What does the Torah say about Nelson Mandela?

With Rabbi Ariel ABEL.

In recent weeks, Michelle and Barack Obama met with South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and his First Lady on an official visit to South Africa. But the most important black politician of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela, was absent.

He lay critically ill in hospital. So Obama’s status as the first black American President held less public interest in South Africa than expected. What does the Torah say about Mandela? His life was one of struggle for social justice.

Moses began his career by getting into serious trouble. He saw the cruelties of an Egyptian apartheid manifest themselves in the beating of a Hebrew and took decisive action. For this, Moses had to flee into exile and remain there until all his potential avengers had died. When Queen Esther saw that the lives of her people were in the balance, she fasted for three days, night and day and in this state approached Ahasuerus.

Her fast was as much a protest as a spiritual supplication. Similarly, Nelson Mandela went on long hunger strikes to achieve justice for his people. The prophet Jeremiah was cast into a pit, a political prison at the king’s pleasure, for daring to openly criticise the regime.

It was only the intervention of a powerful foreign diplomat that saved him. Mandela had to wait a lot longer than Jeremiah to see the light of day. Many would feel that Mandela’s identifying with the Palestinian cause and Arafat negated his value as a fighter for freedom relevant to patriotic Jews.

He referred to him as President Arafat and called him “an icon in the proper sense of the word”. He saw Arafat sitting in his compound surrounded by Israeli military hardware demolishing everything around him as just one more besieged person struggling to survive against all the odds. There were critical differences between his own struggle and that of Arafat, but Mandela did not distinguish them.

But one of the greater disappointments is the legacy of Mandela. It has not been carried through an ideal practiced by all. South Africa is crime-ridden. His family members fight among themselves quite publicly. Even the most ideal of societal revolutions descended into corruption.

The Hasmonean family assumed royalty, and rabbinic disappointment with their reaction to newly-gained power is said to be the reason for limiting their importance of the military campaigns associated with Chanukah to the prayer book and omitting them entirely from the Babylonian Talmud.

• Rabbi Ariel Abel is consultant to the For Life projects