Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

Downplaying complex relationship, Jewish groups honor Mandela

Fraught ties largely superceded by organizations’ emphasizing leader’s role as symbol of freedom

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

A framed portrait of former president Nelson Mandela and flowers are placed outside Mandela's Johannesburg home Friday, December 6, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Denis Farrell)
A framed portrait of former president Nelson Mandela and flowers are placed outside Mandela's Johannesburg home Friday, December 6, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Denis Farrell)

WASHINGTON — Jewish organizations responded Thursday to the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela by emphasizing respect for his serving as a beacon of hope and freedom in apartheid-ridden South Africa. They chose to emphasize Mandela’s dramatic role in his own country’s reform while at times downplaying their own complicated relationship with the outspoken human rights champion.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, speaking on behalf of the country’s Jewish community, mourned Mandela’s passing and said synagogue services would be held across the country in his memory.

“Nelson Mandela epitomised the miracle of South Africa’s democratic transformation. Many heroic men and women played their part in bringing about the triumph of justice and democracy in South Africa, but the name of Nelson Mandela towers above them all,” the umbrella organization wrote in a statement. “May his noble example inspire the people of South Africa to strive to follow in his footsteps and may his memory be a blessing for all humanity.”

South Africa’s Union for Progressive Judaism and the South African Association of Progressive Rabbis described Mandela’s death as “a day South Africans have dreaded… which of course has shaken us all to the core.”

“It is as though all the people of South Africa have been sitting together in a nationwide waiting room, watching a loved one fade away,” wrote lay leader Steve Lurie and Progressive Rabbis Chair Rabbi Robert Jacobs in an obituary for the former president. “What we as a nation feel for Madiba is a complex mixture of affection, respect and love. His presence is part of our national well-being and we worry that we may not be able to continue so effectively without him.”

Jacobs and Lurie described Mandela as “a kind and caring man, a man of great knowledge and dedication,” adding that “his presence, involvement and guiding hand will be sorely missed.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, was one of the few organizational leaders who tackled Mandela’s relationships with the Jewish community of South Africa and abroad. “The connections between the Jewish community and Mr. Mandela and his ANC were deep and long-lasting,” Saperstein wrote in a statement late Thursday.

“From the very beginning of the ANC a significant number of its white leaders were Jews, as were those who set up the lawyers committee for freedom that for decades provided such extensive legal services to the anti-apartheid movement. Those friendships lasted a lifetime and the overwhelming number of Jews in South Africa were strong and passionate proponents of the anti-apartheid movement in no small measure because of Mr. Mandela’s character and leadership.”

Saperstein said Mandela was “a true hero, rejecting enmity, despair, and violence,” who “inspired the world.”

Mervyn Smith, head of the African Jewish Congress, recalled that Mandela attended Shabbat services a day after being elected the country’s first black president in 1994.

“He was admired, revered and respected by the Jewish community and by all South Africans,” Smith said.

Mandela’s relationship with Jewish organizations was complex; while imprisoned, he was respected as a champion of human rights and freedom, but his support for Palestinians and statements believed by some to represent moral ambiguity toward Jewish suffering caused friction.

“During the years of his trials and tribulations, the Jewish community of South Africa supported him. And when he sought freedom, Mandela returned the friendship and appreciation,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman recalled. “In recent decades, the ADL did disagree with Mr. Mandela from time to time on some issues. Those differences, however, did not diminish our respect and esteem for this upstanding moral leader.”

Foxman did not, however, mince words as to Mandela’s legacy. In the same statement, Foxman, who met with Mandela twice after the anti-apartheid activist’s release from prison, wrote that “in a world where the word ‘hero’ is too readily bandied about, Nelson Mandela was a true hero of freedom who brought historic change, and did so peacefully.”

Other groups embraced Mandela more wholeheartedly.

Ronald Lauder, who heads the World Jewish Congress, said Mandela was “unquestionably the most inspiring human rights advocate of our times.

“As a builder of bridges, he was second to none, and with his huge charisma, wisdom, democratic convictions and tremendous determination he ensured that the transition of his country from an apartheid state into a free and democratic nation was successful,” Lauder said in a statement.

B’nai B’rith International, an organization that lobbied for Mandela’s release from prison, listed his achievements in its response Thursday. “As president, Mandela worked to create a multicultural society after years of minority rule,” the organization’s official statement read. “His new government in post-apartheid South Africa wrote a new constitution, investigated human rights abuses by the previous regime, tackled the issue of racism in his country and focused on helping the poor and disenfranchised.”

The American Jewish World Service, which works closely with two dozen organizations in South Africa, praised Mandela as “a historic leader who transformed one of the most racist societies on earth into a democracy with a progressive constitution that respects the rights of all people.”

AJWS President Ruth Messinger described the former South African president as “a modern-day prophet for human dignity whose voice was heard around the world. He inspired me and millions of other Jews with his message of equality for all,” she continued, adding that “it was a spiritual high point of my life to meet Mandela on several occasions when he visited New York City, and my visit to his former jail cell on Robben Island remains seared in my memory.”

Despite an epic dust-up that resulted in the American Jewish Committee uninviting the South African president to an award dinner, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris focused instead — as did US President Barack Obama — on the connection between Mandela and Jewish tradition, marking Hanukkah, which ended hours before Mandela’s death. “As Jews, we honor every year the miracle of freedom, teaching our children that ‘we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. Mandela’s life embodied a personal and national journey from subjugation to freedom,” Harris said. “We are indelibly inspired by his example and can say of him, as we can say of few others, that he truly helped repair the world.”

Harris’s comments were similar to those made by Obama, who told attendees at the annual White House Hanukkah party that Mandela was “a moral giant who embodied the dignity and the courage and the hope, and sought to bring about justice not only in South Africa, but I think to inspire millions of people around the world. And he did that, the idea that every single human being ought to be free and that oppression can end and justice can prevail,” adding that “it’s that same spirit that brings us here tonight” to celebrate Hanukkah.

Former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks praised Mandela as someone who “permanently enlarged the horizon of human hope,” with his commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Because of him not only South Africa but the world is a better place. The greatest tribute we can pay him is to be inspired by his memory and lifted by his ideals. Let now be a moment for a new birth of hope in some of the many conflict zones throughout the world,” he said.

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