Guest Post: RIP Nelson Mandela

This is a guest post by frequent commenter and contributor Brian Goldfarb

Just a few words of introduction: I feel very ambivalent about Nelson Mandela (see the rest of this post for an explanation) and didn’t know how to approach the matter of his life or his death. Brian’s post introduced me to a side of Mandela that I didn’t know.

Nelson Mandela in 2008

Ben Cohen, who wrote a moving tribute to Norman Geras (Norm of Normblog) just a few weeks ago, has now written a most perceptive remembrance of Nelson Mandela on 5 December, the day he died, in The Algemeiner. Before quoting some of that, I’d like to add my own memories of Mandela.

Early on, Cohen remembers where he was when Mandela walked free from prison (remember the title of his autobiography: “No Easy Walk to Freedom“). Well, we watched it on television at home, and then listened on the radio. I remember being astounded when the radio commentator expressed  surprise, not to say astonishment, when Mandela got out of his car and walked out of the prison gates (look back at the title of the autobiography).

I am old enough to have been a student with a poster remembering the Sharpeville Massacre (those reading this aged less than 30 may need to Google that) on my wall, as well as other anti-apartheid posters thereon. Indeed, the Sharpeville massacre was the final straw in creating my own personal boycott of South African goods (from then – in 1960, two years before I became a university student – until 1991, when Mandela was released from prison), and I can remember when Mandela and his comrades were sentenced to jail for “treason”. Just imagine it, being called a traitor for demanding equal treatment, indeed freedom, for your people: difficult for those under 40, perhaps even for those under 50 (sorry, I’m trying not to be a reverse ageist here, but you have to have been there, in the 60s and 70s to understand this): we saw it unfold and wondered at the stupidity of the Afrikaaner South Africans – not difficult, they did appear to have a problem in coming to terms with the modern world.

I remember thinking, when the apartheid regime (the real one: the one at the tip of the African continent) sentenced him to life imprisonment that maybe, just maybe, they had avoided the obvious risk of creating a martyr. It turned out that that they had, instead, created the only avenue of escape from the corner they were painting themselves into, even it did take 27 painful years to become a reality.

I also remember Steve Biko, effectively beaten to death, who might otherwise have been one of the contenders for the succession to Mandela as President. And I also remember that other far right whites killed another likely (and potentially great) successor to Mandela: Chris Hani, leaving only, sadly, mediocre people to succeed Mandela.

But I also remember that many of Mandela’s comrades were Jews: I remember Joe Slovo, who survived to become Housing Minister in the Rainbow Nation, before succumbing to cancer; I remember Ruth First, his wife, assassinated by BOSS (the South African Bureau of State Security) with a parcel bomb when she had been exiled to Mozambique; I remember Benjamin Pogrund, anti-apartheid fighter who, having made aliyah, now rejects the equation of Israel=apartheid; and I remember Arthur Goldreich, of whom Cohen says:

“[Mandela] recalls that he learned about guerilla warfare not from Fidel Castro, but from Arthur Goldreich, a South African Jew who fought with the Palmach during Israel’s War of Independence.” Further, Mandela “relates the anecdote that the only airline willing to fly his friend, Walter Sisulu, to Europe without a passport was Israel’s own El Al.”

Of course, many of these Jews were Stalinists (such as Joe Slovo and the viciously anti-Israel Ronnie Kasrils). To understand their position (if it’s possible to do that), I would remind readers of the book by Colin Shindler “Israel & The Left“, mentioned in my report on London’s Jewish Book Week, 2012, on this blog.

On the other hand, there are those non-Stalinists Jews, such as Albie Sachs, who lost an arm and an eye to the struggle, and the Jewish lawyers who took Mandela on as an articled clerk, when this just wasn’t done. This enabled Mandela to complete his qualifications and become an accredited lawyer of the South African system. Just as we all know that there are anti-Zionist Jews (would we condemn all Haredi Jews just because of Naturei Kartura? I hope not), similarly, we shouldn’t condemn all anti-apartheid South African Jews because of those who were and are anti-Zionist (and by implication, cast doubts on Mandela’s own philo-semitism and support for Israel).

Furthermore, for anyone who still wants to believe that Mandela was an anti-Zionist, Cohen goes on to say (re Mandela autobiography) that

“the ultimate smoking gun — the equation of Israel’s democracy with apartheid — doesn’t exist.”

