From the Archive: Nelson Mandela and the Jews


Mandela, Mandela Jews, Mandela synagouge

A look at of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with the Jewish community, as seen through the JTA Archive.

Timeline:  Nelson Mandela and the Jews

April 2, 1985 – Black-Jewish Freedom Seders, co-sponsored by the Reform movement’s UAHC and the NAACP, honor jailed Soviet and African dissidents, including Natan Sharansky and Nelson Mandela.

February 11, 1986 – Natan Sharansky released from Soviet prison. Two days later, JTA reports that in 1984, the South African government rejected a proposed prisoner exchange that would have freed both Mandela and Sharansky. Sharansky also comments on his hope that Mandela’s freedom will be secured.

February 17, 1986 – Irwin Cotler, human rights lawyer representing Sharansky and Mandela, et al. (and eventual Canadian Member of Parliament) “announces an international council of lawyers who will ‘work relentlessly for the release of all the Shcharanskys and Mandelas now rotting in various prisons in the USSR and South Africa.'”

March 7, 1986 – In a cable, B’nai B’rith leader Gerald Kraft calls on South African President P.W. Botha to release Mandela. 

December 10, 1986 – Accepting the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Elie Wiesel refers to the imprisonment of Mandela, internal exile of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, and the denial of polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa’s freedom of speech a “disgrace” of equal magnitude.

February 2, 1990 – Following a speech by President F.W. de Klerk, in which Mandela’s release from prison was promised, the Jewish community in South Africa is hopeful for political reform.

February 11, 1990 –  Nelson Mandela freed from prison, four years to the day after Sharansky. World Jewry “reacts with elation

February 27, 1990 – Mandela raises eyebrows in when he embraces PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Lusaka, Zambia, likening the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the struggle against South African apartheid. “If the truth alienates the powerful Jewish community in South Africa, that’s too bad,” says Mandela.

June 10, 1990 – Prior to a U.S. visit, Mandela meets with American Jewish leaders in Geneva, apologizing for previous statements that may have offended Jewish groups. The meeting, described as “warm, friendly and cordial,” reportedly played a role in preempting American Jewish protests against the African National Congress leader.

June 20, 1990 – Mandela welcomed by most U.S. Jewish groups. The following night, in a nationally televised program on ABC, he refers to Arafat as a “comrade in arms,” leaving Jewish groups in a bind. On June 29,  Sharansky meets with Mandela for the first time in Los Angeles, but fails to sway the latter on the PLO.

July 1, 1990 – South Eastern Hebrew Center in Rosettenville, a Johannesburg synagogue and school, is bombed and defaced with graffiti in the early morning with no injuries reported. Jewish leaders attribute the attack to scapegoating by right-wing nationialist groups, who oppose the community’s support for the anti-apartheid movement.
September 14, 1990 – Despite numerous death threats, a Reform rabbi in Johannesburg goes forward with his plan to invite Mandela to speak at his synagogue. “Addressing the Reform congregation, the yarmulka-clad Mandela said, “If Zionism means the right of the Jewish people to seize territory and deny the Palestinian people the right to self-determination, we condemn it.”
October 24, 1990 – Mandela arouses the anger of Australian Jewish groups upon his arrival in Canberra, likening Israel to a “terrorist state” and accusing her of “slaughtering defenseless, innocent Arabs.”

July 14, 1991 – Following U.S. lead, Israel lifts cultural and economic sanctions against  South Africa after four years.

October 18, 1991 – For the first time in 20 years, the United Nations General Assembly opts not to censure Israel for ties to South Africa.

April 15, 1992 – On the eve of Passover, Mandela publicly acknowledges South African Jewry’s “particularly outstanding contribution” to his people’s “struggle for freedom and social justice” for the first time.

May 4, 1992– South Africa’s Jerusalem Club invites Black speaker to address attendees for the first time, helping to forge ties between the Jewish committee and the Mandela-led ANC.

