Mandela’s trip to Israel showed his true passion for peace
Few South Africans are aware of former president Nelson Mandela’s visit to Israel after he retired as the first democratically elected president in 1999. It is worth noting just days before celebrating Mandela Day on 18 July, as it has become a day for making a difference – however small – in our communities.
This visit is important to the Jewish community because it showed just how much Mandela lived for being a peacemaker. His reason for visiting was to see how he could further enable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Whether it was finding peace with his past oppressors or present enemies; or negotiating for peace on the global stage, Mandela was committed to solving things peacefully, and approached every situation with humanity.
“I once asked him why he wasn’t bitter,” says Marlene Bethlehem, the former chair and past president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). She is currently the president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture in New York. “He told me: ‘If I behaved like them [the people behind apartheid], I would be no better than them.’ He was a great human being – with the accent on human.”
Together with the late Russell Gaddin, who was chair of the SAJBD at the time, and the late Cyril Harris, the then chief rabbi, Bethlehem met Mandela at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, following his trip to Iran, Jordan and Syria.
He was in the region to promote peace. He chose to visit Israel at that time, following the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister, because he believed that Barak and the Israeli Labour party were more committed to the peace process than the previous regime under Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Mr Mandela had received and rejected at least four previous invitations to visit Israel since 1994, and his decision to come now was a clear endorsement of Mr Barak’s revived peace efforts,” The New York Times reported at the time.
He crossed the Allenby Bridge that connects the West Bank and Jordan, and met the SAJBD group at the hotel. “The most beautiful thing happened when we arrived,” she recalls. “Mandela said: ‘My rabbi is here. Now I feel at home in Jerusalem.’” He was referring to Harris, with whom he had a close relationship.
The group had lunch at the presidency with President Ezer Weizman, after which Mandela laid a wreath containing the South African flag at the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s grave. From there, it was a short walk to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. But the walk involved many steps, and Mandela was having trouble with his knee.
As Bethlehem describes it, he went slowly down the steps, accompanied by his physiotherapist, only to encounter a number of children at the entrance to the museum. “Mandela told them: ‘It is wonderful to see you all here. Only by visiting this sacred place will we make sure [the Holocaust] never happens again.’
“We know that Mandela had a great affinity with children,” she says. “As he was shown around Yad Vashem, suddenly we couldn’t find him. Eventually, we found him rooted to the spot in the complete darkness of the children’s section of the museum, where a candle is mirrored infinitely, representing the murder of more than a million children in the Shoah. He stayed there for ages. He seemed overcome with emotion.”
The next day, the team was required to smooth diplomatic feathers after Mandela wasn’t able to visit the Kotel due to his ailing knee. “The deputy director of foreign affairs phoned Gaddin. He was furious, saying: ‘Your Mandela won’t go to the Kotel!’ But how could Mandela have visited the Kotel, and not the Dome of the Rock or the Via Dolorosa at the same time?”
He did, however, manage to drive to the Stations of the Cross, which were important to him as a devout Methodist. “He could not do many of the stations because of his knee, but it was poignant to see Israel’s deputy director of foreign affairs explaining the Stations of the Cross to Mandela,” Bethlehem says.
On the way back, he put his arm around Bethlehem. The encounter was snapped by an entourage of photographers, who referred to her as “an identified South African tourist”. Bethlehem jokes that the incident came up in a later meeting with Mandela at which he said: “Marlene, do you recognise me?” To which she answered: “Madiba, I was the unidentified person, not you!”
Thereafter, Mandela visited Barak, and travelled to Gaza. The content of his talks with the prime minister weren’t disclosed to the South African delegation.
Bethlehem mentions that during his visit to Iran, Mandela even went as far as making enquiries about the famous missing Israeli soldier, Ron Arad, on behalf of his family, informing the delegation that Iran had no knowledge of his whereabouts. It wouldn’t be the first time he had interceded on behalf of individuals who were kidnapped and held for ransom.
“He was good at solving problems, but above all, he was a peacemaker,” she said, referring to the fact that later on, he managed to prevent South Africa from selling an important military weapon to Syria after the SAJBD interceded, advising him that it would be used on Israel. “Then vice-president Al Gore arrived a couple of months later, and wanted to talk to him about it. He said: ‘Don’t worry, I have already spoken to the Jews.’ The weapon was never sold.
“I think about Mandela on Mandela Day,” Bethlehem continues. “I love it because the whole world is sharing thoughts of his memory. Ultimately, to be in office at the same time as Madiba was the greatest privilege of my career.”
Freedom Day fight for Liliesleaf’s survival
Nicholas Wolpe, the founder and chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust, is a man on a sad, lonely mission.
Out of desperation, he has become the mouthpiece for the arts, heritage, and culture sector, one which in his view is dismally neglected and forgotten about.
Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, described as the “nerve centre of the liberation movement”, is hanging by a thread and facing permanent closure due to a funding crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
Once a hive of activity frequented by many Jewish struggle stalwarts and their famous brothers in arms during the height of the struggle, the secret safehouse turned internationally renowned place of memory, now stands forlorn and overgrown.
It was at Liliesleaf that a group of dedicated activists including Nelson Mandela were arrested during a police raid in 1963 for planning to overthrow the apartheid government. The raid led to the Rivonia Treason Trial.
Among the freedom fighters was Nicholas’ father, Harold Wolpe, Arthur Goldreich, Denis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein, and James Kantor.
“The Jewish population made up a miniscule percentage of the population and here, these activists comprised 40% of those arrested,” Wolpe told the SA Jewish Report this week.
The once popular tourist attraction hasn’t been open since last March, and like many struggle heritage sites in the country, risks closure.
“Many of our historical sites of memory, including Robben Island, have deteriorated and are a shadow of their former selves,” said Wolpe.
Like Liliesleaf, they are “either on life support or are being forced to close their doors. Some even consider auction in the hope of securing a benefactor who will ensure their survival”, he said.
Many historical sites are dilapidated and falling apart. Wolpe emphasises the repercussions should these crucial places of memory be threatened with closure.
This week, on Freedom Day, 27 April, Liliesleaf launched a crowdfunding campaign in a last-ditch attempt to keep this vital place of history afloat.
“It’s crucial that we keep the memory of the struggle against apartheid alive,” he said.
Wolpe was a baby when police raided Liliesleaf Farm on 11 July 1963, arresting the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe. His father, Harold, was one of them.
It led to the famous Rivonia Trial at which eight accused, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and Raymond Mhlaba, were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Wolpe’s parents, Harold and AnnMarie, fled into exile shortly after Harold escaped from the Marshall Square police headquarters in Johannesburg by bribing a young warder, just before the start of the Rivonia Trial. Nicholas returned to South Africa as a young man on a mission to bring those defining moments in the history of South Africa to life. He went back to Liliesleaf Farm, and created an independent site of memory.
In spite of many funding challenges, he has shown steadfast commitment and dedication to ensuring that “a unique and seminal epoch in our struggle for freedom isn’t lost and forgotten, but remembered and honoured”.
It hasn’t been easy for Wolpe.
“There exists an indifference to preserving the memory of our struggle. Current government policy doesn’t recognise independent heritage sites so they are denied access to much-needed government funding,” he said.
Places like Liliesleaf rely on donations, tourism, entrance fees, and school visits, all hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I fear that our liberation history will fade from our collective consciousness and will hold little meaning, particularly for our youth and future generations,” he said.
“Historical sites like Liliesleaf should be given the attention they deserve and the funding they desperately need. This way, the men and women who sacrificed their own lives so that the South Africans of today could enjoy the fruits of freedom will be honoured.”
He said Liliesleaf recognised the unique, ethical, and principled group of leaders who rose above self-interest and aspirations.
“Service was a fundamental aspect of what they were doing. It’s what drove them as a collective. They didn’t seek affirmation, reward, or publicity. They fought for a free, equal, just society. Together they symbolised the essence of being a servant of the people,” he said.
“South Africa is grappling with corruption, self-interest, and state capture – the very antithesis of the ideals, principles, beliefs, and aspirations of struggle heroes. Places like Liliesleaf stand as a reminder to the youth of the importance of what underpinned our struggle and what can be achieved through a unified commitment defined and underpinned by self-dedication.
“Arts, culture, and heritage is the soul of our nation, and theatres and many places like Liliesleaf are our link to the past, our connection to the present, and our bridge to our future,” Wolpe said.
“Liliesleaf has a crucial and indispensable role to play in highlighting that the Freedom Charter was not merely a statement, but a statement of intent. It was a reality as highlighted by the role individuals across the colour bar played in the fight for freedom, justice, equality, and democracy. This is why we must take a stand before it’s too late.”
The crowdfunding campaign will help to meet basic operating costs such as staff salaries and utilities. It asks people to donate R27 or R60 to commemorate 27 years of democracy, the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in prison, and the 60th anniversary, this August, since Liliesleaf was purchased. Donations can be made via the Liliesleaf website.
Kramer quits COVID advisory over “community flouting protocols”
One of the community’s top COVID-19 advisors this week lashed out at the community for flouting rules and putting lives at risk. Professor Efraim Kramer said he could no longer contribute to the safety of the community during the pandemic in light of this brazen behaviour.
“In a nutshell, I’m fed up,” Kramer told the SA Jewish Report. He said while the first surge “brought out the best in the community”, the second wave “brought out the worst in us”. His frustration has been mounting for some weeks in light of the number of deaths in the community. Last week, two members of his family passed away from COVID-19.
