Very few people on earth earn their legacy in their lifetime.
It would seem that almost as soon as Nelson Mandela emerged from prison and was catapulted into a post Apartheid South African presidency, there were those who adapted Mandela’s gospel of peace and reconciliation to resolve other wars in the world.
And so it was in Jerusalem.
In 1994, in the early stages of the Middle East Oslo negotiation process, optimism and wishful thinking dominated the Jerusalem landscape.
Delegations descended on a land torn with war, wanting to hear messages of peace.
The newly formed Mandela Institute, named for the legacy of Nelson Mandela, was one one of those delegations that held a press conference across from my office at the Beit Agron Press Center in Jerusalem.
These former anti-apartheid activists had arrived on a mission: to teach both sides of the Middle East conflict how to live and respect the other in a time of peace.
That was their message in South Africa, where they repeated their theme in Jerusalem, quoting Abe Lincoln in the last days of the American Civil War: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
The Mandela Institute Jerusalem press conference was packed.
Civil liberties groups mixed with religious and non-religious Jews who came there to hear and cheer the upbeat message of the Mandela Institute. The Black and White spokespeople appealed to receptive ears of the Israeli audience to “see the humanity in the Arab who was your enemy” ever so recently.
The Mandela people made it clear that this was the process that they were going through in South Africa, to break down walls between Blacks and Whites, after Apartheid.
I am only sorry that I do not find my notes from almost 20 years ago, so I cannot recite the names of the articulate spokespeople who expressed themselves so eloquently.
In the final moment of the Jerusalem press conference, the Mandela convener announced that they were taking a bus to Ramallah, to deliver the same message of peace, reconciliation, and understanding to the other side.
The Mandela Institute delegation announced they would hold a follow up press conference, two days hence, when they would return from Ramallah.
However, the follow up press conference never happened.
The Mandela people did return to Jerusalem, however, but they were not too interested in talking to the press about what happened.
Later at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, they did not hesitate to say what had happened. PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat had made the arrangement for a modest town meeting for the Mandela Institute. But when the Mandela devotees made their appeal for peace, recognition and understanding of Israelis, they were booed and jeered, and when they tried to deliver that message in an Arab school, the students chanted in unison that “the war is not over: we want the right of return!!”
The Mandela Institute had hit a raw nerve. And, as one delegation member described the scene, the Arabs pushed them back on the bus, yelling at them never to come back.
Twenty years have passed. The tenacity of the Arabs who run the Palestinian Authority under the premise and promise of the right of return, convey their daily message that the war against Israel is not over…while the vast majority of Israelis still ascribe to some hope of peace in the future, however unrealistic it is.
The sequel to the story is that the Mandela Institute reconstituted itself as a permanent fixture in Ramallah, as an agency concerned for Arab convicts who sit in Israeli jails. The Mandela Institute no longer preaches respect and reconciliation of the other.
So much for a fleeting Mandela moment in Jerusalem.