Michelle Rojas-Tal

Dear Mr. Mandela

I hope this note finds you in a peaceful rest. Your loss was felt across the globe and the impression you left on mankind is truly inspiring. Sadly, the world continues to become a more frightening place as you know and sometimes, I wonder, what it must be like watching this all take place above the clouds, rather than here on the ground.

When I was a little girl, I remember learning about you in school. Growing up in New York, it was so hard for me to understand that there was a place on earth where people were still separated and judged based on the color of their skin; a concept that was so ancient and unheard of for me. I learned of your fight for equality and justice. I remember asking my teacher if I would be considered a “colored” person in South Africa because I was half-Hispanic. I was sad for you. I was young, innocent and quite naïve.

Two decades since the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the terror of experiencing 9/11, losing my father, being married and becoming a mother, I can now say, most of the innocence has been lost. Lost, but not forgotten.

I have visited your beautiful country on a number of occasions. I have learned of its tragedy and triumph. I have been touched by the warm and welcoming nature of your countrymen. I have enjoyed the delicious South African cuisine! But more than anything, I listened. I listened for as much as it would have been simple for me to judge, it wasn’t my place. I needed to learn, try to understand and absorb all around me. But sadly, Mr. Mandela, the respect I afforded to your nation, is not one being afforded to mine.

During this month, a horrific event took place in your beautiful country. It hijacked the memory of your great and unique struggle and all in the same breath, painted a false and vicious picture of the place I call home. Israel Apartheid Week. How could anyone even fathom the thought? How could one diminish what happened in South Africa and in a bigoted attempt try to label Israel as such? I wanted to go back to my elementary school teacher and ask her why. I wanted someone to assure me it would pass and everything would be well once again. But then I realized, I was now the teacher, and there are people looking to me for the answers. Looking to be assured that everything would be fine…

In response to IAW in South Africa, StandWithUs sent a delegation of Israeli students to campuses in Johannesburg, Capetown and Rhodes. Partnering with our allies on the ground, we wanted to ensure that Israel’s side of the story be told by the very people who are writing the chapters. The alumni of the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship were the exact people to do just that. They represent the beauty of Israel in all of its diversity. Their experiences offer the most in-depth look into Israel’s narrative and their eternal optimism emanates the core of Israeli society and our nation’s ever-lasting struggle for peace.

Mr. Mandela, these young men and women came to your country with open hearts and minds. They came to share the truth beyond the headlines. They came to strengthen those who support the only true democracy in the Middle East, asking, as Professor Allan Dershowitz best stated, not to be a democracy judged on its perfection but rather one judged on how well it deals with its imperfections. They are the very people dedicating their lives to bettering the nation they love so dearly. They are volunteers. They are peace activists. They are educators. They are officers of the IDF. They are the faces of Israel. An Israel, sadly, many in your country do not understand nor care to.

“You were taught to target Palestinian children.” “What the Nazis did to you, you are now doing to the Palestinians.” “I will not speak to you because you are Israeli. I do not recognize your right to exist”. “I know for a fact that Palestinian women are raped systematically by Israeli soldiers as punishment for not obeying their orders”. During far too many instances they were met with hate. These are direct remarks that they recorded. Not criticism or debate. Not difficult questions or dissenting voices; but pure hate. They were threatened with arrest. They were harassed and shouted at. They were made to feel a segregated and hated minority in a country which should have zero tolerance for such

Mr. Mandela, the acts of the anti-Israel groups in South Africa are abusing what you fought your entire life for. The have taken your quotes and doctored them and are using your tremendous memory as a platform for their modern-day anti-Semitism. They are not interested in dialogue, or fair debate, the very structures that make democracies great. These groups are biased and hateful. There is no logic or fact in their speech. There is demonization and xenophobia.

Mr. Mandela, I would also like to tell you about the wonderful people of your country. Who listened to these young people and respected what they had to say. The students and community members who wanted to learn and engage. Who received their open hearts and minds and gave back the same sentiment. They are fighting to ensure that South Africa remains the beautiful and open nation you fought so tirelessly for it to become.

Mr. Mandela, you taught the world not to be silent in the face of oppression. You taught us to stand up to lies, even if they are told a million times and demand they not be propagandized as truths. You taught us to try and heal the world each and every day. It is what Israel strives for. It is what StandWithUs was created to do. And it is the reason why Matan, Shachar, Emily, Pino, Eyal and Ido were so determined to represent their country, even in the most adverse of scenarios and make the case for their nation.

I am asking for your help. And I apologize for interrupting your rest. All I need is your whisper. Whisper into the ears of those who still dream of a better future. Whisper the truth to them. Remind them that you supported the rights of the Israelis to live safely and securely in their Jewish homeland so much as you supported the Palestinian people. Tell them to stop the madness that is overtaking the conversation about Israel. Tell them to stand up for those who have no voice. To fight back against the worlds human rights abusers. To lend their protest to the 140,000 Syrians who have been murdered or the modern-day slaves tortured in some of our neighboring countries.

Remind them that Israel has the obligation to defend its citizens; many of whom have history in some of the most oppressive nations of the Middle East and Africa. Tell them not to abuse or distort what you stood for. Let them know that we will not be deterred in our effort and will continue to bring young public diplomats in the future. Whisper to them while they dream at night for they will listen much better. Whisper to them that hatred against any group in South Africa will not be tolerated.  Whisper the truth as you now see so clearly. May your star continue to shine brightly and help shed light onto the darkness.

Rest well Mr. Mandela.

About the Author
Michelle Rojas-Tal is a global speaker, trailblazer and advocate on Zionism, Jewish identity, and Israel engagement. Amongst her current projects, Michelle serves as the Zionist Scholar-in-Residence at Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.