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The deep and abiding extent to which Mandela was influenced by Jews is told in “Jewish Memories of Mandela,” a richly illustrated volume published late last year by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and written by David Saks, the organization’s associate director. One is almost overwhelmed by the number of Jews who played prominent roles in Mandela’s life and in the broader anti-apartheid movement, far exceeding their minuscule proportion of the South African population. For instance, Saks reports that in the 1950s, more than half of the white anti-apartheid activists in Johannesburg were Jews. Mandela’s first job as a young law clerk came at the behest of Jewish attorney Lazar Sidelsky, who, Mandela wrote, was “the first white man who treated me as a human being.” Working with Sidelsky was but the beginning of a life filled with relationships, leading Mandela to conclude, in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”
Every one of the whites arrested in a 1963 police raid of an ANC hideout — which would later lead to the trial in which Mandela was sentenced to life in prison — was Jewish. The defense counsel in the case who saved Mandela from a death sentence, Israel Maisels, was Jewish, as too, however, was the prosecutor, the first Jewish South African attorney general, Percy Yutar. The latter’s role underscores how the personal involvement of so many Jewish individuals in anti-apartheid politics should not be mistaken for widespread, organized Jewish opposition to white minority rule. “Regretfully,” Saks writes, “the Jewish association with Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle as a whole prior to 1990 did not extend to the mainstream Jewish leadership, which controversially chose instead to adopt a position of strict non-involvement in political affairs.”
Mandela’s experience in negotiating a relatively peaceful transition with the men who jailed him for 27 years led him to think that Israel’s enemies could be handled in a similar fashion. “Time and again, he would tell me, ‘Let me mediate in the Middle East,’” Sally Krok, a Jewish philanthropist who befriended Mandela in the post-apartheid period, told Saks. “There is no reason why I should not be friends with your enemies.” Mandela did not visit Israel until 1999, after he left office, having rejected four official invitations during his presidency. There, he said that he understood Israel’s need “for Arab recognition of its existence within secure boundaries,” and that disarmament prior to such recognition would be “foolhardy.”
Mandela’s chumminess with various autocrats (“I did not save your life at the Treason Trial so that you could associate with Israel’s enemies,” Maisels once told Mandela, scolding him after his release from prison) and his occasionally unfair criticisms of Israel are lamentable. But they are tepid in comparison with the bile emitted by today’s ANC. Perhaps Mandela’s views on the Middle East were situational; his entire presidential tenure coincided with the Oslo process, which, in Saks’s words, “did much to soften the ANC’s traditionally hostile stance towards Israel.” But the ANC’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and legitimization of an organization like Hamas are simply beneath the man. Never in his long career did Mandela ever descend to anything like the anti-Semitism of his colleague Desmond Tutu. On the contrary. “I owe a debt of honor to the Jews, even if sometimes I have made restrained remarks about Israel,” Mandela said in 1999.
Attempts to appraise the anti-apartheid and Palestinian national movements as morally equivalent are self-discrediting. The Hamas Covenant, the terror organization’s 1988 founding document, is not the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s 1955 manifesto. “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious” is not “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” Yasser Arafat was not Nelson Mandela. The last is a particularly abominable comparison, and to even suggest it does nothing but dishonor the world’s most admired man.
James Kirchick, a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a contributing editor for The New Republic and has reported from South Africa.