February 9, 2006
SECRET? WHO DIDN'T KNOW?:
Brothers in arms - Israel's secret pact with Pretoria: During the second world war the future South African prime minister John Vorster was interned as a Nazi sympathiser. Three decades later he was being feted in Jerusalem. In the second part of his remarkable special report, Chris McGreal investigates the clandestine alliance between Israel and the apartheid regime, cemented with the ultimate gift of friendship - A-bomb technology (Chris McGreal, February 7, 2006, The Guardian)
When the Nationalist party government first gained power in Pretoria in 1948, the Jews of South Africa - the bulk of them descendants of refugees from 19th-century pogroms in Lithuania and Latvia - had reason to be wary. A decade before Malan became the first apartheid-era prime minister, he was leading opposition to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany entering South Africa. In promoting legislation to block immigration, Malan told parliament in 1937: "I have been reproached that I am now discriminating against the Jews as Jews. Now let me say frankly that I admit that it is so."
South African anti-semitism had grown with the rise of Jews to prominence in the 1860s, during the Kimberly diamond rush. At the turn of the century, the Manchester Guardian's correspondent, JA Hobson, reflected a view that the Boer war was being fought in the interests of a "small group of international financiers, chiefly German in origin and Jewish in race". Fifty years later, Malan's cabinet saw similar conspiracies. Hendrik Verwoerd, editor of the virulently anti-semitic newspaper, Die Transvaler, and future author of "grand apartheid", accused Jews of controlling the economy. Before the second world war, the secret Afrikaner society, the Broederbond - which included Malan and Verwoerd as members - developed ties to the Nazis. Another Broederbond member and future prime minister, John Vorster, was interned in a prison camp by Jan Smuts's government during the war for his Nazi sympathies and ties to the Grey Shirt fascist militia.
Don Krausz, chairman of Johannesburg's Holocaust survivors association, arrived in South Africa a year after the war, having survived Hitler's camps at Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen when much of his extended family did not. "The Nationalists had a strongly anti-semitic platform before 1948. The Afrikaans press was viciously anti-Jewish, much like Der Stürmer in Germany under Hitler. The Jew felt himself very much threatened by the Afrikaner. The Afrikaner supported Hitler," he says. "My wife comes from Potchefstroom [in what was then the Transvaal]. Every Jewish shop in that town was blown up by the Grey Shirts. In the communities that were predominantly Afrikaans, the Jews were absolutely victimised. Now the same crowd comes to power in 1948. The Jew was a very frightened person. There were cabinet ministers who openly supported the Nazis."
Helen Suzman, a secular Jew, was for many years the only anti-apartheid voice in parliament. "They didn't fear there would be a Holocaust but they did fear there might be Nuremberg-style laws, the kind that prevented people practising their professions. The incoming government had made it clear that race differentiation was going to be intensified, and the Jews didn't know where they were going to fit into that," she says.
Many South African Jews were soon reassured that, while there would be Nuremberg-style laws, they would not be the victims. The apartheid regime had a demographic problem and it could not afford the luxury of isolating a section of the white population, even if it was Jewish. Within a few years many South African Jews not only came to feel secure under the new order but comfortable with it. Some found echoes of Israel's struggle in the revival of Afrikaner nationalism.
Many Afrikaners saw the Nationalist party's election victory as liberation from bitterly hated British rule. British concentration camps in South Africa may not have matched the scale or intent of Hitler's war against the Jews, but the deaths of 25,000 women and children from disease and starvation were deeply rooted in Afrikaner nationalism, in the way the memory of the Holocaust is now central to Israel's perception of itself. The white regime said that the lesson was for Afrikaners to protect their interests or face destruction.
"What the Nats were trying to do was protect the Afrikaner," says Krausz. "Especially after what was done to them in the Boer war, where the Afrikaner was reduced almost to a beggar on returning after the war, whether it was from the battlefield or some sort of concentration camp. They did it to protect the Afrikaner, his predominance after 1948, his culture."
There was also God. The Dutch Reformed Church, prising justifications for apartheid out of the Old Testament and Afrikaner history, seized on the victory over the Zulus at the battle of Blood River as confirming that the Almighty sided with the white man.
"Israelis claim that they are the chosen people, the elect of God, and find a biblical justification for their racism and Zionist exclusivity," says Ronnie Kasrils, South Africa's intelligence minister and Jewish co-author of a petition that was circulated amongst South African Jewry protesting at the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
"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."
Anti-semitism lingered, but within a few years of the Nationalists assuming power in 1948, many Jewish South Africans found common purpose with the rest of the white community. "We were white and even though the Afrikaner was no friend of ours, he was still white," says Krausz. "The Jew in South Africa sided with the Afrikaners, not so much out of sympathy, but out of fear sided against the blacks. I came to this country in 1946 and all you could hear from Jews was 'the blacks this and the blacks that'. And I said to them, 'You know, I've heard exactly the same from the Nazis about you.' The laws were reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws. Separate entrances; 'Reserved for whites' here; 'Not for Jews' there."
For decades, the Zionist Federation and Jewish Board of Deputies in South Africa honoured men such as Percy Yutar, who prosecuted Nelson Mandela for sabotage and conspiracy against the state in 1963 and sent him to jail for life (in the event, he served 27 years). Yutar went on to become attorney general of the Orange Free State and then of the Transvaal. He was elected president of Johannesburg's largest orthodox synagogue. Some Jewish leaders hailed him as a "credit to the community" and a symbol of the Jews' contribution to South Africa.
"The image of the Jews was that they were following Helen Suzman," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Pretoria. "I think the majority didn't like what apartheid was doing to the blacks but enjoyed the fruits of the system and thought that maybe that's the only way to run a country like South Africa."
The Jewish establishment shied away from confrontation with the government. The declared policy of the Board of Deputies was "neutrality" so as not to "endanger" the Jewish population. Those Jews who saw silence as collaboration with racial oppression, and did something about it outside of the mainstream political system, were shunned.
"They were mostly disapproved of very strongly because it was felt they were putting the community in danger," says Suzman. "The Board of Deputies always said that every Jew can exercise his freedom to choose his political party but bear in mind what it is doing to the community. By and large, Jews were part of the privileged white community and that led many Jews to say, 'We will not rock the boat.'"
Israel was openly critical of apartheid through the 1950s and 60s as it built alliances with post-colonial African governments. But most African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur war and the government in Jerusalem began to take a more benign view of the isolated regime in Pretoria.
Thirty years ago there were three "unresolvable" situations in the world: apartheid in S. Africa; Israeli occupation of Israel; and British forces in Northern Ireland. The reality is they were each just located at strategic chokepoints in the Cold War and as soon as the USSR began to crumble Western ideals quickly overwhelmed outdated security concerns. But if the Soviet Bloc still existed we'd not have countenanced government by the ANC, Fatah, or IRA. Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2006 10:38 PM