While the press focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to attend the memorial service to honour Mandela at FNB Stadium, it failed to give due credit to the high-level Israeli delegation that did attend. It is especially notable and poignant that this delegation comprised human-rights protagonists and activists. Leading the delegation of five Knesset members was Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of Israel’s parliament. As a former “prisoner of conscience” he says that “I had the privilege of meeting Mandela as a minister in 1996, and we shared experiences from prison and the fight for our rights”.

Edelstein was a “prisoner of Zion”, in the former Soviet Union, for the crime of teaching Hebrew. He describes his prison experience as follows: “I was sent to a labour camp in Burtiya near the Mongolian border. We were assigned to hard labour and I was injured. I was transferred from one prison camp hospital to another, first in Burtiya and then in Novosibirsk, where I underwent surgery. After the operation, I was due to be transferred back to Burtiya, but my wife was alerted and declared that she would go on hunger strike until she died, if I were returned there. So I remained in the Novosibirsk camp until my release in May 1985.”

Edelstein was accompanied by Knesset member Penina Tamanu-Shata (Yesh Atid party), the first Ethiopian-born woman to be elected into Israel’s parliament. She was rescued at the age of three by “Operation Moses”, a covert Israeli organised aerial rescue of Ethiopia’s lost tribe of Jews. Having experienced the difficulties of absorption as an immigrant in a foreign land with a foreign culture and language, she has dedicated herself to improving the lives of new immigrants to Israel.

Nitzan Horowitz, of the Meretz party, recently unsuccessfully contested to be mayor of Tel Aviv, on the ticket of being the first openly gay mayoral incumbent of any city in the Middle East. Horowitz, a former television journalist who as a lawmaker has largely championed social issues and advocated for African migrants who have flocked to Tel Aviv.

“The task of improving policy toward gays in the Jewish state is very challenging, because this is a country, a region with a lot of problems concerning the gay community, discrimination, even violence,” Horowitz said.

Due to the combined efforts of Horowitz and others, Israel’s military made inroads decades ago by conscripting gay men and women alongside other 18-year-olds for mandatory service.

Gila Gamliel, a representative of the Likud party, is an Eastern or Mizrachi Jew. Her father’s family, the Gamliels, are a big family of Yemenite Jews in Gila’s birthplace Gedera. Her mother is a Libyan Jew, originating from Tripoli.

Hilik Bar from the Labour party, wants to cut defence spending and increase spending on welfare. He is dedicated to reducing the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Israel by increasing spending on poor neighbourhoods.

Dov Lipman is an Orthodox Rabbi in the secular Yesh Atid political party who wishes to introduce religion and spirituality in schools. “Let Israel become the beacon of light to the entire world from where Jews openly and proudly declare to be one nation under God.”

The South African press in the meantime completely overlooked the absence of leaders from two of the Brics nations, an alliance of which South Africa is a member and with which it has very close relations. China announced that it would send a vice-president, Li Yuanchao, and not President Xi Jinping, while Russia failed to send either President Vladimir Putin or its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

Without being mischievous, it would have been completely peculiar for these two states where human rights are almost completely ignored to attend the funeral of a world icon that stood for human rights.


Ben Levitas

Ben Levitas

Ben studied at Wits, the Hebrew University, London School of Economics and University of Pretoria. He has two master’s degrees and has written four books on anthropology. He was the founding member of...

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