Mandela, the Jews, & the Future: WHICH Jews?
Seeking Peace or Refusing in 1990,
Seeking Peace or Refusing Now
Last week, the NY Times ran an article called
"In The Day a Newly Freed Mandela Came to New York" which glorified
New York City's welcome to Nelson Mandela in 1990.
But the Times overlooked an empty chair at the welcome table. Not a single "mainstream" Jewish organization in New York was willing to meet with Mr. Mandela during that 1990 visit.
That was because he had criticized the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
This abject ethical failure by the "official" line-up of Jewish organizations was a rejection of the broadest human ethical standards, as well as a denial of the prophetic tradition at the heart of Torah from the resistance to Pharaoh forward.
Perhaps more important, it was not only a blemish upon the New
York Jewish community thirteen years ago, but raises some
continuing profound questions about the stance of the American
For the same reasons Jewish "officialdom" shunned Mandela's pursuit of peace and justice 13 years ago, today it is shunning the search for peace and security today -- peace and security for and among Israel, Iran, and theUSA today.
At the end of this essay, The Shalom Center and I are
asking you to act on behalf of the Torah's command to "seek peace
and pursue it." To walk step by step along the path that we
honor Mandela for learning to walk.
Back in 1990, some 50,000 people waited at Kennedy International Airport and along the motorcade route. About 100,000 crowded the streets in Brooklyn as Mandela approached a high school for an appearance; 400,000 packed the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan as the ticker-tape parade passed by; and 200,000 jammed the ceremony outside City Hall.
But New York's Jewish organizations were absent -- except for one small Jewish school named for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and committed to his prophetic values, whose faculty and students marched in the ticker-tape parade. You can see them in this photo provided us by Rabbi Jonah Geffen, who was then himself a young student at the Heschel School:
In response to this failure of official Jewry, an ad hoc group
of progressive Jews emerged, and not only responded to Mandela but
went on to create a vigorous organization, "Jews for Racial and
Economic Justice (JFREJ)."
JFREJ remains vital and important in NYC. It has, for example, been deeply involved in the struggle to end the NY Police Department's racially oppressive practice of "stop and frisk."
Outside New York as well, the strand of prophetic Judaism continues to grow. The Shalom Center, of course, which opened in 1983, continues to define ourselves in exactly those terms, trying to live up to that vision --
- in the activist path of the ancient prophets like Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah;
- in the ancient rabbis -- Akiba, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel , Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest, and seven others who were tortured to death by the Roman Empire for teaching and doing Torah;
- in Rabbi David Einhorn who in the 1850s was driven out of Baltimore by his own congregants because he called for the abolition of slavery;
- in Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel, who in the 20th century struggled against oppression of the Jews and oppression by the Jews.
But the "sha shtill" syndrome -- "Keep quiet!" -- still
afflicts some major elements of American Jewish life. Not only did
the New York Times fail to mention this space
that the official Jewish world left empty in 1990; so did
the Forward, America's leading
The Forward honored Mandela's memory and
celebrated the warm relationship that emerged --- but only after
the end of Apartheid -- between him as President of South
Africa and the South African Jewish
The Forward even published an article by Judge Richard Goldstone, one of the few Jewishly focused South Africans who struggled against Apartheid, reminding us that till Apartheid collapsed most of the organized Jewish community there supported it or stood silent.
But the Forward failed to mention, let alone analyze, the 1990 failure of the American Jewish community.
And it is the analysis that is important. For the past is not only the past; it is really the present and future as well.
What is the analogous issue today? Not Mandela, of course: since he succeeded in leading the transformation of South Africa by peaceful means, official American Jewish organizations today are glad to honor him.