The recent death of Nelson Mandela grabbed the attention of the world. Mandela led the fight against apartheid, the discriminatory white minority rule in South Africa. He was incarcerated for 27 years and then emerged to become the first black president of his country. His journey had many twists and turns but his goal never wavered.
Mandela was 95 when he died. He led a long and controversial life. He was a communist, a socialist and a capitalist at different times and circumstances. He was considered an activist, a terrorist, a man of peace and a man of violence.
My own brief brush with Nelson Mandela was at the time of his visit to South Florida in June of 1990. It was only four months after his release from prison. Mandela was an incredibly popular figure and lauded by huge crowds wherever he went.
Mandela remained loyal to the rogue leaders and regimes that backed him through the many years he’d been imprisoned: Cuba’s Castro, Libya’s Khaddafi and the PLO’s Arafat.
The Cuban community was particularly incensed by Mandela’s relationship with Castro. Mandela had referred to Castro as “a brother,” “an inspiration,” and “a tower of strength.” Cubans and Cuban-Americans were incensed.
Activist Jews were upset with Mandela’s embrace of Arafat and Khaddafi, two of the most anti-Israel and anti-Jewish figures of the era.
Mandela addressed 6,000 union workers in the Miami Beach Convention Center. Outside, a noisy demonstration ensued. About 3,000 mainly black demonstrators were chanting and waving pro-Mandela placards. About 300 mostly Cuban demonstrators were chanting and waving anti-Mandela placards. About 75 Jews from the JDL were chanting and holding placards. Our signs read: “Down with Apartheid, Khaddafi, Arafat and Castro.”
The mayor of Miami and Miami commissioners did not officially welcome Mandela to the city. They were dealing with the sensitivities of a major portion of their population. The Miami officials signed a letter. They said the comments made by Mandela about Castro were “beyond reasonable comprehension.”
What followed was a three-year boycott of the city and its tourist attractions by various organizations. The NAACP was furious with the city, declaring that “To reject Mandela is to reject us.”
Now it is December 2013. South Africa is a stronghold of anti-Israel activity. The sympathetic identification with the Palestinians that was put in place by Mandela has blossomed. Recently, South Africa’s international relations minister declared that there would be no traveling to Israel by government officials as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinians. She spoke of Israel’s “illegal occupation” and disclosed that “our Palestinian friends have asked us in formal meetings to not engage with the (Israel) regime.”
Over ninety heads of state attended Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. It is quite ironic, given the atmosphere that prevails, that opposition Labor leader MK Yitzchak Herzog decried Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision not to attend. Netanyahu sent Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein instead. Herzog accused Netanyahu of “insensitivity or plain stupidity.”
Nelson Mandela’s life was not a simple case of black and white on many different levels. He had one frame of reference, and that remained his steadfast goal. Mandela’s only concern was what was in the best interest of his cause. He crossed political affiliations. He made friends with the devil. He was determined. He won.
There is much to debate about Nelson Mandela and his life, but one thing is clear: He devoted his life to his people. He was a true leader.
About the Author: Shelley Benveniste is South Florida editor of The Jewish Press.
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