In the summer of 1983, I travelled to Israel for several weeks between high school and life. I arrived a Zionist, I left confused.
Fed a steady diet of lies about Israel by teachers while growing up, I didn’t know what to make of the racism and arrogance of the Israelis I met. But the most disturbing encounter I had was with a group of Israeli tour guides and young soldiers relaxing in my hotel lounge in Haifa one evening. I asked them all about a news story I had read that mentioned Israel’s relationship with apartheid South Africa.
Keep in mind that this was more than a decade before the end of that hated system of racial segregation in South Africa and even a a few years prior to the first intifada.
The answer is one I’ve never forgotten. A muscly guide in a floppy sun hat stared straight at me and unapologetically boomed, “We’ll do business with the devil to stay alive.”
I said nothing in response because I was a news junkie kid with no worldview or theory, just some loose hippie sympathies and a lifelong revulsion for inequality of every sort. But when I got to college a few weeks later, I pursued this issue with a vengeance that placed me on a path to becoming a card-carrying red (yup, we really do have cards!) with a special place in my head and heart for the struggle of Palestinians.
Naturally, when I came across a new book a few weeks back, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, I practically lunged at it. I wrote a review of it for the Jan–Feb International Socialist Review, which I post here.
IN JUNE 1976, thousands of Black South African school children in Johannesburg’s township of Soweto protested against the apartheid regime’s mandatory law that they study in the language of their oppressors, Afrikaans. The brutal regime of the tiny white minority government, whose power rested on racial segregation and the dispossession of Blacks, sent dogs to attack the students and fired randomly into the crowd, ultimately killing 500 mostly Black school children over the weeks of upheaval.
Meanwhile, Israeli Labor Party government officials, under the direction of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, coordinated secret arms deals and military training with the South African state. Private communiqués from Rabin marked these lucrative deals as “highest priority” along with the secrecy that marked this decades-long brotherhood of armed-to-the-teeth, state-sponsored racism. In 1994, Rabin went on to collect the Nobel Peace Prize—along with Shimon Peres, under whose administration Israel escalated its collaboration with the apartheid state.
This is among dozens of stories brought to light in Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s well-researched and written Unspoken Alliance. Like any John le Carré spy novel, this work resonates with intrigue, stealth meetings in international cities, and lies repeated so often and with such confidence by the perpetrators of the collaboration that it is left to the evidence in this book and few others to bear witness to the bond between these two apartheid states. The historical facts Polakow-Suransky lays out and the sources he draws from strike the ultimate blow to any further denials of Israel’s multibillion-dollar, pro-apartheid business.
Israeli leaders, from Golda Meir in the 1940s through Rabin in 1994, at the fall of South African apartheid, were willing to look past the anti-Semitism of apartheid rulers—some with Nazi pasts—to “make agreements with the devil,” as one Israeli Holocaust survivor approvingly put it. South Africa’s 100,000 Jews were used as scapegoats for domestic nationalists during the Second World War and deemed “unassimilable” by its foreign minister. Nonetheless, Israel’s backroom dealings with the racist state were codified in a security and secrecy agreement in 1975. Peres and South African prime minister P.W. Botha signed an arms agreement, known as SECMENT, that stated, “It is hereby expressly agreed that the very existence of this Agreement…shall be secret and shall not be disclosed by either party.”
What’s striking about the relationship is how Israel used verbal condemnation for racial apartheid as a cover for its ongoing dealings with South Africa. In 1963, Golda Meir, echoed contemporary anti-racist sympathies by pledging that Israel had “taken all necessary steps” to stop any arms trading between the two states. Prime Minister Peres’s denunciations were even more categorical a few years later when he told the president of Cameroon, “A Jew who accepts apartheid ceases to be a Jew. A Jew and racism do not go together.” All rhetoric aside, after Israel proved its military metal in the Six-Day War of 1967, arms exports to South Africa skyrocketed to $1 billion by 1981.
Israel’s close relationships with African anti-colonialists such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and the fact that ten African states received military training from Israel in the sixties made it the soft alternative, at least on the surface, for newly independent African states seeking to chart a course beyond the Cold War tensions between the United States and Soviet Union. However, arms from Israel were often funneled through Pretoria to anti-Soviet paramilitary forces in order to halt the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in nearby Angola. In the early eighties, Israeli Defense minister and war criminal, Ariel Sharon, called for the arming of Angolan anti-Soviet forces in the pages of the New York Times.
Israel has often publicized quotes from major Black American civil rights figures as armor in its defense against claims of its own racism and apartheid. Martin Luther King once argued, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You’re talking anti-Semitism.” Or Israelis cite Adam Clayton Powell’s role in raising $150,000 for the Zionist Irgun in the 1940s. These men’s words and actions in the midst of the Holocaust in one case and at the height of the civil rights struggles when Israel’s brutality was mostly hidden and denied don’t cleanse Israel of its crimes then or now.