Free Mengistu!

“For our brothers and sisters – including Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are in captivity."

The campaign poster calling for the release of Averu Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed (photo credit: Courtesy)
The campaign poster calling for the release of Averu Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed
(photo credit: Courtesy)
AVRAHAM (AVERA) Mengistu’s family is launching a campaign for his release on the fourth anniversary of his capture by Hamas on September 7, 2014, after he inadvertently crossed the Israeli border into Gaza. Mengistu, 31, who was born in Ethiopia and made Aliyah with his family at the age of 5, is mentally disabled. For that reason, the campaign organizers are focusing their international appeal to free “a special needs captive.”
Hamas is also holding Hisham al-Sayed, a Bedouin Israeli with psychological problems who crossed the Gaza border in 2015, as well as the remains of two IDF soldiers killed at the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. All the families have enlisted international organizations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders to push for their return, to no avail.
In Judaism, pidyon shvuyim (the redemption of captives) is a sacred commandment.
As we approach the Jewish New Year, 5779, we can only pray that this time, their painful pleas will be heard, and Hamas will be pressured by the international community to free Mengistu and al-Sayed, and return the bodies of Goldin and Shaul as part of any long-term truce with Israel.
These were my thoughts when on August 21 I heard Rabbi Barry (Dov) Sidelsky talk to an audience at the World Mizrachi Center in Jerusalem. Sidelsky’s father, Lazer (Laz) Sidelsky, provided young Nelson Mandela with his first job in his Johannesburg law office in the 1940s, a fact Mandela recounted fondly in his autobiography. "Long Walk to Freedom." Laz also visited Mandela at Victor Verster Prison, where he spent the last of his 27 years as a political prisoner. When he told Mandela that his son, Barry, with whom he had played as a boy, was now a rabbi who recited a special prayer for his release twice a week after reading the Torah, “Mandela cried with emotion,” Sidelsky said.
Citing the previous week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Sidelsky, 75, began his speech by declaring, “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue,” noting that he and his brother, Colin, had started their book on their father, “Mandela’s Boss” (Mazo Publishers, 2011) with that quotation from Deuteronomy 16:20.
He vividly recalled that when Mandela visited Israel in 1999, he and his wife, Naomi, had been invited by Ehud Barak to the Prime Minister’s Office, and were picked up from their home in Har Nof by former ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel. “It was quite something,” Sidelsky said. “It was the first time I had seen Mandela in many, many years.” The last time he had seen Mandela, he said, was in 1958 when Nelson and Winnie’s wedding procession passed their Johannesburg home in honor of his father.
The international “Free Mandela” campaign pressured the apartheid government to release Madiba, as he was affectionately known, paving the way for democratic elections in the new Rainbow Nation. Mandela served as president of South Africa from 1994-1999, and died in 2013 at the age of 95.
Perhaps today, in Madiba’s memory, we can introduce an adaptation of the prayer for Mandela recited by Rabbi Sidelsky, translated from Hebrew to English by his father: “As for our brothers and sisters – including Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are in captivity, as well as the Goldin and Shaul families – may God have mercy on them and grant them relief from their distress, and bring them from darkness to light, from servitude to liberty, speedily and very soon, and let us say, Amen!” Shana tova!