There is more. Cohen goes on to note that:

“Mandela once wrote that Jews, in his experience, were far more sensitive about race because of their own history. Now, it is absolutely true that there are parallels between the oppression suffered by South African blacks under racist white rulers, and Jews living under hostile non-Jewish rulers. The notorious Group Areas Act, which restricted black residency rights, brings to mind the enforced separation of Jews into the “Pale of Settlement” by the Russian Empress Catherine in 1791. Many of the other apartheid regulations, like the ban on sexual relationships between whites and blacks, carried echoes of the Nazi Nuremburg Laws of 1935.”

Indeed, whatever their political orientation, Jews are noted for their respect for human rights, both for themselves and their fellow Jews and, just as importantly, for others, having their own flouted so often. Why else create Israel as  parliamentary democracy?

All this culminates in Cohen noting that:

“Mandela’s diagnosis was that Africans should be the sovereigns of their own destiny. Similarly, the founders of Zionism wanted nothing less for the Jews.”

That is, Nelson Mandela was not only did not oppose Zionism and the idea of self-determination for Jews (i.e., a state of their own), he also recognised that South African Jews had played a great part in the fight for equality in South Africa, out of a conviction that, as the American Declaration of Independence has it, “All [people] are created equal”.

Regrettably, it may be a long time before we look upon his like again.

There is more. It deserves to be read, closely.


Anne adds:

Brian, thank you very much for this appreciation of Mandela’s life and political legacy. As I wrote in my introduction, I have always been ambivalent about the man because of his approach to Israel and Zionism, at least as was represented in the media, but Ben Cohen explains this in his article:

[…] his understanding of nationalism bears a close resemblance to the national movements that surfaced in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, including Zionism.

This latter point is important because there is a widespread misapprehension that Mandela was an opponent of Zionism and Israel. In part, that’s because a mischievous letter linking Israel with apartheid, purportedly written by Mandela, went viral on the Internet (in fact, the real author was a Palestinian activist named Arjan el Fassed, who later claimed that his fabrication nevertheless reflected Mandela’s true feelings.) Yet it’s also true that, in the Cold War conditions of the time, the ANC’s main allies alongside the Soviets were Arab and third-world dictators like Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. The confusion is further stirred by the enthusiasm of some of Mandela’s comrades, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to share the South African franchise on the word “apartheid” with the Palestinians.

But those activists who want to make the Palestinian cause the 21st-century equivalent of the movement that opposed South African apartheid in the 20th century will—assuming they conform to basic standards of honesty—find it very difficult to invoke Mandela as support. Mandela’s memoirs are full of positive references to Jews and even Israel.

As Brian recommends, read it all.

A fascinating insight into life as a Jew in Apartheid South Africa, and how he experienced the moment that Mandela walked free is written by Amir Mizroch in Tablet Magazine:

Mandela existed on the complete opposite end of the spectrum of history and myth. He led South Africa’s blacks to freedom from the Afrikaners whom Kruger had liberated from the British. Nelson Mandela wanted South Africa to be free of racism—a Rainbow Nation for all the world to behold and emulate. He knew that for this miracle to work, he could not imprison the whites that had imprisoned the blacks, and him among them. But in Krugersdorp, there were many who didn’t believe Mandela’s message of reconciliation then; and there are still many—whites, blacks, and “coloreds,” as mixed-race South Africans are still known—who have now lost faith in the hope that he offered. South Africa may not have racist legislation anymore, but that doesn’t mean there’s no racism in South Africa today. There is. In all directions.


Racism would not be answered with racism, he said, thus cementing himself in the pantheon of history’s great men; men who ended slavery and exile and gave birth to nations, like Lincoln, like Gandhi, like Ben Gurion. It was the right thing to say at the right time in history, and Mandela was the right man at the right time at the right place. The country would embark on a long, painful process, and there were no guarantees. There was only Mandela’s presence.


The poor whites of Krugersdorp have joined the tens of millions of poor blacks whom the ANC has been unwilling and unable to lift out of the slavery of poverty.

Much of that has to do with the ANC itself: Instead of growing up from its days as a revolutionary resistance movement into a mature, inclusive, and responsible organization, it has monopolized and abused power and become synonymous with corruption and cronyism.


