A Mandela Moment in Jerusalem
A Mandela Moment in Jerusalem

The Arabs pushed them back on to the bus while yelling at them never to come back again.
In the early stages of the Middle East Oslo process, optimism and wishful thinking dominated the Jerusalem landscape. Delegations descended on a land torn with war, wanting to hear messages of peace.

One of those delegations held a press conference across from my office at the Beit Agron Press Center in Jerusalem. This group drew much attention.

It was the newly formed Mandela Institute, named for the renowned Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of post-Apartheid South Africa. These former anti-apartheid activists had arrived in Jerusalem with a mission- to teach both sides of the Middle East War to learn how to live and respect the other in a time of peace.

That was their message in South Africa, where they repeated the vision of Abe Lincoln in the last days of the American Civil War: With malice toward none, with charity for all.

The attendance at the Mandela Institute Jerusalem press conference was packed.

Civil liberties groups mixed with religious and non-religious Jews of all kinds 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” so recently.

The Mandela people made it clear that this was the process that they were going through in South Africa, learning to break down walls of anger between Blacks and Whites, post-apartheid.

I am only sorry that I cannot 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 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, that press conference never happened.

The Mandela people did return to Jerusalem, but they were not at all interested in talking to the press about what happened.

Meeting them at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, they did not hesitate to tell me what had happened.

PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat had made the arrangement for a modest town meeting for the Mandela Institute. And when the Mandela devotees made their appeal for  peace, recognition and understanding in a post war climate, 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. The truth was out. And, as one delegation member described the scene, the Arabs pushed them back on to the bus while yelling at them never to come back again.

20 years have passed. The Arabs who run the Palestinian Authority continue with tenacity to do so under the premise and promise of the "right of return". They convey the message daily that the war is not over, this while so many Israelis still give credence to the hopes of a peace process.

The sad sequel to the story is that the Mandela Institute capitulated to the show of force and reconstituted itself as a permanent fixture in Ramallah, becoming an agency concerned for Arab convicts who sit in Israeli jails.

The Mandela Institute no longer preaches respect and reconciliation with the other side of the Middle East war.

So much for a Mandela moment in Jerusalem.