There were few 20th-century journeys as inspiring as Nelson Mandela’s. Heir to a tribal throne, he opted instead for the life of a lawyer and activist, fighting for the rights of blacks in South Africa with a combination of conscience, diplomacy, and, when necessary, violence. He spent 27 years in jail for daring to challenge his country’s apartheid regime, yet managed to remain a living symbol of the movement despite his isolation. When he emerged from prison at age 71 and was elected president of a free democratic South Africa four years later, it seemed an almost impossible upheaval of all expectations.
Liberal South African Jews played a central role in this drama, as lawyers, advisers, and supporters. Mandela was grateful for this support, and told Jewish leaders he hoped to reciprocate that friendship and appreciation. And yet he also disappointed many Jews when he embraced Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and their critique of Israel’s “colonialist” regime. Mandela had a soft spot for other dissidents, no matter how questionable their tactics, and perhaps some distrust for an Israeli government that had maintained, out of expediency, economic ties with the white government. “I’m not angry at you and Israel because Israel was dealing with the apartheid South African government,” he told Jewish leaders in 1990. “Therefore, don’t be angry at me because I was dealing with Castro and Arafat. If you can understand that, we can go forward.”
Mandela and Jewish leaders did go forward, most famously when he met with former prisoner of conscience Natan Sharansky.
Sometimes we demand perfection from our friends, especially when it comes to Israel. So it is testament to Mandela’s character that he largely won over the Jewish community through the force of his personality, the courage with which he fought for justice, and his patience in realizing his dream of one person, one vote. And perhaps, despite his death last week at age 95, a part of Mandela will live on should historic antagonists in the Middle East look past old wounds and fears and figure out a way to move forward in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.