top of page


We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist…”


Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a friend of the Jewish community and has a long association that goes back as far as his earliest visits to Johannesburg. Mandela’s first job in law was at a Jewish firm and much of his team at his various trials were Jews and his fellow accused were Jews as well. Mandela’s high ranking comrades, such as Duma Nokwe, and Walter Sisulu visited Israel early on in the struggle and Mandela would many years later as well. Mandela was a recipient of an honorary doctorate from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. 

In his biography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela has a number of Jewish related references. He says, for example, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” He also says that he took inspiration from legendary Israeli freedom fighter Menachem Begin to help organise the ANC’s armed response to apartheid. 


“I read The Revolt by Menachem Begin and was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forests, a situation similar to our own. I was eager to know more about the armed struggle of the people of Ethiopia against Mussolini, and of the guerrilla armies of Kenya, Algeria, and the Cameroons.”


His advisors included veterans of the Palmach, Arthur Goldreich, the elite fighting unit of what became the Israeli Defence Force. 


“Arthur’s presence provided a safe cover for our activities. Arthur was an artist and designer by profession, a member of the Congress of Democrats and one of the first members of MK. His politics were unknown to the police and he had never before been questioned or raided. In the 1940s, Arthur had fought with the Palmach, the military wing of the Jewish National Movement in Palestine. He was knowledgeable about guerrilla warfare and helped fill many gaps in my knowledge.”


These ideas were incorporated into the structure of the ANC armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, something that Mandela highlighted in his Rovinian trial speech. 


“Within the framework of the policy laid down by the National High Command, the Regional Commands had the authority to select the targets to be attacked. They had no authority to go beyond the prescribed framework and thus had no authority to embark upon acts that endangered life, or which did not fit into the overall plan of sabotage. For instance, Umkhonto members were forbidden ever to go armed into operation. Incidentally, the terms High Command and Regional Command were an importation from the Jewish national underground organization Irgun Zvai Leumi, which operated in Israel between 1944 and 1948.”

Mandela and the Jewish Community

Mandela Visit to Israel 

In 1999 Nelson Mandela made a visit to Israel saying that he was doing so in support of the new government and its moderate positioning. As part of the visit, Mandela met with a number of dignitaries including Israeli President Ezer Weizman, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, as well as Jewish members of the anti-apartheid struggle from around the world. There was pressure from some quarters in South Africa for Mandela not to go to Israel but he ignored these voices and saw the visit as a means of spreading the values of the reconciliation that he was so closely associated with. 

It is well known that the ANC was a friend to the Palestinians but that didn’t stop Mandela from supporting Israel’s right to exist. This was something that he put on record a number of times saying:

“I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders”. Nelson Mandela in Israel, 1999

And In his keynote address to 1993, SA Jewish Board of Deputies' national conference, Mandela summed up his, and indeed the ANC's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "As a movement, we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination." 

Mandela in Israel
Worlds End South Africa

Honorary Doctorate from Ben Gurion University

President Mandela was delighted to receive an honorary doctorate from the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

Master of Ceremonies;
President of the Ben Gurion University;
President of the South African Associates of the University;
Chief Rabbi Harris;
Distinguished Guests;
Ladies and Gentlemen

Although I have on a number of occasions had the privilege of receiving honorary academic degrees, because of my position, each award is unique in its meaning. And it is always a humbling experience.

Such occasions, in both the giving and the receiving, affirm shared aspirations and hopes. They pledge a common commitment to the values that define particular institutions, peoples or struggles.

In Ben-Gurion University of the Negev we have a centre of excellence which represents the best in the traditions of the Jewish people: a sense of mission; internationalism; inventiveness. It is an institution that gives inspiration through its chosen mission, summed up in the words of the prophecy: “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.”

This bold confidence in the capacity of humans to transform barren and hostile conditions into their opposite, is bearing welcome fruit across the world through the university’s support for development programmes in countries challenged by arid conditions.

South Africa’s reconstruction and development programme is high on the list of the beneficiaries of Ben-Gurion University’s expertise, thanks to the efforts of the University’s South African Associates. In this, they are carrying on a long tradition of contribution to our national life by South African Jewry.

Ladies and gentlemen;
Although you are bestowing an honorary Doctorate on me, I do know that it is not any personal achievement that is being given recognition. Rather it is the triumph of the whole South African nation. They have turned apartheid’s desert of division and conflict into a society where all can work together to make the people of our Rainbow Nation blossom.

I humbly accept the award on their behalf, in the fervent hope that what we have achieved will serve as a symbol of peace and reconciliation, and of hope, wherever communities and societies are in the grip of conflict.

South Africa does not believe it can solve the problems of others. But we do believe that our own humble experience has shown that negotiated solutions can be found even to conflicts that have come to seem intractable and that such solutions emerge when those who have been divided reach out to find the common ground.

That experience confirmed for us that in situations of conflict such actions are the special responsibility of leaders; and that when they act in this way they lessen tensions and create the conditions for the good men and women who exist amongst all people, communities and parties to work together in the interests of all.

That is why amongst our fondest memories is the meeting, so filled with promise for the Middle East, of President Ezer Weizmann and then-Chairman Yasser Arafat, during the inauguration of South Africa’s first democratic government in 1994.

