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A Tribute to a South African Jewish Hero and Freedom Fighter

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Denis Goldberg attends an event Farm in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, July 2013.
Denis Goldberg attends an event Farm in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, July 2013.Credit: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber/File
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

A Jewish hero died on Independence Day, with his death unmarked here. Denis Goldberg died in Cape Town, the city he was born in, at the age of 87. He was the epitome of struggle, sacrifice, courage and solidarity, all the qualities so lacking in Israel’s left. If he’d immigrated to Israel, he’d be considered a traitor and terrorist here. But Israel never had Jews such as him, willing to sacrifice everything in the struggle for the freedom of the Palestinians.

In South Africa he wasn’t the only Jew who sacrificed all for the struggle for freedom of blacks. Ruth First was killed by a parcel bomb addressed to her, Albie Sachs lost an arm and an eye, later becoming a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa. There aren’t many Jewish communities that gave rise to such heroes. In Israel, obviously, no one tells their stories.

Goldberg wasn’t an esteemed Jew like Sheldon Adelson or an influential one like Israeli media personality Sivan Rahav Meir, but he and his friends were the heroes history will remember. They didn’t fight for their nation, they fought for others. It’s hard to think of loftier or more courageous conduct. If there is a reason for Jewish pride, it is these Jews who crossed the lines in South Africa, not falling in line with position taken by Jewish leaders in their country and the Jewish Board of Deputies, the biggest collaborator with the apartheid regime and its inveterate ally, the state of Israel.

Goldberg was arrested along with Nelson Mandela on July 11, 1963, at the farm of Arthur Goldreich, another Jewish hero. Of the 17 members of the African National Congress who were arrested that day at Liliesleaf Farm, five were Jewish. At the Rivonia Trial, Goldberg was sentenced, along with Mandela, to four life sentences, for 200 acts of terror. These arch-terrorists are now considered national and international heroes, more food for thought in Israel.

In a heated debate in the literature section of Haaretz over the weekend, Professors Hannan Hever and Dan Miron discussed the courage of author S. Yizhar [one of the first writers to write about and issue a moral outcry related to the events of 1948]. Goldberg could have served as an example bolstering Hever’s position, since he believed in an armed struggle. He spent 22 years in prison until his release, owed in part to Herut Lapid, an Israeli activist who brought about the release of many prisoners.

Goldberg was flown to Israel, where he spent a brief time in his daughter’s kibbutz before hurrying to depart. Like his partners to the struggle, he detested what was happening here. He told historian Tom Segev that Israel was the Middle East’s South Africa and that the solution in both places should be identical: one state with equal rights for all. His vision was realized in his own country and Goldberg returned there, crowned in glory.

Over the weekend, Mandela’s grandson, Chief Zwelivelile Mandela, wrote on WhatsApp: “we salute a great man and a leader of our struggle…he belonged to a special generation of people who chose a life of struggle over one of convenience, unafraid of the brutality of the apartheid state.” Mandela ended his words with the Hebrew words commemorating a person’s memory. Shivers and Jewish pride. He added a photo of himself with Goldberg, when the latter was already in a wheelchair.

I didn’t know him, but I did meet two of his partners to the struggle, Ronnie Kasrils, who was the Minister for Intelligence Services under Mandela, and Ben Turok, a member of parliament on behalf of the African National Congress, both of them Jewish. There aren’t many Jews as sharply critical of Israel as these two were. One can’t be a freedom fighter like they were and think otherwise. In the eyes of people like them, who know a thing or two about human rights, equality and struggle, Israel is an apartheid state just like their country was.

But no one here wants to know about Goldberg and his associates. The residence of South Africa’s ambassador in Ramat Gan has been vacant for months, a protest against the occupation and apartheid. In an ironic coincidence, Goldberg died on Israel’s Independence Day. Let us light a symbolic memorial candle in his honor.



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