As some 100 heads of state were gathering in South Africa to honor Nelson Mandela at a massive memorial service Tuesday, leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community were expressing disappointment with the fact that Israel would not be represented by President Shimon Peres or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the tribute.
Some lamented the “golden opportunity” being missed by Jerusalem to improve tense relations with Pretoria, and one Jewish leader said the fact that money was cited as a reason for Netanyahu staying home was playing into the image of Jews as miserly.
Israel is instead being represented by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and a delegation of five Knesset members.
Rabbi Avrohom Vigler of the Orange Grove Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg said a visit by the prime minister would have “shown a willingness” on Israel’s part to “improve relations” with the country.
“The disappointment is at the prime minister who chose not to come, [and] the really upsetting part was the reason [given] that it was a financial reason,” said Zev Krengel, the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, during an interview with Army Radio Tuesday.
“I think it’s affecting the community very much. It’s playing to the stereotype of Jews being stingy with their money,” he added.
“The whole world chose to come to be part of this momentous occasion. It’s a sad day not just for Israel but for world Jewry, a missed opportunity,” said Krengel.
He added that Peres’s age and health was an understandable reason for his bowing out of the visit.
“If President Peres came, that would have been [good] for Israel. And if Netanyahu had come, it would have been better because the whole world would have been there, and Israel would have had a prime minister in a country where we haven’t had an Israeli prime minister since the mid-70s. This was a golden opportunity,” he said.
Rain fell Tuesday as mourners converged on FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied, as a prisoner of white rule for 27 years and then during a difficult transition to democracy.
Workers were still preparing the VIP area as the first spectators arrived, reflecting the enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died December 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
Mandela served as the country’s president from 1994 to 1999, and while supporting the Palestinian cause, was conciliatory toward Israel despite Jerusalem’s once-close ties to apartheid Pretoria.
US President Barack Obama landed in South Africa just hours before he was due to speak at the memorial service.
The sounds of horns and cheering filled the stadium ahead of the ceremony, due to start at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT, 2 a.m. EST). Rain sent those who arrived early into the stadium’s covered upper deck.
The 95,000-capacity soccer venue was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.
Police promised tight security, locking down roads kilometers around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.
Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country.
Mandela said in his acceptance speech at the time: “We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born.”
On Monday evening, it was announced that Edelstein would lead the Israeli delegation of five Knesset members to South Africa to represent Israel at the memorial service.
The announcement came hours after Peres announced he would not attend the memorial for medical reasons, and a day after Netanyahu said he would also skip the trip, because of logistical and cost issues.
Edelstein was accompanied by MKs Penina Tamanu-Shata (Yesh Atid), Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), Gila Gamliel (Likud), Hilik Bar (Labor), and Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid).
“I am glad that ultimately the State of Israel will have representatives at this important event,” Edelstein wrote on his Facebook page. “As a former prisoner of conscience, I had the privilege of meeting Mandela as a minister in ’96 during which we shared our experiences in prison and the struggle for our rights and therefore, from my perspective, there is a sort of closure here.”
Edelstein, who moved to Israel from the Soviet Union, served in prison from 1984 to 1985.
Netanyahu’s decision not to attend was based on “the financial and logistic outlays” of the trip, an official told The Times of Israel on Sunday night. The costs for the flight and security arrangements were an estimated NIS 7 million for the prime minister, as opposed to the approximate NIS 1 million it will cost the Knesset to send the six representatives, Channel 2 reported.
While Netanyahu venerated Mandela last week as one of “the greatest figures of our time,” Israel’s relations with post-apartheid South Africa have been strained.
Many in South Africa compare Israel’s presence in the West Bank to apartheid-era South Africa, a charge Israel rejects, and Mandela famously said that “our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
Last year, South Africa’s government decided that goods imported from Israeli West Bank settlements could not be labeled “Product of Israel.” In 2011, the University of Johannesburg became the world’s first to impose an academic boycott on Israel.