August 16, 1992 – As South Africa lifts its apartheid law banning suburban settlement by blacks, Mandela moves to the upscale Jewish suburb of Houghton. His new neighbor, Jewish MP Tony Leon of the Democratic Party — an ANC critic — welcomes Mandela with a chocolate cake.

August 1993 – Addressing the annual South African Jewish Board of Deputees conference, Mandela is greeted with a standing ovation, signaling improved ties following the leader’s prior remarks about the PLO.

November 1993 – The Clinton-brokered peace accord between Israel and the PLO cited as a factor improving relations between the Jewish state and African nations. Mandela tells Liel that he will nominate Arafat and Rabin for a shared Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, which they would ultimately be awarded.

March 1994 – With one month to go before South Africa’s first democtratic presidential elections, a JTA report anticipates “limited Jewish support” for Mandela’s ANC.

May 2, 1994 – After several days of voting, Mandela elected president in South Africa’s first all-race democratic elections; Jewish sentiment is reported to be predominantly optimistic. That Saturday, Mandela attends Shabbat services at a Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town, the largest synagogue in the Southern hemisphere. From the pulpit, Mandela appeals for the return of Jewish expatriates who left for security concerns.

May 12, 1994 – JTA writes that Mandela met with Israeli President Ezer Weizman before greeting several international dignitaries at a meeting in Cape Town. PLO leader Yasser Arafat was invited to join them. “He calls Arafat by his first name, Yasser,” Weizman recalled. “They embraced, and he said he and Arafat were brothers. I said: ‘Then, Mr. President, we are cousins.’ “

May 18, 1994–  Arafat stirs up a fury in Israel concerning remarks made while in South Africa for Mandela’s inauguration. In a speech at a South African mosque, Arafat said, “Jihad will continue and Jerusalem is not for the Palestinian people. It is for all the Muslim people.” Arafat claimed that he intended the word to mean a peaceful crusade rather than a holy war, as the Arabic expression is generally interpreted in English, adding, “I’ll continue my jihad for peace.”

June 1994 – Following Mandela’s election, Israel lifts seven-year arms embargo against South Africa. 

August 1994 – Mandela awarded Anne Frank Medal in Amsterdam for his contributions towards advancing democracy in South Africa. Later that month, Mandela went on to say, “The victory of the democratic forces in South Africa is a contribution to this worldwide effort to rid humanity of the evil of racism. It is Anne Frank’s victory. It is an achievement of humanity as a whole,”

November 1994 – Israeli professor Michael Wolfsohn reveals that in 1989, Mandela’s release was on the table as part of large prisoner exchange for missing Israeli soldier Ron Arad until the Berlin Wall fell.

December 21, 1994 – JTA publishes a follow-up piece addressing the South African Jewish communities diversifying views of the ANC-led government.

January 5, 1995 – Housing Minister Joe Slovo, one of two Jews to become part of the Mandela’s cabinet, dies of bone marrow cancer. The other Jewish cabinet member, Ronnie Kasrils, would prove to be a more polarizing figure.

February 1995 – South African Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo announces full South African diplomatic relations with “State of Palestine,” prompting protest from Israeli officials.

September 1995 – South African Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo visits Israel amid concerns about a South African-Iranian nuclear technology partnership.

October 1995 – Prior to Nov. 1 local elections, Nelson Mandela joins Jewish ANC candidates in an appeal to the Jewish community not to emigrate for fear of crime.

January 1996 – Two South African Jewish groups criticize Mandela’s meeting with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam famous for anti-Semitic remarks in the U.S.

February 1996 – Chief Rabbi Yirael Meir Lau shares stories of his imprisonment in a concentration camp with Mandela in Pretoria.

March 1996 – Reports that Mandela was preparing for a meeting with Hamas were subsequently dismissed as “premature.”

September 20, 1996 – JTA publishes a report citing crime as the greatest reason for Jews leaving South Africa.

January 21, 1997 – South African Jews petition Mandela regarding his recent approval of $650 million sale in tank-firing systems to Syria, a move that the U.S. says would threaten foreign aid to South Africa.

