There are many expressions of respect, mourning and identification with President Mandela from Jewish communities around the world, as well as the South African Jewish community itself. At this moment, no one would want to distance themselves from a leader that commands such universal respect.
I'd like to suggest, though, that a more meaningful tribute to the memory and meaning of Nelson Mandela finds expression in the acknowledgement of the fact that the relationship between the Jews, Israel and Nelson Mandela were not always the most amicable.
Indeed, it is no more than historical fact that Israel long supported, and sold arms to, the South African regime that oppressed and imprisoned Mr. Mandela and that Israel was among the last nations of the world to join in isolating South Africa at the end of Apartheid. For many of us in Israel, this policy was disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were publicly staunch supporters of Mr. Mandela and the ANC. The two liberation movements were drawn together by the parallels they perceived in their respective experiences.
Given this background, Mr. Mandela's attitude toward Israel and toward the conflicts in the Middle East are very impressive: rather than being drawn into a partisan relationship with the Palestinian people, Nelson Mandela assessed the parties involved through the lens of his own wisdom and experience. Indeed, according to an article published today in the Times of Israel, Mandela had the clear vision and presence of mind to use the occasion of his own presidential inauguration to bring the warring parties of the Middle East together.
"In May that year , both Arafat and Israeli president Ezer Weizman were invited to Mandela’s inauguration ceremony. Since the two leaders had never met, Mandela decided soon afterward to invite them to participate in his first official working meeting as president. After a short discussion, he took them to a separate room and asked them to “sit here and talk until you finalize everything,” according to [Israel's ambassador to South Africa Alon] Liel, who accompanied Weizman to the meeting. (Arafat came with his adviser Ahmed Tibi, now a member of Knesset.)
The Times of Israel
In our culture of growing polarization, in politics, in economics, in religion . . . a voice of balance and integrity like Mr. Mandela's should be exalted. And the loss of such a voice should be deeply mourned.