In ’90, the Jewish establishment refused to embrace Mandela– and failed to represent the community


This post was published yesterday on Muzzlewatch, a project of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

JVP joins with people and communities across the globe in expressing our admiration, love, and gratitude for Nelson Mandela, a giant in the struggle for justice and an inspiration to us all.

Had Muzzlewatch existed 23 years ago when Mandela, newly released from prison, made a thrilling visit to New York, the shameful response of the “official” Jewish community would have been the lead story here for days. While 750,000 New Yorkers of all sorts poured into the streets to cheer this courageous hero, the Jewish establishment sat out the festivities. Why? Muzzlewatch readers need no hints: This world leader who sat in jail for 27 years for fighting apartheid was not an acceptable Zionist.

His visit coincided with the moment we were co-founding the NY-based organization, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and we were disgusted that the Jewish establishment announced that they were withholding their welcome of him to our city unless he satisfied them on his support for Israel. It was a stark demonstration of the way rightleaning Israel politics were skewing Jewish participation in progressive causes here — which is part of why we formed JFREJ. We decided that our inaugural event should be a symbolic welcome of Mandela from the substantial wing of the Jewish community that was happy and grateful to embrace him.

More than 1,000 people from across the city attended the Shabbat service and celebration of his achievement. Among the speakers: Harry Belafonte, Henry Schwarzschild, Grace Paley, and the ANC representative, Susan Mnumzama, with a closing song by Bernice Johnson Reagon. The service was led by Rabbis Marshall Meyer, Rolando Matalon, and Balfour Brickner.

We raised $30,000 to present to the ANC that evening, along with a statement applauding Mandela “as a moral voice for peace, justice, and self-determination for all peoples.”

We managed to get word out in other ways, too. JFREJ founding board member Alisa Solomon landed an op-ed in the New York Times (despite the NYT editors’ cautious hands, what was a radical critique in the mainstream media at the time could today have been penned by J Street).

We share her text and the rousing remarks of Harry Belafonte below.


Belafonte’s Remarks on Mandela

This post first appeared on Muzzlewatch earlier today.

About Donna Nevel

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a coordinator of the Participatory Action Research Center (PARCEO). She is a long-time organizer for justice in Palestine/Israel; against Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism; and for a just public education system. She is a founding member of Jews Say No!, the Nakba Education Project, and the Network Against Islamophobia, and is on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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