WASHINGTON (JTA) — Nelson Mandela, the revolutionary South African leader who forged close ties with his country’s Jews in his fight to dismantle the apartheid regime, has died.
Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, was 95. The current president, Jacob Zuma, announced his death on Thursday.
Throughout his struggle against his apartheid, including 27 years imprisonment, Mandela found allies among that country’s Jewish community. “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice,” Mandela once wrote.
There were tensions between Mandela and the Jewish establishment over his African National Congress’ alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
After his election in 1994, however, Mandela sought out Jewish leaders and embraced them, making clear he saw a thriving Jewish community as essential to his country’s well being.
Mandela visited Israel and the Palestinian areas in 1999.
In both cases, he confronted and complimented his hosts, telling Israelis he sympathized with Palestinian aspirations for statehood, and Palestinians that he understood the fears of Israelis, considering years of Arab rhetoric that countenanced the elimination of Israel.
Jewish groups mourned his passing, with statements from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish World Service and B’nai B’rith International coming in the minutes after the announcement of his death.
“Nelson Mandela was a modern-day prophet for human dignity whose voice was heard around the world, and he inspired me and millions of other Jews with his message of equality for all,” Ruth Messinger, the AJWS president, said in a statement. “May his memory be a blessing.”