Israel's Ties to Apartheid South Africa Cannot Be Washed Away

Israel would like to forget its dealings with apartheid South Africa and South American dictators. Nelson Mandela reminded us that we can’t.

Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid
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Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid

From the start it was clear that his death would revive bad memories, that his memorial service would bring us no joy.

After all, here he would still be serving out his sentence as a terrorist, with no local leader willing to set him free. More than it fears terror, Israel fears the person who has wised up and decided to abandon it. Despite having turned his back on the armed struggle, Nelson Mandela never stopped inciting against us: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” he reiterated, said repeatedly, and in so doing he placed an explosive device on our doorstep.

U.S. President Barack Obama had fine words for him at the memorial: “He makes me want to be a better man.” So why, in their eulogies, do President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cause us to be bad people? Because of the insincerity.

Our president and prime minister have much in common: They are both known for rewriting history and improving their biographies. But whereas Netanyahu seeks to add to his résumé events that never were – how, as a brave boy growing up in Jerusalem, he drove away the British – Peres seeks to excise entire chapters from his own biography that did in fact take place.

The chapter on apartheid, for example. Peres would like to be remembered not as a loyal ally to and collaborator with the white regime, but as Madiba’s childhood friend from back in the day of King Lobengula and his cellmate in Robben Island. If he’s not stopped, Peres is liable to walk out of the President’s Residence and lead the black refugees in their march to Jerusalem and back to prison. At the very least, he’ll utter a few words in their favor.

And not just South Africa: It’s best to disappear Israel’s history with Pinochet’s Chile and Videla’s Argentina as well. There’s not a black hole in the world that Israel didn’t poke its head, with the rest of the world’s pariahs. Since 1967, the picture began to come into focus. The bright side of the planet keeps us at arm’s length, we’ll cozy up to the dark side. Back then, Israel was the first to violate international sanctions and the last to join them. Don’t tell the United Nations, but all those breaching the sanctions on Iran today could learn some tricks from us.

A small ruse is recorded in my diary: One day the ambassador came to me, invitation in hand. The Pretoria government would be happy to host me and my wife. Many of your friends, he said, have already visited and enjoyed themselves. You won’t have any problem meeting with opposition figures too, he promised, we know your views. And I wondered: Would we see lions in their natural habitat and opponents of the government in their cages? Only rhinoceroses are happy everywhere, because they were born free. We didn’t go.

Was it a case of all the world’s outcasts uniting in order to survive? Or was there in fact a concealed, even subconscious, empathy?

The answer may lie in the musings of former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan, who excelled at expressing the anguish of the persecuted white man and who imposed on the troops the principle of obeying commands: Writing in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth in December 1987, Eitan wrote: “What is similar here and there is that they and we must prevent others from dominating us. Anyone who says that the blacks in South Africa are oppressed is a liar. The blacks there are trying to attain control over the white minority, just as the Arabs here are trying to gain control over us. I visited a gold mine there, and I saw the excellent conditions of the black workers. So what if there are separate elevators for whites and blacks? They like it that way.”

And we like “it” that way too. They’ll say that Raful was the village idiot. But sometimes the village idiot is also the village mouthpiece.

An archive photo of Shimon Peres and Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, 2002.Credit: AP

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