Activist Helen Suzman Remembered as a “Consistent and Unswerving Opponent of Apartheid”
Saperstein: “Serving as a consistent and unswerving opponent of apartheid, she was one of the few white activists and the most visible Jewish voice speaking out against South Africa’s racist rule”
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WASHINGTON, D.C., January 2, 2009 – In response to the death yesterday of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released the following statement:
As we mark the coming of a new year and all it has to offer, we also mourn the death of former South African activist Helen Suzman, an indomitable champion for freedom for blacks in South Africa, a courageous critic of the apartheid regime, and a great advocate for social justice and tikkun olam.
Suzman, who passed away at age 91, was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in fighting against the injustice of government oppression in South Africa. Withstanding harassment and anti-Semitic taunts from colleagues and opponents alike, Suzman struggled nonviolently from within parliament to ameliorate racial injustice.
Despite being the only representative of the Progressive Party and the sole female in the 165-member Parliament, Suzman was uncompromising in her beliefs and unyielding in her criticism of government-sanctioned racism. Serving as a consistent and unswerving opponent of apartheid, she was one of the few white activists and the most visible Jewish voice speaking out against South Africa’s racist rule – a reputation that helped secure her a place of great respect among her admirers, including Nelson Mandela (whom she visited on several occasions while he was in jail) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Suzman stayed in touch with Jewish advocates for change in the United States and at a meeting with leaders of the Reform Movement at the Religious Action Center in Washington in the late19 80s. She rooted her determination in her Jewish values, commending us for our vigorous support of anti-apartheid efforts but chiding us for our support for sanctions against South Africa. The latter was the only issue on which we differed over the years, albeit one in which our position enjoyed great support from most South African leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.
With gratitude and respect, we remember Helen Suzman’s fierce dedication to fighting for the rights and freedoms of the disenfranchised and oppressed. May her memory ever be for a blessing.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1,800 Reform rabbis.