The Israeli delegation to Nelson Mandela’s memorial service spent ten hours in South Africa. We used that time to honor a unique leader – Mandela – while bringing honor to a special country, Israel.
We arrived in South Africa among all the delegations and were greeted warmly by the South African foreign ministry officials. The South African police treated us with utmost dignity and the locals managing border control expressed their appreciation that we made the trip. Everyone involved provided the Israeli security team with the space and procedures that were required in order to protect our delegation.
Upon arrival at FNB Stadium we were escorted into the secure entrance for foreign dignitaries. South African television crews filmed our entry into the stadium and we were greeted with kind smiles. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, head of the Israeli delegation, was offered a seat with the heads of state but chose to sit together with the other Knesset members in the parliamentary section. Many delegations were granted only four or five seats in the stadium but Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk had arranged for officials at the stadium to permit us to enter with six MK’s, himself, his deputy, and leaders of the South African Jewish community.
It was clear that a close relationship has developed between our Israeli representatives in South Africa and the South African leadership. And, despite serious political disagreements, the leadership’s general outlook on Israel and Jews is positive.
The same applies to South African citizens. Our interactions with them were warm and friendly and they expressed how touched they were that we made the effort to come and honor Nelson Mandela. When the Israeli delegation was announced by the master of ceremonies, the crowd applauded just as they did for the other dignitaries.
The memorial service was less a funeral and more a celebration. It was moving to see a people who had gained so much from this special leader. We could see how he restored their dignity and raised their spirits and hopes. The singing and dancing was infectious and, yes, at a certain point, we began to sway along with the rest of the crowd.
We sat next to the parliamentary delegations from Canada, Germany, and China, giving us the opportunity to network, discuss some politics, and present the Israeli view on various issues. These relationships with members of parliament are critical. I chair the Knesset delegation to the South African parliament and this visit enabled me to begin the process of identifying the members of the South African parliament who support Israel. I now have the basis to reach out to them in order to improve our relations with their government. In addition, I met citizen leaders who will be putting me in touch with Christian leaders who support Israel and together, we will work to influence additional members of the South African parliament.
Before returning to the airport for our flight home, we met with leaders of the South African Jewish community. I sit on the Knesset’s Diaspora Affairs Committee and have learned the importance of these meetings along with the relationships which they forge as we work towards our goal of ensuring that Israel serves as an integral element in Jewish life throughout the world. These leaders expressed how important our visit was for their relationships with their government and for the South African government’s relationship with Israel. I was inspired by their love for Israel as well as their commitment to their own community.
The Israeli delegation arrived at the airport around the same time as most of the other groups from around the world. This enabled me to see, first hand, Israel’s important standing in the international community. Speaker Edelstein spent time with many world leaders as we waited for our flight including Prime Minister Cameron from England, Kofi Anan, and former United States President Jimmy Carter who were in turn, genuinely interested in spending a few moments with him.
I left Israel for South Africa with limited expectations. I arrived back in Israel inspired by the memorial service and the impact Nelson Mandela had on his countrymen and the world, deeply touched by the warmth expressed by the locals towards the Israeli delegation, and very hopeful and excited about the prospect of improved ties with both the South African government and the South African people.