Helen Suzman

I want to take this occasion of Sisterhood Shabbat to talk about a remarkable Jewish woman, one who is to me one of the most inspiring Jewish women in history. She was born Helen Gavronsky in 1917 to Jewish immigrants who had fled anti-Semitism in Lithuania and had moved to the mining town of Germiston, east of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her childhood was the charmed one of most whites in that country – tennis, swimming lessons and private schooling.

When Helen got to Witwatersrand University, she began to speak out against the conditions under which black people were forced to live, especially the dreaded pass system that restricted their movement. She studied as an economist and statistician. At age 19, she married Dr. Moses Suzman, who was considerably older than her and who was to become one of South Africa’s leading physicians. She had two daughters with him before returning to university as a lecturer in 1944. She began to take an active role in politics after the 1948 election, when the National party, with its rigid policy of apartheid, came to power. In 1952, she was elected to the House of Assembly as the Member for Houghton, a prosperous and largely Jewish suburb near Johannesburg. She switched to the liberal Progressive Party in 1959, and represented the Houghton constituency as that party’s sole Member of Parliament, and the sole member of parliament unequivocally opposed to apartheid.

From 1961 to 1974, for thirteen years, she was the only MP to speak out against racial segregation, at a time when only the white minority enjoyed the right to vote. She was often harassed by the police and her phone was tapped by them. She had a special technique for dealing with eavesdropping, which was to blow a whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone. She stood up to the physically intimidating thugs. She received abusive phone calls, hate mail, death threats. But what could a lone member of Parliament achieve against 164 others implacably opposed to her cause? Still, she was the only representative willing to see disenfranchised black South Africans as part of her constituency.

She said: “I hate bullies. I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights: the indispensable elements in a democratic society – and well worth fighting for.”

A lot of us saw that wonderful movie about Nelson Mandela called “Invictus.” Suzman first visited Nelson Mandela in prison on Robben Island in 1967, when she heard his grievances about prison conditions.

Mandela later recalled: “It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells. Mrs. Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, member of Parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners.

When he was first sent to Robben Island, Mandela was refused access to all books, newspapers, radios, or other sources of learning. Because of the persistent year-after-year efforts of Helen Suzman, the prison authorities finally relented and allowed political prisoners to receive books and, ultimately, to enroll in courses of education that they could take by correspondence. Mandela was one of those who made effective use of that small privilege, not only for himself but for all prisoners serving long prison sentences. They learned their own history. And learning played a critical role in their survival. On December 10, 1996, Helen Suzman was the only passenger accompanying President Mandela in his limousine, at his personal invitation, as he signed the new South African Constitution into law.

Suzman found herself even more of an outsider because she was an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men. She was once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed South Africa, to which she replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers”.

Suzman died on Jan. 1, 2009, at the age of 91.

I want to tell you about Helen Suzman because of this strange thought I have every time I read or think about her. I think that only a woman would have done what she did. I think that it’s not an accident that it was a woman, and a Jewish woman, who stood up to all of the men and the evil of apartheid. Men tend to become part of a old boy club and want to be accepted as part of the establishment. They will often put their own ambitions ahead of principle. A woman, often an outsider, can take a look from the outside and see the truth bout what’s going on inside.

Jewish people certainly understand this. As the outsiders of history, we have looked from the outside in and made huge contributions to every field because we were not willing to accept conventions if we found them to be untrue or unfair.

So on this Sisterhood Shabbat, we celebrate one Jewish woman, but we celebrate all women and all Jewish people who, like Helen Suzman, are willing to stand up for what is right and what is true.