Amid the world wide focus on Nelson Mandela and his impact, I was reminded of an unforgettable encounter here in Los Angeles over twenty years ago between two extraordinary men---Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky---that I was privileged to be a small part of.
Tom Tugend of the Jewish Journal has blogged about his perspective of this event from a journalist’s viewpoint. My recollection is from the vantage point of one who helped facilitate the meeting in my then capacity as regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
In early June, 1990 I was informed by ADL’s national office that there was a chance that when Mandela was on his US tour, after having been freed from prison in February, there was a chance that a meeting could be arranged for two of the most well-known prisoners of conscience in the world, Mandela and Natan Sharansky. In all likelihood the meeting would take place in Los Angeles and I was tasked with handling the local logistics---getting Sharansky to the right place at the right time while avoiding the media maelstrom that inevitably enveloped Mandela’s every move.
On June 29, 1990 I picked up Sharansky at the appointed hour and drove to the Biltmore Hotel where Nelson and Winnie Mandela were staying. The instructions were to meet Harry Belafonte who was acting as Mandela’s “guardian.” At the appointed hour, 3:30, Sharansky and I and two of my colleagues (Marjorie Green and Betsy Rosenthal) were cleared through security to the floor where Mandela was housed and proceeded to what we thought would be the meeting.
We arrived at the suite and were met by non-other than Belafonte—who looked like he might break out in Dayo at any moment. My two female colleagues were immediately taken by Belafonte’s presence. He apologetically informed us that Mandela was exhausted and the meeting would have to be moved back to 5:30 or 6:00. We told Belafonte that there was a wrinkle to the postponement that was critical---Sharansky observed the Shabbat, it was Friday afternoon and he had to arrive back at the house he was staying at in Hancock Park before it turned dark. Belafonte said he would do what he could.
I had no idea what to do with the Jews’ most famous prisoner of conscience for the next two and a half hours, so I brought Sharansky to my home. It was a 15 minute ride and seemed like the easiest solution---Sharansky could rest and be ready for his encounter.
So home I came and offered Sharansky the chance to take a nap and relax. I invited my father, who was himself a Russian immigrant--albeit 80 years earlier, to come and meet Sharansky (which he did).
Sharansky napped for an hour or so and then we were on our way back to the Biltmore to see if Mandela was up for the much anticipated meeting. We arrived back at the Biltmore at the appointed hour and were escorted into the suite where Nelson and Winnie were awaiting Sharansky. We met them, took some pictures, and then allowed Sharansky and Mandela to have a private tete a tete for more than an hour.
Mandela had a regal and remarkably open bearing that was unmistakable. He stood erect and tall with an open, friendly smile---in stark physical contrast to the very diminutive Sharansky. Despite the physical differences, they seemed at ease and ready for a good talk.
Following the meeting, Sharansky was obligated to go down to meet the press. So we went to the lobby floor and there was a throng of domestic and international press (including the Israeli press) awaiting the report on what the two men had had to say to each other. Sharansky was loquacious and open about his very friendly encounter Mandela.
My colleagues and I were watching our clocks and checking on Shabbat candle lighting time (around 7:45) to make sure we could get Sharansky out and back to Hancock Park on time---notwithstanding Friday evening traffic. We knew he was not interested in having a headline in an Israeli Sunday paper that he had violated the Shabbat.
We were forced to cut the press conference short and one of my colleagues (Marjorie Green) grabbed Sharansky and spirited him---violating every speed limit in the process---to Hancock Park---in time! He arrived with just a couple of minutes to spare.
He abided by both his moral and religious principles, met an incredibly important colleague in the struggle for freedom, and sent a wonderful message at the same time.
Bravo Sharansky, bravo Mandela.