In 2003, I traveled to South Africa with my dear friend, Martin Luther King III, at the invitation of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, where we spoke at their centenary celebration on the state of black-Jewish relations in the United States. During the civil rights struggle, no segment of American society provided as much and as consistent support to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to African-Americans, as did the Jewish community.
Martin and I believed we had something unique to share with our South African hosts. Yet, we were both overwhelmed and humbled by the enormity of what had been accomplished in South Africa in the few short years since the collapse of apartheid. One could only be impressed by the authentic process of reconciliation launched by Nelson Mandela, which had had been embraced by millions of South Africans, black and white. I returned home inspired to apply the South African model of black-white reconciliation to further improving black-Jewish relations in America.
Nelson Mandela challenged blacks and whites to transcend political and ideological differences for the betterment of South African society -- the process of reconciliation despite differences. That same model -- reconciliation despite differences -- needs to be applied to the task of bridging the divide between two of South Africa's most significant faith communities; the country's 75,000 Jews and nearly 750,000 Muslims. Just as South African blacks and whites were able to reconcile despite differences on many profound issues, South African Jews and Muslims must find a way to agree to disagree on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while working together for the betterment of both communities and the multi-racial society in which they live side by side.
This conflict was exacerbated in a recent exchange in which South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said her government had agreed to "slow down and curtail senior leadership contact with the [Israeli] regime," after which Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman commented in an ominous Facebook posting that that things might get "so extreme as to lead to actual pogroms" and therefore South African Jews should leave for Israel "before it is too late."
In response, South African Jewish leaders roundly denounced both Nkoana-Mashabane's comments as counter to prior assurances, as well as Lieberman's remarks, which they portrayed as misguided and irresponsible.
In June 2013 the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding sponsored a Mission to Washington of Jewish and Muslim Leaders from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. During their visit, they were hosted at the South African Embassy by Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, a protege of Mandela and one of South Africa's most important Muslim leaders. In his remarks, Rasool said that Muslims and Jews need to rediscover shared history and traditions extending back more than a millennium, as well as "the finest values in the Abrahamic tradition."
In the aftermath of Nelson Mandela's passing, I suggest that to build a Muslim-Jewish coalition in South Africa, leaders of both communities need to embrace Madiba's prescription of reconciliation despite differences.
This approach to Muslim-Jewish relations has been pioneered by FFEU, and successfully adopted by Muslims and Jews in many countries around the world. While acknowledging very real differences over the Middle East conflict, we nevertheless resolve to work together to build ties of communication and cooperation. We are working to build a common agenda based on standing together against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and supporting the other community when it is wrongfully attacked.
Ten years ago, I was inspired with the knowledge of how Nelson Mandela's formula for reconciliation between South African blacks and whites led to the successful transformation of his country. That model must certainly be upheld by South African Muslims and Jews, who, as they mourn Mandela's passing, should adopt the paradigm of reconciliation despite differences that he so powerfully championed.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, President of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding is the author of Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community (2000) and co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims (2013)