Mandela and the Jews

We campaigned for Soviet Jewry, marched for Israel and waged war on apartheid.

Nelson Mandela (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nelson Mandela
(photo credit: REUTERS)
My student years were heady times. Growing up in the shadows of the Holocaust, we were shocked at humanity’s inhumanity and deeply motivated to join struggles for justice.
So we campaigned for Soviet Jewry, marched for Israel and waged war on apartheid.
Nelson Mandela was our hero and to this day, a portrait of him embracing former South African chief rabbi Cyril Harris hangs over my desk.
Mandela, in turn, drew inspiration from the Jewish community. The Diary of Anne Frank was one of the best-read books among the black freedom fighters imprisoned on Robben Island, and the anti-apartheid movement was supported by many Jews.
Indeed, at a time when virtually no white firm would take on a black articled clerk, Mandela was given his first job in a Jewish law firm and it made a lasting impression.
As he wrote in his autobiography: “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.”
Describing the brutal, humiliating apartheid laws which crushed the lives of black and colored people, Mandela drew on biblical descriptions of Jewish suffering and quoted them in his speeches: “... Look, and see our disgrace. Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners.
We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows... Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest” (Lamentations 5: 1-5).
His portrayal of the struggle for freedom also echoed the experience of the Jewish people: “From jail, from exile, from underground hideouts inside South Africa we extended a hand of peace to the South African government. For four long years, like Pharaoh of old, the South African government spurned it and refused to listen to the pleas, ‘Let my people go!’” Mandela’s relationship with the State of Israel was more complex. For many years, the Jewish state, which was suffering from the Arab boycott, was one of the few countries arming and supporting the apartheid regime. This act of treachery did not go unnoticed by Mandela and his allies: “The refusal of Israel over many years to honor its international obligations to isolate the apartheid regime did influence our attitude to that government.”
Unsurprisingly, the African National Congress formed alliances with Palestinians.
And while Mandela always recognized the Jewish people’s right to live securely in the State of Israel, his embrace of Yasser Arafat, the leader of a terrorist organization, always troubled the Jewish community.
When, after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela was finally released and elected president of the new South Africa, he was universally hailed as a hero. Invitations flooded in from across the world from governments eager to honor him. Israel was one of the few countries not to extend such an invitation.
Eventually, there was some degree of reconciliation.
In 1999, he visited Israel. Explaining his actions, he said he had been able to forgive the leaders of apartheid who had committed atrocities, so there was no reason not to forgive the Jewish state – which had merely been an accomplice.
Mandela was received with full honors and later, prime minister Ehud Olmert made an official visit to South Africa where he met Mandela.
Among the South African Jewish community, Mandela remained a hero. His extraordinary willingness to work with former enemies and prevent a bloodbath came as a great relief to those who had feared that a majority black government would make their lives miserable. Gideon Shimoni, historian of the South African Jewish community, writes: “In all respects barring the Palestinian question, Mandela’s words and deeds were universally appreciated in the Jewish community. He never missed an opportunity to laud the admirably disproportionate role of Jews in the struggle against apartheid.”
Indeed, Mandela launched his presidency with a powerful statement that all religions would be honored in the new South Africa. On the weekend before his inauguration, he visited each of the major faith communities.
Beginning with Muslims at the mosque on Friday, he moved on to the Jewish community at the synagogue on Saturday, finishing off with the Hindus at temple and the Christians in church on Sunday.
Mandela found a natural partner in chief rabbi Cyril Harris, who was committed to mobilizing the Jewish community to fight against racism. It was the start of a close and mutually respectful friendship.
When Mandela married for the third time on his 80th birthday, he invited “his rabbi” to recite a blessing at his wedding.
Regretfully, because the celebrations were scheduled for a Saturday, the chief rabbi was forced to decline. It would be impossible to attend without desecrating Shabbat.
Hearing of the problem, the president was not willing to give up on the rabbi’s blessing.
He made special arrangements for the chief rabbi to bestow his blessing on the day before the wedding.
Mandela understood that his country was riddled with grievances and tensions, but he was determined that it would not break down into anarchy. He counseled the Jewish community to follow his own example and that of our prophets, in rebuilding trust and a sense of community. Addressing the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in August 1993, he said, “Peace will not come about by magic. It requires people of goodwill who must help to produce a more tolerant society, where at least some of the swords will be beaten into plowshares.”
One story told by Harris is particularly instructive. After the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Mandela attended the memorial service organized by the South African Jewish community. After the service, the president mingled with the congregation, and a 10-year-old hassidic boy stuck out his hand to greet him. Mandela graciously made conversation, asking the child where he went to school. The boy explained that he went to a Lubavitch school where they studied hard.
“That’s fine,” said the president encouragingly, “If you continue studying really hard, one day you could become president of South Africa.”
“I can’t become president,” said the boy, “I’m not black.”
“Young man,” Mandela said, “This is a democracy; if you study hard, one day you can become president.”
The story is instructive. The man who gave his life to asserting the democratic rights of black South Africans, happily promoted the idea that a white South African hassid might one day succeed him. While David Ben-Gurion spoke about the possibility of an Arab president of Israel, one wonders how many of us would feel comfortable with a gentile or even a hassid holding the highest office here.
Celebrating Mandela, former US president Bill Clinton said, “Mandela’s enduring legacy is that under a crushing burden of oppression, he saw through difference, discrimination and destruction to embrace our common humanity.”
Few nations have experienced persecution and oppression like the Jewish people.
Few people have so magnificently arisen from the ashes to build a magnificent democracy as the founding fathers of the State of Israel.
Like Mandela, they put aside their suffering, subjugated their grievances and aspired to greater things. Their idealism finds expression in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declared that our new state would “be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; upholding the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex...”
In many ways, we have succeeded, better than most. But there are gaps, and there is racism in our country. “Price tag” attacks, verbal and physical assaults on refugees, and the degradation of women stain our reputation.
The passing of Mandela gives us a moment to pause, to reflect and to learn. Our rabbis teach that a person worthy of honor is one who honors others (Avot 4:1). Mandela personified this. His ability to respect and make room for those who had destroyed so much of his life gave him a legendary, quasi-messianic status in South Africa and throughout the world.
While we may still harbor some disappointment over his relationship with Yasser Arafat, proud Zionists can learn much from him – for Nelson Mandela has much to teach us about how we too can become a light to the nations.