THE current diplomatic flurry about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting numerous African countries all over the continent to strengthen or create ties has many positive angles, but also rattles skeletons in the closet, particularly for South African Jews.
Ties to the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa have a complicated history with high-points and lows. Israel’s geostrategic interests have long been promoted there, especially in the Horn and East Africa. Training in intelligence and security has been given to countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Nigeria and others.
What about South Africa? The strong Zionist links to Israel of the South African Jewish community is one aspect. But when older South African Jews think of Israel-SA ties, several uncomfortable affairs come to mind, particularly Israel’s strong military ties to the apartheid regime in the 1970s. A lot has happened since, and it is used today mainly to discredit contemporary Israel. But the notion of who we make friends with is important.
Israel openly criticised apartheid through the 1950s and 1960s, with the spectre of the Holocaust still in recent memory as a moral background. Alliances with post-colonial African governments were forged. Then came the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Under pressure from the Arab world, most African states severed Israeli links, helping to make it a “pariah state”.
Looking around for friends, Israel drew close to another pariah state, South Africa. In 1976 it even invited SA Prime Minister John Vorster – former Nazi sympathiser and leader of the fascist Ossewabrandwag that sided with Hitler – for a state visit. South African Jews were uncomfortable with the ironies, as Vorster visited Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. His visit produced an Israel-South Africa alliance which became a leading weapons developer locally and internationally.
Israel’s attitude was: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. They were both states driven by fear, seeing themselves in a struggle for their existence. In Israel until the late 1970s, the threat from its Arab neighbours was very real; the country had fought three wars to protect itself. White South Africans, meanwhile, watched with horror as colonial empires receded and black rule swept Africa. Scenes of whites fleeing Angola, Mozambique and (then) Rhodesia were used by the apartheid regime to terrify white citizens about black rule; phrases such as “swart gevaar” gained traction.
Today, South African Jews would like nothing more than for the SA government and the Israeli government to be on excellent terms. The countries do have formal diplomatic relations, including ambassadors, and below the surface there is much trade and other connections. But politically it remains a cold relationship, epitomised by calls from important ANC members to downgrade the links. The ANC’s criticism towards opposition leader Mmusi Maimane’s public visit to Israel earlier this year, ignoring President Jacob Zuma’s urging for South Africans not to visit there, shows how pervasive anti-Israel feelings still are.
Israel is strong today, no longer the pariah state it once was, even though it is portrayed that way in some places. Even BDS, the worldwide campaign to boycott it, has failed as an economic and diplomatic weapon. Israel’s gross domestic product of some $154 billion in 2006, when BDS began, has nearly doubled to $299 billion for 2015.
Israel still faces the eternal question of how political links should be used. Some of the African states that Netanyahu is courting use Israeli assistance to suppress democracy, engage in civil wars and perpetrate human rights violations. The dilemma about whether politics is only about “interests” or must also be driven by morality has no definitive answer. But it is given special fuel by the South African experience.
(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )