JOHANNESBURG, Dec. 17 (JTA) – Cape Town’s new South African Jewish museum will play a vital role in ensuring that the Jewish contribution to the country’s liberation struggle will not be forgotten, former President Nelson Mandela said.
Mandela officially opened the museum at the Dec. 13 dedication ceremony. The museum was established with the help of the benefactor Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ governing board.
The museum, which includes interactive multimedia displays, traces the history of the local Jewish population and its contributions to South Africa.
A highlight is a reconstructed Lithuanian shtetl. Most South African Jews trace their roots to Lithuania.
“I want you to know that whatever differences we have, whatever quarrels, there is one thing we appreciate: the role that has been played by the Jewish community in this country,” Mandela said, addressing a crowd of several hundred that included Kaplan; Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; Albie Sachs, a Constitutional Court judge and former anti-apartheid activist; and opposition political leader Tony Leon.
“There was a time when no lawyer in this country was prepared to take our cases, when only Jewish lawyers would defend us,” Mandela said, referring to those who fought apartheid and aided Mandela’s then-outlawed African National Congress.
“Today we live in peace, and many people will have forgotten the role of the Jewish community,” he said. “They have also played a very important role in the economy of the country, and it’s a community which we respect and admire.”
Mandela also paid tribute to a veteran former legislator, Helen Suzman, for the “critical role she played in the struggle to defeat apartheid.”
Clasping her hand, he said, “I not only admire and respect you, I love you too.”
Mandela was presented with a gift made of Jerusalem stone, the material used in the construction of the museum.
Museum founder Kaplan said the inordinately high proportion of Jews involved in both developing South Africa and joining the struggle for democracy could be explained by the fact that Jews, too, had been victims of historical persecution.
He suggested that a further explanation could be found in the biblical injunction of Jeremiah to “seek the peace and the welfare of the country in which you live.”