In South Africa, the police, like the ANC, are the problem, not the solution. And if a country’s health can be measured by the number of private security companies it has, South Africa is a very, very sick country indeed.

But I am still hopeful for its future. There are signs of hope; as there are examples of good governance, and good governors. But they are too few and far between. I keep searching for a Mandela among them. But there does not appear to be any leader in South Africa today to take up Mandela’s mantle. Perhaps Mandela’s passing will be another one of those moments where the entire country drops whatever it’s doing and looks in the same direction. The moment can be a reset; a reminder of the path still to be taken; an alarm bell for the ANC to stop blaming apartheid and get on with it.

Mizroch vividly brings to life how it felt to be living in Apartheid South Africa and the period immediately afterwards. It is a very worthwhile read, highly recommended.

Regarding Mandela’s dichotomous relationship with Israel and Zionism, the JTA has published a list of links from its archives recording this relationship, starting from 1985. One gets the impression he had no problem at all with Jews, but Israel as a country was another story.

However, to further confuse us, Raheem Kassam at Trending Central brings us a couple of quotes from Nelson Mandela fully supporting Israel and its actions:

A quote that harnesses the truth behind why Israel is so rightly nervous about its security and its neighbours. He said:

I understand completely well why Israel occupies these lands. There was a war.

And further to that, which will really stick in the mouths of the revisionists, Mandela said:

I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders.

Here was a man who laid a wreath on the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, and warmly greeted his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei by claiming, “We are indebted to the Islamic Revolution”. But at the same time, he clearly understood the need for a secure Israel – and more than that, could not even conceive of military compromises without the requisite admissions and acceptances by her neighbours.

Nelson Mandela was a man of many contradictions. His attitude towards Israel was ambivalent and contradictory, yet no one can deny the revolution that he brought to South Africa. If only his ANC comrades would have learned the right lessons from him.

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7 Responses to Guest Post: RIP Nelson Mandela

  1. PeteCA says:

    yes – the world did love Nelson Mandela. And he really did live a “life worth living”.

    it is a shame that S. African politics have been so complex after Mandela’s rise to power. Yes, the ANC has been embivalent to Israel – and perhaps biased against it. But far more problematic was their “tolerance” of very serious crimes against whites in S. Africa when the new regime took over. The thinking was that white people “deserved” to experience some of the same horrors on the street that black people had experienced for so long. But it was a mistake to allow the violence to magnify unchecked … because now S. Africa does not seem to be able to rein it in. South Africa is now really struggling to move towards that “dream of opportunity and freedom” that seemed so powerful when Mandela changed things. They need a new Mandela – but seem unable to re-create someone with the same vision and charisma.
    Pete, USA

  2. Brian Goldfarb says:

    I’d like to add some information to what I’ve already posted. When I was in (selective) secondary education – a boys’ grammar school – some 10% of the school population were Jewish: it was an affluent North-West London suburb. We had our own morning assembly (so we didn’t attend the Christian Assembly). This assembly was taken by a local rabbi, Cyril Harris, who went on to become Chief Rabbi of South Africa. At the time, as a good left wing anti-racist, I did wonder how he could do that.

    However, being a conventional Orthodox (i.e., middle of the road) Rabbi, he was most definitely a Zionist. He went on to become a friend of Mandela’s, which wouldn’t have happened if Mandela had been an anti-Zionist or in any way against the existence of Israel – which didn’t, of course, mean that he wouldn’t, quite legitimately, criticise Israel.

    Additional evidence to go with that has been assembled by all those quoted above.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thanks for that additional background Brian. I think I’ve figured out which school you went to. 🙂

      Re Mandela himself, as you say, he wasn’t an anti-Zionist. The problem arose with his questionable associates, particularly the PLO. Then again, as you wrote in your piece, he was a man of contradictions.

  3. DavidinPT says:

    It’s worth looking at this link for a different viewpoint on the Mandela legacy and how it (doesn’t) affect(s) the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

    • anneinpt says:

      Wow! Thank you for that extremely interesting link. What a different picture it paints of the Mandela legacy.

      • Brian Goldfarb says:

        Agreed, but we shouldn’t conflate the Mandela Institute and its sorry surrender to the man himself. That would be the equivalent, I suggest, to blaming Mandela for Ronnie Kasrils.

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