click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




Mandela, Martin, and Me

Mandela, Martin, and Me

Commitment to one’s Jewish identity does not come at the expense of one’s universal vision.

by

Mandela*. The name itself evokes memories. Hope. Admiration. Nelson Mandela was one of my heroes growing up. We marched for his release from the jail in which he was cruelly imprisoned. We sang songs and wore buttons with the words “Free Nelson Mandela!” printed on them. He was larger than life.

And deservedly so. Already young, Mandela began his struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. At first, he led a movement of non-violence, openly drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. Later, when white oppression and violence escalated, Mandela and his associates felt that their pacifist movement had gotten nowhere while the brutality was increasing daily. As a “last resort,” he formed and led the MK, the Sword of the Nation, directing acts of sabotage against the Apartheid regime (but not targeting civilians) in order to try and force them to negotiate. Captured in 1962, he spent 27 years in jail, including 18 on Robben Island.

Robben Island is South Africa’s Alcatraz. It was a harsh island prison host to both common criminals and political prisoners. The island is now a national museum and a popular tourist attraction. I visited recently. One of the highlights is Mandela’s cell. It has a sleeping mat against one wall and a pail against the other. There are only about three feet in between the two. A tiny cell. Windows were only installed much later. For much of Mandela’s stay, the prisoners suffered from bitter cold in the winter and burning heat in the summer. They performed hard labor in a quarry nearby. As a political prisoner, the lowest classification, he was allowed two visitors and two letters (heavily censored) a year.

Today, former prisoners guide tourists around the site, telling their own stories and the story of modern South Africa. The South African struggle for freedom became real to me. The brutality of the Apartheid regime became real to me.

As global-minded universalist, Mandela was also a proud African.

Mandela survived the terrible conditions. When released in 1990, he walked out without hate. He possessed great wisdom. He emphasized and insisted on National Reconciliation rather than revenge. He envisioned and described a South Africa where all peoples and colors would live together in peace and respect. Elected President of South Africa in 1994, he remains an icon in his home country, and has gained great fame and respect around the world. He received hundreds of honors and awards, culminating in the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

As global minded and universalistic as he was, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was also a proud and committed African. He was born in 1918 to the Thembu dynasty of South Africa’s Western Cape. His great-grandfather was the king, and many of his relatives were considered royalty. His father was the chief of his town of Mvezo, and later a respected member of the Inkosi’s Privy Council. Mandela’s mother was the daughter of the leader of the Xhosa tribe. Mandela himself was a leader of the African National Congress. When released in 1991, he declared, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people…” Many of Mandela’s relatives and descendants are royalty in various South African tribes, attempting to continue serving their people.

On the one hand, a universal symbol of freedom, hope, and reconciliation. A role model and hero for the entire world.

On the other hand, a man who was deeply connected to his tribe, his people, his continent, and his traditions.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King was born in 1929 and assassinated in 1968. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and many other prizes. Perhaps most notably, in 1964 he became the youngest recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the non-violent struggle against American racism and segregation. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as numerous marches and movements for voting rights, desegregation, labor rights, and civil rights. At the massive 1963 March on Washington, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. This speech, one of the most influential and often-quoted in US history, appealed to the idealism of America and raised public consciousness of the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just a civil rights leader. He was a Baptist preacher, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and son of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was well grounded in the Bible, which had a profound impact on his life. He often used Biblical imagery. In his last speech before being assassinated, referring to threats against his life, he said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead … But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we … will get to the Promised Land.

MLK was a symbol of freedom and hope, and deeply connected to his religion, people, and cause.

In this passage, King was openly referring to the end of Moses’ life, where Moses – though not permitted to enter the Land of Israel – was allowed to climb a mountain and gaze into it. King was a believing Christian who dedicated his life to the freedom and dignity of African-Americans. And he became a world symbol of freedom and non-violence.

On the one hand, a universal symbol of freedom, hope, and reconciliation. A role model and hero for the entire world.