“I don’t care if I upset people. My aim is just to save lives. I don’t want to implicate anybody. The final straw came this week when President Cyril Ramaphosa allowed faith gatherings to take place, and people went to shul the next day. Where was the consultation? No meetings were held on how best to re-open shuls.”
Kramer is the head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and Professor of Sports Medicine at Pretoria University. He has specialised in emergency medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the Soccer World Cup in 2018. Along with other experts, he has advised the office of the chief rabbi on matters related to COVID-19 and shuls.
“I have written at least eight different protocols for things like weddings, Barmitzvahs, yom tov [gatherings], and shuls and it seems that everyone is doing what they like,” he said. “Come December, in the middle of a raging pandemic, people got in their cars or on flights and headed straight for hotspots. They flew home knowing they were infected. The results have been devastating, people have died. We’ve done this to ourselves. We’re doing it to our own.”
He said the communal leadership was “paralysed”. In a strongly worded message he sent to Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and members of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, he wrote, “Please note, with regret, that I have withdrawn from all community COVID-19 commitments and communications due to the total disregard and ignoring of the various safety protocols developed for the shuls and the community by many. I will no longer consult on any COVID-19 issue because it generally amounts to nothing as most people are still intent on doing their own thing anyway, in spite of advice to the contrary. But then, who am I to give advice anyway.”
Kramer said he had received countless complaints from members of the community afraid to attend large simchas which had been taking place “as if things are normal”. On Wednesday, he received another complaint from a community member who lamented that while a caterer was following protocols, guests were dancing, hugging, and behaving as if it was a pre-COVID-19 wedding.
“I drive past a shul every day and see countless cars outside. There have been minyanim taking place. The shuls have relaxed their protocols. I went into a bakery last week, and things were haywire. People were on top of each other using the same tongs and there was no safe distancing. It was a disgrace. As a doctor, I can’t fight this anymore. I’m going back to hospitals where at least the patients appreciate what I’m doing.
“While many people are being very careful, there are those who don’t care about the next guy. They think they are ‘holier than thou’ and Hashem will listen to their prayers. When you add up all the incidences, you get a picture of a community that doesn’t care for one another anymore. And where is the leadership when this is happening? How come nothing was said when shuls continued to open when it was against the law to do so and unsafe?”
Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at Wits and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said, “This is very disappointing news. Professor Kramer has been an absolutely invaluable member of our community medical advisory team and has devoted an incredible amount of his time and energy in drawing up protocols, inspecting shuls, and looking after the safety of functions. He is an international authority on mass gatherings and has world-class credentials which have been so valuable in managing the COVID-19 epidemic. I’m sad at the decision he has taken, but I do understand the intense frustration he is feeling at the attitudes he has come across in a small minority of our community and the disregarding of protocols to safeguard our community by a small minority of shuls and minyanim.”
Leading pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman said she understood Kramer’s frustration. “We’re all frustrated by people’s complete disregard for safety protocols as it’s so simple to follow the rules. We’re absolutely exhausted, and are tired of watching people struggle for each and every breath knowing that they should have worn a mask/should have kept a safe distance/should have avoided the gathering, and could have avoided getting COVID-19. You realise that you can give the same advice till you’re blue in the face, and people will choose to do what they want. We don’t act as judge, and never compromise our standard of care, going all out to fight for our patients’ lives.”
Said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, “I was disappointed and surprised to receive Professor Kramer’s resignation on the eve of the president’s announcement allowing for the reopening of shuls, which have been closed for more than a month. I have asked to meet with Professor Kramer to understand his specific concerns because the reports I have received since the reopening of our shuls in August 2020 indicate that the overwhelming majority of shuls have been outstanding and totally dedicated to the implementation of the health and safety protocols drafted by our full medical team.
“As a community, we will continue to be guided by Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, who remain on our medical team, as we go forward to ensure the highest standards of safety for our community. On behalf of our community, I want to thank Professor Kramer for his months of tireless volunteer work to train and prepare our shuls to function safely in this pandemic.”
Wendy Kahn, the executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “We have no knowledge about Professor Kramer’s resignation or the reasons for it. We commend him for his amazing contribution to our community.”
Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association, said he was “shocked, surprised, and upset” when he received Kramer’s message. “We are so grateful for his service, and he is so respected. He sat with every rabbi and advised us. And even though he was very strict, we listened to him!
“I know that all shuls have followed his protocols with proper distancing, screening, hand sanitising, and masks – this is being enforced. I also know there have been private minyanim not under our jurisdiction where I believe there were minimal to nil protocols. On behalf of the rabbonim and shuls, I say that we are doing the best we can. It’s sad that people have acted this way leading to this decision, but we will continue to be vigilant.”
