In April 1976, John Vorster, president of the then-racist apartheid regime of South Africa, paid an official state visit to Israel, where he was given the red-carpet treatment.
Israeli television showed him on his first day, visiting the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. At an official state banquet held for Vorster, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin toasted the “ideals shared by Israel and South Africa.”
Why was an outspoken member of a Nazi militia in South Africa during the Second World War and a leading member of the party that crafted official apartheid policies in South Africa being feted in Israel?
A statement in the South African government’s yearbook made two years after Vorster’s visit provides an answer: “Israel and South Africa have one thing above all else in common: they are both situated in a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.”
These close ties came from the identification that both states had for each other’s cause. Both were settler states that claimed to be bringing “civilization” to so-called backward peoples. And both were committed to using any and all means to maintain their regional domination over the “natives” that they had conquered–in South Africa, to create a white state based on the exploitation of Black labor; in Israel, to create an exclusively Jewish state through the systematic removal of the indigenous Palestinian population.
Victims of repression in South Africa and Palestine
In an excellent two-part article in the Guardian in 2006, Chris McGreal quotes Ronnie Kasrils, then the intelligence minister in the post-apartheid government led by the African National Congress. Kasrils, who is Jewish and had co-authored a petition protesting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, explained why such a close affinity could develop between the two countries:
Israelis claim that they are the chosen people, the elect of God, and find a biblical justification for their racism and Zionist exclusivity.
This is just like the Afrikaners of apartheid South Africa, who also had the biblical notion that the land was their God-given right. Like the Zionists who claimed that Palestine in the 1940s was “a land without people for a people without land,” so the Afrikaner settlers spread the myth that there were no black people in South Africa when they first settled in the 17th century. They conquered by force of arms and terror and the provocation of a series of bloody colonial wars of conquest.
Vorster’s visit signaled an acceleration of economic, diplomatic and military cooperation between the two countries, a collaboration that already had a lengthy history.
South African Gen. Jan Smuts, who had a close relationship with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizman, Israel’s first prime minister, had been instrumental in convincing Britain to sign the Balfour Declaration that agreed to the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” After 1948, South Africa was one of the first countries to recognize Israel.
N. Kirschner, a veteran South African Zionist leader, wrote in 1960 in an Israeli publication: “There exists a bond between Jewish aspirations and the aspirations of the people of South Africa.”
That bond was expressed chiefly in growing military and secret nuclear cooperation. Each country shared its intelligence and counterinsurgency techniques with the other, and South Africa purchased arms from Israel. Israel purchased nuclear materials from South African in order to develop its secret weapons program, and in return, Israel provided scientific and technical assistance to help South African build its nuclear bombs.
Hundreds of white South Africans graduated from Israeli military training schools. “It is a clear and open secret,” wrote an Israeli journalist in 1976, “that in army camps, one can find Israeli officers in not insignificant numbers who are busy teaching white soldiers to fight black terrorists, with methods imported from Israel.”
The parallels between Israel and apartheid South Africa are striking. In South Africa, the white colonial settler minority conquered the Black majority, forcing them into Bantustans–so-called independent African homelands–that covered only 13 percent of the country. This allowed the whites to declare South Africa a white country.
Blacks, who outnumbered whites by 4-to-1, became the cheap labor that built South Africa’s economy, but they couldn’t be citizens.
Likewise, Theodore Herzl, known as the father of Zionism, sold the Jewish state to its potential imperial backers as “an outpost of civilization against barbarism.”
Variations on statements such as this one from Joseph Weitz, head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonization Department, can be found scattered throughout the writings of the founders of the state of Israel: “There is no room for both peoples together in this country…There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries. To transfer all of them; not one village, not one tribe should be left.”
These principles guided the Zionist armies and paramilitary gangs that used massacres and terror to drive 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948 in order to create the state of Israel, and again led to the expulsion of 325,000 Palestinians from their land after the 1967 war.
These are not old, outdated views, but the deeply held conviction of leading Zionists today. Listen to the ravings of Israeli Professor Arnon Soffer, head of the Israel Defense Force’s National Defense College, speaking to the Jerusalem Post in 2004 about Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza:
We will tell the Palestinians that if a single missile is fired over the fence, we will fire 10 in response. And women and children will be killed, and houses will be destroyed. After the fifth such incident, Palestinian mothers won’t allow their husbands to shoot Qassams, because they will know what’s waiting for them.
Second of all, when 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful.
It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day…If we don’t kill, we will cease to exist…Unilateral separation doesn’t guarantee “peace”–it guarantees a Zionist-Jewish state with an overwhelming majority of Jews.
There are some differences between South African and Israeli apartheid.
Israel’s relationship to Arab labor was different than that of the South Africa rulers to the Black majority. Rather than exploiting cheap Arab labor, the early Zionist settlers in Palestine built their state-in-embryo by excluding Arab labor, under the slogan “Jewish Land, Jewish Labor.”
After the formation of the state of Israel, Arabs did become a source of cheap labor, but Israel has never been dependent on Arab labor–whereas in South Africa, strikes threatened to bring down apartheid because Black labor was its lifeblood.
Yet the similarities are more striking than the differences. If apartheid South Africa declared itself a white state by creating the fiction of Black “homelands” and implementing pass laws to severely restrict the movement of Africans, in Israel, an exclusively Jewish state was creating by expelling the majority of Palestinians from their lands and legally barring their return.
A battery of laws were put in place after 1948 that grant the state legal authority, in various ways, to seize Arab farms, orchards, homes and businesses if the owners are absent for any length of time, or for “security” reasons. At the same time, any Jew in the world was granted the legal right to enter Israel and become a citizen.
Today, Israel treats the Arab minority within its current borders as third-class citizens (behind the Mizrahim, or the Middle Eastern, as opposed to European, Jews). Palestinians receive lower wages and education funding, face routine harassment and police brutality, and are subjected to high incarceration rates; they are restricted from owning land, and are victims of land seizures and expulsions that continue to this day.
A paper on Israel’s Arab minority by Eric Gust of the Center for Contemporary Conflict explained that “advancement of Arabs within Israeli society, whether in the demographic, economic, political or educational sectors, is viewed as occurring at the expense of the Jewish population, and could be perceived as a threat to the Jewish nature of Israel.”
Israel is also an apartheid state in form, if not in legal terms, because it has turned the lands it occupied in 1967–the West Bank and Gaza–into South African-style Bantustans, whose inhabitants face economic blockade and routine assaults from the Israeli army and settlers, and whose towns and refugee camps are cut off from each other by an apartheid wall and a system of checkpoints, while special roads crisscross the West Bank that can only be used by Jews.
Any “two-state” solution that Israel accepts will merely put a legal stamp on this fact.
Israeli leaders are usually loath to publicly admit that Israel is an apartheid-style state. Yet there are moments of candor.
Former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Force, Gen. Rafael Eitan, speaking at a closed meeting of Israeli professionals in 1983, gave a presentation that considered South Africa’s Bantustan policy as a possible solution to the Palestinian problem.
Last November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a statement that if Israel was unable to implement a two-state solution, it would “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, and as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”
He had warned four years earlier: “We don’t have unlimited time. More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated, two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm to a South African one. From a struggle against ‘occupation,’ in their parlance, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle–and ultimately, a much more powerful one. For us, it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”
Israel leaders look with horror on the prospect of the struggle for a democratic, secular Palestine–a state for all its inhabitants–because the whole basis of the existence of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state would be destroyed.
For that same reason, those of us who oppose Zionism should welcome such a struggle with open arms.