Mandela the mensch

The warm statements issued by Israeli and Jewish leaders following Mandela’s death nicely reflect their respect for and appreciation of the man and his legacy.

Peres Mandela 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Peres Mandela 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Although it is still too soon after Nelson Mandela’s death to define his legacy, it is clear that he will remembered in the annals of the history of South Africa and the world as a great man – and as Jewish writer Lionel Slier remarks, one worthy of the Yiddish term “mensch,” a person of true integrity.
Despite Mandela’s ambivalent attitude toward Israel, exemplified by detesting its ties with apartheid South Africa and what he called its occupation of Arab territories, he well-deservedly has been lauded by Israeli leaders, the Jewish community of South Africa and Jews in the Diaspora.
Developing close relations with South African Jewry over the years, Mandela was ready to forgive Israel in the spirit of reconciliation, and urged the Arabs to accept the existence of the Jewish state. “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing [from territories] if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders,” he said during his visit here in October 1999 after stepping down as president.
The warm statements issued by Israeli and Jewish leaders following Mandela’s death nicely reflect their respect for and appreciation of the man and his legacy.
President Shimon Peres declared: “The world lost a great leader who changed the course of history...Nelson Mandela was a fighter for human rights who left an indelible mark on the struggle against racism and discrimination,” Peres added. “He was a passionate advocate for democracy, a respected mediator, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and, above all, a builder of bridges of peace and dialogue who paid a heavy personal price for his struggle in the years he spent in prison and fighting for his people. Nelson Mandela’s legacy for his people and for the world will forever remain engraved in the pages of history and the hearts of all those who were touched by him.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Mandela “the father of his country, a man of vision and a freedom fighter who disavowed violence...He was never haughty,” said Netanyahu. “He worked to heal rifts within South African society and succeeded in preventing outbreaks of racial hatred. He will be remembered as the father of the new South Africa and a moral leader of the highest order.”
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky recalled his meeting with Mandela. “Nelson Mandela was able to transform an armed campaign into a peaceful struggle for human rights,” Sharansky said. “In so doing, he succeeded in building bridges and fostering cooperation where such ties had previously been unimaginable. When we met in 1990, several months after his release from prison and several years after mine, I was struck by his ability to see beyond the immediate goals of his efforts, pursuing the brighter future he wished to see for all South Africans.”
World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder said Mandela was “unquestionably the most inspiring human rights advocate of our times...Nelson Mandela was one of those very rare leaders who were revered not just by their own people but universally, across all political and communal divides,” Lauder said. “As a builder of bridges, he was second to none, and with his huge charisma, wisdom, democratic convictions and tremendous determination he ensured that the transition of his country from an apartheid state into a free and democratic nation was successful.”
One of Mandela’s closest friends was the late South African chief rabbi Cyril Harris, whom Mandela called “my rabbi.” For his part, Harris once wrote: “Of all the friendships I have been fortunate enough to enjoy, the most special is with Nelson Mandela.”
South Africa’s current chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, noted that Jews had “a long, close and meaningful relationship” with Mandela. “It was a friendship that involved every stage of Mandela’s life, from his earliest days as a law student and an attorney’s articled clerk in Johannesburg.
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,” Goldstein said. “And so we mourn his loss together with our fellow South Africans and with all people across the world. Our hearts are, however, filled with gratitude for the unique blessing of his great life which we in South Africa were especially privileged to experience so closely.”
We can only add: “Amen.”