Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela was close to Jews, resolutely loyal to Palestinians

Late South African leader had strong friendships with many in the Jewish world, but never forgot his allegiance to the PLO — or Israel’s support for the apartheid regime

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli president Ezer Weizman shakes hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Johannesburg, while South African president Nelson Mandela looks on, May 9, 1994. (photo credit: Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO)
Israeli president Ezer Weizman shakes hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Johannesburg, while South African president Nelson Mandela looks on, May 9, 1994. (photo credit: Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO)

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had close friendships and alliances with many Jews, but his relationship with the Jewish state was complicated. While always courteous and never hate-filled, the South African icon’s dealings with Israel were overshadowed by Jerusalem’s staunch support for his tormentors and, even more so, his ironclad loyalty to the Palestinian cause.

In the name of reconciliation, he made no ongoing issue of Jerusalem’s strong long-term partnership with the apartheid regime after he was released from a lengthy prison sentence and became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. He professed the legitimacy of Zionism as Jewish nationalism and, upon receiving the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, he said Yitzhak Rabin deserved it more (Rabin was co-honored the following year). But his primary concern in dealings with Israel’s government was the advancement of the peace process and the well-being of the Palestinian people.

“Mandela always strove to be scrupulously fair to both sides, even though his inclination was very much towards the Palestinian side,” said David Saks, the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “He was deeply supportive of the Palestinian struggle for independence, but never deviated from his view that this could only be attained through all parties recognizing Israel’s legitimate right to exist within secure borders.”

Jews played a crucial role in various stages of Mandela’s life, especially in his early decades. Indeed, the only white person he ever called “my boss” was Lazer Sidelsky, a Jewish lawyer from Johannesburg, who in the 1940s hired him as a legal clerk.

“It was a Jewish firm, and in my experience I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice,” Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” “The fact that Lazer Sidelsky, one of the firm’s partners, would take on a young African as an articled clerk — something almost unheard-of in those days — was evidence of that liberalism.”

In 1995, a year after Mandela became president, he gave a signed copy of his book to “my former boss Laz,” calling him “a man who trained me to serve our country.” Mandela reportedly attended the bar mitzva of Sidelsky’s son Barry (Dov) Sidelsky, who now lives in Jerusalem. “When I was a boy, I met Mandela and what etched an indelible impression on me was that when he got married the wedding procession passed by our house in Johannesburg as a sign of tribute to and respect for my father,” Barry recalled during a 1999 television interview he gave in honor of Mandela’s first and only visit to Israel.

Then-prime minister Ehud Barak, left, with Nelson Mandela the the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 19, 1999. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Then-prime minister Ehud Barak, left, with Nelson Mandela at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 19, 1999. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Countless other Jews had close relationships with Madiba, as Mandela was called by friends and supporters. People such as Isie Maisels, Harry Schwarz, Joe Slovo, Lionel Bernstein and many others helped him during various stages of his decades-long struggle against apartheid. Some of Mandela’s former associates later relocated to Israel.

Arthur Goldreich, for instance, helped hide Mandela and the African National Congress in the 1960s. Born in Johannesburg, Goldreich came to Israel in the 1940s to fight in the pre-state Jewish underground, yet moved back to South Africa in 1954 to fight apartheid. In the 1960s, he pretended to operate a farm outside Johannesburg, which really served as the underground headquarters of the ANC and its leaders, including Mandela, who posed as a worker on the farm. In 1963, South African authorities raided the farm and Goldreich was imprisoned. He escaped to Britain but immediately decided to move to Israel, where he died in 2011 at an old-age home in Herzliya.

Cape Town-born journalist and social activist Benjamin Pogrund is another close associate of Mandela’s who has since moved to Israel. The former deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, the country’s leading newspaper, Pogrund was among the pioneers who reported about black politics in South Africa.

In 1961, Pogrund helped Madiba organize an illegal strike. “Mandela and I met secretly and regularly,” Pogrund recalled in Saks’s 2011 book “Jewish Memories of Mandela.” “We had a system of sending messages to arrange to meet, which would either be at a friend’s house in Fordsburg, or when I would drive to a street corner at night, pick up Mandela — his worker’s overalls disguise did little to hide his tall, imposing figure — and we would sit in my car in a dark street and talk about the strike campaign.”

Some 25 years later, Pogrund and his wife were the first non-family members to visit Mandela in his prison cell on Robben Island, where he was serving a life sentence for sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government.

