December 5, 2013 – New York – AJC mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, the father of democratic South Africa and an icon of the cause of freedom and reconciliation. He was 95 years old.
“Our world stands united today in recognizing the extraordinary legacy of Nelson Mandela,” said AJC President Stanley M. Bergman, himself born and raised in South Africa. “He guided South Africa with his disarming courage away from the horrors of legalized racism, entrancing the world in the process. We are all poorer for his passing, but richer for his example.”
Mandela became the first president of democratic South Africa on May 10, 1994, following his release from prison four years earlier and his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with FW de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president, who had set him free. He had served 27 years in prison on Robben Island. By the 1980s, the cause of freeing him had become synonymous with the goal of liberating the country itself from the apartheid regime, a quest that found near universal sympathy around the world, including among Jewish communities.
During most of his active life, Mandela counted on Jews as mentors, colleagues, lawyers, and political supporters. Lazer Sidelsky, the only man Mandela called “Boss,” gave him his start as a lawyer when blacks were rarely hired. Israel Maisels led his victorious defense in the Treason Trial and Mandela asked at his funeral for one of his yarmulkes (skullcaps), keeping it until his own death.
The names of Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Harry Schwartz, Rusty Bernstein, Arthur Goldreich, Helen Suzman, and Arthur Chaskalson, among a long list of others, were all an integral part of Mandela’s life.
AJC Executive Director David Harris met with Mandela several times, including during his historic visit to New York City in 1993, seeking support for South Africa’s transition to democracy. Mandela made repeated mention of this discussion later that year in his address at the annual conference of South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), with which he established a fruitful relationship during his presidency.
At AJC’s 2012 Global Forum, at SAJBD’s request, AJC’s Africa Institute launched in the U.S. the Board of Deputies' moving commemorative volume, “Jewish Memories of Mandela.”
In a 1999 meeting with Mandela in a suburb of New York City, Harris appealed for his assistance in gaining the freedom of 13 Jews in Iran who had been arrested and were facing trial. During the two-hour private meeting, Mandela assured AJC that he would appeal for the well-being of the 13 Jews if they were convicted.
“There was a quiet strength and dignity about him, a charisma that was unmistakable,” Harris recalled.
Despite long-standing tensions between the African National Congress, with which he was intimately associated, and Israel, Mandela visited the Jewish state in 1999, calling it “the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream,”
“As Jews, we honor every year the miracle of freedom, teaching our children that ‘we were once slaves in the land of Egypt’,” said Harris. “Mandela’s life embodied a personal and national journey from subjugation to freedom. We are indelibly inspired by his example and can say of him, as we can say of few others, that he truly helped repair the world.”