On the other hand, a man who was first and foremost deeply connected to his religion, his people, and his particular cause.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu

Born in 1910 in Albania, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu dedicated her life to the poor and suffering in Calcutta, India. Starting alone, by the end of her life her organization (Missionaries of Charity) had more than 4,000 humanitarian centers around the world.

No one was turned away. She cared for the lepers, the untouchables, the orphans, the sick, the dying, the blind, the homeless, refugees, and all other types of suffering people. For decades, she was consistently found by pollsters to be the most widely admired person in the USA, and in a poll in 1999, was found to be the “most admired person of the 20th century.” She won many prizes including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work. She died in 1997 at the age of 87.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was a Roman Catholic nun best known as Mother Teresa. At the age of twelve, she felt “the call of God” and decided to be a Christian missionary. At eighteen, she left her parents’ home and joined the Sisters of Loretto, taking her vows as a nun and moving to India to teach in a Catholic school in Calcutta, which she did for seventeen years before focusing on the poorest of the poor. She was a deeply committed Christian who consistently reminded others that God and religion were the driving forces behind her work. Dealing with various communities in India, she said, “I’ve always said we should help a Hindu become a better Hindu, a Muslim become a better Muslim, a Catholic become a better Catholic …” Her talks and work were strongly religious as was her worldview.

On the one hand, a universal symbol of caring, self-sacrifice, and love. A role model and hero for the entire world.

On the other hand, a woman – a nun – who was deeply connected to her religion, her heritage, and her traditions.

Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso

Tenzin Gyatso was born into a poor farming family in rural Tibet in 1935, which survived on growing barley, buckwheat, and potatoes. He has become one of the world’s leading voices for non-violence, universal human rights, and religious harmony. His life of dedication to the promotion of these values, tremendous impact on world thought, and the inspiration he has given tens of millions, have led to much international recognition for his work.

As an indication of the great esteem in which his work is held, here are only some of the awards he has received:

In 1989, he received the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Award from the Congressional Rights Caucus Human Rights, and Le Prix de la Memoire from the Foundation Danielle Mitterrand.

In 1991, he received the Peace and Unity Awards from the National Peace Conference, the Earth Prize from the United Earth and U.N. Environmental Program, and the Advancing Human Liberty award from the Freedom House.

In 1994, he received the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, the World Security Annual Peace Award from the New York Lawyer’s Alliance, and the Berkeley Medal from University of California, Berkeley.

In 1999, he received the Life Achievement Award from Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization.

In 2003, he received the Jaime Brunet Prize for Human Rights, the Hilton Humanitarian Award, and the International League for Human Rights Award.

In 2006, he received honorary Canadian citizenship and, in 2007, the United States Congressional Gold Medal.

Most famously, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his great service to mankind, in which he “has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems.”

Never heard of him?

Tenzin Gyatso is better known as the 14th Dalai Lama. He is the world’s most famous Buddhist monk and leader (in exile) of the Tibetan government, now residing in Dharamsala, India. Identified at the age of two as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, he began his Buddhist education and eventually received his Doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. At the age of fifteen, in 1950, he was enthroned as Tibet’s absolute ruler, in both spiritual and political matters. With the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, he has spent almost his entire lifetime trying to rally pressure against China to stop its aggression of the Tibetan culture, language, and population. He eventually was forced to flee Tibet as he suspected that the Chinese government was trying to kill him. The Dalai Lama then established the Tibetan Government in Exile, created schools, monasteries, convents, and programs to preserve and promote Tibetan culture and education.

On the one hand, a universal symbol of harmony, peace, and hope. A role model and hero for the entire world.

On the other hand, a man who has dedicated his life to the freedom, autonomy, and cultural survival of his people, country, and religious traditions.

Elie Weisel

Born in Sighet, Romania, in 1928, Elie Weisel’s family members were observant Jews of Chassidic background. His grandfather was a farmer. His father was a shopkeeper who was imprisoned for several months for helping Polish Jews who escaped to Hungary in the early years of World War II. Most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, and Weisel vividly describes his own experiences in his many novels and works on the Holocaust.

The Nobel Committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, calling him a “messenger to mankind,” who had struggled with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps,” and worked hard for peace, thus offering a powerful message of “peace, atonement, and human dignity.”

