Mandela and the Jews

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 support.

Nelson Mandela (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nelson Mandela
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 support.
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 legacy.
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 belong.
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.
Jews 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.
Mandela 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 thereafter.
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).
Jewish 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.
After 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 likewise.
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.