In early 1990 I was in eighth grade at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York. Led by my father, a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the school was a bastion of social justice activism. We protested for the release of Soviet Jews, we shipped boxes to Mozambique during the famine, and every year we came together as a community to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.
We learned Jewish history, too, and were led to understand the extraordinary and miraculous significance of the birth of the State of Israel, a homeland for our people who had been homeless for so long. And we were taught to see the parallels, to note that we see echoes of our own plight in the plight of others. And so it was only natural for us to see the justice of Mandela’s cause and to applaud his work.
So when N.Y.C. Mayor David Dinkins declared that, upon his arrival in the United States after being released from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela would be given a ticker tape parade on the path of lower Manhattan known as the “Canyon of Heroes” it was only natural that we would take part. We were invited as a school community to march in this parade, and did so with pride. I have few concrete memories; holding signs that read “Heschel families oppose racism” and “Jews for a free South Africa;” being interviewed by Gabe Pressman of Channel 4 and then having to run for blocks to catch back up to our group; and stopping at a street vendor on the way home to buy a commemorative t-shirt emblazoned with pictures of Mandela. The shirt became a prized possession.
That summer, like nearly every summer of my life, my family headed to Israel for several months. A trip highlighted by a few days spent on the beach in Herzliya at our favorite hotel. Wearing my new Mandela shirt and fresh off this incredible experience I boarded the elevator to a dirty look from the woman standing in it. “He’s a terrorist, you know.” I didn’t. I couldn’t.
Mandela has left this world, and the great discussion as to his legacy has begun. J.J. Goldberg writes, “[Mandela’s] greatness was in recognizing the complexity of reconciling peace and justice,” making it clear that violent beginnings were what enabled him to become the ultimate peacemaker. Peter Beinart pointed to Mandela’s deep understanding of the relationship between freedom and power, subversively showing us all that “American power and human freedom are two very different things. Sometimes they intersect; sometimes they do not. Walking in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps requires being able to tell the difference.”
Within the hallowed halls of internal rabbinic discourse the question of how to properly teach Mandela’s legacy has been asked. His way was to agitate and force cognitive dissonance. Complexity is his legacy and ambivalence is exceedingly difficult. Mandela was a man who was able to see nuance and apply it. What made him a visionary leader and eventually a peacemaker makes it a challenge for many to fully embrace his legacy. It would be easier if he were either a terrorist or a freedom fighter, not both.
And that was the woman’s problem with my t-shirt, as well as the problem with my reaction. It’s too scary to admit someone can be both. It’s too much because if someone can inhabit both those places in one lifetime than we can never close ourselves off to another human being. Our enemy today is not necessarily our enemy tomorrow. And our hero today may have not have always been heroic.
“If you believe you have the power to destroy, believe you have the power to repair.” The passing of Mandela brings to mind this quote from Rabbi Nachman of Breslev. Mandela learned early on that he had the power to destroy, to end lives, to tear a system apart. Yet he was able to realize that destruction can never be the end, it can only be a beginning. His ultimate change was to seek the destruction of apartheid with the vision to rebuild the society it had so damaged. He took apart a system and worked to replace it. He joined the word truth with the word reconciliation.
May we be blessed to experience more like him, and to appreciate the ambivalence he championed. May his memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi Jonah Geffen is the Rabbinic Director at J Street. Follow him on Twitter @JonahGeffen.