The two worst charges that can be hurled against Israel are that it’s an apartheid state and that its actions toward the Palestinians in some way nullify the legacy of the Holocaust. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has done both. Last month, in a tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former Irish president Mary Robinson, the South African noted that the West is rightly consumed with guilt over the Holocaust, but that “the penance is being paid by the Arabs, by the Palestinians.” It’s not the first time he has condemned Israel. In 1989, for example, he remarked that “if I were to change the names, a description of what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank could describe events in South Africa.” But given his involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, Tutu has long been a difficult target of criticism for pro-Israel advocates. But often ignored is how South Africa’s troubled history has played a significant role in shaping and sustaining an anti-Zionist narrative.
The reason for this is easy to recognize: many South Africans take a cursory look at the Israeli-Arab conflict and see similarities to their own nation under apartheid. And to the uninformed observer, there are similarities: two sides, one land, one more heavily armed than the other. What motivates this impulse, according to Milton Shain, director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Center for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, “is not only the South African apartheid past but the notion that we were on the brink of a race war, and we resolved it by negotiations in a single constitutional state.” In the years before the fall of apartheid there were extremists on both sides of the debate—Afrikaners and black Africans—calling for the division of South Africa into multiple, race-based nations, but the voices calling for such a solution were truly at the margins. So when South Africans look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many of them cannot figure out why a one-state solution cannot apply, as it did in their own country.
Comparing the aspirations of South Africa’s blacks under apartheid (who sought merely equal opportunity, long denied them, in their own land) and those, say, of Hamas, (an organization constitutionally committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder of Jews everywhere), ought to be seen as an insult to the ostensibly “progressive” South Africans who so frequently compare the two situations. But the obvious disparity in the analogy does not register. “There’s no history in this,” Shain says. “Just a contemporary look.”
That hasn’t stopped a raft of prominent South Africans, however, from adding their voices to the campaign to delegitimize Israel. For decades, the African National Congress, which has ruled the country uninterruptedly since the advent of full democracy in 1994, had an active relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a coalition that has endured long since the fall of the apartheid regime, which had relatively friendly relations with Israel: the two nations sought solace—both economically and militarily—in their shared pariah status. Upon his release from prison, two of the first leaders on whom Nelson Mandela called were Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (Mandela had graciously accepted the Colonel’s “International Prize for Human Rights” in abstentia in 1989) and Yasser Arafat. The ANC’s bias towards the Palestinian cause is more than just transactional. Mandela infamously defended the ANC’s association with all manner of third world revolutionary groups when he said that, “Our attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle. We have no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries.” It is also based on strong ideological underpinnings. The ANC continues to see itself as a liberation movement and likens its “struggle” to that of the Palestinians. The group’s hostility to Israel is but part of its generally roguish foreign policy (which I have written about at length here and here).
Formally, the ANC’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict differs little from that of most of Western European countries: it calls for an end to the Israeli occupation and Palestinian terrorism, with the hope that such developments would lead to a two state solution. Jack Bloom, a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance and the Gauteng Provincial Legislature, distinguishes between the “on sheet,” that is, official positions, of the ANC, and its “off sheet” bookkeeping, “where the government’s true sympathies are shown.” And it’s in the latter realm—ranging from the statements of powerful ministers to government-funded research reports—where the ANC has most frustrated the country’s Jewish population. The oft-repeated accusation that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is akin to apartheid, for instance, is lent a false aura of integrity whenever it is a South African leveling it, especially prominent ones like Archbishop Tutu.
The ANC’s antagonism toward Israel took on a particularly ugly turn beginning with the launch of the second Intifada earlier this decade. In 2001, following a fact-finding mission to the region by South African parliamentarians, the ANC chairman of the parliamentary Defense Committee said that the report produced from the trip “draws a parallel between apartheid South Africa and the situation that is obtaining now in Palestine. There is no way that South Africans, those of us who profess to understand, to love and to fight for democracy, can keep quiet.” Earlier this year, a government-funded think tank released a report—the fruit of a two-year study—concluding that, “Israel is practicing both colonialism and apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
The tenor of debate surrounding Middle East issues in South Africa is worse than that in Europe. “You can get away with a lot if you say the Zionists rather than the Jews,” Bloom says, despondently. Earlier this year, however, one prominent government official didn’t even bother to make the distinction. In January, Deputy Foreign Minister Fatima Hajaig told a heavily Muslim crowd protesting Israel’s Operation Cast Lead that “the control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money, and if Jewish money controls their country then you cannot expect anything else” than blind support for Israeli policies. In an attempt at an apology, Hajaig explained that she “conflated Zionist pressure with Jewish influence.
