Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Mandela’s Remarks on Iran Cost Him Honor from Jewish Group

May 19, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, who was to be honored this week by the American Jewish Committee for his longtime support of Israel and fight for human rights, came away empty-handed.

The AJCommittee canceled the Thursday luncheon after Mandela, in front of a Jewish audience, earlier this week stood by his remarks that the ongoing espionage trial of 13 Iranian Jews is “free and fair” and that the West has no business meddling in what he contends is a purely domestic affair.

Governments, human rights groups and Jewish leaders around the globe have condemned Iran for what is seen as an undemocratic political show trial.

Mandela, 82, who crusaded for decades against South Africa’s apartheid system and later became the country’s first black president, has enjoyed warm relations with South Africa’s Jewish community and worked closely with Jews within his movement.

However, today he appears to be the only high-profile figure in the world to have spoken out in favor of Iran on the issue.

His stance has mystified many, including one American Jewish activist lobbying for the release of the Iranian Jewish prisoners.

“It’s very disturbing,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

For “someone of his standing, his comments carry weight in the international community,” Hoenlein said. “I don’t believe anyone with the full information about the nature of this trial could think it’s being conducted fairly.”

Mandela has been a longtime advocate of states such as Iran, Libya and Cuba.

This troika, while pariahs to much of the world and notorious for routinely trampling on the human rights of their own people, lent their support to Mandela and his anti-apartheid struggle during his 27 years in prison.

In March 1998, during a visit by President Clinton to South Africa, Mandela urged him “to set an example to all of us” and thaw relations with America’s nemeses, Iran, Libya and Cuba.

The United States views the first two as state sponsors of terrorism, while Cuba is one of the few remaining Communist regimes.

While Mandela has been criticized at home for his continued allegiance to this trio, he was quoted in 1998 as saying: “Those South Africans who have berated me for being loyal to our friends, literally they can go throw themselves into a pool.”

Last October, Mandela visited Iran to promote bilateral relations between the two countries. On his ensuing trip to Israel, Mandela told Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy that Iranian officials had assured him the Jewish prisoners were being treated well and would be tried fairly.

Levy reportedly responded that if Mandela had received similar quality legal defense, “it is doubtful” whether he “would be here today.”

On Monday, Levy, in New York for meetings at the United Nations, met with Mandela to discuss the “Iran 13.”

Shortly after the trial of the 13 began this month, Iranian news agencies quoted Mandela as giving his stamp of approval to the proceedings.

The trial has been held behind closed doors away from international observers, with lawyers appointed by the hard-line fundamentalist courts, and with no hard evidence supplied by the prosecution, say American Jewish advocates for the 13.

On Monday, Mandela was in New York speaking before the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

When members of the audience asked him to clarify his views, Mandela stood by his earlier statements, according to some who attended the event.

He also said he had been asked by prominent people, including former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Mary Robinson, the top U.N. human rights official, to intervene on behalf of the Iran 13.

During his visit to Iran in October, he said, he raised the issue with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, who gave him an “honest briefing.”

Mandela told the audience that he did not want to play into the hands of Iran’s hard-liners by publicly pressing them.

The reaction to Monday’s remarks was swift.

Invitees to the AJCommittee luncheon in Washington were e-mailed that the luncheon had been canceled.

“It’s been postponed, but I can’t say it’s been rescheduled because we don’t have a date yet,” said AJCommittee spokesman Kenneth Bandler.

Bandler declined to say why. But a Mandela spokesman was later quoted as saying Mandela believed it was because of his pro-Iran statements.

At this point, it’s unclear whether the AJCommittee will indeed bestow an honor for “human rights” upon Mandela.

In the meantime, no Jewish leader has publicly condemned Mandela.

He is seen as a venerated figure, and some suggest that his moral stature has put him above reproach.

Recommended from JTA