As I write, I am watching the inter-faith prayer at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.
South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, Warren Goldstein, is invoking the universal message of forgiveness contained in the story of Joseph in Genesis. With Joseph in a position of authority in Egypt, his brothers, who sold him into slavery, fear retribution.
“Don’t be afraid”, says Joseph. “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
It is a well-chosen verse. Even non-believers like me can recognise the significance of Joseph as an emblem of great political leadership.
One man who would have done well to hear its message is Benjamin Netanyahu, whose absence from Tuesday’s ceremony in Soweto’s FNB Stadium brings great shame to Israel.
He should have been there, at the very least, to pay tribute to the long list of Jewish heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. His excuse that the trip would have been too expensive is an insult not just to the memory of Nelson Mandela, but also to Harry Schwarz, Helen Suzman, Nadine Gordimer, Albie Sachs, Denis Goldberg and Joe Slovo and all the other Jewish South Africans who fought the injustice of the apartheid.
Mr Netanyahu could also have used the occasion to distance the present Israeli government from the disgraceful period following the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when Israel made common cause with the apartheid regime.
Such was Israel’s isolation in 1976 that it even tolerated the state visit of Prime Minister John Vorster, a Nazi sympathiser.
The full story of nuclear deals between the two countries is yet to be told, although an NBC News investigation in America recently implicated Israel in helping to burnish South Africa’s tattered international reputation during this era.
There has been considerable ill-feeling between Israel and the South African trade union movement, which is among the most virulently anti-Zionist in the world. But this alone should not have been enough to prompt such an extraordinary snub.
Nelson Mandela was famously sympathetic to the Jewish cause and to Zionism as the expression of the Jewish people’s right to their own state.
He always paid tribute to his Jewish comrades in the fight against apartheid and was particularly grateful to Arthur Goldreich, a former Palmach fighter, whose farm acted as a front for the ANC headquarters on the 1960s.
Rabbi Goldstein paid Nelson Mandela the great tribute of calling him a latter-day Joseph, prepared to set aside years of bitterness and suffering for the ultimate prize: “the saving of many lives”.
For the price of an air ticket, Mr Netanyahu missed the opportunity of taking a lesson in leadership so sorely needed in the Middle East.