Immediately upon receiving the news of the passing of this great leader of the South African freedom struggle and his country’s first post-apartheid president, J.J. Goldberg wrote a remarkable article of remembrance for The Forward. In part, he recalled the close relationship Israel had with the newly independent states of sub-Saharan Africa until most of them turned against Israel in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. (There’s also this nuanced appreciation of Mandela by the ADL’s director Abe Foxman, “How Mandela won over the Jewish community.”)
Goldberg included a devastating description of the confrontation that his fellow Habonim (Labor-Zionist youth) activists had with Prime Minister Golda Meir over the Labor party leadership’s embrace of United States policy in Vietnam. Similarly, we understand that Israel eventually forged a secret alliance with the apartheid regime — widely believed even to include a sharing of nuclear technology — as part of a realpolitik calculation. This organization’s fraternal and antecedent groups, both in the U.S. and in Israel — including Mapam, Ratz and Hashomer Hatzair — never supported this “pragmatic” hard approach to international relations.
There was something of an uproar in Israel when Prime Minister Netanyahu decided against attending the grand memorial celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life, citing cost considerations. Pres. Shimon Peres excused himself for the stated reason of recovering from the flu (a more believable excuse given his advanced age of 90). The great gathering of world leaders in South Africa reminds us of a similar august occasion in Israel in November 1995, for Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, but that occasion was an enormous tragedy; Mandela’s great mission in life was accomplished years ago, whereas the peace camp was decapitated with Rabin’s murder.
It’s often been said that if the Palestinians had a Nelson Mandela as their leader, instead of Yasir Arafat at the time, they would have achieved independence long ago, alongside Israel. (Similarly, many of us continue to believe that if Yitzhak Rabin had not been shockingly struck down when he was, that the Oslo peace process would have ended in a successful peace agreement — but we’ll never know for sure.)
Israel has been represented, finally, with a delegation headed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (a Likud MK). He is reported to have negotiated a significant cost saving for the public coffers in making this trip. The delegation includes Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz, plus two MKs from Yesh Atid, one from Labor and one other from Likud. Edelstein is quoted as follows on Mandela:
As someone who was a prisoner of conscience in the past, I had the privilege of meeting Mandela in 1996, and we shared stories of our experiences in prison and in battling for our rights. As far as I’m concerned, this is a type of closure for me.