September 1997 – Mandela presented honorary doctorate in philosophy from Ben Gurion University. JTA explains the award was presented in Cape Town “because Mandela has indicated he will not visit the Middle East until he is able to make a meaningful contribution to the peace process.”

November 1997 – Mandela’s relationship with Libya criticized by South African Board of Jewish Deputies. 

April 1998 – Mandela appoints Richard Goldstone, a renowned Jewish jurist,  to investigate an alleged high-level plot to overthrow the country’s government involving Mandela’s former wife.

July 18, 1998 – With Mandela’s secret wedding ceremony for Mandela set for Saturday — the president’s 80th birthday — Mandela lets Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris in on the secret a day early in a special ceremony.

August 12, 1998 – Mandela and Arafat exchange medals and embrace in a ceremony.

January 1999 – Pop star Michael Jackson attends a Bar Mitzvah ceremony in Jo-burg’s Sandton synagogue. JTA notes that Mandela was a celebrity bar mitzvah guest here two years prior.

October 19, 1999 – Mandela arrives for his first visit in Israel. Jewish South Africans anticipate that their president’s visit will yield better relations between the two nations. Having recently visited Syria, Iran, Jordan the backdrop of Iran holding thirteen Jewish prisoners as alleged spies, Mandela agrees to mediate between Israel and her neighbors, stating, “”I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders.”

February 2000 – Following his presidency, Mandela lends his name as patron in chief of Tikkun, a Jewish-run social services project founded in 1996 that provides interracial adult education, skills training and AIDS relief work.

May 18, 2000 – The American Jewish Committee cancels a luncheon honoring Mandela, following the former president’s statements in support of Iran’s trial of 13 Jews on spying charges.

December 13, 2000 – Mandela delivers remarks at opening of the new South African Jewish museum.

April 22, 2001 – Following the Hasim Rahman-Lennox Lewis fight, a Jewish South African boxing promoter and member of Sandton synagogue says Mandela called to thank him for his work.

January 2002 – In Durban, Mandela retracts statements supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and comments labelling Osama bin Laden a terrorist, upsetting the Jewish community.

May 2002Lazar Sidelsky, a Jewish lawyer who afforded a young Nelson Mandela a job as a clerk in the face of apartheid restrictions, dies in Johannesburg at age 90.

July 2002Percy Yutar, active member in the Jewish community and the prosecutor in the trial that sentenced Mandela and other ANC leaders to life in prison, dies shortly before his 90th birthday.

October 2002 Wolfie Kodesh, founder of the armed wing of the ANC and former member of the South African Communist party, dies at age 84. Kodesh is praised by Mandela at his funeral in Cape Town.

February 2003 – Anti-Defamation League accuses Mandela of prejudice for stating that the United States cannot be a moral leader because it has committed “unspeakable atrocities in the world,” and suggesting that the United States does not support the United Nations because the current U.N. leader is black.

December 2003  – Union of Orthodox Rabbis taps new chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, 32, to succeed Harris in January 2005. Goldstein co-authored a book with Mandela’s grandson, Dumani.

August 2004 – Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris accuses the country’s Jews of not sufficiently supporting MaAfrika Tikkun, the community’s outreach initiative. “There’s an unfortunate reluctance, a sort of suspicion about interacting with the black majority — particularly on the part of the older generation — which is absurd,” he said, noting “a kind of restraint” when it comes to non-Jewish causes.

April 2004 – JTA Passover Feature: A Decade After Apartheid, Jews in South Africa Building New Identity

September 2004 – A review of a book about Zimbabwe by Abe Abrahamson — honorary life president of South African Zionist Federation — mentions that Abrahamson was one of six Jews to visit Nelson Mandela upon the latter’s release from prison.

September 13, 2005 – Former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris dies of cancer at age 69, and was remembered for offering a prayer at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.

January 2008 – Anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, who visited Mandela in prison and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, dies at age 90.

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