Like Mandela, we in Israel have fought for our liberation from colonialism. But the world Mandela inspires is far from accepting Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
By Ilan Baruch
On December 5th, South Africa and the world commemorated the passing away of Neslon Mandela, one of the most illustrious men in the history of modern times. In the duration of my tenure as Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Mandela was no longer playing a role in the political dynamics of the country, and ambassadorial courtesy visits to his office were nearly impossible. Thanks, however, to the extraordinary help of a prominent Jewish advocate in Johannesburg and his close confidant, such a meeting was afforded to my wife and I in May 2006. Needless to say we were overwhelmed when stepping into the offices of the most universally admired individual in our times. Upon entry, Zelda, his mythological Chief of Staff, responded to my whispered, diplomatic question: “Twenty-eight minutes, tight!”
The tall man received us in his usual batik and warm smile. Soon, the conversation flowed. Mandela opted for a conversation on Judaism, the Jewish nation and above all his sense of gratitude to the Jewish community in South Africa. He told us of his first employers, a Jewish Law firm in Johannesburg, where upon day one he was told “indoors we are all equal.” Then he told us of his bosses who suggested that he buys his daily lunch, for which they generously paid, in a certain eatery. When he asked about the bosses’ insistence, they answered: “the Jewish lady running it lost her husband recently and is in dire need of the income.” Reminiscing, Mandela said: “this kind of solidarity the Jews are entitled to be proud of and we need to learn from.” We felt very proud indeed.
Mandela liked us, and kindly refused Zelda’s explicit hints to round our meeting up. He told us of his political conversations in the infamous Robben Island prison, particularly with the younger leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) in custody with him. “They wanted to raise arms and fight for our freedom,” he said. “They thought I am an old man unable to take action at the expense of missed opportunities. But I argued with them.”
“When it comes to military power, Pretoria has the upper hand. When it comes to moral ground of universal justice, we the ANC have the upper hand. Ultimately, justice will prevail.” He looked at us smilingly and said: “Indeed, justice prevailed.”
We in Israel have fought for our liberation from colonialism as well. We are a shining triumph over evil powers of the old world. However, tragically the world Mandela inspires never accepted Israel in the pantheon of victory over colonialism. On the contrary, it is itself considered a colonial power, denying liberation to Palestine by means of entrenched occupation and military might.
Conspicuously, Israel failed to send a high powered delegation to Pretoria for the funeral. The pretext was the high cost of security arrangements required for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s overseas travels. However, Mandela was the standard bearer of liberty and dignity for all. We are a nation still bedeviled by the denial of liberty and dignity to our Palestinian neighbors, a nation about which Mandela was quoted saying “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
It is certain that in the coming years, streets, avenues and squares in the capital cities the world over will be named after Mandela. All but one: Jerusalem. Let us pray for a just peace that will allow a Mandela Square in our capital city as well.
Ilan Baruch, former Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, is currently actively involved in the Peace NGOs Forum.