Sixty years ago, Arieh Eshel, the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, unambiguously condemned apartheid — with far more determination than either the British or the Americans at the international assembly.
“It is because the Jewish people has been the classic victims of the doctrine of racial inequality that my delegation appeals with such fervour to South Africa to abandon its present policies,” he said.
Israel’s stand in the UN Special Political Committee, along with 92 other countries, caused ructions in the Jewish community in South Africa. Figures such as Louis Rabinowitz, the outgoing Chief Rabbi in Johannesburg, were delighted — Israel’s action put him even more at odds with many congregants who resented his searing and scathing sermons condemning apartheid. They simply wanted a normal life — working hard, committed to shul and community and stable families. The Board of Deputies of South African Jews remained publicly silent on the basis that the Jewish community was divided on the issue.
This crisis occurred a year after the Sharpeville massacre in which police killed 69 black protesters. The Rand Daily Mail journalist Benjamin Pogrund, who later worked with Rabbi Micky Rosen at the Yakar Centre in London, was at Sharpeville and bore testimony to “the nightmare scene of the field strewn with bodies”. His colleague, Humphrey Tyler, recalled: “There were hundreds of women (at the outset). Some of these people were laughing, probably thinking the police were firing blanks. But they were not.”
In the UK, the annual conference of Anglo-Jewish ministers condemned apartheid a few weeks later. For Rabinowitz in South Africa, this was not enough. He asked UK Chief Rabbi Brodie mischievously “for guidance”.
“Is one supposed to postpone one’s denunciation and an expression of fundamental Jewish ethics until it has become the declared policy of the government of one’s country?” he said.
In July 1961, Ben-Gurion told the visiting President of Upper Volta that Israel condemned the South African government’s policy of apartheid as well as the Portuguese dictatorship for its conduct in its colony, Angola.
While it was clearly in Israel’s national interest to cultivate the newly independent states of Africa and to assist them in emerging from their colonial past, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir felt strongly that this policy reflected fundamental social democratic values.
Meir later contemplated the closure of the Israeli diplomatic mission in South Africa and the cessation of El Al flights. For both Ben-Gurion and Meir, this was a founding principle of the Zionist experiment. In May 1901, Herzl, influenced by the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen, had confided to his diary: “Just to call to mind all those terrible episodes of the slave trade, of human beings who, merely because they were black, were stolen like cattle, taken prisoner, captured and sold...once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.”
Even Vladimir Jabotinsky, often acclaimed as “the father of the Israeli Right”, was appalled when he watched an early film, DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, in 1916 which promoted the violence of the white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan and depicted Afro-Americans as “ape-like”. Jabotinsky wrote: “I did my best to remember that according to what I had always been taught to believe they (the KKK) had been nothing but glorified hooligans.”
This teaching was interpreted differently by Jabotinsky’s disciple Menahem Begin, who argued it was not in Israel’s interests to antagonise the South African government. Begin condemned apartheid, but was more concerned that the Jewish community might come to harm. Sections of the Afrikaner press at the time were adamant that Jews in South Africa had to choose either Pretoria or Tel Aviv — but not both.
Eric Louw, the Foreign Minister of South Africa had given numerous hard-hitting speeches at the UN in which he defended apartheid. A watershed was reached in October 1961 when he was censured for a speech that was termed “offensive, fictitious and erroneous”. Louw was furious at Israel’s stand and attempted to pressure South African Jews to state their public disapproval of Ben-Gurion’s policy.
The Afrikaners had looked upon Israel after 1948 with admiration and viewed its rise mainly through the lens of religion. They erroneously understood Israel as similarly taking the path of racial separate development. Louw described Israel as “ungrateful and hostile”.
Yet Louw was no friend of the Jews. He had told Parliament on the eve of the Second World War: “I am convinced that if it were possible to remove Jewish influence and pressure from the press and from the news agencies, the international outlook would be considerably brighter than it is today.”
Old Testament romanticism about Israel in 1961 was at variance with the antisemitism exhibited by Afrikaner nationalists and militant movements such as the Greyshirts during the 1930s. Many Litvaks had managed to reach South Africa before the war and Holocaust survivors had come after it. When the last refugee ship, the SS Stuttgart, bringing 600 German Jews, arrived in Cape Town, thousands attended protest rallies.
In his book When They Came for Me, eminent psychotherapist John Schlapobersky recalled that his interrogators in prison ridiculed him with antisemitic taunts in Afrikaans — a language they believed he didn’t understand. They could give him no reason for his imprisonment over several months in 1969 — apart from holding general anti-apartheid views. It was through the intervention of Yitzhak Unna, the Israeli Consul-General, that Schlapobersky was released and allowed to leave for Israel and then onto the UK.
Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister in 1961, had been the editor of Die Transvaler before the war. It propagated pro-Nazi views through its columns and suggested a quota system for Jews in each profession. In a letter to a Jewish sympathiser in November 1961, Verwoerd clearly reverted to type and chided Jewish organisations for not stating their open disavowal of the Israelis. He ominously commented that “during the last election so many Jews had favoured the Progressive Party and so few the Nationalist Party, did not pass unnoticed”.
In April 1962, Verwoerd’s patience ran out and he rescinded the preferential status that had allowed South African Jews to send money and goods to Israel. Ben-Gurion responded that he did not believe that there would be a pogrom in South Africa. Even so, many Jews in South Africa were unnerved by this deteriorating situation.
This open mutual hostility eventually subsided. However Israel, diplomatically isolated after the Yom Kippur war in 1973, initiated a decade-long relationship with Pretoria. In November 1974, Shimon Peres quietly visited South Africa in an attempt to sell Chalet missiles. In April 1976, Prime Minister John Vorster visited Israel — he was a member of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag and was interned during the Second World War. The tables were turned once more in 1998 when Mandela visited Israel as the head of an ANC government.
This episode in Jewish history illuminates the tension between particularism and universalism in Jewish tradition. In the Knesset, Ben-Gurion quoted biblical passages in justification of his policies while the religious parties opposed him. The Jewish dilemma in South Africa is not unique; it was repeated in Pinochet’s Chile and in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Is human rights only an issue when Jews are involved? Are we therefore little more than concerned bystanders? It is an unanswered, ongoing debate.