South Africa’s first black president was “unquestionably the most inspiring human rights advocate of our times,” said World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder.

Mandela was “one of the world’s great leaders” and “our generation’s mentor in forgiveness and reconciliation,” British chief rabbi emeritus Lord Jonathan Sacks stated.

Praising his ability to “transform an armed campaign into a peaceful struggle for human rights,” former political prisoner and current Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said that Mandela’s death “leaves a void that will not be quickly filled.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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