Mandela to Meet with Jewish Groups on Eve of Visit to United States
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Mandela to Meet with Jewish Groups on Eve of Visit to United States

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South African leader Nelson Mandela is scheduled to meet privately in Geneva on Sunday with representatives of the organized American Jewish community, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has learned.

The planned meeting is the culmination of months-long diplomatic efforts by national Jewish groups and the New York Jewish community aimed at asking Mandela to issue a clarification of his views on Israel before his scheduled arrival here June 20.

“There has been continuing dialogue between the Jewish community and people in the anti-apartheid movement in the city and people involved with the African National Congress,” said Herbert Block, New York Mayor David Dinkins’ liaison to the Jewish community.

Since Mandela’s release from prison, there has been great distress in the Jewish community worldwide regarding his harsh statements on Israel.

The African National Congress leader has repeatedly equated the nationalist struggle of black South Africans with the Palestinian struggle, and has been photographed at least twice embracing Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.


A clarification from the South African leader would make it a great deal easier for the Jewish community to take part in celebrating Mandela’s fight against apartheid, an effort in which many Jewish groups have been active.

Sources close to the meeting confirmed that participants will include Robert Lifton and Henry Siegman, president and executive director respectively of the American Jewish Congress; Al Vorspan, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Herbert Wander of Chicago, chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council’s Committee against apartheid, as well as an as-yet unnamed representative from the American Jewish Committee.

A source said that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith have also been invited to participate in the meeting. He said that the ADL has officially accepted their invitation, though the Conference of Presidents has not yet responded.

Neither ADL national director Abraham Foxman nor officials from the conference of Presidents would comment on their plans.

Efforts to elicit a clarification from Mandela have stemmed from ongoing dialogue between black and Jewish groups, but have been fueled recently by concern over the current atmosphere of racial tension in New York.

Jewish leaders are aware, along with Dinkins, that any action against a revered figure like Mandela could break open wounds with the black community here which would be slow to heal.

Mayor David Dinkins, the first African-American leader of the city, does not want Mandela’s visit to be marred by demonstrations by Jews, or for Jews to be conspicuous by their absence in the celebration.

The Jewish community has been actively supporting Dinkins’ efforts at reconciliation, and have praised his strong stand in favor of a state law against bias crimes.

“We want this to be harmonious event,” Block said. “We want the Jewish community to be participating and we don’t want this to lead to greater tensions in the city.”

Dinkins sent a message to the Jewish community against verbally attacking the South African leader when he said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee last month that both blacks and Jews should avoid “attacks on the symbols that are at the heart of our identity.”

Mandela, he said, is such a symbol.

“To supporters of a free South Africa, he is Martin Luther King, he is Moses — the leader and liberator — and his visit to our city will be a celebration,” Dinkins told the AJCommittee luncheon.

But even if a clarification is offered by Mandela, there are still elements in the Jewish community which have vowed to mount protests against Mandela.

Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, who led a demonstration against South African Bishop Desmond Tutu at Dinkins’ inauguration, said he will definitely protest Mandela, whether or not a clarification is offered.

Just as “I will not march with anyone anti-black,” Weiss said, he would not expect Dinkins to march with Mandela, who had so deeply offended Jews.

But the larger and more mainstream Jewish organizations in New York appear to be more flexible on the issue, more eager to show strong support for Dinkins in light of his public struggle to restore racial harmony in the city.

“We trust that through various channels, Mr. Mandela will in fact reorient his views and state unequivocally that Israel has a right to exist as well as other comments that he might make which would set many of the concerns and fears at rest,” said Michael Miller, executive director of New York Jewish Community Relations Council.

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