Forward Thinking

What Nelson Mandela Taught the Jewish World

By Yermi Brenner

  • Print
  • Share Share

Few people have had the impact on their community that Nelson Mandela had on the history of a continent. Often compared to Mohandas Gandhi or to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the South African leader demonstrated throughout his lifetime how compassion and forgiveness could go a long way in divided societies. Mandela’s legacy of peace offers vital lessons for the human race as a whole, and specifically for the Jewish world.

“He raised the moral imagination of humanity in terms of what was possible to do in order to change the world for the better, and was an extraordinary inspirational model for people involved in social justice work,” said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). “I think that struck a particularly strong cord with the Jewish community.”

In 1963, when Mandela was charged with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government, his defense team at the trial included attorney Nat Levy, a native of Cape Town. Despite the efforts of Levy and his colleagues, Mandela was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Levy, who immigrated to the U.S. in the late seventies and today lives in Houston, remembers how excited he was when Mandela was freed on February 2, 1990. The two renewed their acquaintance in 1993, when Mandela visited America to receive the Liberty Medal.

According to Levy, the South African leader’s actions after he got out of prison set an example that the leaders of Israel and the leaders of Israel’s neighbors should follow. Levy told the Forward:

I think what Mandela did for South Africa and for the world is to prove how attitudes can change a country for the better, and how that could potentially change situations in many parts of the worlds, including the Middle East. Levy pointed out that the fall of the apartheid regime could have led to massive bloodshed, if not for Mandela’s peaceful approach. “Until such time when political and religious leaders will change their attitude towards groups that are in opposition to them, I think we’ll continue to have problems.”

Israel’s approach to the prisoner-turned-president has changed as it shifted from support to condemnation of the apartheid regime. Alon Liel was based in South Africa during the late eighties and the early nineties, first as an advisor for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later as Israel’s ambassador in Pretoria. Liel met Mandela many times and thinks the most important aspect of the South African leader’s attitude was his desire to maintain a conversation with those who opposed him, and not disregard them.

“For many Jewish people, if somebody attacked them once, he’s erased. If they registered you as an enemy, you are an enemy forever,“ said Liel, noting Israel’s relation to former president Jimmy Carter as an example of his country’s mistreatment of those that criticize it. “But when somebody criticized [Mandela], he saw it as a challenge to convince that person and to turn things around. He never gave up. I think this is something that is very missing in the Israeli society and also in the character of many of the Jewish leaders in the U.S.”

For Jews who were born and raised in South Africa, Mandela was a sort of messiah.
Diana Aviv was born in Johannesburg and first learned about Mandela when she was in the Habonim youth movement. Not wanting to live under an apartheid regime, she emigrated to the United States and became a leading anti-apartheid activist. Aviv, who is currently president and CEO of Independent Sector (a network of America’s not-for-profits and foundations), suggests that from Mandela’s legacy, what is most important for today’s Jewish world is his unequivocal stance on discrimination.

“He believed that all people are equal and should be judged based on their humanity and not based on their religion or their race,” said Aviv, who met Mandela for the first time during his triumphal visit to the United States in June 1990, after his release from 27 years in prison.

Sharon Katz, born in Port Elizabeth, on the tip of the African continent, was also away from her home country when Mandela was released from prison. Her immediate reaction was to get on a plane and go home. Katz founded the Peace Train, a project that brought together hundreds of young black and white children for musical experiences and performances. She met Mandela for the first time when she was invited to sing on stage at his 75th birthday banquet in July 1994.

I talked with him about this desire that I have to bring all these children together and to load them on a train and to call it the peace train and he said “Go ahead, we need you to do this work because this is the embodiment of the idea of a non racial democracy that I have struggled for my entire life.”

In the following years, she performed in several pubic events in which the newly elected president vocalized his vision for the post-apartheid South Africa.

“Mandela would speak to the crowd for at least three hours, and he would explain why it is important to love one another, and why it is important to not to rise up violently in the streets and kill all white people,” Katz remembers, “Whenever I find myself as a human being having resentment, than I tell myself, you know what, if Mandela can [forgive], so can you.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sharon Katz, Nat Levy, Mandela, Habonim, Diana Aviv, Alon Liel, David Saperstein

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.