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by Bennett Muraskin American Jewish organizations, from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish World Service, have issued statements mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela in the most laudatory terms. Mandela, for his part, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, wrote that “in my experience 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.” This observation was no doubt based on the role of Jewish communists and liberals in the anti-apartheid struggle. Thirteen out of the thirty defendants at the 1956 trial, in which Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were charged with treason, were Jewish. (All of the defendants were acquitted by 1961.) Five out of the twelve defendants in the 1963-64 Rivonia treason trial, which resulted in Mandela’s life sentence, were also Jewish. So were key members of his legal defense team. Simply put, Jewish radicals were prominent among the few South African whites who opposed apartheid root and branch, treated back South Africans as equals, and practiced what they preached by putting their lives on the line. Not all were communists. The sole South African Member of Parliament under the apartheid regime who championed the cause of racial equality, demanded the release of Mandela, and visited him in prison was a Jewish woman, Helen Suzman. Another Jewish woman, Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, joined the ANC and exposed the inhumanity of apartheid in her fiction. Both had close ties to Mandela, and he reciprocated their friendship. After Mandela’s election to the presidency in 1994, he made it clear that he considered the Jewish community as an integral member a nonracial South Africa and urged them to remain. (The current Jewish population of South Africa is 70,000, stabilized after a sharp decline in the 1970s, and is predominantly Orthodox-identified.) Then Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris was dubbed “Mandela’s rabbi” because of his friendship with Mandela and support for efforts toward reconciliation in the transition from the apartheid regime to democracy. At Mandela’s inauguration, Rabbi Harris was invited to recite a Hebrew prayer. This was the first time in the history of South Africa that Judaism was given any kind of official recognition. Once in power, Mandela appointed two Jews to his first cabinet, Joe Slovo and Ronald Kasrils, both members of the South African Communist Party and of the African National Congress. When Slovo died in 1995, Mandela declared a National Day of Mourning. During his presidency, Mandela visited synagogues and established a warm relationship with the leaders of the Jewish Board of Deputies, the official voice of the Jewish community. This was a magnanimous act, because for years the Board of Deputies kept silent on racial issues so as not to offend the apartheid regime. They even helped deter American Jewish organizations from coalescing in support of the anti-apartheid divestment movement in the early 1980s: Within the National Community Relations Advisory Council (NCRAC, today known as the Jewish Community Relations Council), an umbrella group of America’s major Jewish organizations, opposition to divestment was led chiefly by the ADL and Orthodox Jewish organizations, who argued that it would endanger or hurt South African Jews, place American Jews on the wrong side of the Cold War, and be detrimental to Israel, since the ANC generally supported the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. In fact, Israel and apartheid South Africa had begun collaborating after the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, when most African states broke diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. State visits and trade agreements were only part of it; the nations’ military and police establishments worked together as well. By 1980, Israel had become South Africa’s largest arms supplier, and in 1981 Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon pledged military support for South Africa’s incursion into Namibia. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this collaboration was the nuclear bomb test South Africa conducted in the Indian Ocean in 1979, which was widely seen as abetted by Israel. An argument can be made that by maintaining close ties with the apartheid regime (perhaps at American bidding) throughout the 1980s, even as much of the rest of the world turned its back on apartheid, Israel helped to prolong the regime’s life. Mandela’s record with respect to Jewish issues, particularly regarding Israel, also shows some lapses in judgment, thinking influenced by the Communist Party, or simple irritation with Israel’s machinations. While serving as president from May 1994 to June 1999, Mandela continued to express strong support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its leader Yasser Arafat, and in February 1995 his government announced full diplomatic relations with the “State of Palestine.” By then, the PLO had signed the Oslo Accords recognizing the existence of Israel — but the ANC support for the PLO had begun much earlier and was not deterred by the terrorism of the organization. Nevertheless, in October 1999, when Mandela visited Israel and areas of the occupied territorial under the control of the Palestinian Authority, he was quoted as stating that “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders” — and he always carefully and conscientiously defended Israel’s right to a secure existence. Both Israel and American Jewish organizations were rightfully angered, however, at his government’s sale of arms to Syria in 1997, and at Mandela’s description of Iran’s conviction in 1999 of thirteen Jews on spying allegations as “free and fair,” which led the American Jewish Committee to cancel its plan to give him a humanitarian award. It is no secret that the ANC received a range of financial, military and other support from anti-American and anti-Israel regimes, including Castro’s Cuba, Qaddafi’s Libya, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1990, after his release from prison, Mandela compared the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the struggle against South African apartheid, commenting that “if the truth alienates the powerful Jewish community in South Africa, that is too bad.” He further condemned “Zionism” for denying the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and described Israel as a “terrorist state.” None of these negative comments, however, prevented him from publicly praising South African Jews in 1992 for their “particularly outstanding contribution” to his people’s struggle for freedom and social justice.” In the same year, as soon as South Africa lifted restrictions of black residency, he moved to a Jewish neighborhood. There you have it: On one hand, some hostility to Israel and Zionism that appeared to mellow over time; on the other hand, a positive attitude toward South African Jews, individually and collectively. How much of this hostility toward Israel and Zionism was due to the ideology of his political milieu? How much came from his knowledge of Israel’s reprehensible support for the apartheid regime? Future historians may be able to tell us that. South African Jewish leaders have expressed disappointment at Israeli Prime Minister’s decision not to attend Mandela’s state funeral — a decision that some speculate to be a form of “punishment” for such South African decisions as not permitting goods manufactured in Israel’s West Bank settlements to be labeled “Product of Israel,” and other policies that are condemnatory of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. Others speculate that Netanyahu was seeking to avoid an encounter with Mahmoud Abbas. Whatever his motivation, “it’s an absolute disgrace,” said Zev Krengel, president of the South African Board of Jewish Deputies. ”This is the Number One Jewish citizen in the world and he cannot find a way to attend an event of this nature? It’s an absolute low point.” South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein was there, however, as the first speaker of the memorial. “We love Mandela because he ended the scourge of apartheid and built a great new nation for all of us,” Goldstein told the huge crowd. “May his memory be a blessing.” Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents who conducts our “In Memoriam” column. He writes widely about secular Jewish thought and trends and is the author of Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore and Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.