Sunday, June 15, 2014

Israel's Relations with South Africa - A New Online Publication of the Israel State Archives

As Archivista noted here two weeks ago, we recently published a collection of documents on the relations between Israel and South Africa. They reveal how Israel's opposition to apartheid dominated the bilateral relations, which became increasingly tense and problematic.

Most of the documents published are in Hebrew, quite naturally. It's interesting to note that in the early years of Israel's diplomatic service, Israeli diplomats corresponded in English, out of habit (correspondence with British officials in British mandated Palestine) or due to their origin (as English speaking officials--the most renown of them was of course Abba Eban, but there were quite a few other high ranking officials such as Michael Comay, who came from South Africa, the British Abe Harman and others).
Here's a translation of one of the documents we published regarding South Africa. It was sent to the Legation in Pretoria by the Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Dr. Chaim Yahil.

31 December 1963
To: Chargé d'Affaires in Pretoria
Consul-General in Johannesburg
From: Director General
Diplomatic asylum
A [Foreign]Ministry "standing order" dealing with giving diplomatic asylum in Israeli diplomatic missions is about to be circulated, in which it is stated that no diplomatic asylum should be given inside delegation grounds, without prior authorization of the Ministry [of Foreign Affairs].
The ministry's directorate has given thought to the special situation that may evolve in South Africa, due to the fact that certain Jews are anti-apartheid activists, and may be hunted down by the [South African] government, and would want to seek asylum with you.
Without fundamentally changing the said standing order, we came to a conclusion that in an extraordinary lifesaving situation [the expression used is "Pikuach Nefesh"] and without any  practical possibility to contact the Ministry beforehand, you are allowed to act as you see fit, in accordance with all the serious implications that may derive from your decision. Nevertheless, all possible efforts should be made in contacting the Ministry.
This order is for the Pretoria legation only, not the General Consulate in Johannesburg.

Yours truly,

Dr. Chaim Yahil [Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs]
Chaim Yahil (Wikipedia)

This letter is very important, since it shows the extent that Israel was willing to go in its opposition to South Africa: Granting diplomatic asylum for a political fugitive is a sure way to start a clash with the host government.

The Israel State Archives employs former diplomats from Israel's Foreign Ministry. When we showed them this document, we were told that it's quite extraordinary, since this kind authorization allowing a fugitive in an Israeli diplomatic mission is unheard of and they'd never heard of this kind of directive and authorization in their entire careers.