Your Editorial, “The Mandela Legacy” (Dec. 13), misunderstands Mandela’s Israel relationship, and misinterprets the reasons for South African Jewry’s support for him on this issue.
Soon after Mandela was released there was a famous picture of him hugging Yasir Arafat that sent shivers down the spines of South African Jewry. After his release in December 1990, when the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and Zionist Federation delegation first met with Mandela at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, the major item on the agenda was the relationship of the African National Congress (ANC) to Israel.
The delegation from the SAJBD presented Mandela and the ANC delegation with a reasoned geopolitical and religious-based argument on the South African relationship with Israel from the perspective of the Jewish community. It was a frank and open discussion on both sides. Mandela raised the issue of arms supplied by the Israelis during the struggle, and the implications of it on the struggle.
In the end, a statement approved by Mandela said, in part: “The ANC recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure boundaries.” It was a major achievement for South African Jewry. Indeed, the following year, he accepted the invitation to be the guest speaker at the SAJBD national congress. These were the first steps that were taken by South African Jewry to build the extraordinary warm relationship with Mandela that would last throughout his lifetime.
One may well question whether Mandela saw this policy as pragmatic and part of his overall reconciliation agenda. However, he issued this statement when he was not at the peak of his power, and in spite of major resistance and criticism by elements in the party. At the end of the day, that statement was set as ANC policy, and Mandela supported it throughout his presidency, and so did his successor, Thabo Mbeki.
Mandela had to “dance a fine line” on his Israel’s policies. At times, he was certainly irritated by Israel’s courses of action, and he expressed himself in no uncertain terms, as he did on many other issues. However, he was not anti-Israel, but members of the party definitely were, and are still so today.
National Director, South African Board of Deputies, 1990-1999