Nelson Mandela Was a Revolutionary—and These Jews Made Common Cause With Him
With a new biopic commemorating his long struggle against apartheid, remembering the children of European refugees who helped
In 1963, after South African police arrested six Jews and seven blacks in a raid on an African National Congress hideout in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia—a sweep that eventually landed Nelson Mandela in prison for more than 25 years—a white nationalist newspaper asked whether Jews were unhappy in South Africa. The community’s Board of Deputies responded unequivocally that the opposite was true, promising that South Africa’s Jews were loyal and patriotic. “No part of the community can or should be asked to accept responsibility” for the actions of a few, the board insisted in its official reply.
In time, of course, Mandela became a hero, and the actions of those few became a point of pride for South African Jews. Beginning with his years at Johannesburg’s more or less integrated University of the Witwatersrand—aka “Wits”—and later as an apprentice to a Jewish law firm, Nelson Mandela had a political life that was profoundly intertwined with those of Jewish activists who, to varying degrees, found in their Jewish identity the imperative to object to a system that, while almost completely welcoming to them, treated blacks in a way that many of these children of European refugees found discomfitingly familiar.
While most South Africa Jews took the silent, implicitly conservative position of the Board of Deputies, the great majority of white South Africans involved in “the struggle” were Jewish. Many were Communists. Most were lawyers. A few had money. But all faced what has been described as a “double marginality”: not fully accepted as white, while also alienated from an organized Jewish community beholden to the powers that be.
That so many Jews surrendered the comforts of their own relatively privileged lives—indeed, in at least one case, surrendered life itself—to join Mandela and the ANC, though they had little material stake relative to their black comrades, is in itself a testament to the radical legacy these Jews brought with them out of Europe to the other end of the globe. With a new film starring Idris Elba recounting Mandela’s long struggle, we look at those Jews who stood with him, and marched with him, every step of way.
Lazar Sidelsky, the South African-born son of refugees from Lithuania, grew up in the Transvaal highlands and paid his way through Wits by playing violin in a jazz band called Skoenie and his Connecticut Yankees. By the early 1940s, he was partner in one of Johannesburg’s biggest law firms, where he ran a program helping black South Africans get mortgages they were otherwise denied. One day in 1942, an ANC member named Walter Sisulu brought in Nelson Mandela, then 24, whom Sidelsky hired as an articled clerk, enabling Mandela to qualify as an attorney—a radical move for an established firm at the time. “It was a Jewish firm,” Mandela later wrote in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, “and in my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” Mandela worked at Sidelsky’s firm while earning a B.A. by mail order and later while studying law at Wits. In 1952, Sidelsky loaned Mandela seed money to start South Africa’s first black law practice, and when Mandela married his second wife Winnie in 1957, he brought the wedding procession past Sidelsky’s home as a sign of respect. At a kosher lunch in Mandela’s home a few years before Sidelsky’s death in 2002, at 90, the first black president of South Africa still referred to his former mentor as “Boss.”
Nat Bregman, a cousin of Lazar Sidelsky, became a clerk at Sidelsky’s firm the year before Mandela joined. The building had segregated elevators, but Bregman, a member of the Communist Party, rode with Mandela on the one reserved for blacks. In his memoir, Mandela describes Bregman—“Natie”—as his first white friend. Bregman schlepped his skeptical friend to Communist get-togethers in the early years of their friendship—gatherings populated almost entirely by blacks and Jews—but while Mandela was impressed by the “lively and gregarious group of people who did not seem to pay attention to color at all,” he later wrote that he was put off by the Party’s “antipathy to religion” and emphasis on class rather than race. As time went on, Bregman became religiously observant, moonlighting from his legal career as a comedian at weddings and bar mitzvahs and particularly renowned for his imitations of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Bregman died of kidney failure in 2011.
Arthur Goldreich was born in 1929 to a family proud to belong to the Anglo-Jewish elite. At the school he attended in the northern Transvaal province, a German-language instructor once passed out Hitler Youth magazines, prompting young Arthur to write to Prime Minister Jan Smuts asking permission to be taught Hebrew instead—a wish Smuts granted. Goldreich began studying architecture, but in May 1948—the same month the National Party won parliamentary elections, commencing the era of official apartheid in South Africa—he sailed to Israel on a small boat, packed with Holocaust survivors, to join the Palmach. In 1954, he returned to South Africa and joined the underground Communist Party. A notorious dandy, Goldreich wore tweeds and riding boots and hung around the polo club, but it was all a cover: Goldreich’s Gatsby-like persona allowed him to travel the world raising money for the ANC and provided the perfect cover for purchasing a farm outside Johannesburg from which the ANC’s militia wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe—translated as “Spear of the Nation”—could plan and execute a campaign of violence against the state. Mandela moved to the farm, called Liliesleaf, in 1961, disguising himself as a gardener. After the 1963 raid on the farm, the government called Goldreich “the largest fish netted”—partly because of his role in drafting battle plans, based on his experience with the Palmach, but also because of the prevailing assumption that it was Jews like him who were encouraging blacks to rebel. Goldreich avoided trial alongside Mandela by bribing a guard with 4,000 rand—the kid wanted a new Studebaker—and fleeing to Tanzania. Goldreich eventually settled in Herzliya, Israel, and he founded the architecture department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He later became deeply critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, describing the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as “bantustanism” in an interview with the Guardian. Goldreich died in Tel Aviv in 2011.
Harold Wolpe became politicized after participating in a Socialist-Zionist youth project of teaching at a local night school for blacks, where he witnessed firsthand the dehumanizing effects of a racist society. He befriended Mandela and other activists while studying law at Wits and became one of Mandela’s primary lawyers beginning with the seminal 1955 political summit, the Congress of the People—filing a lawsuit to bar the police from the premises—to Mandela’s final arrest about a year before the raid on the Liliesleaf farm, when Wolpe himself was detained before escaping with Goldreich. Wolpe settled in England and became a sociologist, writing a highly influential 1972 paper, “Capitalism and Cheap Labour-Power in South Africa,” which melded the political and economic criticisms of the regime by demonstrating how apartheid effectively suppressed the development of an urban proletariat and therefore differed in kind, not only in degree, from ordinary racial segregation. Dan O’Meara, a South African activist and historian now based at the Université du Québec à Montréal, has written that Wolpe’s work “quite literally reshaped the way in which vast numbers of people saw apartheid South Africa, and in doing so, made a huge contribution to doing away with it.” Wolpe moved back to South Africa in 1991 and directed education policy at the University of the Western Cape until he died at the age of 70 in 1996.
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