Following the passing of Nelson Mandela last week, there has been an outpouring of grief from around the world. U.S. President Barack Obama said Mandela “achieved more than can be expected of any man”; French President Francois Hollande said “Mandela’s message will continue to inspire fighters for freedom”; while former Irish President Mary Robinson said that Mr. Mandela “represented the best of our values.”
From the messages posted on social media to the statements made by world leaders, it seems Mandela’s life resonated with people the world over, regardless of race, gender, age or location. His single-minded focus, tireless drive and spirit of forgiveness inspired people who face a struggle on an individual or political level.
As the world grieves a great man, perhaps it could be argued that Mandela’s demise is felt especially keenly within the Middle East.
Since the earliest days of his imprisonment, Madiba (the nickname given to Mandela by the South African people) identified closely with the Palestinian cause and the plight of the Palestinian people moved him greatly. The Israeli ambassador to South Africa Alon Liel has been quoted by the BBC as saying that Mandela told him, “You change your attitude towards the Palestinians; we will open a new page with Israel."
According to an article in the Arutz Sheva, Mr. Mandela declared as recently as 1990 that “We do not regard the PLO as a terrorist organization. If one has to refer to any parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government because they are the people who are slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories”
However, Mandela was not an enemy of Israel or the Jewish people - his contention with Israel was closely related to the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Mandela was a great friend of the Jewish people and had a special place in his heart for many individuals of South Africa's Jewish community who helped him in his early years, like Mr. Arthur Goldreich, the white Jewish ANC activist who helped hide Mr. Mandela as a young man.
Given Mandela’s lifelong commitment to the Palestinian cause, it is no surprise that the Middle East has been especially saddened at Mandela’s passing. In addition, people across Arabia have long hoped (and are still hoping) that events like the Arab Spring produce a leader like Mandela and the change that he caused in South Africa.
Among other displays of mourning, the Jenin-based Freedom Theatre announced that it will be dedicating its upcoming performances of The Island as a tribute to Mandela – the play focuses on the plight of Palestinian political prisoners and is based on a true story set during the years of apartheid.
And in a far humbler (but yet equally heartfelt) tribute, the Al Bawaba team has put together this slideshow that casts a look back at Mandela and his involvement with different countries of the Middle East. President Obama said that “Mandela no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.”