April 19th, 2010
Israel and Apartheid South Africa

The reported pressure of the South African Zionist Federation on a Johannesburg synagogue to bar Judge Richard Goldstone, deemed an enemy of Israel, from his grandson’s barmitzvah as well as the news that students at the University of Berkeley California wanted to repeat divestment strategies against Israel once used against Apartheid South Africa, has put the links between South Africa and Israel’s histories front and center again.

Which is a good time to do this post.

Israel’s relationship with white South Africa throughout Apartheid still need to adequately explored. The books I’ve seen on this subject already–Gideon Shimoni’s Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa as well as Milton Shain and Richard Mendehlsohn’s The Jews in South Africa: An Illustrated History–only scratches the surface of that shameful history.

Officially Apartheid South Africa was a key ally of Israel since its inception. In 1949 Prime Minister DF Malan was one of the first foreign heads of state to visit the new state of Israel and in 1976, months before the Soweto uprisings, Prime Minister John Vorster, who had spent time in a World War II internment camp for his pro-Nazi views, visited Israel to complete arms deals. (See the picture above.) And we know scientists from both countries exchanged information on building nuclear weapons. So the subject stilll eeds to get all the attention it should get. For now the best piece of journalism on this history is by Chris McGreal, former Jerusalem correspondent of The Guardian. But I want more.

Now there’s news of fellow Brooklynite Sasha Polakow Suransky‘s new book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa which will hopefully shed more light on this history. The book will be published during May 2010 in South Africa and the United States.

Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Prior to the Six-Day War, Israel was the darling of the international Left. But after its occupation of Pales­tinian territories in 1967, Israel found itself isolated from former allies and threatened anew by old ene­mies. Sasha Polakow-Suransky tells the full story of how Israel’s booming arms industry and South Africa’s isolation led to a hidden military alliance that grew deeper after the Likud Party came to power in 1977 and continued even after Israel passed sanctions against South Africa in the late 1980s.

At the time of Israel’s independence in 1948, the two countries couldn’t have been more different: Is­rael was a nation of Holocaust survivors; South Africa was ruled by Nazi sympathizers. But as their covert military relationship blossomed, they ex­changed billions of dollars of extremely sensitive ma­terial, including nuclear technology, which boosted Israel’s sagging economy and strengthened the belea­guered apartheid regime. Polakow-Suransky has un­covered previously classified details of countless arms deals conducted behind the backs of Israel’s diplo­matic corps and in violation of the United Nations arms embargo.

Based on extensive archival research and inter­views with former generals and high-level govern­ment officials in both countries, The Unspoken Alliance tells a troubling story of Cold War paranoia, moral compromises, and Israel’s estrangement from the Left. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Israel’s history and its future.

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Sean Jacobs

Otherwise known as Hasan Wasan.

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5 thoughts on “Israel and Apartheid South Africa

  1. Thanks for this Sean. Interesting post. I read Chris McGreal’s article comparing Apartheid South Africa with Israel, which received strong if occasional vituperative responses. I think there are interesting historical similarities in both countries. 1948, as you know, is a seminal year for both countries. Both countries saw themselves, and were seen by the West, as besieged but plucky outposts of civilisation in bad neigbourhoods, and as bulwarks in the fight against global communism. And aspects of their relationship were not so secret – I remember reading a Wilbur Smith novel in the 70′s that explores and romanticises the military alliance between (or shared martial traditions of) the two countries.
    Consequently, I am intrigued, nay mystified,by your statement ‘Israel’s estranged from the left’. It never had anything to do with it. Can’t wait to read the book.

  2. The AWB also alluded to Israel’s supplying arms to the apartheid government recently when bringing out their Israel flags on the morning Eugene Terre’Blance was murdered.

  3. @ebele: perceptive comment. However the comment you’re challenging me about is from the publisher’s website

    @rebeccalweber: Israel’s haa some reprehensible supporters.

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