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Israel, Jews and Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

December 13, 2013 12:52 pm 7 comments

Nelson Mandela in 2008. Photo: South Africa The Good News.

I first became aware of Nelson Mandela in 1956. I was fourteen and a very disruptive teenager. My father was going on a fundraising tour of South Africa in support of Jewish education and he decided to take me with him in the hope of mitigating my rebelliousness. For much of the time, while my father was busy, I was entrusted to a group of communal ladies who it turned out were seriously involved not only in trying to mitigate the awful conditions in the black townships but also in actively opposing Apartheid. They took me round to Alexandra Township and Soweto to see firsthand what life for the black majority was like.

One day we went on a trip to Pretoria where the famous Rivonia trial was taking place, in which Black and Jewish defendants were on trial accused of trying to overthrow the government. The prosecutor, a prominent Jew named Percy Yutar, was much reviled by my newly found friends, but supported by many in the Jewish establishment. The Chief Rabbi of the time, on the other hand, the late and outstanding Louis Rabinowitz, heroically denounced the Afrikaner regime and its policies. Amongst the black defendants, Nelson Mandela stood out for his bearing, dignity, and natural leadership. I was too young to be allowed in to the court, and so my ladies deposited me with some demonstrators they knew outside while they went in. The trial proved a farce, but it was the start of what would send Mandela for over 27 years to the infamous Robben Island, which made Alcatraz look like paradise.

This was the beginning of my modest career as a campaigner against Apartheid, which eventually took me to the position of vice president of the Scottish branch of the anti-Apartheid movement and friendship with one of its heroes, Rev. Trevor Huddleston.

Thirty-four years later I was invited by the then retiring Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper to come to Johannesburg to discuss succeeding him. Before I went out there, some friends who were heavily involved in the struggle gave me the names and numbers of prominent underground activists so that I could get a different angle on the possibilities. During the six weeks I spent in Johannesburg, I had several secret meetings, all very cloak and dagger, with various black and colored activists who all warned me in the strongest terms against coming out there. They all asserted that there was going to be a revolution, a bloodbath, sooner than expected, in which the white population would be decimated.

They also told me that although Israel had always voted against Apartheid at the UN, its military and security agencies were on close terms with their South African counterparts. There was ill feeling towards Israel because of Israeli advisors in the detention centers, jails, and interrogation rooms. And if I thought that speaking out against the regime was a possibility, I should know that it would be pointless because I would be deported on the spot. I didn’t go to South Africa in the end, for personal reasons.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Mandela, alone amongst the detainees, agreed to start negotiating with the Apartheid regime. Despite internal opposition within the ANC, he believed there had to be a peaceful way of winning. Eventually he was released and became the standard bearer of reconciliation that led to the peaceful demolition of Apartheid and the establishment of majority rule. He became the first President of a racially free South Africa. That he was able to avoid a bloodbath in the process was entirely the result of his vision and friendship with the more moderate and farsighted white Prime Minister de Klerk. It ensured that both sides went out of their way to achieve reconciliation. Although flawed, the “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” went a long way towards facing up to and atoning for the evils committed in the struggle, on both sides. If South Africa today is an unhappy country with a massive gulf between the rich and the poor, it is the fault of its black leadership, not a white elite.

Mandela was surrounded by and succeeded by small men who lacked his stature and moral authority. But he too made mistakes. I regret he did not stand for a second term to be able to exert his moral influence for longer. I regret he did nothing about that evil African tyrant, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a primitive tribal gangster despite his LSE degrees and the polar opposite of Mandela. I regret he was unable to rein in the corruption of the ANC. But Mandela was human. He was not a saint.

There are Jews who believe he was an opponent of Israel. That is simply not true. But like the current President of Israel himself, he regretted the sorry state of the Palestinians, the situation in the West Bank and its inevitable consequences. He thought Israel was better placed than anyone else to find a remedy and expressed regret that Israel was not doing more. But he also knew and said that the Arab world and the Palestinians, themselves, were parties to their own tragedy. He never, ever compared the situation in Israel to Apartheid. He knew what real Apartheid was.

Yes, he was a politician. He did embrace Arafat (as did other friends of Israel), and he was aware and sensitive to the very strong resentment within parts of the ANC and its allies towards Israel. But he always repeated his friendship and gratitude to Israel and those Jews who supported his struggle. He never expressed any of the bitter enmity towards Israel of Desmond Tutu, or indeed many of the senior South African politicians of today. The memoir of the late chief rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, amply recalls the friend that Mandela was.

We Jews like to give titles like “the pious, or the saintly of the non-Jewish world”, misused and misapplied from our traditional sources. There is a difference between “The Pious of the Nations of the World”, which implies saintliness, and “The Great of the Nations of the World”, which implies achievement. I do not know how pious he was. But there is no doubt in my mind that he was great. I would argue that Nelson Mandela was the greatest African in recorded history.


  • It is so sad that misinformation and even self hatred causes even Jews to fall into the trap of causeless and false fabrications against Israel.Israel’s enemies and those who would like to harm South Africa’s unique Community have made many preposterous claims in the past to achieve that end.
    I fear Rabbi Rosen has made common cause with them , with his baseless claim that there” were Israeli advisors in the detention centers,jails and interrogation rooms” of White ruled South Africa.This is untrue.

    America of course feels sympathetic to blacks and will make him a day off work banls closed no parkingmeters etc etc.
    Did mandella get his nobel prize? I forgot.
    I personally dont care a thing about the guy.
    I am sure he will be bigger then the womanizer
    martin luther king which makes me wonder…
    ”martin luther”,he loved jews didnt he…
    I get so confused with all the dribble from the media creating myths….does anyopne know why martin luther king chose that name? Thers a law against naming a child hitler..why isnt there a law against martin luther?
    G-D. now who is G-D. does anyone remember?
    Lets see, netanyahu went to see the pope who wore a brestlov kipa larger then the Israeli politicians,
    so called rabbis searching the world for ‘lost jews’,
    now we are up to 56 lost tribes of Yaacov,Jacob,
    Israel contemplatinggiving away more land then the israeli national fund and abe foxman…I am still trying to remember..WHO IS G-D? DOES ANYBODY KNOW?
    Everyone going everywhere to everybody and no one remembers ‘WHO IS G-D CAUSE THEY NEVER WENT TO “HIM”

  • But he embraced every third world leader, including Castro, Arafat and so many others, on the backs of the Jews?

    • So? He was a radical and even pro violence in his younger years. He saw himself as part of the Third World and identified with underdogs. That did not prevent him valuing Jews and indeed Israel, but not without reservation.

  • You want to blame Israel for supporting South Africa, blame the blacks themselves as the Black African countries boycotted Israel in 1973 at the behest of the slave-owning Arabs and Muslims. This left Israel with no alternative but to turn to South Africa as it needed allies.

    • Md. Zahidul Islam (Milton)


      I agree with the comment like “the pious, or the saintly of the non-Jewish world” and he really deserves it, no doubt.

      Thanks & Regards.

      Md. Zahidul Islam (Milton)
      Dhaka, Bangladesh.

    • The angel told her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will become pregnant, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus. He will be a great man and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. Your son will be king of Jacob’s people forever, and his kingdom will never end.” Luke 1:30-33 GW

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