Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Israel cannot keep silent in the face of apartheid": Israel and South Africa, 1961-1967

"This country [Israel] cannot keep silent in the face of the policy [of apartheid]. Not only absolute justice but also the essential interests of our policy demand that we take a stand." The words of Chaim Yahil, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in a letter to Israel's minister in Pretoria, Simcha Pratt, in August 1961, reflect the main theme of a new collection of documents on our website – the influence of Israel's opposition to apartheid on relations with South Africa in the 1960s. It includes 67 scanned documents, four in English, a translation of the introduction and the list of documents with summaries, and photographs. The rest of the documents are on our Hebrew website.

Israel's ties with a country which had officially adopted a policy of racial discrimination harmed its image and served Arab propaganda. However the documents here show that at this time relations with South Africa were tense and problematic, due to Israel's strong stand against apartheid. This stand reflected both desire for closer relations with the newly independent states of black Africa, and opposition in principle to racial separation, a policy especially led by Foreign Minister Golda Meir.

Golda Meir and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with the president of Upper Volta, Maurice Yameogo, in Jerusalem, July 1961. (Government Press Office)
However, Israel's anti-apartheid stand had to be moderated due to concern for the large Jewish community in South Africa. Israel thus walked a tightrope, on the one hand acting against South Africa in international forums and the UN, but on the other, maintaining diplomatic relations with it. Criticism by the South African Jews, who did not appreciate the difficulties of Israel's position, aroused considerable resentment. Simcha Pratt even called the Jews "present day Marranos" because of their fear of the South African government and the leaders of the ruling National Party with its pro-Nazi past. He criticized the lack of self-respect of the Jewish leaders who were willing to humiliate themselves completely "in order to please a government which supports racism and to criticize Israel."

Helen Suzman, a leading Jewish opponent of apartheid. (Wikimedia Commons)
Many opponents of apartheid in South Africa were Jewish, and an important episode in this story shown here was the "Rivonia Trial." In 1964, the leaders of the African National Congress, among them Nelson Mandela, were tried for their underground activities. Six of the 18 accused were Jewish. The ISA has already published some documents on this trial after Mandela's death last year in its publication on "Israel and Nelson Mandela – A Cry for Freedom," which we wrote about here and here.

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