In 1990, Nelson Mandela was invited to come to the United States to receive the hero’s welcome he so richly deserved. There was a planned a ticker tape parade in New York City, congratulatory rallies, meetings with important political figures and extensive media coverage. However, because of his warm relationships with Gaddafi and Arafat and statements he made about Israel as an occupier of the Palestinian homeland, there was concern among some leaders in the Black community, that his visit to New York City would not get the whole hearted participation from the Jewish Community it warranted.
At a minimum, they wanted to avoid large-scale protest demonstrations by Jewish activists that could mar the excitement of his visit. Through an approach to Henry Siegman, Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, African American activists Harry Belafonte, Roger Wilkins and Randall Robinson, together with Lindiwe Mabuzza, the African National Congress’ chief representative in Washington, helped arrange a meeting between Mandela and Jewish representatives led by AJCongress, in Geneva, Switzerland. The aim was to discuss the Israel-Palestinian conflict to see whether there was a way of framing an approach that would allow the celebration to go on without incident.
I felt strongly that it was important to avoid demonstrations by Jewish organizations. First, because Mandela fully deserved the applause and recognition he would receive here for his courage, his broad perspective and his leadership without any actions that would detract from his appreciation. Second, I was concerned that demonstrations by members of the Jewish community would not only harm Black-Jewish relations, but would also create a negative view of American Jews in the general population.
The meeting with Mandela was held in a small, nondescript hotel in the Geneva countryside. Mr. Mandela was accompanied by some of his key colleagues, including Thabo Mbeki, then ANC Foreign Minister. Despite the pressures on Mandela and concerns about his health, the meeting lasted two and a half hours.
We were dealing with a sensitive issue. It was clear from the outset that Mandela was unhappy with the meeting and did not want to be seen as backing away from positions he had taken. In this he had strong support from his colleagues. On our part, out of the great respect we had for Mandela and all that he stood for, we did not want him to be thought of as having changed his positions just to satisfy those who disagreed with him. But, at the same time, we wanted to be able to develop a statement from him and honestly report a dialogue that would take the sting out of his earlier statements.
Mr. Mandela lived up to everything I had read about him and more. I wrote in my Occasional Letter #17 following the meeting, that he was “the genuine article.” Courtly and polite at all times, with an old-world charm, he had the nice quality of focusing his entire attention on the person speaking to him. He was very articulate with a straight-forward unembroidered way of conveying his thoughts. He spoke with warmth and sincerity and reached out for understanding and reconciliation. Yet, it was clear that when his core positions were in issue, he was steel encased in velvet. “He is a man of great integrity, with the courage of his convictions,” I wrote.
He made abundantly clear his deep and abiding gratitude to the many South African Jews who helped him over the years, starting with his first job as an apprentice as an attorney to a Jewish law firm that waived the usual 500 pound fee for his apprenticeship. He went on to name leading Jews, who, as his associates in the ANC and outside, supported him in his struggle against apartheid and in his fight with the South African government. He told us that Gaddafi originally conditioned his financial help to the ANC on the ANC’s willingness to disassociate itself from South African Jews but recognized that Mandela would not succumb to such pressure. He also told us that he had learned much from the way David Ben Gurion fought the British and won a homeland for Jews and from Menachem Begin, whom he admired for his toughness in leading the Irgun. He was grateful, too, to Golda Meir for her early denunciation of apartheid.
With respect to Israel and the Palestinians, he noted that he unequivocally recognized Israel, not only as a de facto entity but its de jure right to exist as a state behind secure borders. But those borders, he stated, were the borders before the 1967 war. He saw Israel as an occupier and analogized Israel’s occupation to South Africa’s treatment of its black population, both in taking over their lands and in the use of force to repress any counter efforts. Repeatedly, he said that the only path to peace in the Middle East lay in direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He was grateful to Arafat and Gaddafi for their friendship and support for the ANC when it was all but abandoned by others.