December 6, 2013 · 1 Comments
By Arthur Waskow:
Today’s on-line NYTimes, “In The Day a Newly Freed Mandela Came to New York” by James Barron, glorifies New York City’s welcome to Nelson Mandela in 1990.
But James overlooks an embarrassing moment which is a blemish upon the New York Jewish community.
James recalls how on June 20, 1990 Mr. Mandela’s visit to New York was a day for hundreds of thousands of black New Yorkers to “celebrate the man who symbolized the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”
Sadly, though, not a single “mainstream” Jewish organization in New York was willing to meet with Mr. Mandela during that 1990 visit.
This is because he had criticized the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.
The community of Jewish organization’s abject ethical failure 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.
James’s article recalls how “The city was exhilarated” by Mr. Mandela’s visit and that he was scheduled to attend rallies in Harlem, the Yankee Stadium, and address the United Nations General Assembly:
The crowds were waiting for him. In Queens, some 50,000 people waited at Kennedy International Airport and along the motorcade route. About 100,000 crowded the streets in Brooklyn as he 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 that Mrs. Williams attended.
Police estimated then that 750,000 had witnessed Mr. Mandela pass through the city.
But — 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 -- New York's Jewish organizations were absent.
In response to the 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 NYPD’s racially oppressive practice of “stop and frisk.”
Outside New York as well, the strand of prophetic Judaism continues to grow. One of its exemplars, vigorously progressive Rabbi Brian Walt, grew up in South Africa, as a young man struggled against apartheid, and immigrated to the US in search of a Judaism committed to justice. He has written a reflection on Mandela, “Memories of a South-Africa-born Rabbi”:
Growing up in South Africa, a country with so much racial hatred and devastating poverty and suffering alongside extraordinary privilege and wealth, was very painful for me as a child. But I also feel profoundly blessed to have grown up in a country with moral heroes like Nelson Mandela and so many others, people who devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice and dignity for all. I am also very fortunate to have grown up in a country that went through a miraculous transformation brought about by thousands of human beings all around the world who put their lives on the line for justice. I believe that my grandson, who was named “Micah Mandela” after two great prophets when he was born this year, and all of us have much to learn from Nelson Mandela.
You can read more of Brian’s reflection at The Shalom Center.