Time to Ask South Africa for Forgiveness

For years, most of us Israelis remained silent while our country became the most loyal ally of the apartheid regime.

DURBAN - At the time I didn’t know anything; it didn’t interest me and I didn’t want to know. Some of Israel’s most senior journalists had traveled to South Africa as guests of the apartheid government, which wined and dined them, to which they responded in kind, with complimentary stories; to this day, most of them don’t see anything wrong with that. At the time I was jealous that I hadn’t been invited; I was a good Tel Avivian who, like the overwhelming majority of Israelis, didn’t see anything wrong with apartheid or with the relations my country had with South Africa.

The apartheid prime minister and some members of his cabinet came to the Israel of Yitzhak Rabin (and Shimon Peres), the one they remember so fondly now – another chapter of the “Rabin Legacy” – and they were granted a reception here that they would not have received in any other country; Israel Aircraft Industries made some huge deals with South Africa that “saved” the company, as Aluf Benn recently revealed here, as did other Israeli weapons manufacturers. Foreign reports have revealed nuclear cooperation, with the defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, quoted as saying that Israel had to supply more weapons to its fellow “leper” state, in order to “stop communism,” which certainly sounds possible.

In Europe, hundreds of thousands of young people had taken to the streets in protest against apartheid and to call for the release of Nelson Mandela, while here there was shameful silence and embarrassing weapons deals.

Some radical left-wing organizations tried to protest, and their protests were greeted with the standard delegitimization. My colleague at Army Radio, Yoav Karni, tried to raise a storm, and was considered a troublemaker. Yossi Beilin then tried to take action as director-general of the Foreign Ministry, and he was also considered a troublemaker, someone who understood nothing about “interests” and “security,” until he succeeded in making some, albeit small, change in policy.

For several years, Israel was the most loyal ally of that South Africa, the only democracy that did not join the sanctions regime until it was forced to do so under American pressure, and it’s doubtful whether it really observed the sanctions (one must consider what Israel would say today about a country that didn’t join the sanctions against Iran). Even the support that the white regime had given to Nazi Germany didn’t deter Israel. Weapons, weapons, you shall sell.

And we – all Israelis, except for a few select individuals, were silent. We supported and were even proud of our despicable ally. When talking about brainwashing and the terrible blindness in Israeli society, we need to remember this, too. When we speak about Mandela, we must not forget this. We were practically the only country that traded and supported and trained and sold and bought and built and conducted experiments with it – overtly and covertly, a friend of the department, the department of evil. We were members of the same cohort -- lo and behold, the apartheid regime and Israel were established in the same year – and Israel found itself a host of justifications as part of the fellowship of justifications. It upheld a covenant of two representatives of enlightened minorities standing in the breach against dark and wild majorities, both justifying their actions with religious and messianic arguments. The biblical Amnon and Tamar, Israel and South Africa.

We have to remember this now, but it’s not enough. I’m writing these lines from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, en route to Qunu, to cover Mandela’s interment there today. Neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor President Shimon Peres will be at the ceremony. What else is there to say about someone who saw attending British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s funeral as more important than attending Mandela’s, and about Peres, who, of all the trips he’s taken, was unable to make this one.

But there is something much more important than participating in ceremonies that Israel should have done long ago. Israel should have begged Mandela’s forgiveness in his lifetime, and must apologize to South Africa at any time. It’s not too late. Mandela forgave Israel, but Israel must not forgive itself. Now, as the world bows its head in such an impressive manner before Mandela’s achievements, the prime minister must apologize for the shameful collaboration, for the arms deals, and for the indifference and moral obtuseness. Sometimes a country may also ask forgiveness, and in this case, it’s even required.