Naomi Chazan
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Nelson Mandela: An Israeli hero

He was the embodiment of a value-driven quest for freedom from prejudice, intolerance, discrimination and indignity
Nelson Mandela meets with Israeli president Ezer Weizman, May 9. 1994 (photo credit: Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO)
Nelson Mandela meets with Israeli president Ezer Weizman, May 9. 1994 (photo credit: Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO)

Nelson Mandela, one of the great figures of this era, is no longer with us. For the past two decades, he was a lone giant in a world virtually devoid of leaders of note. His passing leaves a tremendous vacuum not only in South Africa, but also on the global stage. Mandela has also been, in many respects, an Israeli hero: one whose persona, values and actions have continuously enthralled the Israeli public. Rarely has an international figure spoken so directly to Israeli concerns, aspirations and dreams with so little close contact with Israel itself. Here, too, he is heavily mourned.

Nelson Mandela was, first and foremost, the symbol of the monumental battle against racism and injustice in the post World War Two period. As the leader of the African National Congress’s struggle against apartheid, he defined both the vision of a multi-racial democracy for the country and oversaw its realization. For many, in Israel as well, he has emerged as the modern embodiment of the value-driven quest for freedom from prejudice, intolerance, discrimination and indignity.

His persistence in pursuing the goal of “one person, one vote” despite years of harassment and incarceration was, in itself, awe-inspiring. But it has become much more than that: the success of the struggle against racism in South Africa drove home in Israel – as elsewhere – the message that it is possible to resolve seemingly endless conflicts when there is a will to do so. Not infrequently Israeli officials have yearned aloud for a “Palestinian Mandela” (while Palestinians have dreamed of an “Israeli De Klerk”). Together, they have thereby expressed a common hope for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a Mandela-rooted belief that it can come to pass.

Nelson Mandela also emerged in his lifetime as a universal symbol of national reconciliation. During the delicate years of the transition from white rule to multi-racial democracy he – along with his partners in the ANC and the white establishment – reformulated the definition of the South African nation and navigated its reconstruction. As the first president of the New South Africa, his ability to imbue people with a collective pride paved the way for the painful – but absolutely vital – process (through the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions) of facing a divisive past and thereby enabling an entire country to move forward toward a common future. His understanding that political agreements gain traction only when they come together with normative change has thus had an inordinate impact on millions throughout the world.

Israelis – albeit not always consciously – have been tremendously influenced by this example as well. They have lapped up films like “Invictus,” voraciously read leading authors such as Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee and immersed themselves in the sounds of Miriam Makeba and her successors. Academics and activists continue to analyze the process of transformative change carried out under Mandela’s aegis. And, as domestic solidarity within Israel has begun to unravel, the adaptability of the South African precedent is being examined by all those concerned with maintaining the social fabric of a diverse and multi-cultural Israel.

Nelson Mandela has become, increasingly, a symbol (if not the epitome) of the latest wave of democratization. The culture of compromise (without jettisoning principle) that he instilled during the drafting of the new constitution, along with his insistence on the scrupulous protection of minority rights, made for the ratification of the most progressive constitutional instrument in the democratic world.

But his democratic achievements are, in comparative perspective, even greater. Molding a workable democratic order which seeks to rectify deep-rooted structural inequalities, while at the same time maintaining respect for difference through adherence to joint rules of the game is no easy feat. Neither is the capacity to mobilize heterogeneous groups with long histories of mutual fear and animosity to work together towards a better tomorrow. Through the introduction of a new – equality-focused and tolerant – discourse and praxis, South Africa has gone a long way towards remolding itself both institutionally and normatively into a truly vibrant democracy.

The homegrown democratic order of the new South Africa sends a promising message to struggling democracies elsewhere. For Israeli democrats, the techniques it has employed to assure equality in the midst of enormous socioeconomic discrepancies and to craft a collective ethic despite rampant acrimony are particularly instructive. The dedication to democratic values as a springboard for progress is even more enlightening.

South Africa today is the product of many people, black and white alike. But Madiba – the Xhosa clan name by which Mandela was affectionately known – is the face most commonly associated with its enviable (although hardly perfect) accomplishments. During his last years he became an icon precisely because he personalized the dramatic changes in which he played such a central role. His demeanor, humanity and humility contributed to this adulation. As someone who not only preached, but also practiced, the principles of collective leadership, he was not one to either bask in glory or promote it for his private purposes. This is, perhaps, his greatest contribution: the ability to demonstrate that forceful democratic leadership in the contemporary world demands constant listening, consultation and interaction with all citizens and hence is a very communal endeavor.

Israeli-South African relations in the post-apartheid era – fraught with difficult memories of the past and with rising diplomatic discord – have nevertheless held together due to the Mandela imprint. For many in Israel (and notably for those who have had the privilege to meet with him and his fellow travelers over the years) Mandela the person has been revered for everything he did – but above and beyond all else, because he was a real mensch.

Nelson Mandela is gone. His legacy, however, is as profound as it is inspiring. In Israel, his departure constitutes both a deep loss and a strident warning. During his lifetime Mandela became a living testimony to what racism and inhumanity can wreak and to what the human spirit can achieve. His memory should serve as an ongoing reminder both of the human evils which no country can ever countenance again and of that just world that human beings working together can mold. May his soul be bound in the bond of life.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.