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News Analysis: Mandela’s Statements on the PLO Put Jewish Groups in a Quandary

June 25, 1990
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Nelson Mandela’s visit to the United States has become a moral and political quagmire for leaders of American Jewish organizations.

The deputy president of the African National Congress has received a hero’s welcome during his triumphant visit to this country, but his unwavering support for Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi has consistently troubled Jewish community leaders.

It was Mandela’s comments on ABC-TV’s “national town meeting” broadcast last Thursday evening that most upset Jewish leaders.

In response to a question, Mandela stated that he considered Arafat a “comrade in arms.” He defended his alliances by saying that his “attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle.”

Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, who was in the audience for the broadcast, expressed “profound disappointment” with Mandela’s reasoning.

Siegman said that it suggested “a certain degree of amorality” to ignore a leader’s human rights violations simply because that leader supports the African National Congress.

But Mandela stuck to his position, saying that black South Africans fighting for freedom “have no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries.”

The broadcast triggered a number of statements of criticism and disappointment from a range of mainstream Jewish organizations.


Mandela’s position was especially troubling to the groups that met with him in Geneva on June 10, in advance of his arrival in New York: the American Jewish Committee, AJCongress, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

For many of these groups, reacting to Mandela’s statements brought into conflict two of their basic missions: their role as community relations organizations, trying to promote positive black-Jewish dialogue, and their role as defense organizations, defending Jewish interests and the State of Israel when they are under attack.

“For those involved in community relations, Mandela presented some ambiguities and ambivalences,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director for American Jewish Committee.

The groups that took part in the Geneva meeting said they did not regret it, though all condemned Mandela’s latest comments.

Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, contended that the purpose of going to Geneva was to get a sense of where Mandela stood on Israel. The Jewish leaders learned he unequivocally supports the right of the Jewish state to exist.

Foxman said Mandela had not stated anything on the ABC broadcast that he had not said in Geneva. Both in Geneva and on television, the ANC leader praised the Jewish community’s role in the struggle against apartheid.

“We have been very much influenced by the lack of racialism amongst the Jewish communities,” he said, adding that he had resisted pressure from Gadhafi to bar Jewish participation in the ANC.

But the Jewish groups were troubled by Mandela’s apparent double standard, when he said he would not intervene in the internal affairs of other governments, while calling on Americans to take an active role in fighting apartheid.


Rudin observed that Mandela had been “a beneficiary of people caring about the internal affairs of the South African government.”

Foxman pointed out another “inconsistency” in Mandela’s position. If the South African leader’s policy is not to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations, “why all of a sudden define the borders of Israel?” Foxman asked.

Mandela has repeatedly expressed his strong opposition to the Israeli presence in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, saying these are “Arab lands.”

During his visit to the United Nations on Friday, Mandela was asked about his view of the 1975 U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism.

He replied, “It depends what is meant by Zionism. If Zionism means the right of Israel to occupy lands of other countries like the Golan Heights, West Bank, the Gaza Strip, then I condemn that. But if Zionism means the desire of the Jewish community to have their own state, then I support it.”

Israeli government officials here were publicly far less critical of Mandela than the American Jewish groups, choosing to play down their differences with him and focusing instead on his statements supporting Israel’s right to exist.

Johanan Bein, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said he has heard far more inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric from “leaders of great nations” than that coming from Mandela.

The Israeli government’s calm approach to Mandela’s statements suggest that it is Mandela’s effect on black-Jewish relations that has caused the intensity of the concern among the American Jewish groups.

Many were concerned over the largely young, black members of the ABC broadcast audience who cheered when Mandela defended Arafat and booed Siegman’s criticism of him.

Michael Miller, executive director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, called the audience reaction disquieting. “I hope that they were not applauding Mr. Arafat’s record of death and destruction,” he said.


Despite their repeated support of Mandela’s fight against apartheid, some Jewish leaders clearly fear they are in danger of looking like the spoilers at the ANC leader’s party.

According to a left-wing Jewish critic, that is just what they are. Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive journal Tikkun, accused “a handful of Jewish leaders” of making Mandela’s support for the PLO the “central focus” of his trip.

Most American Jews, he said in a statement to the press, “do not identify with Siegman or other Jewish leaders who are attempting to place opposition to the PLO in the middle of Mandela’s celebratory visit.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, Bronx Rabbi Avraham Weiss said he felt “vindicated” by Mandela’s pro-PLO remarks. Weiss had been roundly criticized for his decision to demonstrate during Mandela’s ticker-tape parade here.

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