The 2 Sides of Nelson Mandela

Iconic Figure Not Always Perfect Leader — Especially for Jews

Two Sides: Nelson Mandela greets supporters after being freed from prison in 1990. Despite his status as a beloved icon of democracy, Mandela also had some moments when he made Jews uncomfortable.
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Two Sides: Nelson Mandela greets supporters after being freed from prison in 1990. Despite his status as a beloved icon of democracy, Mandela also had some moments when he made Jews uncomfortable.

By Dana Evan Kaplan

Published July 08, 2013.
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So the idyllic image of the pacifist Mandela who preached love 24/7 was never entirely true. The Jewish community’s attitude toward and interactions with Mandela were much more mixed, depending on whether he was showing his moderate or his radical side. Some of his actions inspired respect, while others have generated suspicion and fear.

Certainly, relations looked good from the outside. In the early stages of its creation, the Jewish community joined with most of the rest of the country to support the new government. When Mandela was inaugurated on May 10, 1994, Orthodox Chief Rabbi Cyril K. Harris was one of four spiritual leaders to deliver a prayer. This was the first time in the history of the country any non-Christian faith had been recognized at this sort of ceremony. Everyone in the Jewish community was proud.

However, Mandela’s radical side made South African Jews apprehensive. For example, just two-and-a-half weeks after his release from prison, on February 28, 1990, Mandela, the obvious leading candidate to be leader of the new, nonracial South Africa, met PLO leader Yassir Arafat in Lusaka, Zambia. Mandela gave Arafat a huge hug, the photo of which was printed on the front page of all the South African papers.

This was long before Arafat had made a political agreement with the Israelis; in fact, in 1990 he was regarded by most Jews around the world as a totally unreconstituted terrorist. To make it worse, the next day, when a reporter asked Mandela for his response to the fact that his meeting with Arafat and his equating of the struggle of Palestinians with that of the blacks in South Africa might alienate South Africa’s Jewish community, he responded that this would be “too bad.”

The episode made Jews in South Africa, and around the world nervous. Over time the view of Mandela’s action has been colored by the PLO becoming a more legitimate organization and by Arafat dealing with the Israelis. Mandela’s policies had not changed, but the PLO had changed dramatically, at least in how it came to be perceived by the mainstream Jewish community, which reduced the discomfort felt by the Jewish community of South Africa because of his foreign policy.

Following this 1990 incident, Harris appealed to South African Jews not to let one picture of Nelson Mandela hugging Yassir Araft put them off; he called for a sense of balance. Harris was speaking before two thousand Jews at a meeting at the Schoonder Street Synagogue in Cape Town, held in response to the recent burning of the Israeli flag by the right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner resistance movement, AWB). Harris said that the AWB did not represent white opinion but was a “fanatical fringe,” adding that Jews should not become too hysterical at what the AWB said or did because the AWB would never lead the government of South Africa, but in five or ten years the ANC might very well be the government.

“We should be very careful not to close the door on the ANC or any genuine black African group,” he said.


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