Nelson Mandela–past president of South Africa, a leader in the anti-apartheid movement, and an internationally recognized voice for human rights–died Thursday. He was 95.
Mandela had been in ill health for some time, and the world watched for months to see if the esteemed revolutionary would regain strength. Family members gathered at his deathbed hours ago, with final news of his passing announced late this afternoon.
While politically respected in virtually every arena he entered, Mandela had a complex relationship with Israel. Though often proclaiming his friendship and support over the decades, he did not hesitate to question, and sometimes criticize, the Jewish state when he thought queries were warranted.
The issue most often came up in regard to Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian territories.
In 1990, Mandela famously embraced Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, throwing off critique from within the South African Jewish community. “If the truth alienates the powerful Jewish community in South Africa, that’s too bad,” said Mandela at the time.
Later that same year, he drew ire from Australian Jewish groups upon his arrival in Cranberra, where he compared Israel to a “terrorist state.”
Still, Mandela often and passionately reached out to the Jewish community in his own nation and beyond. A Reform rabbi in Johannesburg made headlines in 1990 after refusing to give into death threats over a planned visit from Mandela to his synagogue, and Mandela worked side-by-side with Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee to fight intolerance and discrimination against all peoples.
In 1999, Mandela made a highly-anticipated visit to Israel, vowing to do his part in widening discourse between the Jewish government and its neighbors.
“I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders,” the South African leader said.
Thursday, Jewish leaders and groups mourned Mandela’s passing, joining countless voices and messages of remembrance that quickly poured out from around the globe.
“He is now resting, he is now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son, our people have lost a father. Although we know this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss, ” said South African President Jacob Zuma.
“His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him their love.”
Mandela was a trained lawyer who long-advocated against colonial politics. He was a major player in the 1952 Defiance Campaign against apartheid, leading to his arrest in 1962 and sentencing to life in prison.
Mandela spent 27 years behind bars, becoming a national hero and the face of the anti-segregation movement both in his own country and abroad. Upon his release, he served as South Africa’s president from 1994 to 1999, and was the first black politician to hold the office. He penned a prolific library of works, received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and has been decorated with more than 250 international honors.
He is survived by his wife Graca Machel, his three children, and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.