Being Mandela by Sarah Perle, Israel

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Have you ever looked at pictures of Nelson Mandela when he was young?

At this moment, I am looking at a black and white photograph of a 19 year old man leaning casually against a wall. His arms are crossed on his chest and he stands straight, bearing a strong and decided expression. His eyes to his side, avoiding the gaze of the camera.

I can see his strength and his rock solid confidence. I can also feel his conviction. But somehow, I have a hard time recognizing the features of the great ‘Madiba’ in this young face. As I sift through old testimonies of Mandela’s young years, before his 27-year long imprisonment on Robin Island, I feel that I am looking at a different person.

I tried to imagine it, but no matter how many accounts I read, how many pictures I see, I simply can’t. I could never have the slightest understanding of what this man went through. 27 years in jail, isolated in a tiny prison cell.  I can read about the hard labor and the inhuman treatments, I can even watch old interviews he gave after his release, and I can read The Long Walk to Freedom a 1000 times and I would still be incapable of grasping the weight of Mandela’s experience. At the same time, I can see how it affected his face. A change that is so deep, and so unique that it cannot be described; yet it stands unadulterated right in front of us. Mandela went into jail as a leader and an activist; he was released as a hero, a symbol. The change occurred not only within himself, but also in the way he looked at the world and we looked back at him.

As most Israelis, I am worried when I hear on the news that Palestinian prisoners; the ones we call ‘terrorists’, are being released. Indeed I am worried and yes, I am scared. But today I am ask myself this question: If I was a white Afrikaner in Johannesburg in 1964, would I have been afraid of Mandela? Would I have called him a terrorist? The answer could be yes.

I like to think of myself as a humanist, a people person, a peace activist, but at the end of the day, I am just a regular person who can be irrationally scared by other people because they are presented and represented to me as ‘”enemies of security”. I fear they will have even more reasons to hate me after they have been in jail. I also fear that after going to the army, the Jewish kids I work with and who believe in peace might lose hope… and what about the families of victims on both sides? Don’t they have all the reasons in the world to hate each other? And me… how forgiving can I be?

During his very first speech in February 1990, right after he was  freed, Nelson Mandela called for the unity of South Africa. He invited both black and white South Africans to work together and build a democratic country. What is even more surprising is that there is not a single word of anger or resentment in this speech. No resentment, but the same strong confidence I see in this old black and white photo.

Nelson Mandela has been through a lot more than any of us, or any of our political leaders for that matter, but he used this dreadful experience to become a better human being, and a unique politician. Forgiveness and reconciliation are underrated by our decision makers. They are seen, even by most regular people, as care-bare kind of values. With forgiveness and reconciliation Nelson Mandela ended apartheid. With forgiveness and reconciliation Nelson Mandela became a leader who changed the world.

I hope with all my heart than the next generation of Israeli and Palestinians won’t have to be soldiers, or to risk their life just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. And we the same strength, I hope that my generation and the ones before me will make the right decision and take Mandela as an example, more than any other political leader.

I look again at this old photo, and I think of all the things he would have to face in order to become the radiant wrinkly hero he was when he left us. No more suffering is needed; it is time for the Middle East to become forgiving and radiant. And it is time for me to stop being afraid and find the Mandela in me.

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Sarah Perle,

YaLa Young Leaders

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