“During the nearly two hours of the visit, we mentioned that our youngest son, Gideon, was having his bar mitzva at the end of the month,” Pogrund, who today lives in Jerusalem, remembered. “A few days after our visit, Gideon received a letter from Mandela at our home in Johannesburg: It conveyed best wishes for his bar mitzva and for his future life. If getting a message like that from inside prison wasn’t surreal enough, it was written neatly on a whiteboard, which Mandela must have told his warders to buy for him. From a man serving a life sentence — and at that stage with no idea when he might be released — it was a kind and thoughtful action for a youngster he had not even met.”

But in his fight against apartheid, Mandela also had Jewish adversaries. Percy Yutar, for example, was the chief prosecutor in the 1960s Rivonia trial in which the future president was sentenced to a lifelong prison sentence. Yutar served for many years as the head of a group of Orthodox synagogues in Johannesburg.

Mandela: ‘South Africans of Jewish descent have historically been disproportionately represented among our white compatriots in the liberation struggle’

South Africa’s first Jewish attorney-general, Yutar is remembered by anti-apartheid activists for the “unnecessarily abrasive, indeed often vindictive, manner in which he carried out his duties,” writes Saks. “Even Mandela, generally so ready to acknowledge the good in even his avowed enemies, cannot bring himself to recall Yutar with anything more than disdain,” Saks wrote. However, Mandela later had lunch with Yutar, reportedly offering him a kosher meal.

Today’s Jewish community in South Africa likes to highlight the Jews fighting side by side with Mandela to marginalize the role of those who supported the regime.

“South Africans of Jewish descent have historically been disproportionately represented among our white compatriots in the liberation struggle,” Mandela said at a congress of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in 1993.

Yet the South African Jewish community’s relationship with the apartheid regime is a “very mixed picture,” according to Gideon Shimoni, the former head of The Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, who was born and brought up in Johannesburg. While certain individuals were openly opposed to apartheid, as a collective the Jewish community adopted an “attitude of neutrality” to the racist rule in their country, he said.

“Even Mandela kind of bought the line that those individuals who were active in the opposition kind of saved the record of the Jewish community. But it’s a much more complicated situation than that,” said Shimoni, who examined the issue in depth in his 2003 book “Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa.”

The Jews fighting the racist regime were in most cases very critical of the organized Jewish community, he said. “They believed that the Jewish community has to throw its lot in with the struggle against apartheid, irrespective of what happens to the Jewish community.” They also rejected the Jewish community’s allegiance to the Zionist cause, according to Shimoni.

‘His whole attitude — to everything — was not to look for vengeance but rather to work for a reconciliation and to look forward. The last thing he would do is raise Israel’s record’

Madiba himself was no declared enemy of Zionism. Although he was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause — and of Palestinian and other Islamist leaders — he believed that both Jews and Palestinians had legitimate national ambitions.

“As a movement, we recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism,” he said in 1993. “We insist on the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with equal vigor support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.”

As a statesman, Mandela’s relationship with Israel was businesslike and at times cordial, but never truly warm. When he became president in 1994, he maintained diplomatic relations and tried to focus on the hope for a better future rather than dwell on the disagreements of the past. Yet he never forgot Jerusalem’s strong alliance with the apartheid state. Israel and South Africa upheld very extensive military cooperation over decades, and Jerusalem was one of the last to join the international campaign to isolate the racist regime.

“The ANC, in common with the international community, was extremely unhappy about the military cooperation between the State of Israel and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The refusal of Israel, over many years, to honor its international obligations to isolate the apartheid regime did influence our attitude towards that government,” Mandela said few months before being elected president.

“He certainly was very sympathetic to Zionism in the sense of being a movement for freedom and self-determination of the Jewish people,” The Hebrew University’s Shimoni said. “But at the same time he had very strong loyalties to those who assisted him, whether it was [late Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi on the one hand, or Arafat, on the other. And he made it clear that those who are the enemies of the Jews are not necessarily his enemies.”

Indeed, one of Mandela’s first acts as a free man was to visit Yasser Arafat. The photos of the two men embracing — taken at a time before the Oslo Accords, when the PLO was officially still devoted to Israel’s destruction — raised concerns in Jewish communities around the globe.

“Mandela’s initially dismissive response to Jewish concerns exacerbated the situation,” Saks wrote. However, the future president acted quickly and, in a meeting with Jewish leaders, alleviated fears by stating that his movement recognized Israel’s right to exist in secure borders.

While Mandela was very critical of Israel’s support for the apartheid regime, “he didn’t make a big issue of it,” Shimoni said. “His whole attitude — to everything — was not to look for vengeance and not to dig up the records in the past, but rather to work for a reconciliation and to look forward. So the last thing he would do would is to raise the whole question of the record of Israel. Other people in the African National Congress have done it, up to this day. But not Mandela. It was a characteristic of Mandela to work for reconciliation, and not to dig up old hatreds and anger.”

Saks, who remembers Mandela as an “extremely warm” person, said Mandela’s attitude “was never to brood over past wrongs, but to acknowledge what had been done wrong and go forward.” While Israel’s close relationship with South Africa after 1973 did inevitably have a negative impact on his attitude towards the Jewish state, “he was not bitter about it. I think he understood, at some level at least, that the relationship had been one of convenience — realpolitik.”

Nelson Mandela and Israel's ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel (photo credit: courtesy: Alon Liel)
Nelson Mandela and Israel’s ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel (photo credit: Courtesy Alon Liel)

Alon Liel, who became Israel’s ambassador in 1992, met Madiba merely a few days after taking up his new post in Pretoria. He had told Mandela’s associates that Jerusalem had dramatically changed its South Africa policies in favor of the black community.

“The message [Mandela] sent us was that they will never forget what we did,” Liel recalled. “The main message was this: ‘We care a lot about the Palestinians. We are on the verge of achieving our freedom, it will not really be complete until our brothers the Palestinians, who fought with us and supported us, will achieve their freedom.’” If Rabin, who had just been elected prime minister, makes peace with the Palestinians, then “we will judge Israel on that merit,” Madiba told Liel.

“He was extremely warm,” recalled Liel about his first meeting with Mandela. “He was cold only in the parts of the conversation in which he spoke about the fact that the previous ambassador didn’t invite him to visit [Israel].” Since his release, he had received invitations from every country in the world — except Israel. He was “very, very offended,” Liel said. Since that first meeting, Liel spoke to Mandela on many occasions, saying he almost never brought up Israel’s support for the apartheid regime, mostly talking about his desire to visit the country.

A few months later, Liel was attending an event for diplomats during which Mandela was scheduled to give an address, when a clerk told him that Madiba wanted to speak to him.

“He was sitting in a very small room, preparing his speech,” the Israeli diplomat recalled. “He said: ‘Mister Ambassador, I had a call this morning from Stockholm and they told me that [former South African president F.W.] de Klerk and myself won the Nobel Peace Prize. I want you to send a cable to your prime minister Rabin telling him that Mandela told you that he, Rabin, deserves the prize and not me.’”

Mandela was, of course, referring to the historic handshake between the Israeli leader and Arafat, which had taken place on September 13, 1993. If this momentous event had taken place a bit earlier, surely they would have gotten the nod, Mandela mused. Rabin, Arafat and Shimon Peres received the prize the following year.

On April 27, 1994, Mandela won South Africa’s first free multiracial elections. On the first weekend following his victory, the president-elect decided to visit a church, a mosque and a synagogue. In his address to the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town, he called on Jewish expatriates to return to South Africa, albeit with the exception of “those Jews who left for their homeland” — Israel.

In May that year, both Arafat and Israeli president Ezer Weizman were invited to Mandela’s inauguration ceremony. Since the two leaders had never met, Mandela decided soon afterward to invite them to participate in his first official working meeting as president. After a short discussion, he took them to a separate room and asked them to “sit here and talk until you finalize everything,” according to Liel, who accompanied Weizman to the meeting. (Arafat came with his adviser Ahmed Tibi, now a member of Knesset.)

Ezer Weizman, right, chats with Nelson Mandela, May 9. 1994 (photo credit: Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO)
Ezer Weizman, right, chats with Nelson Mandela, May 9, 1994. (photo credit: Yaacov Sa’ar/GPO)

Mandela didn’t visit Israel during his presidency but agreed to receive, in South Africa, an honorary doctorate from Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University in 1997.

“The significance of Mandela’s acceptance of the honor should be seen in the context of how viscerally opposed many people even within his own party were to maintaining any kinds of friendly ties with Israel,” Saks wrote.

In October 1999, a few months after he concluded his presidency, Madiba finally came to Israel. He visited Rabin’s grave and Yad Vashem and met with newly elected prime minister Ehud Barak. Most of the hour-long meeting was devoted to the conflict with the Palestinians, with Mandela voicing his frustration about the failure of the Oslo process, according to Liel, who was present. Mandela offered to mediate between the two parties but Barak rejected that idea, arguing that because of Madiba’s close ties to Arafat, he could not serve as an honest broker.

After the meeting, Barak introduced Mandela to Barry Sidelsky — the son of his former boss — whom he had last seen decades ago. Sidelsky junior (who had since become an Israeli) and his close connection to Mandela naturally piqued the curiosity of the local media. “What do you think is Mandela’s greatness?” Channel 1’s anchorman asked Sidelsky during an interview. “In my opinion, the secret of his greatness is being considerate of all and remaining a humble person,” Sidelsky responded.

“These attributes have accompanied him along the long road he has taken.”

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