That was why the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was at once so shocking and yet still unable to extinguish the hope which had been engendered by the peace process.

And that was why we were so honoured last year to receive Shimon Peres in South Africa, as a man whose courageous contribution to the peace process remains an inspiration.

Today, we cannot but share the anxiety of all who are concerned for peace, at the loss of momentum; at the erosion of trust; at the halting of the implementation of the accord; and at the rising level of tensions in which extremism on either side thrives.

Today, at the end of a century which has seen such a desert of devastation caused by horrific wars, a century which at last has gained much experience in the peaceful resolution of conflicts, we must ask: Is this a time for war; is this a time for sending young men to their death!

As we have done before, we appeal to all those concerned to follow the path laid out in the Oslo Agreement towards its goals of peace and security for all.

We admire the efforts that are being made by Palestinian and Israeli citizens to transcend the historical divide and thereby lessen the tensions endangering the process. May their courageous message of peace and partnership be heard throughout the communities they are seeking to unite, across the Middle East and further afield, including here in our own country of South Africa. May their noble actions serve as a force of example, for us, whoever and wherever we are, to make our voices heard in support of reason, rationality and integrity in dealing with this complex situation.

Ladies and gentlemen;
For South Africa, peace, democracy and freedom brought the opportunity at last to address the basic needs of our people, and to bring the improvements to their lives without which our peace would be fragile and our freedom hollow.

The ending of apartheid has brought peace to our whole region and allowed the countries of Southern Africa to work together to realise the potential of development through co-operation. It has allowed us to join the international community of nations in striving for world peace and prosperity.

We are proud to welcome so many distinguished visitors to our country, so that you can sense for yourselves the pride of a nation that is united in working to overcome the legacy of our divided past, through reconstruction and development.

We have only just begun this task, whose difficulties we do not underestimate and which will take us years to achieve. But we face the future with confidence, knowing that those who are ready to join hands can overcome the greatest challenges.

Our welcome to you is made all the warmer by your association with an institution which has embraced a mission of international partnership for development.

We welcome you too for your links with a community which has made a unique and indispensable contribution to our nation.

The award which you bestow on me today, and through me on the people of South Africa, is treasured for the same reasons. May I thank you once more for this great honour, from the bottom of my heart.

And may we always be partners in turning deserts into gardens of peace and prosperity.
I thank you.

Issued by: Office of the President

Honorary Doctorate

JTA — 1994

Mandela said that the prophets of doom, who had predicted widespread anarchy should an ANC government come to power, have been proved wrong. Mandela also stated that the empowerment of the country’s black, coloured and Indian population will not be at the expense of the white community.

An elated Smith, who later described the morning’s events to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as “a high point” and “a peak in Jewry’s relationship with the new South Africa,” pledged the Jewish community’s support to Mandela. “The Jewish community of this country is committed to playing a full role in supporting you and the elected government in establishing a non-racist, non-sexist, democratic South Africa,” said Smith, addressing Mandela.

“The determination of South Africans from all walks of life to make the transition work was never more manifest than in the last week,” Smith said. The Board of Deputies and the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation each made a presentation to Mandela “as a token of respect and admiration on his election as the first State President of a new democratic South Africa.”

Mandela was scheduled to be present at talks later this week between Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Arafat, both of whom travelled to South Africa for Tuesday’s inauguration ceremonies.

The largest synagogue in the Southern hemisphere — Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation — was packed to capacity last Saturday to welcome South African President-elect Nelson Mandela to a Shabbat service there. As Mandela addressed the congregation on the first Saturday after his election, cheering crowds of all races lined the street outside. And inside, some members of the congregation were sporting yarmulkes in the black, green, and gold colours of the newly empowered African National Congress.

The congregants heard Mandela make an appeal from the pulpit for Jewish expatriates to return to South Africa. Pointedly excluding aliyah by saying he understands the Jewish community’s commitment to Israel, Mandela said: “We want those who left (for other countries) because of insecurity to come back and to help us to build our country.” He added that those who do not return should contribute their money and skills to South Africa.

Mandela thanked the Jewish community for its contribution toward the development of South Africa and assured Jews they have nothing to fear from a government of national unity. He said he felt an affinity with the Jewish community since it was a Jewish firm that gave him an apprenticeship in the early days of his law career when discrimination was rife.

He also said that he had befriended his Jewish defence counsel during the treason trial which led to his imprisonment in the 1950s and that he was still in contact with the lawyer. He stated that he recognizes the right to existence of the State of Israel, along with the right of Palestinians to live in their own homeland.

He noted that he considered it significant that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat last week signed an agreement in Cairo implementing Palestinian self-rule — the same week that South Africa elected its new leadership.

At the reception following the service, some of the younger members of the congregation raised clenched fists in solidarity with the ANC, while the shul choir led in the singing of the country’s new national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ IAfrika.” Mandela later addressed the media from the steps of the synagogue, where he was flanked by Israeli Ambassador Alon Liel; South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Jack Steinhorn; and the national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Mervyn Smith.

JTA - 1994
Questions? Contact us.

Thanks for your message!

Contact Us

The South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) was established to go out and evaluate the possibility of engaging with other faith, cultural and ethnic groups in the interests of building a broader grass roots support base for Israel in South Africa.


  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
bottom of page