In the nearly three decades that Nelson Mandela was a prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid regime, his reputation was clear — depending on which side of the nation’s black-white divide one stood.
To South Africa’s disempowered black majority, he was a hero, a defender of black freedom and dignity whose release from imprisonment was the first step to the nation’s political salvation.
To the all-powerful white minority, he was the ultimate villain, a terrorist whose release from bondage would bring a certain bloodbath.
In retrospect, the reputation and stature, following Mandela’s death last week at 95, has only grown, in the eyes of both black and white South Africans — and in the eyes of admirers around the world.
While leaders of South African Jewry mourned with their fellow citizens in the days after the death of the man popularly known as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name, and praised him as the force that kept the country together as it worked toward his goal of a “Rainbow Nation,” his standing among many Jews abroad remains more complicated. Because of his embrace of the Palestinian cause, because of his criticism of Israeli policies in its administered territories, Mandela built the reputation as being anti-Israel.
Not so, leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community protest.
But in an era when many representatives of Mandela’s African National Congress continue to make decidedly anti-Israel comments, the stain of being anti-Israel does not easily wash off. And when South African spokesmen who experienced apartheid apply that label to Israel, these comments carry particular force.
Mandela’s affinity with the Palestinians is understandable; he saw them as common “freedom fighters” who unabashedly took a stand against apartheid; he associated mostly with Jews who were alienated from Judaism or the Jewish community, and brought to their relationship negligible support for Israel. Most importantly, he was aware, as were all black South Africans, of the close political and military ties that Israel maintained with the South African government during the darkest days of apartheid.
Israel, which was often isolated and had few allies from whom to choose, clearly was no friend of South Africa’s blacks. They, Mandela among them, did not forget this.
After his release, Mandela forged close ties with South Africa’s Jewish community, particularly with the country’s late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, appearing at many Jewish events. Unlike such icons as Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, whose reputations as defenders of Jewish interests for spearheading the defeat of Nazi Germany have become subject to extensive historical revisionism in later years, Mandela had a mixed reputation in some Jewish circles while he lived. Unlike Pope John Paul II, who entered the papacy under the shadow of suspicion because he was a native of “anti-Semitic” Poland, but who became a pioneer in improving Jewish-Catholic relations, Mandela never stopped living under the cloud of “anti-Israel” accusations.
Mandela’s ties with Israel are a minor part of his legacy. His criticism of Israel, and his endorsement of the Palestinian position do not detract from how he will be recalled by history — as a man who united a divided nation, and deservedly became a symbol of the power of reconciliation.