Joburg – city of architects and dreamers
In spite of its reputation for being the “engine room” of the country, Johannesburg has many elegant, experimental buildings designed by Jewish architects.
Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird and Brian McKechnie recently took viewers on a virtual tour of many of these buildings, downtown and uptown. Some of them have fallen into disrepair, but they are still a testament to innovation, and continue to contribute to the lives of those who live and work in them.
The tour, unusually, linked the buildings to their creators’ graves at Westpark Cemetery, with epitaphs contributing to our understanding of who they were.
“This tour was inspired by encountering the graves of architects whose work I loved,” Bird said, pointing out that a virtual tour allows us to traverse the large Westpark Jewish Cemetery with ease.
It started with Morrie (MJ) Jacob, who died in 1950. Jacob designed the Doornfontein Synagogue (1905) otherwise known as the Lions Shul, named for the bronze lions on either side of the stairs. In its day, Doornfontein was a desirable address for Jews. Though today the shul is squashed up against Joe Slovo Drive with an ugly fence, it’s still loved for its beauty and unusual touches like minarets, stone columns, and basilica-like space.
Another one of Jacob’s buildings, Cohn’s Pharmacy in Pageview (1906), is an example of the city’s obsession with corner buildings, which tended to be far more elegant and accentuated than those in the middle of the block. Jacob’s Jewish Guild War Memorial building in the old city centre (1922/23) is a pile of an Edwardian building which also celebrates its corner status.
Israel Wayburne (1983) is known, among other things, for employing famous activist and communist Rusty Bernstein. He’s responsible for a number of the maisonette flats (two down, two up) in Yeoville.
“Each building contributes to an interesting and varied landscape [compared, say, to monotonous Fourways],” said Bird.
One of his most well-known buildings is, in fact, the ohel at Westpark, which has a religious and aesthetic function (in spite of an unsightly drainpipe addition at the front). “Luckily Issie doesn’t have to see it as his grave is on the other side of the building,” Bird commented.
Louis Theodore Obel (1956), who was in partnership with his brother, Mark, was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – as were many of the architects mentioned. Obel and Obel made a great contribution to art deco architecture, including the Barbican Building (1930), which was the tallest building in Johannesburg at the time, Astor Mansions, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers, and Beacon Royale flats (1934), at the bottom of Yeoville on Louis Botha Avenue.
Maurice Cowen (1990) contributed to the decorative facades of many of Joburg’s best-known schools, including Parktown Girls and Jeppe Boys, and the panels gracing 1930s-era Dunvegan Chambers, Roehampton Court, Shakespeare House, and Broadcast House in the Johannesburg CBD. The latter was the original home of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The crazy antennae designed for the top of this building didn’t have any real function, McKechnie said, though it copied the antennae on top of the BBC, and there was briefly the idea of using it to dock airships.
Another Wits graduate, Leopold Grinker (1973), was an anti-establishment figure who disliked modernism. Grinker’s Normandie Court (1937) in Delvers Street, Newtown, combines art deco with his obsession with the streamlined form of ships. So too does Daventry Court in Killarney (also built in the 1930s), which was Killarney’s first modern block of flats.
Harold Leroith (also a Wits’ alma mater) is best known for designing Temple Emanuel in Parktown (1954). This minimalist, modern building has concrete recesses which make it sculptural and provide shade for its windows. It also shows concern for materials like stone and face brick.
Leroith also designed Redoma Court, which architects consider one of Johannesburg’s best buildings, and the iconic, shiplike San Remo (1937) Both are sadly in a dilapidated state in Yeoville.
Monty Sack, an architect and artist and another Wits graduate, (2009), incorporated the work of artists in Killarney Hills built on top of Killarney Ridge, built to house actors for the studio of American financier Isidore Schlesinger.
Sidney Abramowitch (2016) passionately lobbied to save Joburg’s historical buildings such as the Markham Building, and is known for designing Innes Chambers in 1963, now used by the National Prosecuting Authority. This unusual building with Y-shaped columns representing the scales of justice, was covered with mosaics, which recently had to be painstakingly restored.
Lastly, the tour touched on the work of Gerald Gordon (2016), also a Wits graduate, who the group described as “an outstanding brain who was unable to limit himself to any single factor”. Gordon, who incubated many of South Africa’s best-known architects in his many years of lecturing at Wits, is best known for designing mountain houses on Linksfield Ridge, such as 7 New Mountain Road (early 70s), which literally cling to the edges of cliffs.
He’s also known for developing a new construction method he named “thin-skin architecture” which uses no bricks and is extremely strong because of its monocoque construction (a type of construction used in cars and aeroplanes).
Like many others, the brilliance and bravery of these Jewish architects leaves a legacy that can’t be eradicated.
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