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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Statements made by Mandela that likened the anti-apartheid struggle to the Palestinian struggle needed to be taken seriously but should not be allowed to spoil relations that might prove critical in the near future.

Since becoming President, Mandela openly embraced countries that were loyal to him during his long exile, such as Cuba, Iran, and Libya. The support of countries that were opposed to Western interests — some would go so far as to describe them as world pariahs — began to have a negative impact, especially on Jews, who were sensitive to the policies of these countries.

For example, in late 1997 Mandela visited Libya and opposed the sanctions that had been imposed against Libya after the 1988 Lockerbie Pam Am Flight 103 explosion. Particularly galling to many observers was that Mandela hugged and kissed Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi exclaiming, “My brother leader, my brother leader.”

Although Mandela is viewed almost universally as a saint, actions like these aggravated many white South Africans, in particular South African Jews. In fact, when they were able to speak frankly, many Jews told me they were less than pleased with the Mandela government’s priorities.

Yvonne Lewin, one of my congregants in Cape Town, wrote me in November 1997, “The country continues to deteriorate into a Third World nation in so many ways, and it breaks my heart when I think of my beloved South Africa and Cape Town. Mandela is not interested in the slightest in helping to bring crime and violence under control — he’s far too busy poking his nose into every other country’s affairs and cozying up to the likes of Gadaffi and Castro. And now he wants to get involved with Iraq. And for this we are all supposed to get down on our knees and worship him?”

As president of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela accomplished a great deal. Notably, he kept the country together during a time when it could have splintered into factions, opening the way for civil war and/or mass slaughter. This is due in part to his personal generosity of spirit and in part to his incredible charisma. He was a genuine political genius who truly believed in what he preached. Mandela was a model of loyalty and faithfulness. But no one can be all good and no one can represent what he sees as the vital interests of one group without threatening other groups. We have to understand the duality in his thought in order to truly appreciate Nelson Mandela the man rather than some iconic image that represents myth rather than reality.

Dana Evan Kaplan is the rabbi of the United Congregation of Israelites, in Kingston, Jamaica, and former rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Albany, Ga. His forthcoming work is “The New Reform Judaism,” to be published by the Jewish Publication Society in the fall.


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