Mandela and the Middle East - South African Jewish Board of ...

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Mandela and the Middle East - South African Jewish Board of ...

MANDELA AND ISRAEL

MANDELA AND THE

MIDDLE EAST

IT IS A LITTLE-KNOWN FACT THAT ONE OF

THE INSPIRATIONS FOR THE ANC WAS THE

JEWISH LIBERATION STRUGGLE. AND SO THE

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MADIBA AND

ISRAEL BEGUN.

BY STEVEN GRUZD

THE INSPIRATIONS for the African

National Congress (ANC) and its

‘Armed Struggle’ against apartheid

in the early 1960s was the Jewish

liberation struggle against the British

Mandatory Authorities in Palestine.

Nelson Mandela was particularly struck

by Menachem Begin’s The Revolt,

chronicling the fight to establish the

State of Israel against both British and

local Arab opposition.

Later, whilst in hiding at Liliesleaf

Farm, he became closely acquainted

with Arthur Goldreich, one of some

800 Jewish South Africans who had

fought as a volunteer in the Israeli War

of Independence. Amongst the subjects

the two men discussed were Goldreich’s

experiences in the Palmach – Mandela

later wrote that Goldreich’s knowledge

of guerrilla tactics had helped fill many

gaps in his own understanding of the

subject.

This notwithstanding, during the exile

years the ANC established close ties

with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

When Mandela was released at

the beginning of 1990, it was thus to be

expected that he would demonstrate his

support for the Palestinian cause.

Nevertheless, it came as a shock to

South African Jews to see photographs

of Mandela warmly embracing PLO

leader Yassir Arafat at Namibia’s independence

celebrations in March 1990,

and Mandela’s initially dismissive response

to their unhappiness heightened

their uneasiness.

How would a democratic South Africa

relate to Israel, given the historical ties

of the African National Congress with

the PLO, and the strong Zionism of

South African Jewry?

AN INVITATION OF

PEACE

Through his friend, advocate Isie

Maisels, Mandela initiated the first

formal meeting with SA’s Jewish communal

leadership in June 1990. He

was clearly chastened by the backlash

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MANDELA AND ISRAEL

against his brushing off of Jewish concerns,

and wished to allay the community’s

uneasiness.

The discussion touched on three recurring

themes: Mandela’s respect and

admiration for the Jewish community

and his hope that Jews would use their

skills to contribute positively to South

Africa; a recognition of the right of

Israel and Palestine to exist peacefully

within secure borders; and a refusal

to abandon leaders who supported the

anti-apartheid struggle.

“Nelson Mandela

was particularly struck by

Begin’s The Revolt,

chronicling the fight to

establish the State of Israel

against both British and local

Arab opposition.”

The 1993 Oslo Accords thawed the ANC’s

relations with Israel. Incoming Israeli

Ambassador Alon Liel recalls an early

morning phone-call: “‘Israel is the only

country that has not invited me yet for an

official visit,’ was [Mandela’s] welcoming

sentence. I apologised and promised this

would be corrected very soon.

Mandela was thrilled to hear that Israel

had repealed the law banning talks with

PLO representatives.

‘Rabin is doing the right thing,’ he said,

From now on we will judge Israel on its

future deeds. We do not forget your past

assistance to the apartheid regime, but

we look ahead and want to see our Palestinian

friends fulfilling their dreams

too.’”

POLITICAL

UNDERSTANDING

The following year, Mandela asked Liel

to write an urgent cable to Rabin, saying

that he rather than himself and President

FW de Klerk deserved that year’s

Nobel Peace Prize.

Immediately after his presidential inauguration

in May 1994, Mandela hosted

the first meeting between President

Ezer Weitzman and Yasser Arafat, at the

Union Buildings. Liel wrote, “Mandela

told them: ‘Take the nearby office and

use the opportunity to settle your differences

– good luck!!’

“Israel is the only

country that has not invited me

yet for an official visit,’

was [Mandela’s] welcoming

sentence.”

The two leaders sat for three hours, but

as you all know, we still need a Mandela

to complete the mission.” At the memorial

service for Yitzchak Rabin at Johannesburg’s

Oxford Synagogue in 1995,

Mandela praised Rabin’s courage in his

quest for peace, and hoped his tragic

murder would not derail negotiations.

Mandela’s long-awaited visit to Israel

occurred after he’d left office, in October

1999. He was accompanied by Russell

Gaddin and Marlene Bethlehem, respectively

Chairman and President of the

SAJBD. Amongst those met with were

President Ezer Weitzman, selected senior

Cabinet ministers and Chief Rabbi

Lau. He also, at his specific request,

visited Rabin’s grave. Continued on pg 38

37


MANDELA AND ISRAEL

Gaddin describes how Mandela’s presence

was greeted by a large crowd

gathered in the lobby of Jerusalem’s

King David Hotel: “Mandela exclaimed,

‘My rabbi, my rabbi! How

good to see you!’ when he saw Chief

Rabbi Harris … People were pushing

and shoving to see the icon who had

arrived in their midst.

A large number of rabbis who happened

to be in the hotel, bedecked in their

black coats, hats and streimels, lost all

decorum. Everyone wanted to touch,

be near and shake hands with the great

man.” Gaddin recalls similarly enthusiastic

scenes when Mandela visited Yad

Vashem and the Via Dolora in Jerusalem’s

Old City.

SPEAKING

SETTLEMENTS

Mandela often hosted Jewish leaders

for informal Sunday discussions at this

home, and inevitably the Middle East

was discussed.

According to businessman Solly Krok,

“Time and again [Mandela] would tell

me: ‘Let me mediate in the Middle East.

There is no reason why I should not be

friends with your enemies.’ He felt he

had the solution – land for guaranteed

peace. But, of course, the solution never

has been and never will be that simple.”

Mandela never regarded Israel as “an

illegitimate colonial entity” as many of

local Muslim leaders had hoped.

“For Mandela, there

was no reason why

Israelis and Palestinians could

not emulate South Africa’s

peaceful negotiated

settlement.”

Nevertheless, his sympathies for the Palestinians

were reflected through a lens

equating their plight to the anti-apartheid

struggle, even when presented with

contrary arguments, such as the contrast

between the inclusive, humanitarian

vision espoused in the Freedom Charter

and the destruction of Israel sought in

the Palestine National Covenant and

Hamas Charter.

For Mandela, there was no reason why

Israelis and Palestinians could not emulate

South Africa’s peaceful negotiated

settlement. He was disappointed that

this could not happen, despite his wellmeaning

efforts. □

This article is based on extracts from

Jewish Memories of Mandela, written

by David Saks and co-published

by the South African Jewish Board of

Deputies and the Umoja Foundation.

It explores the myriad relations that

Mandela forged with Jewish individuals

and organisations from the 1940s.

This magnificent linen-bound book

contains over 200 photographs, many

never published before. E-mail beagle@

beyachad.co.za to order at R400 (recommended

retail price R450).

Steven Gruzd is the Senior Researcher

and Diplomatic Liaison at the SAJBD.

38

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