Mandela: He fought for our place in the rainbow nation
NELSON MANDELA: 1918-2013
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Rabbi Cyril Harris
Nelson Mandela’s close friendship with South African Jews has been remembered at a series of memorial services in the country.
One of the former president’s strongest bonds was with the country’s ex-chief rabbi, the late Cyril Harris, whose widow led the tributes to Mr Mandela.
Ann Harris said the men had been “allies”, drawn together by their determination to include Jews in post-apartheid South Africa.
Former president Thabo Mbeki spoke in front of around 1,000 people at a memorial service at Johannesburg’s Oxford Street synagogue on Monday, with around 750 people attending a service at Cape Town’s Gardens Shul the same day.
Mrs Harris told the Cape Town service of Mr Mandela’s insistence on becoming patron of the Afrika Tikkun charity her husband co-founded.
Recalling the relationship, Mrs Harris said Mr Mandela had been desperate for them to attend his secret wedding to Graça Machel in 1998. But the marriage took place on a Shabbat, and so Rabbi Harris told Mr Mandela that they could not attend.
“Madiba [clan name used affectionately of Mr Mandela] worked out a compromise,” explained Mrs Harris. “On erev Shabbat at 4pm, when the wedding was still under wraps, we were invited to his house. Cyril explained to them the concept of a chupah and then he blessed them. A l’chaim was served and they waved us off to shul around the corner just in time for Shabbat.”
Mrs Harris concluded her eulogy: “Go well and in peace, Madiba, to the place which is assured for you in the world to come — I am sure that your rabbi is waiting there to welcome you.”
Mr Mandela developed his first friendships with Jews while studying law at the University of the Witwatersrand. Many would later play pivotal roles in the fight for justice in South Africa. He repeatedly acknowledged the disproportionate role Jews played in the fight against apartheid. “I have found Jews more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice,” he said.
Thirteen of his fellow defendants in the infamous Treason Trial were Jews, among them close friends Lionel Bernstein, Joe Slovo and Arthur Goldreich, while Jewish lawyers including Israel Maisels and Sydney Kentridge led Mr Mandela’s defence.
During his imprisonment on Robben Island, Mr Mandela read Anne Frank’s diary. Accepting an award from the Anne Frank House after his release, he said her book “reinforced our confidence in the invincibility of the cause of freedom and justice”.
Speaking to the JC after the memorial service, Mrs Harris said that many Jewish institutions had “fallen over themselves” not to tackle apartheid. “There were Jews who acted in the most outstanding ways, but they were not part of the mainstream community.”
In the UK, New North London Synagogue held a remembrance discussion last Shabbat, and the North Western Reform Synagogue is due to hold a memorial on Sunday evening.