Jewish groups have mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president.
Mandela, 95, died after years of failing health. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and was the first democratically elected president in post-apartheid South Africa, holding the position from 1994 to 1999.
In a statement, B’nai B’rith International wrote that Mandela “will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s leading figures and the man who led the transformation of his country from one of apartheid to majority rule.”
As president, Mandela worked to create a multicultural society after years of minority rule. His new government in post-apartheid South African wrote a new constitution, investigated human rights abuses by the previous regime, tackled the issue of racism in his country and focused on helping the poor and disenfranchised.
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The president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), Ronald S. Lauder, has called Mandela “unquestionably the most inspiring human rights advocate of our times”.
Mandela was one of those very rare leaders who were revered not just by their own people but universally, across all political and communal divides. As a builder of bridges, he was second to none, and with his huge charisma, wisdom, democratic convictions and tremendous determination he ensured that the transition of his country from an apartheid state into a free and democratic nation was successful.
In Cape Town, the WJC Policy Council co-chairman Mervyn Smith, who also serves as head of the African Jewish Congress and is a past president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said:
Mandela, from his young days as a lawyers’ clerk in Johannesburg, had a close relationship with South African Jews. During his trial from 1956 to 1961 and thereafter, he was defended by many Jewish lawyers and advocates. After his release from prison, he met with the leadership of the Jewish community frequently and counted many South African Jews as his personal friends.
The president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), Rabbi Steve Gutow, said that, “In his life, Mandela came to embody courage in the face of severe injustice. He stood up against some of the vilest discrimination and inspired all those who share in the belief that every human is created in the image of the Divine.”
The JCPA chair, Larry Gold, said that, “The American Jewish community saw in Mandela and his fight against apartheid the same universal struggle for equality that galvanized us during the American civil rights movement.”
Apartheid will be remembered among human history’s worst crimes. However, instead of violence or hate, that chapter — thanks in large part to Mandela — will be remembered for the peaceful transition away from injustice. He was truly an example for us all and will be deeply missed.