My only encounter with Nelson Mandela was on June 29, 1990 at the Biltmore Hotel, and the initial impression was more comical than awe-inspiring.
The reserved, soft-spoken Mandela, released only four months earlier after 27 years in South African prisons, stood next to the bouncy Sharansky, towering over the former refusenik by a good foot, while a battery of photographers tried to get the two men’s faces into the same closeup frame.
It wasn’t certain, until the last minute, that the meeting would come off. Mandela had less that 24 hours in Los Angeles, part of a 10-day tour of the United States, and everybody wanted a piece of the international celebrity.
In addition, though he was allied with many South African Jews throughout his struggle, Mandela had shown little sympathy for the Jewish state in recent statements.
One of the first international visitors to embrace Mandela after his prison release was Yasser Arafat, another short guy and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization,
On this and earlier occasions, Mandela compared the struggle of his African National Congress (ANC) to the Palestinian fight for self-determination against the Israeli occupiers.
To emphasize the point, Mandela had also praised Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro as “comrades in arms.”
However, the Jewish community and Israeli diplomats hoped that a meeting between Mandela and Sharansky, both ex-prisoners of conscience, might mellow the South African leader’s attitude.
After prolonged negotiations, spearheaded the Anti-Defamation League, Mandela consented. Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, caught a plane from New York to Los Angeles.
The meeting between the two men was closed to the press, but Sharansky let it be known that his arguments, including a reminder that Israel had been among the first nations to denounce apartheid, had not changed Mandela’s basic position.
I was covering the press conference for a now defunct Jewish weekly, Heritage, but couldn’t find a copy of the story I filed at the time. Fortunately, an article on the event by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency refreshed my recollections.
At a City Hall reception earlier in the day, Mandela had chatted with Rabbi Harvey Fields in his capacity as chairman of the Black-Jewish Clergy Alliance of Los Angeles.
When Fields noted that the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm had just reaffirmed its support of the ANC and of Mandela personally, the latter responded, “Your support means a great deal, more than you can possibly imagine.”
During the brief photo session, Mandela jokingly apologized for having to look down on his short friend. Sharansky responded that thanks to his diminutive stature, he was able to wrap the oversized prison clothes around his body during the cold Russian winters.
“Where I was, it was very hot,” was Mandela’s comeback.
Mandela left right after the photo session to prepare for an early evening rally at the Coliseum, with 70,000 admirers.
Sharansky stayed on for a short while, then looked at his watch. “I have to leave,” he said. “Shabbat starts in 20 minutes and I don’t want to go by foot for two hours.”