By Vivian WINEMAN, President of the Board of Deputies for British Jews.
As the world mourns Nelson Mandela, it is appropriate to add a perspective from the Board. We are proud to have hosted many leaders and statesmen, but receiving Mandela in April 2000 was one of our finest hours.
The dinner chair responsible was Flo Kaufmann. With Mandela, we were given a mere 17 days’ notice of his visit to London and his desire through the Board to address the Jewish world in general and British Jewry in particular.
The dinner, sponsored by Investec and attended also by Sweden’s then-prime minister Goran Persson, was not used by the Board as a fund raiser. The political significance was crucial.
I recall Mandela’s speech very well. His message was friendly but firm. He was a supporter and friend of Israel. As a victim of apartheid, he had no truck with calling Israel an apartheid state.
He called on the Palestinians and the other people of the region to recognise Israel and the Jewish nation’s right to statehood and to embrace us in friendship.
On the other hand, he was a supporter of the two-state solution and a clear and forceful advocate of territorial concessions. If his attitude to Israel was friendly, his feelings for Jewish people generally were quite effusive.
He recalled how his first job was working for a Jewish firm and admired the way we look after our own community but were also sympathetic to the concerns of non-Jews in general and the struggle of black South Africans in particular.
He reminded us of the need to continue to do this. Mandela was genuinely a critical friend. His exhortation to us to look outwards, while maintaining our support of our own institutions, is what the Board has tried energetically to do in the past few years and hopefully will continue to do.
It is a message we should all take to heart.