The State Archive released a document Sunday showing that the Mossad unwittingly trained Nelson Mandela prior to his 1962 arrest in South Africa. The document, sent that same year by a Mossad official to Foreign Ministry higher-ups and titled “The Black Pimpernel,” was the subject of an article published by Haaretz last Friday, which first revealed the ties between Mandela and the Mossad.
The document was sent by Mossad official Y. Ben Ari to a few high-ranking officials at the Foreign Ministry. It reveals that Israeli agents in Ethiopia gave weapons and explosives training to a man passing himself off as a Rhodesian named David Mobsari, who expressed interest in Haganah tactics and was considered by the Israelis to have communist leanings. Later, after Mandela’s arrest in South Africa and publication of his photo in newspapers, the Israeli agents identified him as the man they knew as David Mobsari, according to Ben Ari’s document.
Following Haaretz’s story on Friday, the Nelson Mandela Foundation issued a statement saying it “can confirm that it has not located any evidence in Nelson Mandela’s private archive…that he interacted with an Israeli operative during his tour of African countries in that year.” The statement added that in 2009 a foundation researcher “travelled to Ethiopia and interviewed the surviving men who assisted in Mandela’s training and no evidence emerged of an Israeli connection.”
The State Archive revealed the document’s existence on its website early this month, a few days after Mandela’s death, but stated in a press release that it could not be published. But now, after the document’s contents were revealed by Haaretz, the State Archive decided to publish the original document in its entirety, without any erasure or editing.
What changed? How did a classified document that could not be published two weeks ago suddenly get published in its entirety, without censorship?
The State Archive is subject to the “Archive Law,” which allows organizations like the Mossad and Shin Bet to prohibit publishing of documents related to their activities, even decades later. Apparently the archive did not receive permission to publish the document after Mandela’s death. Now, after Haaretz published the document’s contents, the State Archive allowed itself to bend the rules and publish the document itself.
Last Yom Kippur, exactly 40 years after the war of 1973, Haaretz attempted to publish classified documents from that conflict. An article published in Haaretz at the time read: “For months, the archives staff has been busy locating, sorting and preparing to publish many of these documents, which contain details of the government’s conduct during the war, to mark 40 years since the war ended. Journalists who approached the archive over the last year were told that in accordance with regulations, the documents would be published only if the Prime Minister’s Office grants permission. This week, Haaretz was told that the State Archive would not publish any of the documents.”
Those documents have yet to be published.
Lost and found
How did the Mandela document fall into the hands of Haaretz? It has been held by the archive for decades, and was never revealed to the public. If it was left up to state authorities, it most likely would never have seen the light of day. But even an organized entity like the State Archive has a few holes and leaks, just waiting to be exploited. Thus, a few years ago, 43-year-old David Fachler of Alon Shvut found the document while researching his thesis. Fachler wrote an article about Israel-South Africa relations, titled “A Look at the Jewish Factor,” at Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.
Fachler sought and was given permission to photocopy the document, according to the archives' protocols; he kept the facsimile at home. After Mandela’s death on December 5, he approached Haaretz and offered to share the contents of the document’s for publication in an article in Haaretz’s English edition.
Thus, an academic’s alertness in finding a forgotten, classified document by chance brought about a change in the State Archive’s policy - even if it was just a one-off - and resulted in its publication of a document that the Mossad had marked top-secret.