The cancellation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres’ participation in Nelson Mandela’s funeral adds to the queasy feeling that surrounds the stain Israel bears for its relationship with the white regime in South Africa.
However, describing Israel as a friend of the apartheid regime is flawed and simplistic. In fact, the story of Israel’s relations with South Africa is a good example of the Zionist utopia's slide toward tragedy, which was in the case of Africa not entirely our own fault.
During a 1982 debate in the Knesset on the first Lebanon war, Menachem Begin extolled the Zionist enterprise, claiming that its goals included assisting the black people of Africa in their struggle. What sounded to his listeners as typical Begin bombast was actually an echo of Herzl who talked, in his book “Altneuland," of the identification between Zionists and the black people of Africa. The one who put the ideals of this identity shared by Jews and blacks into practice was David Ben-Gurion. During the pre-1948 Yishuv days he proclaimed that Zionism is a standard bearer in the fight against colonialism, not only in Palestine but in Asia and Africa. As part of its policies, starting in the 1950’s, Israel developed close ties with African states. Michael Harari of the Mossad was sent there to establish connections. Foreign Minister Golda Meir took a central role in this endeavor. In her autobiography “My Life” she devotes several chapters to “African and other friends." She swore never to visit South Africa until apartheid was abolished.
One should qualify these statements by pointing out that the attitudes of Israeli leaders towards Africa were tinged with “Orientalism," nowadays conforming to post-colonial discourse. Ben-Gurion saw these countries as backward and capable only of learning from Israel. Golda described her meetings in the black continent in exotic terms. Generally, it can be said that the Israeli approach to Africa was that of the enlightened white man coming to liberate the black man in the name of Western values.
As a state, Israel supported the struggle of weaker African states for freedom and prosperity, and avoided establishing ties with South Africa at a time when other Western countries had good relations with Pretoria. Israel did not hesitate to support the sanctions that were imposed on South Africa in 1961, and it was one of the few states to recognize Biafra when it pulled away from Nigeria. The unfolding tragedy there touched Israeli hearts to such an extent that the term “Biafra” was still in slang usage here until the 1980’s, albeit as a pejorative term.
The best evidence for the mutual respect between the two liberation movements can be found in Mandela’s own memoirs. He relates that during his struggles he studied Begin’s book “The Revolt," which described the liberation campaign of the [pre-state underground militia] Irgun (Etzel) against the British.
How did Israel, starting in the 1970’s, become a friend of the apartheid regime, to such an extent that by 1986 it was the only Western nation that did not take part in sanctions imposed on South Africa? It’s tempting to point to the Six-Day War as the turning point. But in this complex story the occupation of the West Bank was not the cause of this change. Among the many reasons was the 1973 war, in which Israel refrained from firing the opening shot that led most African countries to break off their ties with Israel, yielding to Arab pressure and the embargo on oil, whose price skyrocketed right after the war.
Isolated, and possibly due to its nuclear requirements, Israel was cornered into seeking relations with South Africa. This obviously does not remove the moral stain. The historic truth, however, is that Israel never willingly supported the apartheid regime, and is far from being the villain in this complex saga.