Jews have played a disproportionately prominent role in South African life, from captains of industry to communist revolutionaries, from the days of their early immigration (almost entirely from Lithuania) in the late 19th century. Ernest Oppenheimer, a diamond and gold entrepreneur who headed the DeBeers conglomerate in the first half of the 20th century and founded the Anglo-American Corporation, a gold mining company, was a German Jew and a member of Parliament. Of the 11 people charged with crimes at the infamous 1963 Rivonia Treason Trial—where Nelson Mandela received a life sentence for his involvement in acts of sabotage against government targets – all four of the white defendants were Jews (as were two other defendants who escaped from prison). Percy Yutar, who prosecuted the anti-apartheid activists, was the country’s first Jewish attorney general. Throughout the apartheid years, nearly the entire white leadership of the South African Communist Party was Jewish. Helen Suzman, who served in the South African parliament for 35 years, 13 of them as the sole member of the anti-apartheid Progressive Party, was the most famous white South African politician (aside, of course, from the country’s prime ministers) and a proudly secular Jew.
Despite the long roster of Jewish individuals involved in radical and liberal causes during the apartheid years, the majority of South African Jews did little to rock the boat, aside from voting against the National Party, which ruled the country uninterruptedly and with massive majorities from 1948 until the introduction of full democracy in 1994. When the tables turned that year and the ANC was catapulted from a Soviet-backed liberation movement into the politburo of a one-party dominant democracy, Jews, like many other minorities in the “new” South Africa, had difficulty negotiating their way with the new bosses.
With Jews emerging as a near uniform voting bloc against the ANC, the party has begun to view them as a threat to its hegemony over South African politics. And the way the government has responded is by sending mildly subtle threats to the Jewish community questioning their loyalty to the state. Conveniently, the chief enforcer of this ideological conformity has been a Jew. In late 2001, Ronnie Kasrils, a high-ranking leader in the South African Communist Party and a one-time commander of the ANC’s military wing (the SACP and ANC have long had an official association which, along with the nation’s major union federation, is known as the “Tripartite Alliance”), launched a local “Not in My Name” campaign in which he demanded that Jewish South Africans denounce the Jewish State. “We are issuing this publicly to call on all South Africans of Jewish descent to join us in signing this statement,” he said from the floor of the parliament in Cape Town. Due to his ethnic origin, Kasrils has been able to get away with the sort crude anti-Zionism (writing in the country’s main liberal paper that Israelis are “baby killers” who “behaved like Nazis” during the 2006 Lebanon War) that would get any gentile rightly denounced as an anti-Semite.
If this seemed like a strange campaign to wage from his perch as the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, Kasrils’ then-portfolio, no one in the ANC leadership seemed to see the discrepancy. The party, whose leaders have been heavily influenced by communist ideology and organizational tactics (most of them were trained in the Soviet Union or East Germany), always had a strict hierarchy and message discipline, and the SACP was notorious throughout the Cold War as being one of the most blind followers of Moscow, from Stalin on down. Most South African Jews, therefore, saw the ANC’s refusal to rein Kasrils in as a sign of the party’s tacit approval of his behavior. Joel Pollak, a Jewish South African who published a book on the Kasrils affair, wrote that the minister’s “dissent from the Jewish mainstream and his efforts to promote a Jewish political alternative were a form of intervention by the state in the affairs of the community.”
In a speech before the South African Board of Jewish Deputies six years ago, then-president Thabo Mbeki cited a poll that found that over 60 percent of South African Jews “do not see a long-term future for the community there.” Jewish emigration—which picked up during the worst years of political turmoil as young, liberal Jews fled the country rather than face mandatory conscription in apartheid’s army—has slowly increased since 1994. In the fifteen years since the end of apartheid, the country’s Jewish population has declined to 80,000 from a high of around 120,000. Shain says that there has been a “steady trickle” of Jews since the end of apartheid. The cause of their leaving is the same as that of white flight more generally—crime. He notes, however, “Jews don’t suffer from affirmative action in the sense that lower class Afrikaners do” because they are “entrepreneurial and often self-employed.” Moreover, while many Jews pursued medicine during the apartheid years, their interest has waned since the imposition of quotas at universities.
Whatever outsized role they played in progressive movements, Jews have been less visible in contemporary South African politics. Jack Bloom points out that he is the only Jewish official at the provincial level in the entire country, and that the only Jewish member of parliament today is Ben Turok, an “aging Communist” member of the ANC. “Happily the days when a section of our population was viewed and treated as uitlanders [Afrikaans for “outsider”], when it wasn’t liked when Jews are prominent, are over and gone forever,” Mbeki said in 2003. The ANC certainly doesn’t mind Jews being prominent, as long as they say the right things. “Why do we have to prove our worth and how good we are?” asks Bloom. “As an equal citizen, you shouldn’t have to prove your worth.”
James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic who has reported from southern Africa.