Out Loud

Good-bye, "Madiba"

19 December 2013 By Rachel Liel


When I look back, I have no doubt that I joined the New Israel Fund because I was fortunate enough to know Nelson Mandela. So here is how it goes...

My family arrived at South Africa at the end of 1992. Nelson Mandela was almost then out of jail almost three years. The diplomatic community could already contact him and work with him. The Jewish community started making its way to Mandela - the so-called "terrorist-communist" -- whom, for so many years, they were thoroughly educated by the Apartheid regime to fear and hate.

It so happened that my beloved husband Alon was the lucky guy, chosen by Shimon Peres, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, to be the first Israeli Ambassador to South Africa. Alon was charged with carrying out the change in Israeli policy: no more cooperation with the Apartheid regime, but rather building relations with the ANC, the African National Congress headed by Nelson Mandela.

Those were times of hope also in Israel. The new Israeli government expressed its commitment to peace with the Palestinians and in September 1993 signed the Oslo Accords.

Rabin's handshake with Arafat enabled us, as Israeli diplomats, to meet with "Madiba" in private and intimate gatherings, beyond formal diplomatic encounters.

Since Mandela was always a devoted supporter of peace between Israel and Palestine, he wanted to hear from us as much as possible about the peace process and often expressed his wish to visit Israel.

Our access to Mandela was made easier also thanks to a few of his old Jewish friends, who joined his struggle for equality and helped him all along his difficult path. Mandela never forgot them and they remained his dear friends when he came out of jail and became later the president of free South Africa.

I will never forget my first meeting with Mandela: It was a small dinner at the home of his (Jewish) lawyer, Isy Meisles. We were spending 3 magical hours together…hearing many unbelievable, amazing stories from definitely the nicest "terrorist" I've ever met.

Yes, he was indeed bigger than life…his charisma, his deep understanding of the human nature, combined with his life-long struggle for democracy, inspired us in a really profound way.

And then the first democratic election in SA: Just watching the never-ending lines of Africans, waiting to vote for the first time, experiencing after so many years of oppression, a sense of pride and dignity -- I felt SO lucky to be there, experiencing great history in its making.

No doubt "Madiba" and my South African experience changed me thoroughly. It was a transformative period of time for our entire family. Mandela became one of my heroes and ignited my desire for social change and equality. I can easily say that his impact on my life was enormous and soon after we returned to Israel, I looked for an organization that works for enhancing democracy, freedom and equality. I'm blessed as my good fortune brought me to NIF/Shatil.

Thanks, "Madiba", for your inspiration - Our condolences to South Africa and the whole democratic world - May you rest in peace.

About the Author

Rachel Liel

Rachel Liel

Rachel Liel is the Executive Director of the New Israel Fund in Israel. Read more about Rachel Liel...


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