FALLOUT for South African Jewry from Donald Trump’s controversial presidency in the United States has not been felt directly thus far. It is experienced more as general anxiety about the rise of nationalistic demagogues with open or disguised anti-Semitic leanings in many countries and fear about the future. For Jewish interests specifically, this challenges attitudes towards Jews’ and Israel’s situation in the world.
South African Jewry, with its history of passionate Zionism, is internally divided similar to other Diaspora communities about Israel’s place in Jewish life: Is it primarily a Jewish sanctuary in an untrustworthy, hostile world, or a society representing the best universal Jewish values? Some people cling to idealistic Zionism as the Jewish people’s liberation movement in the process of creating a flourishing Jewish state which must do whatever it takes to survive; others support Israel as a Jewish state with every right to exist, but criticise it for various human rights considerations. Israel’s complex situation means neither side is always correct.
To what extent should support for Israel outweigh other considerations? If someone practices objectionable policies yet backs Israel – as Trump says he does – should he be embraced? Jews who are appalled at Trump ask why Israel is so supportive of him when he represents much of what Jewish history tells us should be rejected. His polarising effect on South African Jews was illustrated by the anger against this column for criticising Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recently for showing such warmth to Trump and publically calling him “my friend” after his inauguration.
Support for Trump comes at a price. This is already apparent in Israel’s muted reaction to the omission of any reference to Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Trump’s administration said it is better not to single out Jews in order to be “inclusive” of others who suffered. But Jewish individuals and organisations – such as the Anti-Defamation League – were shocked and saw it as a case of disguised Holocaust denial. Netanyahu’s silence on the matter, however, was deafening.
American white supremacist Richard Spencer, ideologue of the so-called “alt-right,” said not mentioning Jews or anti-Semitism was an important step in the “de-Judaification” of the Holocaust. The White House press secretary called critics of the statement “pathetic”.
Israel seems scared to criticise Trump. Is Netanyahu prepared to give up recognition of Jews’ central place in the Holocaust, hoping Trump will be his friend, allow more settlement building in Judea and Samaria and sabotage the two-state solution?
There are unfortunate echoes of this sort of policy in South African Jewish history. Israel openly criticised apartheid in the 1950s and 60s, building alliances with post-colonial African governments. But after African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur war under pressure from the Arab lobby, it drew closer to the apartheid regime in Pretoria. In 1976 it invited Prime Minister John Vorster – a former Nazi sympathiser – to visit. At a state banquet, Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin said both countries faced “foreign-inspired instability and recklessness”.
Israel was not alone in its ties to South Africa. Despite international sanctions against the country during apartheid, numerous states, including those who condemned the racist system, maintained ties with South Africa in various areas, sometimes open, often covert. Israelis have often complained about the hypocrisy of singling out only Israel for criticism.
Many South African Jews were deeply embarrassed by Vorster’s Israel visit, seeing it as a grave diplomatic error. Others justified it by saying Israel had been unfairly branded a pariah state in international forums and needed support, even from another pariah state such as South Africa. Negative reaction about this perceived closeness to South Africa – including military cooperation – was a reasonable price to pay, they argued. Until today, Israel still faces an abiding coolness towards it from post-apartheid South Africa, despite having diplomatic relations.
Rightwing Jewish and Israeli leaders seem to risk repeating this by ignoring Trump’s threats to important progressive global alliances and his offensive attitudes towards women, the LGBTI community, immigrants and Muslims which are causing a furore in his own country – including among a huge number of Jews – in exchange for support for Netanyahu. And given Trump’s intemperate nature, this support could change whenever it suits him.