Aside from teaching about the Holocaust, he has advocated for Israel’s right to self-defense, victims of apartheid in South Africa, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Bosnian victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, and the Kurds. He recently voiced support and became active on behalf of international intervention in Darfur, Sudan.

On the one hand, a universal symbol of survival, dignity, and human rights activism. A role model and hero for the entire world.

On the other hand, a committed Jew, deeply connected to his religion, his heritage, and his People.

Solving the Contradiction

Does a person need to choose between commitment to one’s own people versus a more general focus on universal betterment?

Only by assuming his Jewishness can he attain universality.

In reality, there is no choice to be made. Time and time again, in these famous examples and thousands more of less famous ones, we find a surprising pattern: Those who do great things for the world anchored in their dedication to their own religion, culture, and identity.

Elie Weisel spoke clearly of the connection between his own Jewish identity and his service to the world:

Remember: the Jew influences his environment only if he does not assimilate. Others will benefit from his experience to the degree that it is and remains unique. Only by assuming his Jewishness can he attain universality. The Jew who repudiates himself, claiming to do so for the sake of humanity, will inevitably repudiate humanity too …

By working for his own People, a Jew does not renounce his loyalty to mankind. On the contrary, he makes his most valuable contribution … By struggling on behalf of Russian, Arab, or Polish Jews, I fight for human rights everywhere. By calling for peace in the Middle East, I take a stand against every aggression, every war. By protesting the fanatical exhortations to “holy wars” against my People, I protest the stifling of freedom [in general] … By striving to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust, I denounce the massacres in Biafra …

Only by drawing on his unique experience can the Jew help others. A Jew fulfills his role as man only from inside his Jewishness.1

As the great sage, Hillel put it two thousand years ago:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

Being committed to one’s Jewish identity does not come at the expense of one’s universal vision. It is a vital element of that vision.

Excerpted from Doron Kornbluth's new book, Why Be Jewish? Knowledge and Inspiration for Jews of Today.

* I don’t agree with everything these individuals stood for. Nevertheless, they can teach us many universal lessons.

Published: August 27, 2011


Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 39

(27) Fay, December 22, 2013 6:58 PM

Thank you!

Thanks for this very important article. The universal and particular dimensions of Torah should not have to be in inverse proportion. Even within Judaism there are deeply different ideas. But all the people me tioned above are in agreement on the fundamental Godlly value of serving Him by serving ALL of His children. If Mother Theresa's life is not a Kiddush Hashem, what is? Confident, believing Jews don't. need to be defensive. Also, let's not judge Eli Wiesel without having walked in his shoes. Actually, let's keep trying not to judge our fellow at all.

(26) Anonymous, December 15, 2013 8:48 AM

no to Elie Weisel

I'm sorry, he may be a committed Jew, but he is not a practising Jew. Do his grand-children go to Jewish schools? That is the litmus test. The only way to stop assimilation is Jewish Education. And the result of Jewish education is becoming a Torah Jew.

(25) Davis Michael emille, September 1, 2011 1:33 AM

Stand up and be counted!

To leave a legacy, you must live passionately and this entails often standing alone against those who can not see as far and wide as you can or even those who are not even willing to look upon the afflictions of others. One of the prerequisits of leadership is a capacity for lonliness.

(24) Elaine Hochman, August 30, 2011 5:50 PM

There is a mistake here...

Martin Luther KIng, a great man. Also Dalay Lama, Mother Teresa and Elie Wisel. But please, do not include Mandella, who was great supporter and admirer of Arafat.

(23) jgarbuz, August 29, 2011 9:51 PM

MLK was a friend and pro-zionist. Mandela, I'm not so sure.

As the most ancient minority group, Jews naturally have been first in line to rail for minority and human rights in general. But this has often made Jews the natural enemy of those majorities who would prefer to deny such rights. The question is, how many from such groups know about, appreciate, or would reciprocate when Jewish rights are once again under fire. In being outspoken for the rights of others, let's not forget the fragility of our own. We've always been the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub