Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres were mistakenly named as being among the hundred heads of state present at the massive memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday.
Cyril Ramaphose, the deputy president of the ruling African National Congress, announced their names shortly after US President Barack Obama eulogized the late leader, much to the amusement of the Hebrew media, which had roundly condemned the absence.
The president and especially the prime minister also drew sharp criticism from the South African Jewish community for their noted absence from the service Tuesday, a day after they announced they would each be bowing out of the tribute, citing health reasons and financial reasons, respectively.
Israel was instead represented by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and a delegation of five Knesset members.
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.
Peres, 90 and recuperating from a bout of the flu, stayed home on his doctor’s advice.
South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein eulogized Mandela Tuesday at the memorial service, likening him to the biblical figure Joseph for his ability and willingness to forgive.
Goldstein recounted the story of Joseph, “the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham” who was thrown into a pit of snakes and scorpions by his jealous brothers and then sold into slavery.
“Joseph emerged from jail to become a leader and head of government of a mighty nation. He was reunited with his brothers and had the opportunity to exact vengeance and justice, and yet Joseph transcended his personal pain and his need for retribution by forgiving his brothers so that his family won’t be torn apart and destroyed forever,” Goldstein said to a crowd of thousands.
“Nelson Mandela, like the biblical Joseph, rose up from jail to become president of a mighty nation. He too transcended his personal pain.”
“Nelson Mandela spoke to our hearts, his mighty power of forgiveness sustained us… [it] saved our country from the pit of prejudice and injustice,” he added.
The chief rabbi also spoke of the strong connection the late president had with the Jewish community, and how he fought unceasingly for the values that form an integral part of the Jewish ethic: freedom, honor and self-respect.
President of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Zev Krengel said he felt “really part of history. A momentous moment! And wonderful to be with the Israeli delegation,” while SAJBD director Wendy Kahn commented: “It is a privilege to mourn with our fellow South Africans and to celebrate the life of a great leader. Hearing our chief rabbi deliver a prayer on behalf of South African Jewry makes us feel so included in this momentous occasion.”
Goldstein was the second to speak at the service after South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, who was booed by the crowd. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though the ANC, once led by Mandela, is the front-runner ahead of elections next year.
Obama gave an impassioned speech on Mandela’s legacy and passing, calling him the “last great liberator of the 20th century.”
“It is hard to eulogize any man — to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person — their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world,” said the president.
“It’s tempting to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon,” he said, adding that he “strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait.”
“Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t,” he went on. “He was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal.”
“It took a man like Madiba [Mandela’s tribal name] not just to free the prisoner, but the jailer as well.”
“South Africa, the world thanks you for sharing Mandela with us,” said the president.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said “South Africa has lost a hero,” adding that Mandela was one of the “greatest leaders” of our time.
“He hated hatred,” Ban said during his address to the crowd. “The United Nations stood side by side with Nelson Mandela” in the fight against apartheid, Ban added.
“Nelson Mandela showed us the way with a heart larger than this stadium,” Ban said, adding “a rainbow fills our hearts.”
Earlier Tuesday, leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community expressed disappointment with the fact that Israel was not represented by Peres or 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.
Rabbi Avrohom Vigler of Johannesburg’s Orange Grove Hebrew Congregation 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 Krengel 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 a concern and 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.
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.
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.
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.
Edelstein was accompanied by MKs Penina Tamanu-Shata (Yesh Atid), Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), Gila Gamliel (Likud), Hilik Bar (Labor), and Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid).
Bev Goldman and AP contributed to this report.