This past week we had the passing of one of the almost universally admired figures of the twentieth century, Nelson Mandela. Even those who opposed his movement's goal of dismantling the apartheid regime came to develop a grudging admiration for the peacemaker who brought whites and blacks together and helped South Africa avoid both, a bloody civil war as well as a mass exodus of the white population. Because of his historical stature, what Nelson Mandela said or did will come under close scrutiny by many in search of the snippets to support their own causes by piggybacking on the shoulders of a giant.
Nelson Mandela was a socialist who supported National Liberation Movements but was indeed inspired by the political figures of the west such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a fact he openly admitted in his autobiography. While surrounded by pro-Soviet communists in his own movement, he remained committed to the ideals of western democracy and to African Nationalism.
When it comes to Israel, he looked at the Jews with admiration and as fellow travelers. Ben Cohen, a reporter by JNS, summarized it better than I ever could, so I'm quoting him:
...”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. He 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. He 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. And the ultimate smoking gun—the equation of Israel’s democracy with apartheid—doesn’t exist”
All this is based on Mandela's own words in his autobiography. So as in a move, when we construct the historical image of Nelson Mandela, it is important to toss what is invented and keep what it is real.
And as with moves and historical figures, so it is with a community's history. The moving of the Federation offices is but one more happening in a long series of changes in our community over the last year and a half. The community as it exists today is not the community of two years ago. But people do have a tendency to idealize the past and by contrast question the present or the future. Change, however, as Einstein once said, is the only constant in the Universe. It is important to understand that the community of today, while different from the one of yesteryear, is as full of opportunities and options.
As we move into the future, we can look at some difficult situations in Israel related both, to the Iranian situation as well as the general turmoil in the Middle East; but we can also look forward to Israel continuing to be at the forefront of scientific and technological achievements, as well as being the only functioning democracy in a neighborhood of bullies and fanatics who oppress or even kill their own people.
As we move into the future, some of the institutions which were, are no more – but new initiatives have been developed to address the needs of our Jewish community, and the Federation has played a leading role in this transformation; something we can take pride on.
As we move into the future, the wellbeing of many Jewish communities around the world will again be in jeopardy; but in contrast with 1933, today those Jews have the option to move to the Nation State of the Jewish people, where Israel, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, the JDC, and the Federation movement, will do its best to help them build a new, free live as Jews.
The past is what has already be done and cannot be changed; the present is defined by the choices we make today; the future – continue to be full of possibilities, and waiting for us to explore it.