Nelson Mandela will always be remembered as a symbol of resistance to the racist policies of apartheid South Africa. He was a true hero of conscience. But he also will always have a special place in the memory of the Jewish community.
I first met Mandela in Geneva in 1990 along with other American Jewish leaders. We spent 21⁄2 hours with the newly free African National Congress leader. It was a warm session with good feelings on all sides.
Mandela, who died last week at 95, understood far more than we anticipated about the Jewish experience. He expressed deep appreciation for the Jewish community of South Africa’s support for him during the long years of his imprisonment and expressed a desire to reciprocate that friendship.
Over the years, the Jewish community had not always seen eye to eye with Mandela. Many in the community were unhappy with his support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, and his embrace of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Another concern was that Mandela, in repeatedly referring to Israel as a “colonialist” regime, seemed to be questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the Jewish state. It was difficult for American Jewish leaders to consider joining in the welcome for this great freedom fighter without having a better understanding of his views toward Israel and the Jewish community.
There were concerns about how Mandela would be received on his first visit to the United States. Clearly, he was a hero to the African-American community. But for the Jewish and Cuban communities, it was a far different matter. The Cuban community was angry over his close ties to Castro, and the Jewish community had serious concerns because of his ties to Arafat.
The 1990 meeting was pivotal to clear the air and better understand the man. The encounter was magnificent in the sense that Mandela said to us, “Look, I appreciate what the Jewish community has done for me. On the other hand, if the test of my friendship with you is that I have to be an enemy of your enemy, then I cannot be your friend.”
Referring to his personal struggle and years of imprisonment, he said, “I needed the support of anybody I could get. And Arafat gave me support. And Castro gave me support.”
At the same time, Mandela understood that while Israel was being boycotted by most of the countries in the world, the white South African government was one of the few countries that was dealing with it. Mandela said he understood that relationship, too.
“I’m not angry at you and Israel because Israel was dealing with the apartheid South African government,” he told us. “Therefore, don’t be angry at me because I was dealing with Castro and Arafat. If you can understand that, we can go forward.”
This was quintessential Mandela. It was that kind of pragmatic approach to life and to relationships that really explains what he achieved with South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was not a matter of hatred, or of vengeance or getting even. It was a matter of addressing pragmatic, practical realities.
At our meeting, Mandela spoke not only of his unequivocal support for Israel’s right to exist but also of his profound respect for its leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. He also assured us that he supported Israel’s right to security and to protect itself from terrorism.
We came away with no doubt about his recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist endeavor and the right of the Jewish people to a state.
It was during that meeting that I first suggested that Mandela meet with Natan Sharansky. To the African-American community, Mandela was their prisoner of conscience. Sharansky was ours. I told Mandela that I believed it would be appropriate for them to meet and exchange their experiences and dialogue toward mutual understanding and common ground. He agreed, having read Sharansky’s Fear No Evil in prison.
Through the assistance of Harry Belafonte, we ultimately arranged the meeting, which took place on June 29, 1990, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
It was an emotional meeting between the two prisoners of conscience and a poignant moment for the African-American and Jewish communities. We embraced two of our heroes. When I look back on my life’s accomplishments, that moment was among the most deeply meaningful and personally significant.
Nelson Mandela’s strength of character, commitment to justice and abiding passionate belief in the commonality that binds all humanity are the touchstones of every great leader. He will long be remembered in the Jewish community, both for his legacy of ending apartheid and building a free and democratic South Africa, and for maintaining close ties of friendship to Israel and the Jewish community.
Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.