When 2,000 members of Johannesburg Jewry packed Oxford shul on Sunday evening for a tribute to Nelson Mandela, among them was a frail, wheelchair-bound Rabbi Norman Bernhard, who hadn’t been seen publicly for years because of his illness. But the loss of the South African icon was so profound that whatever effort it took to attend the tribute by former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, one simply had to be there.
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Bernhard had been one of the rabbis who, during apartheid, had spoken out forcefully against it.
Oxford shul congregants were among the steady stream of individuals and families of all races flocking to the street outside Mandela’s house in the last few days bearing flowers and candles in his honour.
For South African Jews, it seemed natural that Israel's top leaders would be among the multitude of world dignitaries making the long trip to South Africa this month for Madiba’s commemorations. (The speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, accompanied by five Knesset members will be attending; Shimon Peres was advised by his doctors not to attend because he came down with flu).
It will be a memorial like no other, including leaders of countries who are sworn enemies. As one man remarked outside Mandela’s house: “Even in his death he succeeds in bringing people together who otherwise would refuse to stand next to each other!” Then came the announcement on Monday by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu that he won’t be coming.
The stated reason was the trip’s high cost, but many people see the underlying reason as more political than financial.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is immensely complicated, and the relationship between Israel and South Africa has been a troubled one ever since the ANC-dominated government came into power in 1994.
Israel is branded an ‘apartheid’ country by various quarters, including some politicians in South Africa, who see the Palestinians as equivalent to South African blacks – and apartheid is what Mandela fought against.
For the greatest part, SA Jews angrily reject the labelling of Israel as an apartheid society, saying they know what apartheid is – they lived through it – and Israel is a thriving democracy.
But if “the whole world is coming to South Africa” – as foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said - and Israel is not among them, what message would its absence send? Would it be an admission that because of the apartheid label, Israeli leaders fear being embarrassed by expected protests from anti-Israel groups?
Touching a nerve
When Netanyahu says the trip is too costly, it touches a nerve among South African Jews, who have been among Israel’s most dedicated financial supporters, including times when it was desperate. Saying that coming to Mandela’s funeral costs too much is like a slap in the face to some, who feel that after all South African Jews have given Israel, surely it can spend the money to come and honor South Africa’s greatest leader, like the whole world is doing.
Fundraising for Israel was always a practical cornerstone of South African Jewry’s Zionism.
Prior to 1948, its record was second only to the United States in absolute figures. In the first decade of Israel’s existence, South African Jewry led the major world communities in per capita contributions, coming close to equaling the amounts raised in larger Jewish communities like Britain and Canada. From 1948-1966, it contributed $38.8 million, compared to the United States’ $765 million - from a community 50 times larger. (And $45 million from a Canadian Jewish community which is nearly triple South Africa’s size.)
During the Six Day War in 1967, South African Jewry led the Diaspora in relative terms, raising 20 million rand (about $27 million) from 25,000 contributors.
South African Jewry maintained its record on Israel fundraising per capita until the end of the 1980s. There are many other faces, aside from financial, of South African Jewry’s unrelenting support for Israel.
Now Israel – which is no longer desperate for Diaspora funds - won’t spend the cash to come and honor Mandela.
“The first emotion upon hearing that Netanyahu is not coming is one of great disappointment. And it is a missed opportunity for our two countries to get closer," said Marlene Bethlehem, a veteran South African Jewish community leader and former national chair and national president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. "I also hope that South Africa does not interpret it in a bad way. Furthermore, if the decision really is about money, then it is even more hurtful, since South African Jews have punched way above our weight for many years in giving to Israel.”