There are certain watershed moments that redefine history.
Ranking them in order of importance is a matter of cultural perspective and geographical bias however as a Jewish South African and (I’d like to think) a caring member of the human race the date “the 5th of December” shall be burned into my memory as the day that the world lost a giant amongst men.
Now I am currently in Israel and was not at home to commemorate the life of this great man with my fellow South Africans however I truly believe that Mandela’s legacy transcends national boundaries, and although as a South African I may feel that I have a strong connection to Mandela because I live in the country that he fought for -the values that he stood for are as relevant to me as to someone in Israel.
Nelson Mandela (or Tata Madiba as he was more affectionately known-meaning “father of the nation”) was more than just a statesmen and a visionary. He embodied humility and the values of peace and re-conciliation. He dedicated his life to the realisation of these goals, and based on the response of the international community to his passing, it is clear that his example has inspired millions across the globe and Israel joins the world in commemorating this international icon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid tribute to Mandela as “a man of vision and a freedom fighter who disavowed violence” and Jerusalem based, former anti-Apartheid activist, Benjamin Pogrund stated that “Nelson Mandela endured so much suffering in his life and yet emerged so totally a believer in humanity, putting out his hand to the enemy, is why he is the most admired man of our age”. Many believe that Mandela’s attitude towards Jews and Israel was ambivalent but that is where I believe there is a discrepancy.
Unbeknown to many is that Nelson Mandela’s life was intertwined with a series of Jewish characters, all of whom were instrumental in his journey and I would like to acknowledge them in the context of his life story by explaining how they played a part in his life. Madiba was of royal blood and at his birth he was never intended to be the “father of the nation” but rather the king of the Thembu people and at this point I offer a perfect example of where a single act has created ripples throughout history .It is something to consider that if Walter Sisulu hadn’t introduced Mandela to the Jewish attorney Lazar Sidelsky who gave him his first job Mandela might have gone back to the Transkei , never gotten into politics and Mandela as we know him may never have existed.
If I read his immortal “speech from the dock” that maintained the morale of an entire nation during his long 27 year prison term I remember that it was edited by the famous South African Jewish author Nadine Gordimer; and as the current national chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish students I feel tremendous pride in my organisation when I think that Johnathon Handler, chairperson of the UCT branch of South African Union of Jewish Students, was one of a group of 15 conscientious objectors to make public their resistance to war in the townships shortly before the End Conscription Campaign was banned.
There are so many other names to mention. Helen Suzman of the liberal progressive party (who religiously visited Mabida in prison) and one of Mandela’s strongest supporters during his presidency was the late former South African chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, who led South African Jewry through the transformation to democracy. On sighting Harris during his trip to Israel in 1999, Mandela proclaimed: “My rabbi has come!” At this point dear reader I hope that you are getting the idea that Mandela was not just a South African icon but a leader with deeply entrenched Jewish connections but I digress.
In terms of the question I know that everyone wants to ask. What was Mandela’s view on Israel? With South African Jews so passionately Zionist, the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would inevitably come up between them and Mandela. He accepted Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 borders and also promoted a Palestinian state. He is quoted saying “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders.” Nelson Mandela was a peacemaker who desired two states for two people and those who are using him to discredit Israel are grossly misrepresenting his legacy.
If one looks deeper into the issue, in his book “Long Walk to Freedom” he wrote, “I read “The Revolt” by Menachem Begin and was encouraged”. In addition, 1995 he attended a ceremony at the Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg in honour of murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin (whom he deeply admired) and in October 1999, he visited Israel, accompanied by Jewish community leaders.
If one wished to be historically accurate, one can go back and reference Israel’s and South Africa’s relations during the Apartheid regime, which is not a fact that can be denied, however-and herein lay the greatness of Nelson Mandela-he was not a man who dwelled in the past. He believed in forgiving past mistakes and moving forward, and as President Shimon Peres put it
“He was a strong proponent of democracy, a valued arbitrator, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and above everything he was a builder of bridges of peace and dialogue.”
Nelson Mandela’s legacy is proof that one person can build a nation and change the face of society ; and it is my hope that one day someone will come along who will do for Israel what Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did for South Africa.